Donald Trump

That’s just your opinion, man

trump system

The planets, I learned when I was 11, “dance and weave behind the sun”.

I still remember that phrase because it made an enormous impression on me. It was magical. Musical. Mythical. And, of course, made up. But I didn’t know that until years later.

In that moment I pictured an immense and fiery Pied Piper playing a thermonuclear recorder, leading a string of little planets on a merry jig through the cosmos. It’s such a fantastic image that it remains with me today, lingering as a small doubt about the veracity of the science I learned later. When I see Mercury or Mars on a dark midnight, a pagan, feral part of me wonders if the other planets are lined up behind them, ready to start the night’s wild rumpus.

This weekend a less dramatic but much more real procession took place in cities around the world. The “March for Science” saw the more rationally inclined hit the streets to protest against Trumpian know-nothingry, the perceived sidelining of science and the woolly mammoth in the room, climate change.

Inevitably, the various marches seem to have been good-natured affairs.

In my very limited experience, scientists tend not to want to impose themselves or their ideas on people the way politicians and columnists do. Dogmatic certainty is fundamentally unscientific, and a march by scientists always runs the risk of unravelling into a large group of solitary wanderers licking their thumbs and rubbing out things on whiteboards: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? Well, the question of ‘when’ is tricky because it seems predicated on time being linear, which it isn’t, and when you say ‘want’, are you claiming that humans are the conscious originators of our desires or are you allowing for the possibility that we might be compelled by social structures or hormonal commands originating in the gut? Oh, you want science now? OK, well, ‘now’ is a contested idea but could we suggest that, given what the peer-reviewed literature currently shows, we believe that we want science to happen at the event horizon of the future into which we are always tumbling? Is that fair?”

Still, they made their point. Reflected in their clever banners and glittering logic I saw my own dismal scientific education. I saw people I admired but whom I could not understand because I had been taught that our solar system is a conga line.

Siyabulela Xuza launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen

Then again, when I consider the extraordinary trajectory of Siyabulela Xuza, who launched into deep space from his mother’s kitchen in the Eastern Cape – inventing a new kind of rocket fuel en route to studying at Harvard and having an asteroid named after him – I have to concede that I might not be able to lay all the blame on my education. Maybe some people are just good at science and other people are, well, me.

Which would be fine if those of us who are not good at science just touched our forelocks and accepted its findings. But, as the marchers hoped to remind us, we’re doing that less and less.

The vast intellectual unravelling of the post-factual era has reached the very building blocks of the known universe.

With depressing regularity, the great equations of physics are being met and dismissed with a vastly more powerful and destructive equation: the creeping belief that everything is an opinion, and, since all opinions are equally valuable (or worthless), everything is equally true. The Earth is round? Well that’s just your opinion, man, and if you tell me I’m wrong then you’re bullying me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that science is under severe attack. But, unfortunately, I don’t think you can be a rocket scientist and defend it, either. In fact, scientists might be the worst possible defenders of science because they are comfortable with uncertainty and are willing to admit what they don’t know. When a know-nothing tells them that up is down, they will have to reply, “You may turn out to be right, but at the moment, up is up.” Which, to an internet-addled paranoiac, sounds like unconditional surrender.

It’s popular to label anti-scientists as stupid or rage-addicted reactionaries, but I believe that they are driven by a much more powerful, and therefore much more dangerous, energy. I believe that they are compelled to act as they do by the deep and ancient narcissism of our collective inner child.

Almost every great claim our species has made over the millennia has been made to soothe that child, to make the bad feelings go away. There, there, little one. The sun revolves around you. Death isn’t final. An immortal parent (who will never leave you) made all of this, just for you, and loves you, always. And anyone who says different is a meanie and probably deserves to be hit.

Like a spoiled child, the anti-scientist is always right, even if older and wiser people show him that he is wrong. Their evidence is proof of how wrong they are. You are not wrong because I disagree with your findings: you are wrong because you disagree with my feelings.

If you’re a scientist, I thank you. I don’t understand what you do, but I do understand what will happen if you stop doing it. And conga lines are the least of it.

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Published in The Times

I’m stuffed

home_onaout

This week, a man logged onto Facebook in a state of existential dread and shyly asked the world to comfort him.

He had read a report, he explained, which revealed that Queen Elizabeth II was going to punish the US for electing Donald Trump by revoking its independence. He was alarmed about the consequences of this action. Could it mean nuclear war?

Someone tried to tell him that it was satire but he wasn’t reassured. What if it wasn’t satire?

I found myself surprisingly affected by him. His question had been asked with such polite fragility that I couldn’t bear to think badly of him. Instead, I saw an anxious human left exposed by his parents and the education system that failed to make him literate. I saw a frightened person asking for help because he’d been given substandard tools and they had broken.

I think I also saw myself. In the last week I’ve also asked questions that probably sounded naïve and uninformed to people who read events better than I do. I’ve also found myself struggling to form a coherent opinion. And at the end of it, I’ve had to admit that I know very little about the stuff that is alarming me.

I know that the queen isn’t about to march on Washington, but I don’t know anything about the people who are. I don’t know what to think about the rise of the white right when less than a third of Americans actually voted for Trump. I don’t know why they keep calling their country the “greatest democracy” when half of them didn’t vote and the electoral college decided it all anyway.

At the same time I feel mentally constipated, over-full of waste. Then again, given my diet over the last few months, I’ve got nobody to blame except me.

Opinion – written, spoken, Tweeted, sprayed on walls – is intellectual junk food. It contains very little information, and, as last week revealed, even less insight. It also doesn’t satisfy. It leaves one malnourished, wanting more; and so you go back to the familiar glow of the screen and the welcoming architecture of your favourite websites. The staff are friendly and affirming. Good choice! Welcome back! Can I supersize that think-piece for you? Have you tried our new combo deal, where you get two despairing polemicists for the price of one, that is, for free? And don’t forget: all columns come with a bottomless cup of beard-stroking!

I gorged, and now I feel sick

The 24-hour news cycle has been stuffing us for years, but last week the McMusing came off the production line faster than ever. I gorged, and now I feel sick. Maybe that’s why so many of us have turned into news anchors, endlessly leaning towards the camera of social media and announcing: “This just in!” Perhaps when there’s too much empty-calorie information going down, it can’t be processed and it has to come up.

Still, a few indigestible bits remain with me. They won’t come up or go down, because they’re not lubricated by creamy sophistry or sense.

Some of what I saw was simply bizarre, like a black South African feminist backing Trump because “that bitch” had “rigged the primaries” against Bernie Sanders. The rest, though less surreal, were no less confusing.

I saw Democrats getting furious that democracy had produced the wrong outcome, and I saw pro-lifers calling for Trump’s murder.

I saw the white right mock frightened minorities for being “delicate snowflakes”, the same white right that had just flocked to the polls in fear because it had convinced itself that the richest, whitest and most Christian country in the universe was becoming a poor, dusky caliphate.

Least palatable of all, I saw again how easily one becomes used to a post-Trump world. I saw my own surrender contrasted in the shocked faces of the Americans. It was still all so new to them. Nobody on the left had ever seen a proper Banana Republic El Presidente take power. Nobody on the right had ever seen their fantasy come true; a pouting Rambo taking a flame-thrower to common decency and the greater good.

South Africans acted out horror or triumph, but the newness wasn’t there. That’s because we’ve already had our Trump moment. We’ve got used to being ruled by a women-hating, insular cabal of dodgy businessmen who promise hugely and deliver nothing but division.

Right now, though, I don’t know a damned thing, except that it looks like literally anything can happen in this whacko universe. So I’m calling it right now. Trump gets bored and resigns in a year. Mike Pence appoints Sarah Palin as his Veep. He wants to watch a cowboy movie for foreign policy tips and accidentally rents Brokeback Mountain. He has a stroke, and, at long last, America gets its first woman president.

Lame satire, right? Couldn’t happen, right? Guys? Anyone?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Hillary voters…

1892_small_fullsize

Ellis Island 1892 or OR Tambo 2016?

PRESS RELEASE: DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL LIAISONS

Dear South Africans,

In 2015 the mainstream liberal media dismissed the idea that Donald Trump would run for president. Then, when he did, it insisted he would withdraw from the race in early 2016. Soon afterwards it guaranteed it was impossible for him to gain the Republican Party‘s presidential nomination.

Given that it has just told us that Trump’s showing in the first debate was a disaster and that his late-night Twitter rants have scuppered his chances, we now have to assume that he will sweep to victory on November 8.

This will, of course, trigger a humanitarian crisis. Vast waves of American liberals will grab their family photo albums, their PhD theses on Season 7 of Friends as a liminal simulacrum of Peak Oil, and race for the nearest border.

Most will go to Canada for emotional and psychological reasons. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a liberal, pro-LGBTI feminist who is also selling $15-billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, where women need a man’s permission to go anywhere and where being gay is punishable by death. This grand hypocrisy will remind Americans of many of their own politicians, and the familiarity will comfort them.

Many, however, will flee to other parts. Inevitably, some will come to South Africa. We urge you to welcome them into your homes, showing the hospitality we South Africans have always shown to displaced and desperate foreigners who — wait, actually, on second thoughts, never mind.

If you do decide to foster some Americans, please bear the following in mind.

Firstly, when they step off the airliner they will be frightened by the strangeness of their surroundings. We recommend that you slowly wave a copy of The Audacity of Hope and wear a rubber Tina Fey mask. When you speak, try a Jon Stewart monologue to break the ice.

They will also not have seen cars as small as yours. (Yes, some of you drive SUVs, but given how you drive them we’re pretty sure you’re not the fostering kind, so we’re talking to the rest.) When they see you in your Golf or Picanto or Yaris they will assume that you are an Oompa Loompa coming to take them to a chocolate factory. Reassure them that you are not an Oompa Loompa, perhaps by showing them your ID.

Whatever you do, don’t take them to a Spur

Try to lift their spirits with hearty meals,  but remember that very few Americans have ever eaten real food. When you offer them bread, beer or chocolate (rather than their usual food-like substances) expect surprise and anger. (Whatever you do, don’t take them to a Spur. They know their own history, and, not having grown up in South Africa, they will find it macabre and upsetting that you have taken them to a genocide-themed restaurant.)

Home life will pose some challenges but most can be overcome with patience and understanding. Like the beavers and woodpeckers of their homeland, Americans live in wooden houses, so try not to be angry if you come home one day and find that they have constructed a new wing out of plywood and staples. Thank them, and gently explain their mistake to them.

Any acrimony that may arise will be short-lived due to the fact that Americans are unfailingly friendly and optimistic. This may be upsetting to most South Africans, but do not let your foster Americans drag you down with their sunny natures and never-say-die pragmatism. Remember who you are: a gloomy South African, convinced that it’s all going to hell, but determined to do almost nothing to change your situation. Remember the true meaning of ubuntu: I am here because you’re still here, and as long as you’re still here, I’m probably staying.

A word of warning: do not become too attached to your foster Americans. Trump’s presidency is likely to last no more than 18 months (analysts suggest he may become increasingly irritated by “the yuge piles of paper with words on ’em” and simply wander off one day). And when he goes, so will your Americans.

Above all, try not to be smug. It may be tempting to make superior comments about a country in which an aggressive bigot like Trump can become president, but remember that you live in the country of Jacob Zuma and Hlaudi Motsoeneng, so you might want to pipe down a little.

More importantly, try to remember that if sudden, shocking change can happen in the richest country in the world, with almost universal employment and a vast, settled political elite, then it can happen anywhere, out of the blue.

So be nice to your Americans. Because you never know when you’ll need to grab the family photo album and the PhD, and go and look up faraway friends.

*

First published in The Times and at Rand Daily Mail

After the fact

Zuma condition

It’s been a hell of a year.

Not only has iconoclastic artist Ayanda Mabulu been shot to death for painting rude pictures and Malia Obama enrolled at a Limpopo university, but Julius Malema has vowed to kill gay people and Jacob Zuma has revealed that he has a powerful sexual appetite for young women caused by a medical condition.

None of it was true, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter to the thousands of South Africans who shared those stories online.

Journalists are warning that we have entered the “post-fact” era, and, tired of being left behind global trends, South Africans seem determined to be in the vanguard of the new wave of completely fabricated news.

I must admit that I’m slightly hesitant to announce the end of the factual era, mainly because I’m not sure it ever started. I like an empirical measurement now and then, and it’s pretty important that we know when to plant crops and how to ward off gangrene. But you’ve got to admit that the history of our species is one long, glorious fiction, punctuated with a few alarming discoveries.

Once you’ve made it past the fact of your birth, and figured out how to co-exist with the fact of being a social animal, you’re likely to encounter only one more fact: death. The rest is an almost miraculous negotiated fantasy.

For example, let’s consider an idealised newspaper, printed early one Sunday morning in the golden era of “factual”, pre-internet, pre-Trump reporting.

Casting your eyes over a mass of tiny black marks on a white page – each of which has been agreed to represent a certain sound, which itself has been agreed to convey a certain agreed-upon meaning, you encounter reports about national news.

This “nation”, is, of course, an invention — a large group of people corralled inside an imaginary line called “the border” — while “news” is carefully curated fiction, selected for its power to keep certain fictions spinning along.

Turning the page, you reach the financial section, discussing an invented store of value, a trading tool called “money”.

Finally, sport: an odd pastime in which arbitrary physical jerks are reinterpreted as hopeful or exciting or consoling fictions.

Once you’ve digested this set of “facts”, you go back to your day: living in denial about how much imaginary value-store you have left in the non-existent vault you call a “bank account”; believing that your invented deity is more powerful than other invented deities; being suspicious of people from outside the imaginary border because their agreed-upon daydreams are different to yours and they might force you to replace yours with theirs…

fertile soil for barbarism

Of course, this approach is fertile soil for barbarism. If human rights are invented fantasies (and they are), then who is to say that they are more important than a despot’s desire to slaughter his enemies? If politics are a fiction (and they are) why should Donald Trump’s version of reality be any less acceptable than that of Bernie Sanders?

Well, I’m not a philosopher so I don’t have a concise or logically sound answer to those questions, but I do suspect that if we’re going to get anywhere in this collective dream of ours, we need to try to pin down a few basic assumptions.

One of these might be that some events are more harmful to us than others. For example, I have a sense that genocide is generally worse for everyone than peace, and that insular, bigoted, reactionary politics are generally more harmful to the forward-movement of a country than a more liberal approach.

In short, some fantasies need to be given more weight than others, and some “facts” need to be held dearer than others.

Proper journalists — trained to get as close to our agreed-upon truth as possible, with a sharp eye for manipulative waffle — are the keepers of that faith. And at the moment they’re in trouble. And yet, wasn’t that inevitable?

Our shared beliefs might be almost universal but they’re also shockingly fragile. An international border is a complex legal, political and military construct, but all it takes to obliterate it is a single step.

Likewise, ideas of fair play, tolerance and human solidarity are entirely helpless against some charismatic git shouting, “It ain’t so!” At the moment we all agree that the sun rises in the east, but east and west are fictions. If enough people repeated it on Facebook, trust me: the sun would start rising in the west.

So what’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but for me a useful start is to figure out which fictions are the least harmful to me and to the people I live alongside.

And perhaps it’s also worth remembering that marks on a page are just marks on a page. What they represent, well, you’d be surprised by how much of that is up to you.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail