Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Birth Pains

In South Africa, we talk about the birth of democracy in 1994. I still find it odd calling limited enfranchisement in other countries democracy. So, when watching the Suffragette movie on the plane to Chicago (I binge watched four movies... the last being cut short by having to land), it seems equally odd that we don't talk about democracy being only being about 100 years old. New Zealand led the charge in 1893. Women only got the right to vote in national elections in Switzerland in 1971! It doesn't seem like democracy when half the population can't vote.

Broken Windows, Lives Interrupted, Forcing Attention

David Graeber argues that our re-writing of the birth of democracy to Greece misses the universal idea of building societies with concern for all. It also misses the flavours that have been given by various cultures. He talks about the idea of Federation coming from Native American groups working together when required. It wasn't popular at all in the West to be 'ruled by the mob'. There has always been a more deeply wired idea of superiority. The vote given to those who could fight. Armed and propertied. And male.


Watching the Netflix series 'Narcos', about the war on drugs, is also an illustration of a push back on the 'superiority idea'. The Colombian politicians and Americans both wanted to end the violence, but there was a big push back on needing the help of the United States. I don't like being condescended to. I like working with people, but not being a subordinate. This extends to most groups. The idea that someone is superior by right, by assumption, by anything, is deeply grating.


I am trying to read more about Rhodes to be in a better position to think about the #RhodesMustFall debate. It isn't really about Rhodes. Rhodes is a symbol. The broader idea is how do we unwind the idea of superiority that is so deeply wound into most cultures. Not just about race. About gender. About religion. About pretty much any world view you hold. The idea that we need to go on a civilising mission to convert people to our superior way of thinking.

The Shadow of Rhodes

The first book I have read on Rhodes is laced with very racist language. The irony is that it is a book that pitches Rhodes as a liberal. The racism is with a tone of righteousness. I have no doubt that for the time, a time when women couldn't vote, he was. Liberals were people who thought about enlightenment issues, but also about the idea of spreading civilisation. By force if necessary. Rhodes was an imperialist who believed in the superiority of British Civilisation as embodied by the throne. At the same time, he managed half of his land conquering by having the gift of the gab. In the initial descriptions of him I read, the images of some of the current politicians of the day spring to mind. Those people who can walk into a room and turn heads. Who can make their enemies heads turn. Who can 'have at it' with people and be hard not to like.


One of the reasons I think many people have a problem with the idea of 'Rhodes must fall' is that he isn't as obvious a villain as Mao, Stalin, or Hitler. It isn't like the cartoons we grew up with where there is a clear bad guy twisting his moustache or stroking his cat. People will recognise dreams and aspirations in Rhodes. Ideas like founding universities so that people from different groups can come together to study in the formative years of their lives. Then go out to the world with deep friendships. That is like learning that Hitler was an artist. Or that he liked little children. Pure evil is easier to deal with. How was Jameson made an Induna by Lobengula? Why was Rhodes able to negotiate peace where others couldn't? This is the same man that saw civilising as a thousand year mission like the raising of the druids in Britain. This was the same time as believing women needed to be looked after because they couldn't look after themselves.


The truth is the #RhodesMustFall project is an internal one. There are lots of studies going on showing just how implicit our prejudices are (Almost all of us are racist). Instead of a McCarthy like finger pointing, the project of whittling away at superiority starts with ourselves. The painful process of birthing a better world.

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