The problem with ideals

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This past week I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time for which she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Alexievich is a Belarussian investigative journalist who spent more than a decade interviewing the citizens of the former USSR –  most of whom were previously card-carrying members of the Communist Party – about how they feel about post-Soviet freedom.

Every night, since beginning to read the book, I have gone to bed in a pique, caught somewhere between shock, horror and a deep, deep despair.

Why?

Because their ideal was beautiful.

“Houses made of crystal and aluminium… Crystal Palaces! Lemons and orange groves in cities. There are almost no elderly, people get old very late in life because life is so wonderful. Machines do all the work, people just drive and control them. The machines sow seeds and knit… The fields are thick with verdure and bounty. Flowers as tall as trees. Everyone is happy. Joyful. Everyone goes around in fine clothes, men and women alike, leading free lives of labour and pleasure. There’s enough space and work for everyone…”

And what they did to achieve it was grotesque.

“I met my old comrade in prison… Nikolai Verkhovets, a [Communist] Party member since 1924. He taught at a worker’s school. He’d been among friends, in a tight circle… someone was reading Pravda [the newspaper] aloud, and it said that the Bureau of the Central Committee had held a hearing on the fertilisation of mares. Then he went and made a joke about how the Central Committee had nothing better to do that worry about mare fertilization. They came for him that same night. Slammed his fingers in a door and broke them like they were pencils. They’d keep him in a gas mask for days at a time. I don’t know how to talk about these things today… All in all it was barbarism. Humiliating. You’re nothing but a piece of meat lying in a pool of urine.”

The book documents more and more horrors of indivduals sacrified for the ideal.

A Ukrainian woman who ate her own child after the Ukrainians were sieged into famine for refusing collectivisation of the farms.

The account of an old Jewish man who, as a child, had escaped from a mass grave where his fellows were being buried alive. Moscow saw the Jews as traitors. They were to be annihilated.

And betrayal after betrayal of family, neighbours, friends who believed in the dream of a future, better, wonderful society, more than they believed in family ties, loyalty and neighbourliness.

Most disturbing of all, is how many of those, whose lives were destroyed in the name of the ideal, continued to believe in it. And still do.

“I spent almost a year in prison… And then they released me, dismissing all the charges… They called me into the district Party committee. ‘Unfortunately we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died [She had also been imprisoned as a so-called counter-revolutionary]. But you can have your honour back.’ And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy. I was so happy…”

[Here the writer comments that she can never understand him – never.]

“You can’t judge us according to logic. You accountants! You have to understand. You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous. What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort. Anything for a full belly…”

Alexievich’s book has made me reflect deeply on the ideals that I hold.

In South Africa, we have been working towards the ideal of non-racialism, and this book has forced me to contemplate:  who is being sacrificed for this ideal? Is there someone whose life is worse off, because of this ideal?

Recently I interviewed a young woman active in the #FeesMustFall student protests.
“I hate non-racialism,” she said, explaining how she views any attempt to turn a blind eye to race in South Africa as an attempt to ignore the injustices that have created a legacy of economic inequality.

Her hatred of this ideal disturbed me, but as I reflect on the Soviet dream, and what was done in its name, I am forcing myself to ask: what is being done and perpetuated in the name of non-racialism?

Mandela drew a line in the sand and said we could start afresh from here. We wouldn’t look back. And this past week I have found myself wondering:  who is sacrified when we push away the past and ask that everyone forgets about it and moves on?

The ideal of apartheid was swiftly followed by the ideal of non-racialism. But the past is a poltergeist. It is there and not there. It continues to hurt the living every day.

What ideal do we serve when we look away when another child is born into poverty in the township? What ideal do we serve when we dismiss the fact that another young man, without a decent education or decent prospects, has joined a gang and committed rape?

What are our ideals worth if they are more valuable to us than the present lives of our fellow man?

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We are not the same, are we?

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A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.

For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”

Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.

Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.

A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”

She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.

As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”

I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.

The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.

“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.

The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.

In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.

“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.

When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.

Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.

“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”

Which brings me back to my koan.

“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”

In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.

Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.

So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?

How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?

Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.

So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.

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The perils of the older man

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When I was 27 I met a man twice my age and fell in love. Four years later he proposed and I said yes.

“I always knew you would marry an older man,” my mum said.

She might have known, but I didn’t. In fact, I had never planned to get married.

“The biggest love affair was the one you can have with the world,” I would often scribble in my journal.

But in Gavin Paterson Bell, Scottish, former war correspondent, travel journalist, rarely shaken nor stirred, I met my match.

This past week, on a plane to Sofia, I asked him why he asked me to marry him.

“I sensed a kindred spirit, someone adventurous, thoughtful. I also thought you were honest and had good values.”

But why did you want to marry me? I probed.

He thought for a while.

“I wanted a companion to share my life with, and I wanted to share your life. For all your bravado, I sensed a sensitivity and a vulnerability and I wanted to be there as a protector. And I got a sense that you wouldn’t make too many demands on me. You were an independent spirit and wouldn’t follow me around.”

So there you have our union. A marriage of dreamers and travellers, of protectors and independents. Comfortably together, comfortably apart.

Why do I tell you this?

Because although our version of marriage is one that has ample space for dreams, I was recently reminded how society has a less expansive version of the wedded union.

I have long wanted to buy a nest in my childhood home of South Africa. A soul home where I can retreat from the hurly burly of the northlands, and spend more and more time.

A few weeks ago I found a beautiful property in my hometown of Joburg, and applied for a mortgage, planning to put down a deposit using equity from a Scottish flat that I had invested in before we got married. My money, my mission, but the South African banks shook their collective heads and pushed away my application form.

Not only were they ill at ease by my self-employed status (why do banks penalise the entrepreneurs and reward the job-worths?) but because I was married in community of property, and because my husband was beyond “mortgage age”, it meant that I was also not eligible for a mortgage. It did not matter that we operate separate bank accounts and mine contain sufficient funds to bankroll the mortgage. What mattered in the eyes of the bank was that my husband was an older man, and I a married woman.

It’s not the first time that my dreams, desires and needs have been outranked.

Five years ago, when I was 34, my husband was diagnosed with throat cancer and prostate cancer. Before his treatment regime began, we froze some of his sperm so the chemotherapy wouldn’t damage all of his swimmers.

As we filled in the consent forms at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, the consultant informed us that, should we one day decide on IVF, we would have to pay for it ourselves because state-funded fertility treatment is not permitted for men of a certain age. It was not regarded as an acceptable use of state funds.

The fact that I was in my mid-30s and about to lose my husband’s virility to a killer disease was irrelevant. My bid for matriarchy was outranked by a patriarchy that saved no rank for the older stags.

“You could probably appeal,” said the consultant.

I shrugged. We were squaring up to a bigger challenge and my energy was needed elsewhere. I signed the forms and walked away.

We have since considered adoption, and until recently, that too was off the table because the mean age of the parents had to be below 45. Since the day we got married, we did not qualify. Fortunately in Scotland, this has now changed and today the rule is that the younger parent be below 45.

Still, I find it perplexing that we live in a world where single women can get mortgages, adopt children and are eligble for state-funded IVF (in some NHS boroughs at least), whereas her over there with the Silver Fox on her arm, all she’s eligible for is an upgrade.

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The human race is on. Don’t come last

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In the middle of last week I hit the wall. I know the wall well because I’ve been here before. A lot. There were a few obvious reasons why I went splat. I was exhausted after co-facilitating an intense Women’s Day Consciousness Café. I was sad because I had just waved my mum off at the airport after spending a few days together. And I was lonely because my husband was all the way over on the other side of the world.

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness,” my husband says gently, whenever I go splat – a line from the Desiderata – but it wasn’t fear that was gurning around inside my head, but rather an abyss-like what’s-the-point-of-it-all emptiness, accompanied by that old voice: “You are a failure”.

Ugh. Back here. Again. That evening, after dragging my sack-like body to a yoga class, I came home and instead of listening to the chiding and goading, I decided to research why I was here again. What was the link between depression and that pointless feeling?

As I read through psychology articles, I came across a paragraph on PsychCentral.com that hit me in the belly.

“How can you increase your sense of ‘worth’? You cannot earn it through what you do. Happiness is not obtained solely by your achievements. Self-worth based on accomplishments is ‘pseudo-esteem’; it’s simply not the real thing”.

I put down my phone and stared at the wall.

Since I left home at 17, I have associated my value as a person with what I do. And those who know me, know I do a lot. Always a project on the go, always building networks, always connecting with friends, always doing. Somewhere in my mind – pretty close to the surface, in fact – is the belief that if I do good things, then I will matter to the world. And that if I don’t, I won’t.

The article went on to explain that those who measure their self-esteem against achievements are constantly having to do more to try and have any self value at all. This constant chasing of self-worth linked to praise and achievement leads to a never-ending cycle of excitement and disappointment. And burn out.

Which is where I was now. On the couch. Barely able to lift an arm.

Over the past five years, I have been drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings as a way of coping. A sentiment often offered up for reflection is: “We are human beings, not human doings”.

It’s a teaching that I thought I had understood, and applied. But in that moment I realised  that I had been applying it through my own particular pair of lenses.  In order to embrace more being, I had decided that I had to do more relaxing things – more meditation, more yoga, more playing in the sun. But, of course, to interpret it like that just adds more ‘doings’ to the value equation, growing the list of things to value yourself by. Meditation. Tick. Juice. Tick. Sunshine. Tick. God, I rock!

So what does the teaching actually mean?

According to the psychology article, for the good of our mental health, we need to look inside ourselves for our self-worth, valuing ourselves not on what we do, but who we are. Are we kind, loyal, creative, strong, patient, graceful, funny, thoughtful? Choose your good (we’ve all got a few of them) and value yourself on yourself, not on constantly shifting goal posts outside of yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do challenging and exciting things with our lives, but we shouldn’t ascribe all our value as a person to those things.

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I’m still contemplating it – how my wonky sense of self-worth links to my upbringing, my culture, and our world. I grew up in a Yorkshire family in apartheid South Africa. In the 18th century Yorkshire was the heartland of the industrial revolution, and I am a descendent of workers. In my family, having a job, being a provider, is fundamental. I was weaned on the idea that you cannot have pride or dignity if you cannot provide for yourself. “You need to stand on your own two feet, lass.”

And I’m not unique there. We live within an economic system which has competition at its core. The human race is on. Don’t come last. Capitalism firmly equates our value as people with what we do. But it’s killing us. It’s the reason I keep falling on my face with exhaustion and disappointment.

For too long I – and so, so many others – have relied on applause for our self-worth, when what we really need is a wee pat on the back from ourselves. Mine, for being a kind and honest soul.

That is good enough.

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Is culture just a polite word for power?

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Last week, while having breakfast with a French friend at her home in France, I filled a croissant with scrambled eggs and ham, and tucked into it, sandwich style. My friend looked at me as if I had just bit into a baby.

“That’s not done,” she said.

“Well I am doing it, so it can be done,” I replied.

“Well yes, but we don’t do it. It’s not French.”

A little story. Une forte mentalité. For the past 15 years I have quietly rubbed up against the French, learning their language and often visiting the country. My frisson began with admiration. France seemed a much more cosmopolitan reality than the one I had been born into – a working class Yorkshire girl who had been chucked out of England and into apartheid South Africa by Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist. Who were these sophisticated, exotic creatures who treasured food and style? I wanted what they were having.

But as the years went by, and my fascination with cheese dwindled, something else began to grate. The French have a favourite expression.

“C’est normal,” they say. It’s normal.

They use it to describe why some things are difficult (convoluted French bureaucracy), why some things are fabulous (an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to cheese) and why some things are just not worth commenting on (another glorious day of sunshine).

“C’est normal” is the punctuation mark used to put a stop to any conversation that raises an eyebrow at French culture. And to a person who came of age with the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “C’est normal” is like a red flag to a bull. My only normal is change and more change. Which is perhaps why France was so attractive for a while. The lure of a solid, sure-of-itself culture.

Last week then, as I munched on my croissant, and my friend dropped into the conversation that hers was one of the bon families of France – and by bon, she meant wealthy, respected and influential – I found myself wondering: is culture just a polite word for power? A pretentious way of saying, I’m in, you’re out?

I started a dialogue with myself in my head. What does culture give you when you embrace it? A shortcut to who you are. (This is how I eat a croissant). A sense of belonging. (This is how we eat croissants). A shortcut to who others are. (They are just like me, look how they eat croissants)

And there’s no doubt that us humans like shortcuts. In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who was co-awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2002 for his work on psychology of judgement and decision making) explores in detail how the brain doesn’t like to do any more work than it has to, always setting up easy-to-access short-cuts to help us navigate the world and thus survive.

And then I wondered: what does culture take from you when it stares you in the eye and declares: “hey you, you are not one of us”?

Can culture take from you the same thing it gives: robbing you of your sense of self, sense of belonging, a sense of feeling connected to others?

It’s unpopular to say this now, but at the outset apartheid was envisioned as a way to create a society where different cultures could flourish side by side. Where it got it horribly, drastically wrong, was in the way Afrikaner culture treated those outside its culture – with disrespect, hostility, brutality, inhumanity.

Confucius wrote: “Behave to every man as one receiving a great guest.”

What kind of country would South Africa be, if we treated those who are not of our culture, with grace, interest and respect? If culture was not used as a means to wield power and exclusion?

And one wonders the same about France. Right now the country is in a State of Emergency. It has become a prime target for IS-inspired killers, and to date, nearly all of these men with guns are French nationals.

Why are these men attacking the country that raised them? Is there something within the culture of the country that they have grown up in that has undermined their sense of self, of belonging, of feeling connected to a wider community?

This is not an essay on the value of homogeneity. In nature beauty exists in diversity. The most beautiful forests are those in which different trees grow side-by-side and small flowers flourish in their dappled light. But rather I find myself pondering, how do we shape a world where not only do we aim to treat each other as guests of honour – but where it is possible to act with such grace?

I held this question in my head on a train from Marseille to Paris at the end of my French holiday. I waited for my next train in a café outside Gare du Nord, where Romany gypsy girls spend the day begging. Dressed in flowery skirts and headscarves, they thrust their cupped hands at everyone passing by, stabbing their palms expectantly with their finger. Between begging stints they laugh and chat aimlessly, like young women between customers in a clothing store.

Watching them beg, it struck me that the crisis between cultures often comes when one culture demands or expects something of the other. When one is no longer content with being treated as a favoured guest, but begins to set an agenda.

I mentioned this to my husband and he told me a story he had heard about a Bedouin tribe. In the desert in the days of old, a traveller was welcomed into a camp and could have anything he wanted for three days. The wife included. At the end of those three days, the host could kill him. It was the caveat that made sure that no one ever abused the hospitality of another.

I thought back to my visit to my French friend. Her older sister had railed against those Muslims who abuse the French social welfare state by not working, having many wives, expecting the French system to support them and their families. Her big brushstroke views had made me squirm with liberal discomfort, but whatever the truth or falsity of the accusations she was making, her voice was unmistakable: a voice of anger and resentment. The host whose hospitality had been abused. She was on day three and ready to attack.

For a long time the liberal left have kept clear of talking about what happens when cultures collide – that was reserved for the right-wing racists. But as Europe (and many places throughout the world) finds themselves on a knife-edge, perhaps its time we all posed ourselves these two questions:

Am I being a good host?

Am I being a good guest?

After all, we’re all just passing through.

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The noise of the world is made of our silences

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Why do I write about race issues? Sometimes I think I am crazy. Sometimes I am sure of it. Why admit to and reflect on dirty prejudices that haunt the shadows of the mind? It’s probably safer to poke a snake with a stick.

I found myself reflecting on this, this weekend, while reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that documents the horror of war and that was banned in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2 on the grounds that it painted Germans in a bad light.

For twenty years, South Africans subconsciously banned talking about racism. There was a collective belief that it didn’t support our Rainbow Nation’s war effort, namely the fight inside ourselves to forget the past and move on as quickly as we could.

That’s not to say people weren’t branded racists. “Racist!” became the punctuation mark to end any unwanted conversation. It was the silencer of choice used to quieten any unsolicited criticism, often of the government. But there it got stuck, at the level of insult, never probing, never advancing any deeper understanding.

That is, until March 2015, when the Born Frees woke up and called us on it, adding whiteness and privilege to the concepts to chew on.

The other day, a white woman from Kempton Park asked me to explain #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

“What do they want?” she asked.

I explained that because of income and education disparity, begun by institutional inequalities in the past and perpetuated by inequalities in the present, many black people continue to feel second-class citizens in their own country. Locked out.

“But it was hard for me too,” she said, going on to document the years of strife as she worked two jobs to pay her way through university, clawed her way into male-dominated work spaces, struggled to get promoted, be recognised, be seen.

“Then you understand,” I said.

One of the greatest crimes of apartheid was that it taught us not to have compassion for people who do not look like us. Compassion was for the person who sat next to you in church. Pity was for the maid.

We are still stuck here. We may shake hands, call each other bra and dance with petrol attendants, but we are still clawing our way to the place where we see each other as people.

That’s why I write about race relations. Because if I stand naked, and lay myself bare, you’ll start to see me. And we may start to see each other.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb