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13-Jul-15

It’s hard to hide behind a tree if you’re an elephant.

Can You Belong On A Different Continent? Or Is That Just Colonialism Talking?

04-Aug-15

If you will indulge me, let me share with you a long excerpt from Karen (Isak) Dinesen, the beginning of her superb memoir Out of Africa. It is long and descriptive, but instructive, and I will have some things to say about it:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like fullrigged ships with their sails clewed up, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn-trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle; in some places the scent was so strong, that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found on the plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs,– only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of the hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be. (3-4)

Steaming up from this passage, and indeed from throughout Dinesen’s superb book, is the refined essence of colonialism, and if it were not such a natural part of our cultural equipment, it might be shocking: this adulterous delirium for distant lands, this sensuous delight for what is not one’s own. Dinesen was a Dane, and the British colonial project in Kenya helped make her the owner of that farm in Africa, six thousand acres of farm, and made all its inhabitants, who were living on their ancestral land, mere “squatters” – for by British law no “native” could own property. The book is so shot through with sensitive observation and sensible generosity that there is no reason to disbelieve her self-portrait as a kindly mistress to her squatters, though they suffered the instability inherent in all despotisms: when her crops failed and she lost the farm to her creditors, which wrenching, slow death is the story of the book, the new property owner cleared the old villages and drove the “squatters” from their traditional homes.

Here I am, where I ought to be. How could equatorial Africa be where a Dane from the grey North Sea “ought to be”? What claim can a white woman lording it over the natives on her stolen six thousand acres of Africa make to words like “ought” anyway?

And yet – I do not deny that Dinesen probably had that feeling, and I find that I too can wake up in Africa with the same feeling in my heart. I don’t know precisely how this feeling comes to reside in us: perhaps it is our childhood education, where the first animals we learn are the lion, the elephant, the hippo, the zebra, the giraffe, so they are more familiar and intimate to us than the animals we actually grow up beside. Perhaps the paleontological knowledge that Africa is the mother of all humanity makes us more willing to believe we all belong here. Perhaps Westerners find themselves at home wherever they have power – wherever their dollar furnishes their table with good food, and buys the service of less powerful others. These are all the obvious and more rational explanations. But maybe there is something odder and more mystical – that Africa has some other, deeper, appeal. And there is the high probability that our nationalities do not exhaust the possible lives within us. A Belgian, confined to the possibilities of Belgium, would never see a mountain, and a Malawian never see the ocean, and neither would ever see a desert. But mountain and ocean and desert could play into their lives, and have meaning, and they could respond to such places, if given the opportunity.

This breaking out of the limitations of nationalism comes in various forms with various names. When it is somewhat permanent, it is called immigration or expatriation or colonialism, depending on the power dynamics involved; but in any of those instances, it is at least possible that a person could, by leaving home, go to the place where they really belong – that they could wake up and say, finally, Here I am, where I ought to be.

Love has the power to make us at home, almost anyplace on the globe; but law and culture and money and history and the distaste of the foreigner which is typical for human beings, limit us. Dinesen’s book is a reflection of that limitation, and African history in the past decades has shown many examples of it, where the Postcolonization – if I may call it that – has mostly rid the continent of Karen Dinesens. The more striking example of this is Zimbabwe, where the political powers in the country more or less decided that Africa was most emphatically not where white people ought to be (Robert Mugabe, still the dictator there as well as current head of the African Union, still says as much today). South Africa has already seen several waves of emigration of whites and Indians in the past two decades, and probably will continue to see more.

Race is frustrating because it is so terribly simple: it takes all people and throws them into only four or five categories. And yet it is very difficult to escape. When you are with people of a different race, and they know nothing else about you, that is generally all you are: a person of that race. And with that comes all the history, and all the problems, and you cannot escape it. When you are all alone, you can say, Here I am, where I ought to be. Nature does not contradict such a statement, if it is felt. But as soon as you enter into human society, there are other people, who have opinions as to where you belong, and they have ways of making their opinions felt.

South African All-In-One.

27-Jul-15

South African liquor stores have come up with an important innovation: the Three-Pack, an All-Inclusive combo: a pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, two liters of Coca-cola, and a bottle of Richelieu brandy.  All you need for an evening of fun.  Minus the cigarettes I think I could have a pretty good time this way myself.  But as with all things here there is a racial twinge to it all: whites complain – both in person and obliquely, through print media – that the country, though a superb wine producer, has almost no domestic wine market.  Wine is considered an upscale taste, even though it is cheap and locally abundant.  The country prefers beer, though it has difficulty sourcing hops.  We have seen the label “House of Mandela” sold in the U.S. as both a cheap and certified-fair-trade wine, but it is not to be found here in South Africa.

The Real Othello – Writing About Male Enhancement.

26-Jul-15

We had a reading from Leo Africanus, a Moor and polymath who was supposedly the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello. He wrote of his journeys through Africa in Latin, taking note of certain plants, one of which is called Surnag:

… Est quoque et hoc radicis genus in Athlantis Occidentalibus locis proveniens, cui vires inesse aiunt earum regionum incolae, membrum virile tum confortandi tum qui ea in electuario utatur, coitum augendi. Affirmant quoque si casu radici immeiere quenquam contingat, subito membrum erigi. Non praetermissurus sum hoc loco quae communi sententia omnis Athlantis incolae afferunt, plurimas puellas ex earum numero quae animalia per eos montes pascunt, virginitatem alia occasione non amisisse, quam quod urinam supra hanc radicem emisissent: quibus ego ioco respondebam, me probare quidquid de eius radicis occulta virtute eventus comprobasset. Aiebant quoque inveniri nonnullas, quae adeo infectae essent, ut non modo virginitatis florem amittere facerent, sed corpus universum quoque turgere.

There is also a type of root coming from the western parts of the Atlas Mountains, which has the virtue, so say the inhabitants of these regions, of strengthening the penis and lengthening the coitus, of any man who takes it in an electuary. They also affirm that if any man should happen to urinate on the root, he will immediately get an erection. I should also mention here what all the inhabitants of the Atlas Mountains universally claim, that many of their young women who shepherd flocks in the mountains have lost their virginity merely by having urinated on this root: to which I replied, as a joke, that I approved of anything Fate had decreed to come to pass through the hidden power of this root. They said also that some could be found who had been so affected that it not only made them lose their virginity but makes their entire body swell up.

This may seem like mere ancient superstition, but we discussed, in connection with it, the poaching industry in Africa, which is mostly based on similar beliefs about the aphrodisiac virtues of such things as rhinoceros horns.  Nihil novum sub sole.

Evan Gardner’s Language Hunting.

26-Jul-15

Had the pleasure of watching Nancy Llewellyn begin learning Afrikaans over lunch.  She uses a method pioneered by Evan Gardner known as “language hunting.”  She asks, in English, how to say “what is that?” in the target language.  Once she had it, she then used the phrase over and over again to learn the words she wanted to learn.  So she pointed to a fork on the table at lunch and asked, “Wat is det?”  “Dat is a verk [furk],” came the response, and then she had another word.  Soon she learned how to ask “War is de verk?” putting it on the table.  “De verk is ob de taffel.”  (You must forgive my spelling of Afrikaans, as we were learning the language without seeing it written.)  Then she would put it under the table: “Nu war is de verk?”  “De verk is onder de taffel.”  You can thus create all kinds of setups in order to isolate certain concepts and formulations – singular and plural, hot and cold, under and over, inside and outside, etc.  She was learning Afrikaans entirely at her own pace, in a way that was entirely memorable, and the pedagogical method was in the student, not the teacher.  Talk about teaching students how to learn – Gardner’s method really is that.

Highlights of South African Cuisine Part I.

25-Jul-15

Went to a restaurant which served French Toast – “filled with crispy bacon, garlic fried mushrooms, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses, and whipped cream.”  It came with french fries too.  Wishing your palate a healthy good morning!

Latin and Race.

25-Jul-15

The immersion program is begun, and it is worth noting that there are no black participants. For a Classicist this is nothing unusual – indeed, for anyone involved in the high levels of almost any academic discipline, this is not unusual. In the United States, where blacks comprise about ten percent of the population, it is a bit less noticeable. In general I hardly think that equal distribution of any of these pursuits is necessary – they are our chosen pursuits, not necessary in themselves, and people should do the things they want; and cultural background does make a large difference: it is fine if scholars of American jazz tend to be Americans, and with a lean towards black Americans, rather than Indonesians or Russians. But still – in a country which is ninety percent black, it is striking. And I suppose a little disappointing.

Michael Lambert, a Classicist teaching in Pietermaritzburg, writes of the racial aspects of the Classics in his book The Classics and South African Identities:

In July 2007 the Classical Association of South Africa celebrated its golden jubilee at its twenty-seventh biennial conference, held at the University of Cape Town. The theme was “Aspects of Empire” and, of the eighty-nine delegates, sixty-one were South Africans or foreign classicists working at South African universities; the rest were from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, the USA, Canada, and Australia. Of the South Africans, fewer than half were Afrikaans-speaking; there were no black South Africans present and no delegates from other countries in Africa. Before 1994 and the first democratic elections in South Africa, CASA’s biennial conferences were markedly different in some respects. There were almost no foreign delegates, as many countries (certainly all of the above) actively supported academic and cultural boycotts of apartheid South Africa… In one respect, however, the face of the CASA conference in 2007 and of those held before 1994 was depressingly similar: the virtual absence of black South African delegates, with the exception of an occasional South African classicist of mixed race, from the so-called ‘coloured’ community, who may or may not have identified himself as black (21-2).

In other words, Classics belongs to the European diaspora; and this is no surprise, as they are, after all, the European Classics. As I have said, I don’t inherently object to this, though Lambert himself might note how odd these constructions of identity are. None of my ancestors ever spoke Greek or Latin, and any of them would have been willingly enslaved by people who did; why should Latin be more my possession than a black South African’s? And even if my ancestors were Romans, that is nothing in itself either; I am not my ancestors. My grandfather was a car mechanic, but that does not mean that I have any aptitude or desire for fixing engines.

“European” may be merely a way-station on the way to creating a larger identity: just as identities coming from certain towns and regions yielded to national identities, perhaps someday all literature and culture will be human literature, and we will truly feel that it all belongs to us. If we ever met an extraterrestrial race, we would suddenly all become humans, and all our distinctions small; but presuming that does not occur anytime soon, we will be divided, and the visible differences, like race, will be particularly hard to overcome. This creates that feeling of “I don’t belong here” which people of different races feel when in a cultural context “belonging” to another race: blacks in a white church, or whites in a black church, or whatever it might be. Some people overcome those feelings, and perhaps a select few do not feel them at all, but in general it is still with us, and puts racial barriers around certain activities. And in this way South Africa feels very much like the United States: blacks and whites live here, but mostly living separate lives. I saw this vividly in a funeral in New Orleans, at which every mourner was black. This is true everywhere in America. We live side by side, but separately: when we die, people of other races do not even mourn it.

Latin Beyond Classicism.

23-Jul-15

June 29th.

We began the Latin immersion today. We read an account of Tungubutum (Timbuktu) written in Latin in 1595 by Adriaan Van Roomen.

Tungubutum; situm ad magnum lacum piscibus abundantem, aqua tamen lacus est amara et venenata. Civitas magnae negotiationis, ad quam non tantum fit concursus Fessanorum et Maroccorum, sed etiam Cariensium. Huc magna defertur copia auri, argenti, pannorum, serici, coralli etc. Princeps huius loci magna utitur pompa et authoritate, ditissimus totius Ghineae, tum quod varia sub se habeat regna, tum quod in magna earum parte colligatur auri quantitas, denique quod vasallos suos valde premat. Hinc et equorum soleas facit aureas, canesque ornat aureis catenis. Delectatur valde scientiis, ideoque eo confluunt viri docti plurimi ex Barbaria lingua Arabica instructi, quibus Rex ingentia confert munera.

Tungubutum: situated on a great lake teeming with fish, though the water of the lake is bitter and poisonous. A commercial center, to which repair not only the caravans of Fez and Morocco but of Cairo. Hither is brought a large supply of gold, silver, stuffs, silk, coral, etc. The prince of the place, the richest man in Guinea [=West Africa], is attended with great ceremony and endowed with much authority: both because he has beneath his sway several kingdoms, and because a large portion of the region is gold-bearing, and finally because of his exacting, oppressive rule of his vassals. The shoes of his horses are of gold, and his dogs wear golden chains. He takes great pleasure in learning, and so learned men of Barbary, conversant in the Arabic tongue, flock to Tungubutum, where the king shows them great favor.

I am always convinced that Latin would live if only we could break the grip of Classicism. It might be that only a few university students in Africa want to study ancient Greece and Rome: but surely there must be students in Africa who want to study the history of Timbuktu, or who want to work with elephants. If we read these kinds of texts, they would find Latin equally useful for these life-paths as well.  Latin is larger than the Mediterranean basin, and didn’t vanish from the earth in 180 A.D. when Marcus Aurelius died.

In the Living Museum.

23-Jul-15

A most extraordinary thing today: the sort of thing which only happens when one is on the road. We were walking through the university campus, as I was hoping to catch a glimpse the university botanical garden before having to give a Latin tour of it later this week. As we walked we passed an older man, who looked like a retired college professor out for his afternoon constitutional; I made eye contact with him and said hello as we passed. Since the university is not in session, and almost the entire population here uses Afrikaans, my greeting, and, in general, our appearance, clearly stirred some curiosity in the old man, but politeness kept us moving in different directions. But chance made our paths cross again, about ten minutes later, after we had turned our course aside to look at some of the older, nicer university buildings (most of the buildings are modern and unattractive). It is an odd feature of our shared culture, that a single chance passing is not considered enough to allow a person to start a conversation: but two sightings will suffice. When we saw him again he smiled uneasily, looked a bit shamefaced, but summoned up the courage to ask, What exactly we were doing here? We explained that we were Americans teaching an immersion class here; he asked in what, and we said Latin; and he reacted with evident joy, that something so old and forgotten, but so precious and dear should still have some life in it; the way an older woman in town might react to someone harvesting apples from a long-neglected orchard, and making apple butter from the trees again, the way she used to when she was young. “Are they still doing that? I’m so happy!”

He was so pleased with it, and was so genteel and lovely, that he invited us to his house for tea, which he said was not far away; in fact it was on the university campus. I wanted to get to the botanical garden, but when on the road you are closer to the truth that every open door is soon closed forever. I felt proud to be with Nancy Llewellyn, my colleague, who made the decision for all of us, not consulting us any further than a glance, and made it as she always does, correctly. “We’d be honored,” she said. Off we went to this man’s house, a short walk away.

We were walking with Hennie Coetzee, a former professor of music, now retired. He brought us to his property, a nice corner plot where he apologized for the untidiness of the very tidy garden, noting that “we do all the gardening ourselves.” He led us to a small outbuilding next to his house, his study, and went off to inform his wife that he had brought guests for tea. The study was chock-full of interesting objects: the walls lined with bookcases of of superb books, a baby grand piano, his CD collection, much sheet music, all kinds of knick-knacks, images, busts, paintings, mostly of the great German composers, Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach; but all sorts of things were there, a bust of Byron, watercolors of churches, old souvenirs of Venice and London and Rome (a fine brass Lupa Capitolina, no less). He came back and asked if we would like to hear him play the piece we had been discussing just earlier, an impromptu by Schubert (we had asked him what music he most loved and most often returned to). Of course we were thrilled, and he played through the whole piece, flawlessly and with great feeling. He seemed to be pleased to have appreciative ears for the skill of his hands. Having learned of my interest in botany, he then showed us a splendid monograph of botanical art on the genus Mimetes, of the Proteaceae, published, at what must have been great cost, a few decades ago by Kirstenbosch; we learned from it the Latin adjective hottentoticus, as in Mimetes hottentoticus.

Looking over John Patrick Rourke's Mimetes monograph, illustrated by Thalia Lincoln.

We then entered his house, and if we thought his study was a study in culture and ornament, his house must have been an encyclopedia: room after room completely filled with antiques, of every sort: many personal (pictures of long-deceased family members, his wife’s parents’ wedding announcement, old uniforms and weapons and other accoutrements); many South African (images of Boer presidents, memorabilia from the Boer War, images of South African homes and churches, old maps, etc.); many pertaining to European culture generally (a superb collection of Delft ware, images of Napoleon, coronation teapots from British monarchs, etc.); and the objects were of every description, fine old furniture, old advertisements, coins, prints, lamps, glassware, letters and other documents, bric-a-brac of every sort. Every room was chock-full of things. My mother’s house always astonishes people for its density of object and ornament, and my nieces and nephews think of it as like a museum: but this was the most densely decorated, thoroughly curated collection of antiques I had ever seen in one place. It was like an antique shop, but it was most emphatically a home: there was not a speck of dust anywhere, and the objects were all clearly curated, which is to say they were all united by a human personality, and were not just a collection of random things. I stopped at an oil portrait of Goethe, a copy of a famous one made later in his life, and — said, “We believe that painting belonged to Adolf Hitler.” I let him talk: “I bought it at an auction where were many of the personal effects of a high-ranking German official, who after the war got possession of many of Hitler’s things. We think this was one of them.” It was bitter to me that Hitler could so stain Goethe by owning so much as an image of him; bu if we needed an image of the moral uncertainty of the project of high-culture represented by Goethe (and the very house we were in), here it was.

We met his wife, a retired theology professor herself, who brought us into the kitchen and plied us with fine tea and mountains of cookies, and she acted offended at the thought that we would have only one cookie each. She apologized profusely for her state of dishabille, a word which to her nevertheless meant having more perfect clothes, hair, and makeup than the rest of us put together. They told us of their trip to America, which included a trip to Traverse City, Michigan, because their son was studying at the Interlochen Music Camp, and New York City. They professed an admiration for America, which seemed quite genuine. And she too was charmed to admiration, hearing that we were Latinists. She pointed out a cross in the kitchen, on which was inscribed “Vita Sine Amore Mors Est,” which she said was made by an Italian prisoner of war during World War II; apparently Britain sent many of its war-captives to work on farms in South Africa during the war. There were several such objects in the house, and in retrospect I realize that there is likely a more personal story here: they probably personally met some of these captives. She said they were wonderful people, talented as both farmers and craftsmen.

We had to go, as we had a dinner appointment, but we knew that we had met one of the most interesting families and been in one of the most interesting homes in South Africa; in fact, when we mentioned it this evening at dinner with some other professors, they said they had heard of this extraordinary home, and hoped to see it someday.

Twenty-One Years After Apartheid.

20-Jul-15

I expressed some dissatisfaction, in my last post, with the ANC’s “revolutionary” rhetoric about keeping alive the “spirit of ’76” while neglecting the tasks which actually could make people’s lives better: and here is a good time to offer some more general assessments of what I have seen so far in South Africa.

Far and away the most distinctive trait of the social life of the country is economic stratification by neighborhood. There are many many similarities between South African life and American life, though in many ways South Africa is the more diverse and extreme of the two countries, and this is certainly true in terms of economic segregation. I know that United States, Mexico, and Brazil always seem to rank highest in the world in terms of wealth disparity, but South Africa must be extremely high on the list, and in actual fact, if not in statistics, the disparities are worse here than elsewhere. Numerically, there is a greater wealth gap between a millionaire and a billionaire than between people making $20,000 a year and $200 a year, but in actual fact the millionaire and billionaire live far more similarly: here the gap between the middle-class here (making say $20,000 a year) and the desperately poor, who may make only $200, is a vast chasm. I don’t have income numbers, but large numbers of people live in corrugated-metal shacks without windows or doors; hardly a town in the whole country is without an entire neighborhood consisting of several thousand such shacks.

Towns typically consist of several discrete neighborhoods, each with clear boundaries, of remarkable economic uniformity: one where houses are all tin shacks; another where they are two-room brick cabins; another with four-room brick houses; then middle-class homes, much like middle-class homes in the United States; and then upper-class mansions. The mansions are sometimes lacking in smaller towns. South Africans call the shantytowns “informal settlements” and say that they think they just sprung up organically, but they appear highly organized: the shacks are all roughly the same size, and all look precisely like each other. It is extremely unusual to see a tin shack next to a two-room brick house, or a two-room brick house next to a four-room brick house. To me this indicates planning of some sort, presumably from the apartheid era.

I have seen no indication that any neighborhood, anywhere in the country, is “mixed-income.” The different types of housing stand apart from each other with striking clarity. In fact, the shantytowns often stand at a distance of one or two miles from the downtown area, where are the shops and jobs, and every morning and evening large numbers of people can be seen walking on pathways, often across weedy lots and empty fields, back and forth to these neighborhoods. If there were market freedom, I would presume 1) that people would put their shanties in those empty fields closer to the town 2) people would put shops along the pathways, since so many people walk along them every day. That no one does this, I presume means that there is some kind of zoning restriction in place preventing them. Zoning means planning, but I would presume that if there were planning, these walkways used by thousands of people a day would 1) be paved 2) get turned into roads 3) be turned into bus routes. None of these things are being done, nowhere in the country: as far as I can tell, everywhere in the country poor neighborhoods lack even a paved footpath to the center of town. One might say, “Well, there just isn’t enough money to put such footpaths in.” But there does seem to be enough money to enforce zoning laws, to keep poor people from settling in the empty ground closer to town.

The economic stratification of the country’s landscape goes along with another factor, which is sprawl. – This is particularly interesting for an American to see operating in another country; it works similarly in America. – Cape Town is the only place we have seen which has any density at all, and it does not, in fact, have much: mostly there is sprawl. People live in vast – never, I think, smaller than a square mile – developments which are economically homogeneous, with de facto apartheid created by the automobile. The “sundown laws” which required blacks to be out of white areas by sundown are gone; but in private, gated developments of course non-residents can be required to be gone by sundown, and anyway the distances involved, and lack of streetlights in many areas, are often sufficient to keep people in their neighborhoods after dark. The extent of these cities and towns can hardly be overstated, due to their lack of density. I hardly think there is a single poor person in the country who does not live on a plot of ground he can call his own: there are almost no apartment buildings. Sprawl is almost by definition wasteful, of course: it means many more miles of paved road, and much more gasoline, or for the poor here in South Africa, long walks to jobs, stores, schools, and so forth – a great waste of time.
If one is going to be cynical about apartheid, one would say this: it ended when whites realized that there was no need for the bad press coming from racial apartheid, when economic apartheid was completely acceptable all over the world, and just as effective. All over the U.S., there are many towns where people pay $20,000 a year or more just for the privilege of living there, in real estate taxes: and the main service provided by those taxes is to keep out the people who cannot pay it. Of course these towns are not all white, just as here in South Africa every white person is quick to point out that now people of all races live in all types of housing (the president of the country, Jacob Zuma, has spent more than $20 million on his house, which will be a fancy house, in a fancy neighborhood; and blacks now have property at every economic level all over the country. But I for one do not care much who occupies the mansions, if people are still going to live in tin shacks. For a Christian the measure of a society must be what it does for the poorest: “for what you did for the least of them, you did for me.”

Statues.

20-Jul-15

Had lunch with a pair of Classicists, teachers at one of the universities here in South Africa. They were lovely people, doing their best to inspire their students, and conversation was genteel and thoughtful, as it usually is among people who truly feel themselves to be teachers first and foremost. But wanting a bit more, I pushed a bit: what did they think of the recent controversy at the University of Cape Town, where a large campaign was mounted to get rid of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, which as an image of one of the founders – the person who gave the land “for the establishment of national university,” no less – had a prominent place on the campus. A group of students had repeatedly protested at the statue, proclaiming “Rhodes Must Go.” The university acceded and removed the statue.

One of our interlocutors was clearly upset about it – and like all things in South Africa, this was ultimately about race – “Look. I don’t have any problems with saying that values have changed, and we don’t completely approve of everything Rhodes did and we would today make statues of different people. But you don’t go around destroying history. I say, go ahead, put up new statues. But don’t go around tearing things down. It makes it seem like you have nothing of your own to put up beside what is already there.” He spoke with the heat of someone who felt the incident as symbolic of a larger issue with contemporary South Africa.

In America we are having a similar controversy, about the Confederate Flag being flown in state buildings in the South. A flag is more clearly a symbol of a cause, while a statue of a man often has the greater moral ambiguity which lies always in our humanity. But I have thought, in my dislike of the Slave Power known as the Confederacy (I side with Grant’s dictum, that theirs was “the worst cause for which men ever fought”), that it would be good to clear away all the monuments as well, which honor nothing so much as men’s desire to live by the sweat of other men’s brows, even to the point of buying and shackling and whipping and raping and selling men and women and children.

Everyone recognizes that there is a spectrum of honorability, and at some point along the spectrum the statue should come down. Few people argue for statues of Hitler in Berlin, despite the fact that he is without doubt the most important figure in twentieth-century German history. On the other end of the spectrum, Napoleon spilled much blood, but his monuments all stand and his image would cause no controversy in polite circles. Where does Rhodes fit in this spectrum?

One of the comments I have heard more than once is that “the ANC was a revolutionary organization. Revolutionaries don’t make very good governors and policymakers” – indicating that it is time for South Africa’s one-party system to be voted out. It does intrigue me that in the newspapers and on the radio I hear about “the spirit of ’76,” which here refers to the student protests in 1976 which resulted in the death of Steven Biko and others, and greatly increased the international isolation of the apartheid state. This was almost forty years ago, and the ANC has held monopolistic power for more than twenty years since. It is like the Communist Party continually propagandizing for revolutions long past while the shelves slowly empty. Campaigning to remove statues strikes me as similar: creating a show of revolution while the real tasks, which could make people’s lives better, are left undone.