Archive for January, 2012

Orwell, the fate of freedom, and the ANC

(Written 15 Jan 2012)

Dear All,

In the last episode of the BBC series A History of Britain (2002), Simon Schama remarked that, “History has a cruel way with optimism,” and I suppose that is why I was ‘so totally over’ the recent 100 years celebration of the founding of the African National Congress. My disappointment with the cruel way in which the ANC has squandered the optimism of South Africans over the last 18 years prevented me from celebrating the truly fine contribution that that organisation had made prior to 1994. So I didn’t follow the celebratory proceedings and didn’t read anything about it. However, a by-line in a weekend newspaper could not be avoided. It was reported that at the main ceremony, in a stadium, Kgalema Motlanthe proposed a toast to the unity, the solidarity, and the ‘progressive vision’ of the ANC. It was reported that the deputy president then told the people in the stands that if they did not have champagne, they could take photographs of their leaders drinking (on the podium), or raise clenched fists. He apparently went on to say, “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne – you will do so through their lips.”

As the paper pointed out, this ANC champagne centenary moment is a sentiment straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) used the pen-name of George Orwell and was an interesting character, one I admire enormously; you only have to read his essay, Shooting an elephant (1936), to get a sense the man. And even if you don’t think much of the strange choices he made in the way in which he lived, you cannot avoid the two essential books he wrote towards the end of his life, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). In these works he expressed his fear for the fate of the freedoms so hard-won by the common people. The communist party under Stalin was top-of-mind when he wrote those allegorical works, but from his experiences in Burma and Spain it is clear that the warnings given are not just about the abuse of power by the inner ring of the party faithful, but Orwell gives a clear warning about the way in which leaders who were once part of the struggle will use newspeak and slogan manipulation to short-change their followers by getting them to accept that while they, the people, have to forego the promises of the revolution, comfort can be taken in their being able to live through the wellbeing of their glorious leaders.

As it turned out, ‘old Major’ did not attend the centenary celebrations, which is probably just as well as the party did not celebrate what he fought for. I don’t think he would have approved of the way in which cadres simultaneously play the ace of spades to get mineral rights and government contracts. I am sure he would not have sanctioned the introduction of the Secrecy Bill, with its accompanying chorus of parliamentary sheep. And I could not see him agreeing with Motlanthe on the virtues of the people drinking champagne “through the lips of the leaders”. My sense is that he would have tried to remind them, “That in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him.”




Is astrology innocuous nonsense?

Dear All,

The first point I would like to make about astrology is that I agree with Arthur C. Clark who said, “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” I should also like to point out that I have friends who are very dear to me who do believe in astrology; and I respect their choice in the matter. But the constant new-year chatter on the radio by people who claim to give the public ‘well-founded and scientific’ advice about how they should live their lives in the coming year calls for comment.

I am well aware that there is no refuting astrology in modern science because astrology has no basis in modern science. It does not matter to an astrologer that it is a simple thing to show that where the obstetrician stood when you were born had a greater effect on you than where Venus was at the time. Nor is it important to show that the precession of the earth over the last two millennia has not been correctly accounted for by modern astrologers; something I watched the late Prof. Anthony Fairall demonstrate in a very entertaining lecture at UCT in 2004. The reason why these explanations do not matter is because astrology is not a science, it is a pseudoscience, developed, as Carl Sagan points out in Cosmos (MacDonald, 1980. p. 49), by a “strange combination of observations, mathematics and careful record-keeping with fuzzy thinking and pious fraud.” There is no structured way to refute fuzzy thinking and fraud.

This does not mean that I am unaware of the role that astrology has played in our history. We have always had a deep longing for explanations for the many inexplicable things in our lives and this is why the interpretation of the heavens by Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy, AD c.90-c,168) almost 2000 years ago, is still with us. It is a marvelously appealing idea that we are in some way intimately connected to the stars and so the effect of astrology has certainly been pervasive in the Western world. We still speak about a disaster (Greek, ‘bad star’) and as I am urging you to consider my point of view, I am reminded that the etymology of consider is the Latin considerare which has the literal connotation ‘to observe the stars’.

But what of the pages and pages of mumbo-jumbo in the Your Stars section of almost every newspaper and magazine sold today? Is it all just an innocuous dalliance? How seriously should I take Tracy Shaw’s advice printed in the Cape Times of 6 January 2012 that I should avoid “grand gestures” today? (Incidentally I see that Shaw, BA Hons; CF Astrol. S, London, is billed as a consulting astrologer, which I interpret to mean that she actually charges for this ‘advice’.) The fact is that it is all claptrap and it takes no more than the simplest research to show it to be nonsense. Choose the output of five or six consulting astrologers from different parts of the world and record what they say over a period of say a year, then see if you can find any correlation in their predictions at all. I leave it to you to work through the exercise but give you the assurance that the outcome is well established.

Finally, I should like to return to the question whether this is merely an innocuous dalliance? Sadly no! I have a sibling who has actually made some real, disastrous decisions as a result of this rubbish. And when I listen to the earnest callers on the radio I get quite angry because they sound as if they are going to do as the astrologer says – not realising that the advice being dispensed is based on a birthdate as a starting point on a bogus look-up table. I do not get angry so much with the people peddling this nonsense, perhaps they actually believe it, but angry because those good callers are so easily hoodwinked. I am reminded of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s comment, “The real threat is that people don’t know enough science to realise they’re being misled.”