Funhouse With No Exit.

The Deputy Minister of Safety and Security, Susan Shabangu, recently aroused some public attention (possibly for the first time in her life) by declaring that the police were not killing enough people. “Shoot the bastards!” she squawked, following in the well-trodden footsteps of B J Vorster, Jimmy Kruger and Louis le Grange. Those figures, of course, won a great deal of public acclaim in the white community by calling on the police to create pyramids of black corpses, and therefore it is not surprising that Shabangu’s call for wholesale massacre won extensive endorsement. (The fact that the black community has offered some support, although a more qualified one than in the white community, may not mean that extreme masochistic tendencies are genetically prevalent amongst blacks; it probably means that many blacks have forgotten what it is like to have police guns aimed at you.)

It is also, however, because virtually every article, presentation or statement on the subject contains, explicitly or implicitly, similar content. Very, very few people in power have any interest in improving the criminal justice system. That would be expensive and possibly dangerous for their own power. What they want is to improve the rhetorical impact of their efforts to frighten the public into ignoring its best interest. Hence all debate on the subject is couched in terms of the “War On Crime”. As “Get Your War On” once observed, how nice it is that we have a war on such bad things, just like the war declared on drugs which of course has got rid of all wicked drugs everywhere. (Puff, puff, snort, snort, gulp, gulp.)

So it should not be surprising that the weblog of the Mail and Guardian, “Thoughtleader”, pursued precisely this. The commentator made the controversial observation that the Constitution should be endorsed. He was flooded with expostulatory comments declaring that Susan Shabangu was a goddess and that pyramids of dead darkies were a beautiful vista. In the grand tradition of South African white liberalism he explained that he had been joking and had not quite meant what he had said, although police slaughtering people might still be a little excessive. (He was again shouted down.) These are people who have access to computers, who read a “quality” newspaper intended for white neoliberals and their hangers-on. These people, this elite, are hysterical, heartless, self-destructive fools who would don SA uniforms in a heartbeat merely because the colour matched their eyes.

Crime is known to be an issue on which South Africans become psychologically disturbed and in any case this is only one small issue. (Not an insignificant one, of course — Shabangu is the right hand of the first member of Mbeki’s Cabinet to defect to Zuma, and her statement correlates closely with Zuma’s attempts to promote the return of the death penalty in South Africa. All this corresponds to the general move towards distracting the public with reactionary posturing while the economic policy shifts over to neoliberalism.) Perhaps a larger issue, although another psychologically disturbing one, is that of Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean election was heralded in South Africa by claims, never substantiated, that the election was going to be stolen, and by immense amounts of propaganda for the anti-government parties, much of which proved to be nonsense. There was also a great deal of unsubstantiated propaganda about alleged government repression in Zimbabwe As it turned out, the election was not stolen (although it is possible that the government tried to rig it, no evidence to this effect has been presented). The opposition party supported by the West has won a narrow majority in Parliament; the Presidential results have not been released, which strongly hints that the opposition has won this election as well — although ZANU (PF), the government, is pressing for a runoff election. The situation is tense, since ZANU (PF) is worried about losing, for various reasons good and bad, and yet sooner or later the party either has to admit defeat, find a way of compromising that defeat — or reject the defeat and seize undemocratic power. This last option, the one which the South African press has been hyping since long before the election, is obviously unacceptable.

So — how has the coverage since been? Relentlessly bad. The Creator has seen precisely one newspaper article admitting that virtually all the coverage before the election was not only inaccurate but laughably biased and dishonest. Apart from this, every article combines the declaration that democracy must prevail, with the declaration that the government must go (that is, that if democracy decides that the government must stay, so much the worse for democracy). There is great approval of the British pledge to bribe Zimbabwe with £1 billion if ZANU (PF) is voted out, as if corruption equals democracy. Nobody notices the contradiction, because nobody is thinking. Meanwhile, there is also ritual denunciation of President Mbeki for not doing something about the government’s refusal to release the Presidential results, and ritual condemnation of President Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy”. Not doing anything to Zimbabwe has brought us to the position where the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic Change controls Parliament and potentially controls Zimbabwe, but this is not good enough for the propagandists, although they do not say what it is they want.

Amid all this, nobody is talking about the only important issue, which is what Zimbabwe can possibly do to get out of its socio-economic crisis. This might seem surprising, since the ostensible purpose of getting rid of ZANU (PF) was to resolve the economic crisis (the social crisis being not considered important). However, it seems particularly interesting that the MDC appears to have no economic plan at all, other than charging around the world begging. (At least they might get a response, which is more than ZANU (PF) could anticipate, but what if they don’t? There is no answer.) Nobody criticises them, or offers to advise them. None of this matters, apparently. Nothing matters except chanting “Down with Mugabe!” and “Mbeki out!” at regimented intervals.

The Creator is troubled by the failed system which has brought us to this situation. It is easy, under these situations, to be a conspiracy theorist, for obviously some kind of conspiracy is what is going on. But conspiracy theory is dangerous because in the absence of reliable information it is terribly tempting to believe that virtually everything is part of a grand conspiracy, and that way lies a kind of mania.

We are being fooled by people who believe that fooling us is in their interest. Most of these people, however, are fooled in their turn. They believe the lies they are told, and very often believe the lies they tell. So they fool us to fool themselves, and fool themselves into thinking that fooling us is not just good for them but good for us, too. So they are not the people who know the truth and hide it from us; they are instead the people who remain in darkness. In fact, everybody is in darkness.

The only proper response is to disobey — to refuse to believe what we are told to believe and thus attempt to sabotage whatever it is that the false system wants us to do. All very well if we can be sure that simple refusal is enough. However, what the false system also wants is quiescence — surrender. It wants us not to ask questions or take any action against the false system. This has been a major concern of totalitarian systems for a longish while; appropriate methods were applied by the NKVD against the more public trialists during the Stalinist Terror, and were developed by the CIA as a result of their fascination with what they called “brainwashing” in Korea. (There was no real “brainwashing”, but the CIA wanted to believe that they could change people’s mental states and so claimed that the Chinese were doing it — in the same way that the US Cold War military always claimed that the Russians had developed a weapon which they actually wanted for themselves.) This ended up with the MK/ULTRA research so well documented in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, some of which research has found its way into sales techniques and political science.

So it is tempting to withdraw and run away and hide from the lies, but this is also what they want.

But how to challenge the lies? How to know what the truth is? Granted the truth is presumably not what they say it is, but there is then an infinity of truths which could exist. Go into issues in enough depth so that there is knowledge which can be acted on (for vague knowledge is useless) — and there the depth is enough to sink you. What is truth? Where is the answer? How much doubting can a person stand? If everybody is lying, then nobody is telling the truth . . .

John Barth wrote a book called Lost in the Funhouse. Presumably being trapped in a place which is intended to frighten and deceive you was a very scary notion to Barth. But at least if you go into a funhouse you know what you are getting into. Be afraid, be very afraid, but you know that the funhouse has an outside, and that in the end, however scared you become, you will eventually get out. (In Barth’s world this is not necessarily the case, but Barth is a fantasist.) The trouble with what is happening to us is that in our common reality, we have been put in a position where everything is a distortion of reality, where everything is a funhouse mirror which not only reflects ourselves, but ourselves as we do not look, and in a way so that we cannot be quite sure what the distortion really is. We are in a funhouse with no exit, and nobody can even tell us precisely why we are here, or whether the funhouse will ever come to an end; we cannot even be sure that the people who surround us and lie to us are real, or that their motives are anything like our own.

Of course we have people who tell us they know the truth. We have Chomsky and Ali and Pilger and, to drop a bit (a useful bit) Palast. But in a lot of these cases we can’t be sure. All of these characters have themselves been fooled on occasion. No, these people do not have the answer. (Chomsky, to be fair, would probably be the first to admit it.) There is, in fact, no answer, not even in scepticism. Though we can be sure that we should not trust what people tell us, we cannot be sure what we should trust. Even the most reliable observers, even the most honest people, can be fooled by the mountains of lies laid upon them.

Incidentally, this seems to be a self-sustaining process. Not only do people believe their own lies, but they also tend to tell more lies over time. Successful lying breeds more and bigger lies. Thus the situation gets worse. Not a cheerful prospect.


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