Why I hate Putin, Zelensky, the ANC, the DA, and some others


Why I hate Putin, Zelensky, the ANC, the DA, and some others

I spent the past month or so studying online reaction to the columns I write every week. Unfortunately, comments are not always pleasant or informative, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


THE transition of reportage and photojournalism from print to online platforms continues, keeping pace with technological shifts and — for better or for worse — with artificial Intelligence. The writer has to become more aware of his or her decisions.

Last month, the acclaimed magazine National Geographic reportedly let go its remaining writers and said it would stop news-stand sales in the US. In Europe, the world’s oldest newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, stopped production of its print edition after 320 years. The Austrian title outlasted 12 presidents, 10 emperors and two republics. And here in South Africa, at least one newspaper publicly admitted a couple of weeks ago that an article it carried was written by an AI application.

There is nothing new or revelatory about the technological shift. Newspapers moved over centuries from handwritten information on silk, to printing presses and now online. Now, AI and chatbots pose a multi-dimensional threat to journalism and journalists. The one threat that immediately stood out, when I thought about writing this essay, is the threat to the relationship between writers and readers.

There was a time, before “comments” sections and analyses of online reports, when there was a convenient anonymity between writers and readers. Letters pages were good, but they pale into insignificance alongside the volume of online comments. Before the internet and online publication, readers rarely met writers or even knew what they looked like; unless, of course, the writer became more established, more senior, and had a picture byline. In general, however, there was a physical distance between reader and writer. Today, the comments section brings readers and writers together, as it were, to exchange near-immediate views, comments or clarity. Sometimes, when the writer returns to read comments, their interactions count towards “readership”. In other words, editors can tell how many people have read specific articles, where previously they relied on overall newspaper sales.

The reader, writer and editors/publishers are in a more dynamic and insightful (and increasingly toxic) relationship. Editors and publishers can now estimate how “valuable” a specific writer is to the publication. When I worked on Sowetan, when it was a good newspaper in the early 1990s, it had a daily readership of 1.6 million. Research showed that each copy of the newspaper, as it was passed around in men’s hostels, places of employment and education or households, was read by about eight people. As the most senior political writer on Sowetan at the time, I could not tell what readers thought of my work, and they were never able to exchange views with other readers and with me. There was some comfort in all of that, but it left one feeling alienated, distant and, sadly, sometimes aloof.

I write what I like

I spent the past month or so studying online comments beneath the columns I write every week. Unfortunately, comments are not always pleasant or informative, and they rarely advance a better understanding. The Vrye Weekblad readers seem to be sophisticated thinkers and invariably make positive (even complimentary) contributions. Elsewhere, having written about Russia’s war on Ukraine, I was accused of being “an enabler” of the ANC and someone who thinks the West is evil and Russia good. It gets tedious, and one feels exasperated. The comments are often predictable or simply wrong.

Usually, when I criticise policies of the ANC or the EFF, I receive praise, but when I criticise the DA I get the most awful comments. A couple of years ago, when I wrote about Elon Musk’s treatment of workers at his car plant, a reader said he would cancel his subscription to the Eastern Cape newspaper where my weekly column appeared. With the current war on the steppe, it seems a pity that unless you say, explicitly, “I hate Vladimir Putin,” over and again, you are considered to support his invasion. It’s impolite to express hatred on the pages of respectable newspapers. Once is enough.

My ideas and work on the war lie beyond the immediate right and wrong, beyond shots fired on any particular day, or day-to-day events and states of affairs. I am a lot more interested in war as a social phenomenon and the way it shapes human consciousness, how technology (from swords to axes, tanks and fighter jets) has changed war over centuries, and some of the more historical and philosophical matters around war — without ignoring particular conflicts. All of these are not easy to write about, and you may end up forgetting to say “I hate Putin” or “I hate Zelensky”.

When it comes to domestic politics, responses are predictable. If you’re critical of the ANC or EFF you’re a sellout and a shill for “white monopoly capital”, and if you’re critical of the DA you’re a shill for the ANC or EFF. There’s an old canard that if the left and the right criticise you, you must be doing something right. I disagree, I think that if everyone criticises you, you are probably a twat.

If there is anything positive to say about comments sections it is that writers and readers are brought together more directly than in the days of print. If there were no readers, there would be no writers. The onus is on the writer to know the community and society in which the reader lives and makes decisions. The reader has absolute freedom and chooses what to read or what to make of written texts.

The belief that the writer writes for a particular audience is too simple, and too easy a conclusion to reach. I write a column in Business Day which draws on my readings and explorations in political economy, and especially global political economy — from capitalism to global finance and how these shape geo-strategic shifts. I try to peel back the surface forms of unanimity, cohesion and romantic idealism to expose the contradictions of race, ethnicity and religion. In the Daily Maverick, I try to untangle South African politics. On the surface, it may seem that each column addresses a particular audience, but at the base of each of these columns run specific threads.

These are issues that I don’t state explicitly. Surely you can say only once how much you hate/love someone or something. Beyond that, you have to reveal more granular details so that the reader, exercising her freedom, may make better decisions. I seem to recall a mathematics teacher telling me he was not interested in my answer but how I got to it. 

In this sense, it is not arrogant to say readers’ views are irrelevant. Bear with me. They are irrelevant and supremely important, in that 1,000 readers may have 1,000 different opinions about something. It is impossible, impractical, to rewrite and reconsider everything you have written to incorporate 1,000 opinions. The idea is to keep focus and remain loyal to the principles and cornerstone ideas, with large doses of humility and an acceptance of the (increasing) limitations of your own knowledge.

As always, I proceed from the position I have stated elsewhere. Nobody rules without guilt. Good people can be bad, and bad people can be good — however good and bad are conceived. In getting as close to the truth as possible, I remain loyal to justice, equality and emancipation without ever explicitly picking a side, other than peace and doing good deeds for the sake of good.

The problem is that you can say these things only once. Constant repetition becomes trite. The single expectation I have, in my relationship with readers, is that whatever I write is read intertextually. As for chatbots and AI, there is cause for concern about the future of news and information. I am especially concerned about AI and the future (the next 100 years) of humanity.


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