Jacob Zuma

What would you do for R4-billion?

money

OK. No more metaphors or parables. Just some numbers and a simple question. R1-trillion. That’s how much South Africa’s nuclear plans, revived last week, will cost.

The minister of finance says the project will only proceed at a pace the country can afford but Jacob Zuma also swore at his inauguration that he would put the interests of the country first so we all know what this administration’s promises are worth.

20%-25%. That’s how much is lost to corruption in public procurement contracts in the EU.

R250-billion, or 25% of R1-trillion. Assuming we South Africans are more or less as corruptible as Europeans, that’s how much money will be stolen by connected insiders before the project is finished. Some of those connected insiders will, of course, be on the outside: London brokers and bankers, Kremlin fixers. This deal is primarily for their benefit, not ours, so let’s assume they will help themselves to the lion’s share, say, R150-billion, leaving R100-billion for South Africans to divvy up.

So who gets what? At the bottom of the pile there’s the shabby aristocracy of hustlers in their pointy shoes and white pleather armchairs; the otherwise-unemployable heads of small PR firms that exist only on government largesse; salmonella-stalked catering businesses run by the venal youngest son of the criminal brother of the second wife; easy-come easy-go lords and ladies living from tender to tender, leaving behind them disputes, half-built public buildings, and short, rancorous terms as school principals or management consultants.

They are on the periphery of power, scurrying after the crumbs off the table, but there are many of them, let’s say a thousand, and they know how to monetise favours. R5-million apiece? That’s R5-billion.

Above them on the food chain: the lawyers, accountants and financial advisers; the curators of smallanyana skeletons. They are as anonymous as a line of grey suits, but they are positioned deep in the machinery of patronage, as essential to the flow of dirty money as valves in a sewer system. Let’s say there are 500 of them, and they’re each content to peel off R10-million – a solid year’s work, carefully squirrelled away offshore or perhaps laundered back to respectability. Another R5-billion.

There would be rough patches. But it would be worth it.

Then: the lieutenants; the made men in this mob. They’re old comrades, friends, backers, enforcers, godfathers-turned-kingpins. And they’ve joined this operation with clear eyes. The plan was explained – keep us in power long enough to ink the nuclear deal and we’ll make you richer than the Lord God Almighty – and they went away and thought it through. There would be rough patches. They would be loathed by former friends and comrades. They might be betrayed at any point, their place in the queue usurped by some harder, sharper operator. The media would hound them. But it would be worth it. Say, R300-millon each – an Nkandla and change – for the hundred hardest, closest lieutenants? Another R30-billion.

Which leaves R60-billion for the masterminds; the feared, fawned-over few who were once interested in politics and power before a bigger prize rose into view.

Is it reasonable to imagine an inner circle of no more than 15 people? Fifteen superb strategists, winning a decades-long chess game in which the champions each get R4-billion? Why not? Why else would they cling on so fiercely? On its current course the ANC will be dead in 10 years: why sacrifice everything, including the party, just to hang on to evaporating power? Why? Because that R100-billion is coming down the road and it’s close enough to smell.

Many South Africans still insist on believing the country is being dismantled for ideological reasons rather than financial ones. They can’t believe that people would act the way they’re acting just to make a buck. It seems too obvious. There must be some other incentive.

Except I don’t think there is. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this, to think as pragmatically as the kingpins are thinking, is to ask yourself this: if you had manoeuvred yourself within range of R100-billion, tax free, untraceable, what would you do?

What would you do for R5-million? Spend a couple of hours a day on Twitter, accusing the critics of government of being racists or sell-outs? Of course you would.

What would you do for R10-million? Buy a sensitive case file and shred it or pass it on to a colleague of a colleague who sometimes drinks in Saxonwold? Would you lie in court? Why wouldn’t you?

What would you do for R300-million? Help pay a British PR firm whose pithy inventions – “White Monopoly Capital!” – might distract voters from your plan for a few more months? Would you publicly endorse people you knew to be criminals? Would you willingly become known as a parasite preying on the poor you used to claim to love? It’s a no-brainer.

And finally: what would you do for R4-billion? How many of your former friends would you sacrifice? How many media firestorms and opposition marches would you sit through, knowing that in the end it would all be worth it? How quickly would you sell your country if it meant more money than you and your family could spend in five lifetimes?

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even politics. It’s just money.

*

Published in The Times

The Next Rainbow

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Us, photographed by Tim Peak.

“When the sun rises over South Africa this morning it will be a new country.”

In the first few minutes after Jacob Zuma’s midnight purge, the Facebook status of columnist Marianne Thamm spoke the feelings of a great many South Africans. It felt as if a Rubicon had been crossed; a temple curtain had torn.

But I would respectfully disagree with Thamm. When the sun rose over a post-Gordhan South Africa, the only thing that had changed was the nationality of the landlords.

Once, they were Dutch and British. For a while the great-grandchildren of the Dutch and British pretended that the place was independent; but soon they ran the property into the ground and needed Wall Street bankers to keep them afloat, so the Americans held the title deeds for a while. And now, South Africa is owned by a family from India and, it is safe to assume, a handful of Russian politicians and their pet oligarchs.

Yes, it’s the same old place it’s always been.

The uproar is familiar, too: that collective groan we produce whenever the predators in power let the façade slip and we see them in their natural habitat, urgently thrusting bloody snouts into the steaming guts of a still-kicking country.

This, however, seems to be a particularly frightening moment. The feeding frenzy, usually half-hidden by darkness, is happening in broad daylight. We’re being shown things we didn’t want to see, like who has power and who has almost none. As we discover that the ANC has finished its transition from a liberation movement to a political party and finally to a monarchy, the processes of democracy are starting to look like a cargo-cultish ritual performed by the faithful and delusional.

Then again, there is method to the opposition’s madness. The DA and EFF do not want Jacob Zuma removed from power immediately because the longer he is president the better they will do in 2019. Indeed, some people suspect the opposition parties have actively worked to keep Zuma in power, calling motions of no confidence or marching on Luthuli House in the full knowledge that such events force the ANC to close ranks and stand by its beleaguered boss – the surgeon deliberately leaving the cancer to spread so that he can look even more heroic when he finally tackles it.

And so here we are, in a slightly new place in the same old place. There’s a lot of anger and confusion, and crippling amounts of commentary and analysis about what happens next.

I’d also like to talk about what happens next.

I don’t mean what happens after Zuma or 2019. I don’t mean what will happen, or what is likely to happen, because I don’t have the faintest idea about any of that. Instead, I want to talk about what could happen, what should happen, what might happen if we briefly tear ourselves away from the grim present and turn our eyes to brighter horizons.

I know this sounds like the naivety of privilege, but humour me for a minute. God knows, you’ve humoured worse for the last seven years.

What if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have?

Even if we could return to the rainbow nation idealism of the mid-1990s, we shouldn’t. Rainbowism is dead mainly because it resolutely ignored the racism and race-based inequality that saturate the foundations of this country like rising damp and which make any new building impossible until it has been dealt with.

But what if we updated Bishop Tutu’s rainbow with one representing the country we could still have if we made hard choices and had honest conversations? What if, instead of gradually accepting this sordid place as it is, we reminded ourselves of what we want and deserve?

What if red represented the blood being shed every day – by men in their war against women; by callous or desperate criminals; by systems that brutalise the bodies of the poor – and a future in which we staunched the flow?

What if orange – the colour of the soil – represented a just, intelligent and lasting solution to urgent questions about land? What is the statute of limitations on stolen property? Can land be given back to the dispossessed without threatening food security? Some say that if land is not handed out there will be a revolution, but surely if farming gets any more dangerous or difficult there will be a revolution anyway when the food runs out? Or is this a false dichotomy?

What if green stood for money and a commonly accepted belief that leaders shouldn’t steal it and that bosses should earn sensible rather than disgusting amounts of it? What if we had an honest discussion about how much corruption we’re willing to tolerate, given that corruption is the deal all peoples make with their politicians in order to have their countries run? And speaking of which, can we decide whether we want to be part of the capitalist world with its inherent corruptions or whether we want to start afresh, and if the latter can you let me know ASAP so I can start looking for a job somewhere else?

What if blue symbolised water, the stuff that we can’t live without but which we’re going to get less and less of? And what if we employed experts to manage it so that we don’t have to manage without it?

What if indigo – a colour added rather arbitrarily to the spectrum by Isaac Newton but now in danger of being dumped by scientists – demonstrated an ability to adapt to new facts rather than to cling on to traditions and beliefs for their own sake? Can we restore intellect and wisdom to public life, and educate our children for an automating world?

What if violet, made up of EFF red and DA blue, was a reminder that competing ideologies can and should keep each other in check? What if we were mature enough to find humane and sustainable solutions to hard economic problems, rather than plunging Venezuela-like to the left or goose-stepping to the right towards Trumpian gangster capitalism?

Finally, yellow: the colour of cowardice, omitted from its rightful place because fear isn’t something we want to acknowledge. But what if yellow could remind us that we’ve been cowards in the past, that we’ve avoided tough decisions and taken the path of least resistance? And what if it could remind us that we’ve also been braver than we ever imagined we could be?

Let’s be brave again. Then, maybe, the sun will rise over a truly new country.

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Published in The Times

I bought a Kreepy Krauly for the firepool

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I used to enjoy paying tax. Really, I did.

It started when I realised that I wasn’t rich enough to avoid paying tax and that I therefore had two options.

My first was to get angry. I could seethe at having to hand over a large chunk of my earnings to a state that veers between incompetence and criminality and that was giving me so little in return for my money.

The problem, though, was that the state didn’t care about my feelings, so getting angry was, as the cliché goes, like taking poison and expecting my enemy to die. The second option was acceptance; but nobody wants to feel that The Man has defeated them, and so I began to experiment with a kind of idealistic denial. Instead of imagining all the bad places my money might go, I imagined the best. And what I imagined was a small school on a hill, in a beautiful part of the country.

It had solar panels on the roof and a borehole that provided clean water. There was a vegetable garden where lessons on botany and biology produced nutritious lunches. Inside, there were books to read, paper to write and draw on, maps and diagrams on the walls, models of dinosaurs and birds and spaceships and the solar system dangling from the ceiling.

Five mornings a week children would stream there to learn and play, to be met by teachers who would grow their minds like gardeners tending a park. Every month the school would do minor repairs and buy new and interesting supplies. Every year, the school would receive enough money to keep doing what it was doing. And some of that money came from me.

That was my tax fantasy. It was idealistic, sentimental, and shamelessly bourgeois; but it worked. When I signed my tax return, I felt that I had made a contribution to something good; a small investment in a kinder, better future.

And then Thuli Madonsela’s report happened, and now the fantasy has to change, because now I know where my taxes go.

I mean, I knew before. We all knew before. We’ve known since the Arms Deal. Hell, we’ve known since Sarafina 2. But now we know that we know. It’s all written down, clearly and neatly and undeniably, and no matter how loudly the looters and their parasites protest and deflect, it’s all there in black and white. So now I have to update the fantasy.

I can still give thousands to my school, but now I must also acknowledge that a few hundred of my rands are going directly to a variety of turds floating on the top of our national cesspool. Still, I refuse to get angry about paying tax. So, instead, I’m imagining where those few hundred bucks are going. And it’s turning out to be a lot more fun than I thought.

For example, I have now convinced myself that I paid for a faulty Kreepy Krauly for the firepool. Due to a minor factory flaw, it refuses to move in a normal figure-eight across the firepool but instead keeps thock-thockthocking itself into a tangle in the shallow end and then creeps up the wall and exposes itself to the air so that it goes thock-thock-thlock-shlorp-schlorp, and the president has to say, “Sorry, Ajay, just a moment,” and puts his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and yells, “I’m on the phone to Dubai! Can someone do something about that fucking Kreepy Krauly?!”

Likewise, it was me who paid for Baleka Mbete’s latest roll of sticky tape, which turned out to be not sticky at all, so that when she wrapped a birthday present for an old friend she had to use 12 strips instead of four, and when she placed the slightly rumpled and pleated object on the gift table, her friend glanced at it and smiled, “Shame, well, at least you tried,” and she was plunged into a sudden existential gloom about how everything she touches turns to shit.

It was I who bought Cyril hat spilled meat-magma into his mouth and made him spit it out hastily and get gravy on his leather upholstery.

Next year I will dream new dreams. Perhaps I will buy Brian Molefe a malfunctioning GPS to replace his current malfunctioning one. Or perhaps I will simply buy the president a new pair of underpants, an eccentric pair that have a tendency to ride up the Crack of State, so that the next time he’s asleep in parliament, dreaming of Vladimir Putin handing him a cheque for seventy-eleven million thousand and six million rands, he is suddenly jolted awake by a counter-revolutionary wedgy and shouts, “Order!”

Yes, I used to enjoy paying tax. But perhaps all is not lost.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Red lights and mixed signals

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I see it in the red lights.

I see it in the blank expressions of the people in their cars, carefully ignoring my existence, as they sail through the intersection. Nothing to see. Didn’t happen. And if it did, well, everyone’s doing it nowadays.

I don’t know if the same thing is happening in South Africa’s other cities, but in Cape Town we’ve subsided past some kind of tipping point.

A few years ago, if someone ran a red traffic light you’d huff and puff and hoot.No longer. These days you assume that at least two cars are going to cruise through. Being five or six car-lengths from an amber light is no longer an invitation to slow down. And so, when the light turns green for me, I sit patiently and wait for the small procession of entitled arseholes to pass.

It’s difficult to read their minds (partly because so few South African motorists have one) but it’s safe to assume that many of them are thinking two things as they bump serenely over the corpse of common decency.

The first is an angry thought that they mull over many times a day, namely, that they live in a country being destroyed by crime and corruption.

The second, less a thought than a comforting feeling, is that driving through a red light has nothing to do with either of the above.

Now I’m not suggesting that running a traffic light is a sign of societal collapse. There isn’t a fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse named “Being A Dick On The Roads”.

But this week, as I watched the light-runners cruise past, I was reminded again of all the petty crimes, the minor corruptions, that people indulge in every day; and how easily we absolve ourselves. I remembered which corruptions we object to and which we let slide. And I was reminded yet again that for a country with a fairly dogmatic view of right and wrong, our approach can be bizarrely haphazard.

Sometimes the hypocrisy is amusing. I once found myself in conversation with a lawyer who was explaining to my half-turned-away head that corruption was killing us. A week later it emerged that this self-righteous bore had been running a grubby little con on the side.

At other times, our collective tolerance feels shocking and self-destructive. For example, there are literally millions of rapists living in South Africa and yet our response to the war on women is to urge them to be more careful when they go out. In this country we tell women not to get raped because we resolutely refuse to tell men to stop raping. The national consensus seems to be that rape is a crime with a victim but no perpetrator.

But what about large-scale corruption? Surely this is one crime to which all South Africans respond with united and co-ordinated vigour?

Not even close.

The fact is that, for all our anger and frustration, we tolerate corruption. Want proof? Look at who’s in the Union Buildings. The party that perpetrated the Arms Deal is still in power. Listen to polite conversations about the 2010 World Cup construction cartels. The price-gouging co-conspirators are still forgiven as businesspeople “just trying to do business in an anti-business environment”.

Why?

Perhaps we forget the feeling of the thing. When you’re being battered with new revelations it’s hard to hold onto the old ones, and forgetting starts to feel a little like forgiving. The truth is that we huffed and puffed and hooted at the Arms Deal or some new corporate con, but we still waited, even though the light had turned green for us.

Remember that sense of letting it all slide? “That was terrible!” I fumed – but then what? I don’t know the law. I don’t want to be in government. I don’t know how construction companies work. So all I could do was try to look stern and say, “And if you ever do anything like that again, I’m going to get really cross!”

And Thabo Mbeki’s ANC heard my tinny little hooter – and a million like it – and heard the emptiness of the threats, and saw the complete absence of meaningful consequences; and Jacob Zuma and his litter of corporate piglets pinched themselves as they saw a fortune present itself to them on a tray.

No, in this country we praise right and denounce wrong, but I suspect that this might be self-soothing, a way to persuade ourselves that our home is a country and not simply a once-productive mine that has been abandoned by its former owners and is now slowly being sold for scrap. And mines are dirty places. You live near one long enough, you get dirty. It just happens, slowly, and to everybody.

Now, though, the red light is showing. So: stop or go?

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Time to call things by their name

photo6“Student leader”. That’s what the journalist called Mcebo Dlamini.

I reread the paragraph to check if I’d missed a line somewhere, perhaps one in which Dlamini was described as a fantasist who admired Hitler, who called Jews “devils”, who claimed that Wits had head-hunted him to do a “secret” degree in nuclear physics, and who was now leading a minority of students at the university. Nope. It just read “student leader”.

Because, of course, that’s how we roll. An integral part of our shared South African-ness is a refusal to name things as they are. We can be outspoken, loud, even rude; but without fail we’ll call a spade a fork.

Decades ago, politicians enforced white supremacy but called it “good neighbourliness”. They shot schoolchildren but called it “restoring order”. These days the policies have changed but the coyness remains. When Julius Malema threatened journalists with violence, their colleagues giggled and called him “charismatic” and “controversial”. When corporations collude to fix prices we are told that “free enterprise” can be “complex”.

Of course, none of this is new to any of the angry South Africans dispirited by this country’s ongoing rush towards insignificance. But what is remarkable is that our angriest, most outspoken critics seem themselves to be indulging in a strange kind of denial.

You see it in our incredulous responses to the latest abuses of power. We find it shocking that the SABC has lost R400-million and disgraceful that Hlaudi Motsoeneng is still employed. We wonder exactly what Blade Nzimande is paid for, given the omnishambles that is higher education. And as for Zuma, well, don’t get us started! Has he no shame? Why would he do everything he’s done when he knew he’d be found out?

I don’t want to knock anyone who voices these sorts of ideas. It is important to speak out against bad government.

But here’s the thing.

Zuma isn’t in government. Neither is Nzimande. Because there is no government.

Hlaudi doesn’t work for the national broadcaster because we don’t have one.

SA Airways isn’t a dysfunctional airline because it’s not an airline.

What they are – what all of it is, from the corridors of the Union Buildings right down to crumbling rural municipal offices – is an ATM.

withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can

The entire edifice that we still insist on calling “the public sector” is a vast cash-dispensing system, and everyone with the PIN code has only one job: withdraw as much as you can, as fast as you can.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2010, Zwelinzima Vavi famously warned us of a “predatory elite”. The SA Communist Party dispensed with its usual gobbledygook long enough to use the word “looting”. Even Gwede Mantashe admitted that people in the government were using their positions as “a stepping stone to power and accumulation”.

But I would argue that, for all our huffing and puffing, we remain naïve. After all, you’re only shocked by Zuma if you believe that he is a civil servant answerable to the public. You’re only outraged by Hlaudi and the SABC if you believe that they are still somehow connected to a functioning bureaucracy. You only talk about money being “lost” if you believe that there is a system in place and that something has gone wrong. Which, of course, is not the case.

“Why do they do it when they know they’ll be caught?” Well, it’s basic maths. By the time they’re caught they’ll have pocketed tens of millions. And what does “caught” actually mean? Nothing. If the only price of acquiring multi-generational wealth is to be called a thief by some columnists, many more of us would climb in with both hands.

All of which is why the outrage is starting to sound a bit foolish. When people get robbed by a gang dressed as police, they immediately recognise that they’ve been duped. Not us. We’re still aghast, telling each other “Sjoe, those were really unprofessional cops, hey?”

The looters have about 30 months left. That takes us up to the 2019 elections, at which point the ATM’s code will be changed and a lot of peripheral gang members will be cut off. Those B-grade gangsters will need to crack on if they’re going to take their 10- or 15-million before they’re ousted or audited. They know what they need to do.

And so do we. For starters, we need to take our collective head out of our communal arse and dispense with naïve beliefs. We need to look past the illusion of politics and see the ATM.

Journalists need to say “stolen” instead of “lost”; “looted” instead of “misallocated”. For our own intellectual clarity, we need to stop believing that these are good people doing their job badly and start understanding that they are bad people doing their job well.

And in 30 months, either they go or we do.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

The Freedom Charter – Rebooted!

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We, the Connected People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: screw you.

We know we once said that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, but that’s obviously a ridiculously naive position, so from here on South Africa belongs to anyone with enough non-sequential, unmarked dollars in a brown paper bag.

To help you understand your place, here are some important principles to remember:

The people shall govern. From Dubai.

All national groups shall have equal rights – unless their rights get in the way of our rights, in which case you’ll find that some rights are more important than others. This discovery is calling “marikana-ing”, derived from the verb “marikana”, “to remind the public about whose rights matter and whose don’t”.

The people shall share the country’s wealth. Mostly people who live in Dubai, or whose last name is Zuma. Mines and SABC soaps don’t come cheap, you know.

The land shall be shared among those who work it. And since our National Executive Committee has been giving this land a proper working-over for the last few years, we think it’s only fair that it be shared between us. (If you disagree, please see “marikana-ing”.)

All shall be equal before the law. Except for those who don’t ever have to come before the law because they know where the bodies are buried. Also this obviously excludes rich people. But if you’re poor or don’t know the dialing code for Saharanpur, India, the law will take its course, all over your face.

All shall enjoy equal human rights. Except, obviously, poor people. Because, honestly, screw them. Also, please see “marikana-ing”.

There shall be work and security. But mostly work in security. Signal jammers and email-readers are a major growth industry in our South Africa. Also, those iron gates at Nkandla and Saxonwold aren’t going to patrol themselves, you know.

The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened. By a government messenger, arriving at 3.15pm for his 11am meeting, to tell the Vice-Chancellors that they’re getting fokkol from  Treasury because we blew it all on Dudu over at SAA.

There shall be houses, security and comfort. Hell yes. So many houses. So much security. And so, so much comfort.

There shall be peace and friendship. Actually, on second thoughts, no, there probably won’t. Because those 25-year-old “military veterans” are itching to earn some combat medals, and elections are so goddamn unpredictable.

Adopted by an untouchable cabal, printed on buffalo-skin (thanks, Cyril) and signed in Veuve Clicquot.

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