Politics and the power of fiction


Picture: defaced election poster, Jo’burg 

With the elections coming up, and the electioneering of our politicians at fever pitch with ad campaigns adding the fuel of spite to their nefarious fires, I couldn’t help but think about Nikolai Berdyaev’s observation that “politics shows to a remarkable degree the power of fiction over men’s lives”. He wrote from a soon to be occupied Paris shortly before the second World War, witnessing the rise of Hitler:

“We live in a nightmare of falsehoods, and there are few who are sufficiently awake and aware to see things as they are. Our first duty is to clear away illusions and recover a sense of reality. If war should come, it will do so on account of our delusions, for which our hag-ridden conscience attempts to find moral excuses. To recover a sense of reality is to recover the truth about ourselves and the world in which we live, and thereby to gain the power of keeping this world from flying asunder.” – Nikolai Berdyaev

Every day in the South African media – and in common parlance – one hears our president and the ANC (rightly, I believe) criticised – even as one anticipates them once again obtaining the support of the majority of the electorate. (their claim that they will rule until Christ returns casts serious doubts on their conception of democracy and intellectual integrity, and betrays their authoritarian roots in the barren ground of the former USSR and East Germany).

But political leaders, especially the more scurrilous among them, engage in their machiavellian game of thimblerig, deceiving with empty promises a gullible or exasperated electorate. And I see the same slight of hand played by the opposition parties too: they appear to me like nasty, squabbling schoolboys.

Who does one vote for?
You must choose your devil: but it remains a devil.


“Tomorrow will bring change for all …” says a Democratic Alliance SMS. I wonder how and why politicians make such wild claims. For the poor, the downtrodden, the desperate, the dispossessed, disenfranchised, those who have known neither fairness nor opportunity, the hungry, the jobless, those treated with cruelty or simply ignored – will tomorrow bring change for them? What does that even mean? One has come to expect crass lies from the ANC – but when facile fictions emanate from the mouths of the opposition it’s hard not to feel completely dejected. Tomorrow I will cast my vote; but I have no illusions about a better tomorrow. Indeed what is more certain is the futility of it all:

Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.” Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” (Ecclesiastes)

“… Solomon means: Life is absurd. Why do we live? All of our life, we spend working, playing, relating, and at its end, what does a person have to show for what he has done? It is absurd, irrational, meaningless.” (http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/CGG/ID/8391/Vanity-Vanities.htm


One thought on “Politics and the power of fiction

  1. Sir. The pessimism you express in your blog post “Politics and the power of fiction” is understandable but I fear fundamentally flawed. A quietest disengagement from matters of the world may leave you with a private serenity, but it is at this very point where the surgeon’s knife is required! As he begins his procedure, there is pain, blood, the possibility he might err, that heaven forbid, the patient may die. But he acts anyway – to attempt to save the patient’s life. Think of your vote, sir, as a surgical procedure: there are those pessimists who will tell you not to bother for the patient is too ill for surgery. Others will say intervention may cause more harm than good. Yet others will say the fellow under the knife deserves to die. But such negativity is surely unworthy of Man! Everywhere and through the ages there have been those who throw their hands up in despair and those who roll up their sleeves for the fight – and you sir enjoy the benefits of all those brave souls who have done so! The freedom you take for granted was hard won and must be defended with equal determination. What if Wilberforce were to have given up in his fight against slavery, or Mandela – on his windswept Island – had curled up in foetal despair? What if Churchill had surrendered not to the Nazis but to his own despondency?

    With respect Mr SH, you say somewhere that you have read Voltaire’s Candide – but you have missed the point of the book: there IS much good to be done, and your mark on the ballot paper – no matter how infinitesimally small it may seem – may have effects beyond your imagining.

    A friend of mine, Professor N, uses the phrase “dirty hermeneutics”. Essentially it means a readiness to get stuck into the dirt and grime of the narrative rather than maintaining an aloofness from the narrative. It is the courage of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer to challenge evil, or as in the metaphor above, a surgeon to work on a sick body. You will be filthied, confused, at times you will make mistakes, but do it anyway.

    Vote sir, and remember Goliath was brought down not by a grand army, but by a small lad with a single stone!




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