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.


Published in The Times


I’m stuffed


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

Another shot of outrage, anyone?

mobThe joke goes something like this.

A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. The barkeep pours it, and the guy picks up the glass — and then splashes the booze all over his face. “Geez, buddy,” says the surprised barkeep, “why‘d you do that?” The man, genuinely perplexed, says, “I wish I knew. I‘ve been doing it for years. Every time I pick up a drink — bam! All over my face.” The barkeep nods wisely and tells the guy he should see a psychologist about it. And so he does.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, the guy delves into his psyche, his childhood, his parents, his dreams, his sex life, his hopes and his fears. And at last, after ten years of therapy, he returns to the bar and triumphantly orders a drink.

The barkeep pours him a shot and stands back expectantly. The guy raises the glass, winks confidently at the barkeep — and then splashes the booze all over his face.

“Aw hell, buddy!” says the barkeep. “I thought you spent the last ten in therapy for that.”

The guy nods, very pleased with himself. “I did,” he says. “And now I understand why I keep throwing it in my face!”

A psychoanalyst told me that joke, partly as a self-deprecating wink at his own profession, but mainly as a gentle reminder that understanding doesn’t help much if it isn’t coupled with action.

As a professional opinion-haver, I must admit that the punchline feels like a gentle indictment of what I do.

I‘m not speaking for other columnists. I‘m not side-eyeing, subtweeting, or any of the other fun words the kids are using to describe passive-aggressive finger-pointing. Their motives and methods are their own. But I can‘t help wondering if some of them, like me, have subtly fallen prey to a particularly pernicious assumption, namely, that talk is action.

I wonder if we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by that completely hollow phrase, “address the problem”. We hear it all the time, used by politicians and business people and call centres, so perhaps endless repetition has numbed us to its ultimately hollow meaning. It just sounds so good, like an official, hands-on-medal-bedecked-heart promise to fix something. And yet, all it actually promises to do is to look at the problem; to stand a safe distance from it, and to stare at it.

I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage.

I also suspect many of us who stand on soap boxes and shout (whether for money in the media or for free on social media) have unconsciously signed on to a bizarrely impotent social contract in which we have agreed that we have a moral duty to be outraged by anything deemed outrageous. Once we’ve signed up, we are required by this contract to point our angry thoughts and words at the source of the outrage, and to be furious about it for as long as is socially acceptable — between one and three weeks, depending on the magnitude of the original crime.

But I’m uneasy. I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage. If it was, I think we’d be doing something, like challenging people to duels. I suspect what we’ve been told is outrage is actually just anxiety created by being shown too many horrible things over which we have absolutely no control. It’s despair at seeing the vast, immutable systems that guarantee that more horrible things will follow. We’ve been told that as modern media consumers we are addicted to outrage, but are you really an addict if you’re being force-fed?

Most worrying, however, is that there is no clause in the social contract that requires us to follow up and see if our outrage has had any positive effects or changed anything. The arms deal, xenophobia, educational dysfunction, Nkandla, Eskom, xenophobia again, Marikana, Eskom again — hell, even the poor rhinos: all have had their moment in the spotlight of our collective anxiety. Each of them triggered this feeling of helpless disbelief we have decided to call outrage. But then the spotlight moved away, as it always does. The feeling abated, as it always does. The powerful got away with it, as they always have, and the weak got screwed, as they always will be.

I‘m starting to feel like I‘m in that bar; endlessly served another shot of dysfunction and anxiety; endlessly trying to swallow it but instead splashing it all over the place. And knowing why it‘s happening isn’t going to help. Words can only go so far. It‘s time for deeds, which is my cue to pipe down. Besides, I don‘t have answers to my own questions. I don‘t know if more words are a help or a hindrance. So I‘ll just drink my drink. The same again? No thanks, barkeep. This stuff will kill you in the end.


First published in The Times and TimesLive