The man who lost an empire

Mikhail Gorbachev
25 years after the collapse of USSR and the rapid disintegration of the Soviet empire, Steve Rosenberg of the BbBBC went to Moscow to interview Mikhail Gorbachev. The full interviw can be read at

“Between the past and the future is the blink of an eye,” he sings, “and that instant is what we call life.”

“The Soviet Union passed in the blink of an eye. What are 70 years compared to the Roman or Ottoman empires?”

I wish other world leaders – Trump of the US and Zuma of South Africa to start with – would realize that for all the hubris, ill-gotten gain and rampant falsehood that characterizes politics and their will to power, they are actually mere pitiful men.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall” is true as ever, but men seem so filled with self importance they’d sooner destroy everything for a few moments of glory.

Gorbachev lost an empire, and yet has the humility to see that what he held and lost occurred within the blink of an eye.

The new year is about the break upon us again, and with all its hullabaloo, we’d do well to heed the words of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.


Who rules the world?



Who Rules the World by Noam Chomsky is “… an incisive, thorough analysis of the current international situation … Noam Chomsky argues that the United States, through its military-first policies and its unstinting devotion to maintaining a world-spanning empire, is both risking catastrophe and wrecking the global commons. Drawing on a wide range of examples, from the expanding drone assassination program to the threat of nuclear warfare, as well as the flashpoints of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine, he offers unexpected and nuanced insights into the workings of imperial power on our increasingly chaotic planet.

“The world’s leading intellectual offers a probing examination of the waning American Century, the nature of U.S. policies post-9/11, and the perils of valuing power above democracy and human rights.”

– Amazon review




Nanye’hi (Cherokee: ᎾᏅᏰᎯ: “One who goes about”; Nancy Ward)

An estimated 10 million Native Americans were living in the land that is now the United States when European explorers first arrived in the 15th century; by 1900 there were less than 300,000. Three-quarters of the Lakȟóta tribes were destroyed in the smallpox epidemic of 1772–1780.


Nanye’hi (Cherokee: ᎾᏅᏰᎯ: “One who goes about”, Nancy Ward)

“Nancy Ward was a ‘Beloved Woman’ of the Cherokee, which means that she was allowed to sit in councils and to make decisions, along with the chiefs and other Beloved Women. She believed in peaceful coexistence with the European-Americans and helped her people as peace negotiator and ambassador.” Wikipedia

 Trail of Tears

“In her last years Ward repeatedly had a vision showing a “great line of our people marching on foot. Mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers with small children on their back. Grandmothers and Grandfathers with large bundles on their backs. They were marching West and the ‘Unaka’ (White Soldiers) were behind them. They left a trail of corpses the weak, the sick who could not survive the journey.

 “The Trail of Tears was a series of forced removals of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Native Territory. The forced relocations were carried out by various government authorities following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The relocated people suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route, and more than four thousand died before reaching their various destinations. The removal included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctawnations. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from a description of the removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838.


Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” ‘attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations … have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority’. (Wikipedia review).It makes fascinating if sobering reading. The author argues that the modern world has largely been shaped through disease, conquest and genocide.


Susan Sontag wrote,

“The white race is the cancer of human history. It is the white race and it alone – its ideologies and inventions – which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”


Truth is, reading recently about the genocide of the native americans see I can easily agree with Sontag. But how is one to live with the burden of such a history?

I know, I know: already I can hear my denialist accusers sneering, “You bleeding heart liberal!”. I can easily imagine Riaan Malan mocking me, observing caustically that I too will finally discover my own traitor’s heart. The white liberal always finds himself twice accused: perceived by his own race as a sort of sellout and by other races as a useless and aberrant version of the same white problem. But frankly, does that matter? one must see things honestly and squarely not in order to be loved or thought well of, or to maintain privilege.

The Atlantic Slave trade. Colonialism. Two world wars. The Holocaust. Leopold’s Congo. The Boer War   concentration camps. Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The list of my people’s folly is a long and dismal one – and yet just yesterday a stranger in a bookshop was waxing lyrical about the merits of colonialism and the cirtues of Caucasian race!  Perhaps Sontag was right, and cancer is not too strong a word.



The curious unseen



Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I hadn’t turned this painting around in a long time: my wife reminded me that our one and only, rather small Impressionist painting had the artist’s name on the back in graphite: Amy Atkinson (1875 – 1954).

I have always been curious about the back of paintings: there’s a lot to be read online on the subject: art dealers, galleries and auction houses place stamps, gummed labels and other markings on the back to assist with identifying and cataloguing the work, establishing the authenticity of the piece and so on.

In one idiosyncratic sense I prefer the back of a painting to the front. The painting itself of course is a sort of magic act, it’s an illusion, an image of a 3 dimensional reality on a 2 dimensional plane. Of course this is a simplistic statement: abstract paintings, collage and so on break as many rules as traditional oil paintings may appear to keep. Nonetheless, the back remains for me the curious unseen.

For a moment though, let’s turn the painting the “right” way round: it is titled Chinon from the Quay. It depicts a  landscape with a river, a bridge, the French town of Chinon in the distance and a woman seated on a small wall in the foreground.  We don’t doubt that this is a scene the artist saw and decided to recreate in oils on a wood panel. And the woman was probably sitting on that wall, and the light was playing on the landscape and the water was flowing beneath that very bridge. But it is an illusion nevertheless: what we have before us is gesso-painted wood, oil paint, dried linseed oil, varnish. The artist has, in a way, fooled us, and yet her intention was to share with us the pleasure of her own visual experience of this landscape in whisch she once stood.

From one perspective, the image Amy Atkinson created is but one aspect of this artwork, of a larger story. The back, as it were, is integrally a part of the front. We rarely look at the back of a painting but it exists in tandem with the front face. And more than this, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. What of the materials used, the seasoned wood panel that was cut long ago from a tree (and who, for that matter, cut the tree down? Where – and through how many generations did it grow? Who leaned against it’s trunk? Did lovers meet there secretly, did a weary worker throw himself down in the cool shade, did a child climb in its branches, did a dog lift it’s leg at its base …). The pigments and and oil of the long dried paint came from where exactly? Vermillion and ochre, burnt sienna, raw umber and paynes grey … a painting is always more than what the artist intends.


“Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.” – Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908), 1867


From these musings I move to a metaphysical one: perhaps the world is like a painting: it is an appearance, and the atheist is like a fellow who sees only the illusion painted on the front, who cannot imagine anything beyond. Because he cannot see the back with its markings and paper labels, the structure of the panel or canvas, he assumes that the image is the reality (a notion challenged by Plato and Hinduism, and now, thousands of years later, by quantum physicists. The frame, the stretcher, the materials and the interrelated stories about how this small work of art came into existence are like the unseen we call God; the atheist (and I think here of the God Delusion by Dawkins) seems incapable of thinking beyond the illusion on the thin, front surface of the camvas or panel – and more pathetic still is that he fails to see, as quantum physicist s would point out, that the painting, the landscape, the physical object hanging on the wall – all of these are constructs. They exist as concepts in our minds. 


The curious unseen: it asks questions of us, our preconceived ideas, our sacred dogmas of what is.



The Year of Mercy


The logo of the Jesuits

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam

For most of us, the violence on the streets outside Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein – and the shameful behaviour of the students within¹ – with their blatant hatred for and ejection of the Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, has largely faded from our minds. But I can’t so easily erase from my mind a picture that appeared in the press, of a solitary priest standing at the entrance of Holy Trinity, his defiant stance reminiscent of the Jesuits in the 1980’s film The Mission.² His body language silently asserts no further, no weapons on sacred ground! Saint Ignatius of Loyola (who surrendered a sword of steel for the sword of the Spirit) – founder of the Jesuit Order, would certainly bless this courageous priest, even as talk around the proverbial weekend braais mocked him as a fool for “getting in the way of the police”. (Now ain’t that a familiar refrain amongst comfortable white South Africans in the ‘burbs? The church is always meddling where it shouldn’t … its a police matter not a religious one… he got what he deserved. Dear Christ! – shame on us for our cynicism, our casual indifference!)

Was it a priest standing there at the church gate, or Christ Himself, as men with guns rushed the church?

There are always excellent reasons provided for police firing upon protesters. Amritsar, India; Sharpville, Soweto and Marikana in South Africa; Oaxaca, Mexico; The Camp of the Sacred Stones in the USA…³

The statue of a naked and vulnerable crucified Christ, the crucifix of Holy Trinity Catholic Church Braamfontein, turns his face to the street below as if to weep for our folly. He weeps for the iinjured priest. The teargassed protesters shot in the back by rubber bullets. The policeman who fired upon a vicar of Christ. For the forgeotten poor. For we who- in our manicured, security-patrolled suburbs think the priest a fool.

I am not a Catholic, barely a Christian. But I am a man of flesh and blood: the priest was shot in the face by riot police is my brotherFather, forgive us our hearts of stone.

Sadly, the militant students who gathered at Holy Trinity on another occasion, were ignorant of – or indifferent to – the church’s stance on peace and justice. Their cause trumped Christ’s commands and they betrayed the very meaning of Ignatian spirituality.

How do we find each other, when hatred, intransigence and intolerance have become our de rigeur gods? Do we even want to find eachother, or do we at some primal level seek only the other’s eradication? 

References and further reading:



3. Amritsar massacre:  INDIA

Sharpeville massacre: SOUTH AFRICA



Sacred Stone USA


Hollow men

“The dream crossed twilight between birth and dying.”


TS Eliot’s words call to mind Macbeth’s brooding soliloquy,

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow | Creeps in this petty pace from day to day | To the last syllable of recorded time; | And all our yesterdays have lighted fools | The way to dusty death. | Out, out, brief candle! | Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, |That struts and frets his hour upon the stage | And then is heard no more.| It is a tale | Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,| Signifying nothing.”


Perhaps life is indeed a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”? Consider the muck of hubris and lies in which our leaders now wallow like Orwell’s villainous pigs. Vainglorious, self-serving, arrogant, greedy, duplicitous: their lives signify nothing. The shabby sideshow of their blue light brigades, their thick-necked body guards wielding automatic weapons, the rampant corruption, the brazen hijacking and looting of a fledgling democracy… did we simply exchange knaves in 1994?

sound and fury… 

TS Eliot’s The Wasteland provides a wealth of metaphors which I cannot but apply to our politicians:

“We are the hollow men | We are the stuffed men | Leaning together | Headpiece filled with straw.| Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together | Are quiet and meaningless | As wind in dry grass.”

As I think of this “dream crossed twilight”, this “way to dusty death”, the British television detective drama Endeavour is streaming on the screen before me. Having solved a particularly gruesome case, Detective Inspector Thursday says to Endeavor,

“Go home, put on your favourite music as loud as it will play, and remember that every note is something the darkness cannot take away from you.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5)

Twilight. Shadow. How difficult sometimes to see a way forward!

“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” – Eleanor Roosevelt