SOMEWHERE in the all the readings I have done over decades there was a passage by a 19th century journalist on the New-York Daily Tribune that has remained relevant, and useful for understanding social behaviour. Never ask someone to tell you about themselves, the former journalist said, because they will always tell you only the good things. It is fair, of course, to highlight the good things we’ve done, but it’s more honest, to be sure, and a sign of great humility and integrity, I imagine, to acknowledge our shortcomings, foibles and failures.
Taken to the extreme is the habit of essentialising who we think we are then pinning that to some kind of exceptionalism and elevating ourselves on the basis of our race, religion, ethnicity or our professional class. Who can forget the claim by Lloyd Blankfein, when he was the CEO of Goldman Sachs, that the social purpose of banks was doing “God’s work”. You simply couldn't make that up as fiction; you would be laughed out of the room…
At the extreme edge are claims that are quite embarrassing. As my late mother would always say, “het die mense dan nie skaamte nie?”. That’s such an insightful statement. I imagine that since we are made up of the atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, humans have the unique ability to blush and be ashamed. To this may be added self-delusion; the tendency to lie to ourselves. The claim of a group of people being “better than” or driven by a “manifest destiny” with attendant Ptolemaic parochialism is probably the most insidious.
Remembering is shaped by forgetting
While notions of exceptionalism and of eternal innocence, born in that prelapsarian past (before the white man came) are a distinct mark of our politics, we are not alone with such asininities. In the US, exceptionalism, selective morality and ahistorical reflection are all ingrained in the social psyche of the settler community. It was most astounding, for instance, when in his 2009 inaugural address, Barack Obama praised Americans with absolutely no sense that there were communities across north America, before the European settlers arrived.
“Let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood…
“America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Obama praised his people for having fought and died in places “like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn”. Almost completely absent from his speech was acknowledgement of indigenous people – especially those who were killed off in one of history's great acts of genocide. (In lieu of a footnote: it is not propagandistic to use sources from America’s “enemies”, and absolute truth when using information from the Wall Street-Washington axis. The Holocaust Museum in Houston made the same claims of a “genocide”. I disagree with the notion that there is necessarily a single source of knowledge and information).
Who we are and who we are not
Closer in time, and to home. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson was fired from his job reportedly for sending a terribly racist text message. In the text, Carlson described watching a video of several Donald Trump supporters beating up someone. Carlson confessed to feeling a “vicious bloodlust” while watching the video. “I really wanted them to hurt the kid,” but realised the horror of his impulse. “I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed… [and] jumping a guy like that is dishonourable obviously. It’s not how white men fight.” Carlson wrote. It goes back a long time.
Elsewhere in the European world, Mike Galsworthy, who leads the European Movement UK, responded to police action in Britain with the claim that, “this is not what Britain is”.
This is not what Britain is - and not what British police are.— Dr Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) May 6, 2023
This is our police being used as government enforcers for a government over-obsessed with controlling culture whilst preaching an alarm around the protection of free speech. pic.twitter.com/kkra1Zj58l
Back home, we have to contend with daily tropes about what is and what is not African as if we, in South Africa, speak on behalf of 1.2-billion people who speak more than 1,000 languages with probably as many ethnic groups. With respect to language, the man who would be president of South Africa, Julius Malema, famously suggested that if a word does not come from one of South Africa’s indigenous languages it is necessarily “unAfrican”. Referring to intersex or hermaphrodite people, Malema said in 2009 that, “in Pedi there is nothing like that. When a child is born you announce him as a baby boy or baby girl. We have never heard in the village a child being projected.”
In one of the many accusations Malema has faced during his life in politics, the late Zola Skweyiya said in 2008 that the former ANC youth leader's crusade against then-president Thabo Mbeki was “unAfrican”.
It is not uncommon, then, to hear claims that something is “unAmerican” or “unAfrican”, and the elevation of either one of those “societies” to something that it clearly cannot be, given the deep history of conflict and breakdown across the world. The problem is, also, one of representation. When Malema says something is “unAfrican” it is usually part of his lexical toolkit of othering those whom he describes “non-African”. To understand Malema’s rhetoric we can rely on Joseph Stalin’s great enemy, Leon Trotsky, who said of Adolf Hitler, “his fantasy and delirium are in expedient conformity with his real political aims”. Malema’s real political aim, as much of my research has shown, is to remove all “non-Africans” from society, if not physically then in terms of presence and voice, and return the country to some kind of prelapsarian past.
Anyway, for a people to claim that bad things are not what they represent is contradictory. To say that violence and conflict are “unAmerican” is just wrong; that country was built, until the mid-1960s, on genocide, then slavery, then Jim Crow. American democracy is less than 60 years old. For police misconduct to be considered as “not British” conveniently ignores slavery, colonisation and racism. And to claim that something is “unAfrican” is smug arrogance when you speak for or represent a fraction of the continent’s people, and especially when your founding texts include European thought (Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin).
The opaque lens of history
As for Tucker Carlson, how does “the white man” fight? Does he firebomb cities to show off (as he did in Dresden), and drop nuclear bombs (as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki)? Does he commit genocide against native Americans (US) and slaughter millions of Jews, Roma and homosexual people (during World War 2)? Does he use rape as a weapon of war and sexually abuse children during war and send millions of people to the gulags or firing squads? I guess we will never know, because the US and the European world gave us “the modern world” and all the progress associated with the European enlightenment. Of course, we are expected to remember only that the ANC liberated us, and that everything bad that happened after 1994 had nothing to do with them.
Lying to yourself, or presenting yourself and “your people” as exceptional, morally upright and eternally innocent (and valiant, in the case of Obama’s imagining of settler colonists) is often driven by a need to draw attention away from your own flaws or misdeeds.
One of the last century’s great philosophers explained that “every belief is a belief that falls short”. I would go further and make the point that every belief is necessarily shaped by wilful forgetting. It is like “facts”. We select those facts that tell the stories we want to tell, and leave out those that make us feel bad about ourselves or show us in a bad light. An old legend my mother always reminded us of was that “the peacock shows off his feathers so we don’t look at its ugly feet”. I honestly have never looked at a peacock’s feet; those birds are creepy.
♦ VWB ♦
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