Five weeks ago I said to my brilliant girlfriend: “I'd like to see my father before he dies.” She said: “Congratulations.” She'd been asking me on and off for two years whether I'd like to go and visit him where he lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and my stock answer had always been: “I don't have the slightest interest in ever seeing my father again.”
So what changed?
You here at 3quarksdaily know me as a passionate ranter against our irresponsible elites (for my favorite screed ever, google this title: “Government Is Not The Problem, Private Enterprise Is: The Global Terrorism Of Al Qaeda, BP And Goldman Sachs”). However, that's not what I'm up to now. This time out, I'm autobiographical. Personal. Self-revelatory. Unbuttoned. A la Moll Flanders. Or Paris Hilton. Confessions of an Opium Eater or something, at double the length of my usual rants.
I made the big Gauguin move of my life two decades ago, when I walked out on my South African Jewish Princess wife in our seven-room, three-bathroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Except I didn't go to Tahiti. I went to a garret on Manhattan's Lower East Side. For fifteen years, while I was poor and wrote, wrote, wrote my seven unpublished novels (and became the 90s slam poet Evert Eden), my ex-wife and I didn't communicate. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from her.
“I'd like to see you,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
She always had a way of knocking the wind out of my sails. This time the issue was galloping cancer in her stomach.
I went to hang out with her and her brother and her sister during her last days on earth, in that big, elegant apartment, now sans my large paintings, but filled with South African art, a shrine to our homeland.
“I've got no charge with you anymore,” she informed me, in the magnanimous version of her imperial Jewish Princess voice. I thought, “fuck you,” but I just nodded.
Two days before she died, throwing up her guts in a gush of blood and stuff, my ex-wife lay propped up in her bedroom with me on the side of her beautiful bed, designed to her specifications, as was everything and everyone around her. Her doctor brother had been slamming her with as many drugs as he could to keep her semi-comfortable but still lucid.
The two of us were sitting alone, the very ex-married couple. She said:
“How can this be happening to me, when I've always tried to be so good?”
“It's fate,” I said. “We can't control what happens, just how we deal with it.”
It's amazing how one pulls out the most boring cliches at the best and worst of times. My ex-wife suddenly got up and walked to the bathroom, which had always been her bathroom when we lived together; I used the bathroom one room over. As she walked, trailing a sheet behind her, she said in the commanding version of her imperial Jewish Princess voice:
“Make the bed.”
I stood there, looking at the huge mess of sheets and blankets, caught like the proverbial husband in habitual male learned helplessness.
“How?” I asked.
Without losing a beat, and without even looking at me, she snapped:
The door of the bathroom closed behind her. And I made that goddamn bed that she and I had spent ten years in, that I hadn't seen in fifteen years, and General Patton himself would've approved.
1. THE WORLD CUP AS MADELEINE COOKIE
This is the sort of thing I'll be telling you. Maybe it'll give you a clue or two into the how and why of the anger, humor and obscenity ranted by this ex-South African writer-singer-songwriter who loves America. Blame the World Cup for this: it's been a wicked madeleine cookie: various events from the past have popped up in the old noggin like a vast carpet of flowers blossoming in the Kalahari desert after a sudden burst of rain.
Mind you, I'll still take a few pot shots at our irresponsible elites, and at Obama for allowing Wall Street to screw him and us over like some butch muscle-bound leather-fetish brute pinning a wispy waif of a rent boy. But these rhetorical drive-bys will be as sparse as the hair on my head.
A lot of what follows is about something very South African: the velvet laugh in the iron fist. The cartoons by the South African pro-Palestinian Jewish cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, who goes by the name Zapiro, are a case in point. His cartoons always show the South African president Jacob Zuma with a showerhead on his head, because Zuma once famously said that after having unprotected sex with an HIV woman, he protected himself by taking a shower. Zuma has sued Zapiro twice and lost twice; a third case is still going on. Zapiro's pull-no-punches approach makes plain what one slice of my rage is about: that our namby-pamby mainstream media's namby-pamby agenda is to soothe and scare namby-pamby us so as to allow our non-namby-pamby elite to rape and pillage us in broad daylight. We've all got Stockholm Syndrome. I wish we had ten Zapiros.
I am of course absurdly proud of The World Cup Show that South Africa put on. It was undoubtedly The Most Magical World Cup Of All Time, and without the vuvuzela, all subsequent World Cups will feel anti-climactically subdued. Just go to Youtube and click on Nobel Peace Prize Desmond Tutu's World Cup speech after you're done here. THERE IS NO WAY ANY SPEECH AT ANY WORLD CUP CAN EVER TOP THAT. So there.
Not that I was ever, as a young Afrikaner, encouraged by my Afrikaans school to ever play soccer (aka football). After hours us Afrikaans kids would play illicit soccer with a pine cone, but it was just an excuse to get physical. We shoved and elbowed and hit and kicked each other for possession of the pine cone. We called this game kaffir soccer. Kaffir was the n-word for black people. If you use it as a slur now, you will fall afoul of today's South African laws. The person you slur can take you to court and stick you with a fine or worse.
2. THE BROKEN BONES OF INNOCENT TEENS
At the Afrikaanse Seuns Hoerskool (aka the Snob School of the North, because the sons of cabinet members and other elites went there), I played rugby like all Afrikaner boys who weren't “moffies” (our word for gays, whose civil rights are now enshrined in the South African constitution). I was the scrumhalf and captain of the Under 13 Rugby Team. I always passed the ball along real quick. I'd been disabused of running with the ball by myself when, upon taking a gap and going for the line to score a try, I heard behind me the clomp-a-clomp of big boots coming nearer and catching up fast. This was quite easy for Big Boots to do: I was the shortest boy in class, with the shortest legs. Clomp-a-clomp. Closer and closer. Ten yards before the line, I felt the heavy hand of Big Boots grab me by the collar, pick me up high, and slam me viciously to the ground. I saw actual stars — a foretaste not only of taking LSD, but also of being beaten up by South Africa's cops for having long hair.
My mother did not want me to play rugby. There were just too many collar bones broken, and too many kneecaps jammed askew on too many young knees. I can't help but wonder what all those broken pre-teen and teen bones would do to the psyches of the helicopter Moms I see in the American Ivy League college town where I now live with my brilliant girlfriend and her two boys. Here the legacy students are so thick on the ground, our local “Gourmet Shoppe” sells sardines at $13.99 a pop (obviously a sardine isn't a sardine isn't a sardine anymore: maybe these little fishees have been gently marinated in tender beard shavings from the House of Windsor, then flecked with gold dust from the Sun King's favorite chair, and finally aerated in Romanoff belches).
I also can't quite imagine how these helicopter moms would deal with teachers beating their children. Our Afrikaner math teacher used to beat one of us pre-emptively before class started because he didn't like the way that this particular boy shaped his equations. When we all walked in to take our seats, this boy would wait in the front, bent over — ready to take six of the best, administered as hard as the teacher could with a five-foot-long wooden compass that he used to draw big circles on the blackboard. Thwack! thwack! thwack! thwack! thwack! thwack! Afterwards, the teacher's eyes were bright and shiny. The boy's name was Karel. I don't remember any other name.
3. THE PENIS OF SHAKA ZULU
I grew up with slaves in the house. We called them servants, but let's face it, they were slaves. Black slaves. Some of them had interesting scars on their faces, like today's kids have tattoos or rings through their eyebrows. Some of them were Xhosas, like Nelson Mandela, and some of them were Zulus, the nation that ruled large parts of South Africa before the white people arrived.
The Zulus were the creation of one man, Shaka. He changed the nature of warfare in South Africa. Before him, wars between black nations were highly ritualized. You faced off over some beef, threw a few long spears at each other, and then retired, honor restored. Shaka ran up to the enemy with a short spear and in one fluid motion, thrust his opponent's shield aside and stabbed him to death. Thus the whole war game moved up a notch to actual mass killing.
The Zulus grew into a dominant nation by slaughtering all the men of all the other nations they could find and making Zulus of the remaining women and children. Shaka was the Napoleon and Genghis Khan of South Africa rolled into one. He trained his warriors ruthlessly, making them dance barefoot on thorns and stuff. Amazingly, he grew up perturbed about the size of his penis.
One time, when his warriors came back from a long expedition, he wanted to see if they were suitably grief-stricken about the death of his beloved mother. So he ordered them to stand in formation while young nubile women danced suggestively in front of them. When the front row of guys all got boners, he had them beaten to death for their failure to show sufficient anguish over the passing of his mater. The guys in the back promptly hammered themselves hard in their groins to render their dongs useless. It was punch out your prick or die.
It was these Zulus that the Afrikaners and the British had to subdue to become the white masters of South Africa.
4. ELITE RACIST FASCISTS
My mother and father were elite racist fascists. In other words, they were Strom Thurmonds, except Pa never fathered a black child. There were too many white women to screw. He would always tell my Mom of his conquests, and often weep big crocodile tears of remorse. It was my Mom's job to console my Dad about this. There, there, Chris, don't feel so bad, I'm sure she had fun. My folks were married in London; she was a South African studying to be a concert pianist at the Royal Academy of Music, and he was a South African Rhodes scholar at Oxford. They met at the BBC, where my father read the news in Afrikaans during the war, no doubt making his mother in South Africa inordinately proud. My mother had a variety radio show. They never discussed any of their London Blitz experiences with us. My mother did tell me that she did the pre-marital sex thing with my super-hormoned father because the love of her life was a RAF pilot who'd been shot down before she could screw him, so she wasn't going to make the same mistake again.
I don't think Pa was all that eager to marry Ma any time soon, but her Dad came to town, saw what was up, and asked Pa when he was going to make an honest woman of his daughter. Pa said he couldn't afford to get married yet, so my Mom's Dad promptly bought a ring and gave it to Pa to put on Ma's finger, and Pa's goose was cooked.
5. THE ABUSIVE ELITE
Three of us five siblings were born in London, and Ma and Pa would've stayed there, except the Korean War broke out, and Ma said, no way do I want to be in another World War, let's head far south out of the way to South Africa.
In South Africa, Pa worked his way up to become the CEO of the union of white farmers in South Africa. At the college where he'd won his Rhodes scholarship, he'd been pals with John Vorster, who was the South African President at the time of the Soweto Uprising in 1976. So my father was one of the hundred or so white Afrikaner dudes running the apartheid country. There's an elite of the elite, and he was one of them.
As a child I lived in abject fear of Pa, and at the same time I bitterly needed his approval, which I never got. He never once said he loved me. And for any transgression, like spilling coffee from the cup into the saucer as my seven-year-old hands carried the cup of coffee to him, he beat the crap out of me. Clumsiness of any kind was a red flag to him.
Let me explain this beating business by quoting from my unpublished epic novel about the South African freedom struggle, “Love and Gravity,” where the main white character, Ben, is getting a hiding from his father, a reverend (the even more main character, a black boy, is the son of the reverend's maid). The scene is based on what I and my younger brother and sister went through at the hands of my father. Taken out of context, this excerpt sounds rather over-written, but give it a go (if you get bored, just skip to where the article picks up again).
6. HOW MY FATHER BEAT US
The Reverend grunted as he delivered the first blow. Ben heard the swish and felt the cut. A sting as sharp as a razor sliced across his bottom. Ben tried to pull away from the shock of the pain, but the Reverend held him tight against his knee.
The Reverend struck again. Ben shouted with shock and felt blood in his mouth. He had bitten his tongue without realizing it. Then came another swish and he howled. Then another. The blows picked up speed. His father hit as hard as he could, faster and faster, his fury growing as his exertion mounted.
Ben could not hear himself scream anymore; he knew that his mouth was open, he knew that there was sound coming out, but his whole being was focused on the center of the pain. A sensation of panic overcame him when after an eternity – it had been seven minutes since the first blow – he became convinced that the pain would never stop, and he started fighting to get out of the grip, losing his fear in the midst of his pain. This incited the Reverend to astonished outrage, and he squeezed Ben's neck in his fist, breaking the capillaries around his neck, as he redoubled his efforts to lash every speck of resistance out of his unruly son.
The switch came down remorselessly, smashing into a surface that was a flat open wound, raw and cleared of skin.
The Reverend went on for twelve minutes, and Ben entered a world of his own. His face shed tears automatically. His nervous system was aroused to the limit, skinless and raw. Every corpuscle keened as if lit by an individual flame.
Then it stopped. Abruptly, like switching off an electric current. Ben waited for it to start up again, braced against the fire. But then he heard his father's breathing, hard and short. His father was totally out of breath. He could not go on. It was over.
7. MY WIFE CONFRONTS MY FATHER
This is fiction, but rest assured, it's based on fact. If my father did that in America today, he'd be whisked off to the slammer. But back in the day in South Africa, this was common. I wouldn't say what Pa did was common — we were certainly beaten way worse than other kids, who might get six of the best at most — but the idea of physically whipping your kids was part and parcel of raising them. Spare the rod and all that.
Apparently as a baby I refused to eat, so my father beat me for that. When I was five, my brother and I wet our beds, and we got beaten for that. The beating I remember most vividly was when I forgot to clear some rotting grapes from the back porch. I must have been nine at the time. Living in the moment as a kid, it was hard to remember chores. I recall Ma patching me up with salve and stuff, and how warm my bottom felt after the worst pain had worn off. (It's a miracle I never got into S & M as a grownup; in fact, I was very uncomfortable when a lady who had reviewed one of my theatrical performances favorably, begged for robust slaps on her butt to achieve orgasm.)
It took me a long, long time to get over what Pa did to me. Sometimes I thought I should simply strangle him, but I had my doubts whether the courts would consider it assisted suicide. In my forties, my late wife, the South African Jewish Princess, confronted my father about the beatings. (My late wife was fearless. When a hotel in Moscow accused her of stealing the bedsheets — looking for an extra tip — she started yelling at them that she had better and more sheets than they had ever seen in their lives, and that their sheets weren't good enough for her to wipe her Jewish behind on, and that if they gave her any shit about anything there would be a diplomatic incident and the stupid KGB guy that shadowed her everywhere would be on their case and she'd do whatever it took to close them down. They backed off after that.)
Here's what my wife told me. She was sitting with Pa and his second wife and asked him point blank: “Why did you beat your kids so badly?” He said: “I didn't.” Older people can sanitize the past like you won't believe. My late wife said: “I've got a 40-year-old husband back in New York who is still fucked up about it.” Then his second wife piped in: “You beat our boy, and would've killed him if I hadn't protected him.” (My mother did not protect us.) So then Pa burst into tears, and this is what he said: “When I — the poor son of a constable, who suffered from discrimination at university because I was poor — when I won my Rhodes Scholarship, I thought my father would at last be proud of me and say something nice. I told him of the honor I won, and waited for his compliment. I was so proud. And then he said this to me: now you think you're all of a sudden better than your family? Better than us? You're taking away from your younger brothers. You won't get a penny from us.”
8. THE FATHER OF MY FATHER
This father of my father, my grandfather, came to live with us when he and my Ouma (Grandma) had nowhere else to go, and I grew up with them in the house. One time one of my uncles asked Oupa (Grandpa) why he beat him the worst, and the old man replied, “If I could do it today, I'd still beat you.” Oupa gave me a knife for my twelfth birthday. He kept chickens in the back yard and grew vegetables and fruit trees with Pa on our huge back lot in our upper-middle-class Pretoria suburb. He had girly magazines under his bed and was constantly berated by Ouma, whom he treated worse than the doormat of an outdoor toilet.
Ouma told us she was at death's door for many, many years, ever ready to leave this terrible, terrible world. For decades she was going to die tomorrow. After a while I gave up on her EVER dying. But eventually she came through, when she was in her late 70s. When it happened, I saw my grandfather cry, something I had not believed possible. It was a pity my grandmother couldn't live a day longer to see it.
My grandmother was the first corpse I ever got to observe close up. I sneaked into the deathbed room late at night, and stared long and hard at Ouma's still body and her half-open mouth, waiting to receive the Holy Spirit. What it did receive was a fly.
After Ouma's death my grandfather hooked up with an old flame, but that's a heart-stirring love story for another occasion.
9. I MAKE PEACE WITH MY FATHER
The year after my wife confronted Pa and “busted” him, as she liked to say, I went to Cape Town to see Pa, and we got in his Mercedes together, and I asked: “Why did you beat me so badly when I was a child?” And Pa said: “I always loved you, Evert.” And we both cried, and I said, “It's all OK now, Pa,” and we hugged, and of course I'm crying now as I write this, as I always do when there's a father-son scene in the movies, even a terribly cliched one.
Personal wounds run deep, and your traumas run your life, just as national traumas run the lives of nations. Israelis vs Palestinians. Serbs vs Croats. Irish Protestants vs Catholics. Shiites vs Sunnis. The Jews vs the world. Americans vs Russians. Americans vs Vietnamese. Americans vs Iranians. Americans vs Iraqis. Americans vs Afghans. I have a theory about this, besides the Ur Wound Trauma Hypothesis most of us are familiar with. It's called The Kill Ratio Theory of History. It avers that the crap between factions and nations go on and on and on because of this reason: their respective kill ratios never equal out. I know I'm going to catch heat for putting forth this theory with my usual jaunty air, so if you get terribly upset when discussions of death and destruction and holocausts are not enunciated in sober tones, and not accompanied by solemn violin music, PLEASE STOP READING NOW. TURN THE TV OFF. THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. IT WILL LEAVE A BAD TASTE IN YOUR MOUTH. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. I DON'T WANT YOU TO BE UPSET, OK?
In the Israel-Palestine context, the Israelis have traditionally killed 30 Palestinians for every Israeli killed, but in the back of Israeli minds lurks the ratio of the Holocaust, which no amount of killing could ever assuage. Same with the Palestinians and their catastrophic Nakba. After the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, the Arab-Israeli War broke out, and Jewish freedom fighters/terrorists obliterated 418 Palestinian villages. 700,000 Palestinians fled from their homeland into exile. The Jews stuffed dead Palestinians down wells, etc. (These misdeeds have of course been documented by Jewish historians; Israel is free enough for its own citizens to protest its treatment of the Palestinians and get beaten up by fellow Jews when they try to protect Palestinians; if a Palestinian in Gaza ever exposed Palestinian misdeeds, my guess is he or she would need a suit of armor thicker than the planks in Sarah Palin's head.) No amount of suicide bombing can reverse the Palestinian/Israeli kill ratio, but Hamas tries. In the Lebanon War the kill ratio was 4 to 1 in Israel's favor, and this change from their usual kill ratio of 30 to 1 really blew Israeli minds. Hence the ruthless smash-up of “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza against Hamas, where the Israelis killed 1,400 Palestinians and lost 13 soldiers. Now the Israelis feel a little better again, having established a record kill ratio of more than a 107 to 1.
That's my theory, and I'm sticking with it until my brilliant girlfriend tells me to give it a rest already.
10. MY GENOCIDE IS WORSE THAN YOURS
My own nation, the Afrikaners, had their own little holocaust. Not that I would ever say: “My genocide is worse than yours.” If I had to play the game of competing holocausts (and I don't really want to, but of course I will), I'd posit that the Nazi death camp Jewish Holocaust of 6 million Jews dead, or two-thirds of European Jewry, was the worst. (Other mass exterminations by the Nazis include these guestimates: 3.3 million Russian POWs; 2 million non-Jewish Poles; 1,500,000 Romanies or Gypsies; 250,000 disabled; 15,000 gays; 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.)
To my mind, the Jewish Holocaust is a clear winner over all the killings ordered by Stalin (from 20 to 60 million Russians) or the slave trade (around 15 to 20 million deaths; some guess as high as 60 million). Why? Because of its brutal technical efficiency over a brief time span: the assembly-line factory death machines designed and built by corporate Germany; the trains bringing Jews to their deaths from all over Europe; the massive death toll in as short a time as four years. Add the bureaucratic language — “final solution” — to this corporate state killing, and the fact that the mass shootings of entire Jewish villages in Russia were carried out by regular German soldiers, and you have the greatest single crime in human history ever. Bar none.
Stalin's purges took a lifetime (he died just before he was going to kill all the colleagues who'd helped him kill everybody else). Slavery has existed forever, since well before Aristotle defended it. We probably enslaved each other before we enslaved animals. Men have enslaved women since Adam surrendered a rib so Eve could get created. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many Brits and Spanish and Americans made huge fortunes out of the slave trade, and many of their heirs are stinking rich to this very day. The African kings who sold slaves to white traders didn't do too badly either.
I think slavery is as human as bread, and will be with us forever. Our 21st-century forms of slavery include human trafficking, the sex slave trade, sweatshops, and child soldiers. A person who works for a global corporation can feel like a slave — nowhere near as badly off as a teenage girl forced to prostitute herself as a sex slave in a foreign country — but a slave nevertheless. As for the millions in developing countries who work for below-living-wages for businesses that supply global corporations — they are definitely slaves. Many global corporations would be making a lot less money if they couldn't rely on slave labor.
There are youngsters indentured as servants to well-off Arab and African families, some of them here in America. Slavery in that sense exists in a number of Arab and other societies. The child-bride practice — where a father sells his 12-year-old or younger daughter to a man in his forties or older — is another phenomenon in some Arab circles that combines slavery with pedophilia … perhaps the most disturbing socially-sanctioned criminal activity of our time, along with the buggering of altar boys by Catholic priests, in that semi-criminal enterprise known as the Catholic Church.
I know: they say only a small percentage of priests are boy-abusers, and only a small percentage of Arab Muslims are child-bride pedophiles. But the fact that the Pope himself shielded these criminals (he should go to jail for that, where he wouldn't last a day when they find out why he's there), and the fact that whole Arab Muslim societies don't prosecute child-bride pedophiles … these two facts make this non-believer all the more thankful that he believes in neither the Christian nor the Muslim God, but in an existentialist universe where humans are condemned to freedom, yet most are too caught up in their respective false consciousnesses to exercise that freedom. So call me an intellectual snob if you will. But at least I'm spared the pain that many Catholics and Muslims must be going through because of the horrible stuff some of their brothers in their faiths are committing. It's a wonder to me that there are ANY members of the Catholic laity left. And I'd rather be an intellectual snob than an anti-intellectual moron rewriting the Texas school curriculum to poison the minds of Texan children with Christian fundamentalist claptrap that the rest of the civilized world laughs at, including civilized Christians and civilized Muslims.
11. THE FIRST HIPPIES IN SOUTH AFRICA
My intellectual snobbery started young. When I was a teenager with a mind of his own, and my father had stopped beating me, I read an article on the back page of South Africa's Sunday Times, right where they had the tabloid news about Gina Lollobrigida and Anita Ekberg, with pictures of them in negligees (so tame compared to what kids see today) that got my teenage pecker harder than the Chinese alphabet, and made my masturbation marathons really zesty. I read a piece about the beats: Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg et al. It knocked my knee-high socks off. Here were my spiritual brothers. For the first time, I announced to my elite fascist parents my ambition in life:
“I want to be a beatnik.”
My father harrumphed from behind his newspaper, and Ma said:
“It won't work for you, Evert. You love your showers too much.”
A few years later, in my early 20s, when I started in advertising, I did make it work. I fell in with a crowd of teen druggies who called themselves after the then South African brandname for amphetamines, which escapes my brain after many decades. Bennies or something. That's also when I smoked my first dope, and to this day I remember my utter surprise when I woke up the next day without a hangover. (I had had some epic alcohol binges at college, waking up with splitting headaches and bruised innards. I still remember a drunken bridge game where the bidding opened like this: “One club.” The next bidder: “One heart.” The next guy bid a massive stream of slightly digested beer, wine, sausage, mash potatoes and carrots off to the side, and then said: “Two diamonds.”)
Anyhow, it so happened that Life Magazine came out with a spread on the hippies. Since everything from Playboy to Tolstoy was banned in South Africa, reading anything about America was like reading about some fantastical paradise of freedom. We bennie-heads eagerly absorbed this news from the land of the brave and the free, and betook ourselves to a department store called OK Bazaars (then South Africa's Walmart), where we tried out a selection of strings of beads in the dressing room mirror. We walked out of OK Bazaars as South Africa's first hippies. Long hair and beads: that's all it took for us to be a Very Important Social Movement. Pretty soon we became the targets of the South African Police who would, after a hard day of beating up on black people, take out time to go scare some white longhairs in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and of South Africa's Hell's Angels, who were jealous of the fact that the women who hung out with us were foxier than the ones they pulled (needless to say, this was an extremely sexist time and place).
I wrote on the back of my jacket, in big blue ballpoint letters, “Ek is 'n sonneblom” (I am a sunflower) and became known to all and sundry as Sonneblom or Sonny. I was the only one with a job: I fed at least fifteen kids. After my arrest for possession — I was fingered by a friend — my boss at work told me all this was very embarrassing to him because he knew my father, yet he didn't fire me (elites protect each other). But I got the message, and stopped coming to work barefoot, and actually wore shoes and bathed and wore a shirt and tie instead of the same clothes every day for weeks, and got terribly depressed waiting for my sentencing, thinking maybe I'll get to read Proust in jail if I didn't get whacked first. Then, when the sentencing happened, the guy who was prosecuting me had a change of heart. He was a volunteer cop who was also our agency production manager and, having observed my depression firsthand at work, he spoke to the magistrate in tones that suggested it was all a big mistake. He bent the truth about the amount of dagga I was caught with, said I had been badly affected by the whole thing, and that I showed utter remorse. The magistrate didn't give me any jail time. When I moved to New York, my late wife engaged the lawyer who ironed out John Lennon's problems and he did the same for us.
12. THE HIT PARADE OF GENOCIDES AND HOLOCAUSTS
Back to slavery and holocausts and such: to my mind, all the other holocaust/genocides are in a second tier when compared to the Big Three of the Holocaust, Stalin, and the Slave Trade — even the terrible, terrible stuff that happened in King Leopold's Congo or to our native Americans, or in Rwanda or in Pol's Pot Cambodia or to Namibia's Hereros whom the Germans hunted in an out-of-town try-out rehearsal for the persecution of the Jews. Our Afrikaner holocaust is way down the list, but we Afrikaners took it very seriously. (Of course, when you add up great evils, there is India's caste system, too, and then a wrong greater than all of these — the oppression of women.)
13. THE FIRST CONCENTRATION CAMPS ON EARTH
Here's what happened in the Afrikaner mini-holocaust. The Brits made war on us because gold had been discovered in the Boer Republic of the Transvaal. Just like the Brits used BP to screw over the Middle East, they used Cecil John Rhodes (he of the Rhodes scholarships that Bill Clinton, Kris Kristofferson and my Dad got) to screw over the Afrikaners. When Boer generals like De Wet ran rings around the Brits in the Second Anglo-Boer War, the Brits turned to scorched-earth tactics. They went to all the Afrikaner farms that sustained the guerilla warfare of the Boers, and burned all the crops and slaughtered all the livestock, including the dogs, and put the women and children in the first concentration camps on earth. There a third of Afrikaner women and children died. 17,000 of them. Accordingly, the Boers lost, and some Bitterenders refused to kowtow to Britain and ended up in South America, where they live to this day. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was declared, uniting the British provinces of Natal and the Cape with the defeated Boer republics of Transvaal and the Free State. A coalition party of South African Brits and Afrikaners called the United Party came out on top, led by a Boer General as Prime Minister, General Louis Botha.
14. THE AFRIKANER STATESMAN WHO PIONEERED HOLISTIC THOUGHT
The most remarkable Afrikaner Prime Minister was Jan Smuts. He was brainier than Obama. Lord Todd, the master of Christ College at Cambridge said, “in 500 years of the College's history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts.” Smuts returned to South Africa after Cambridge, turned against his buddy Cecil John Rhodes because of Rhodes' imperialist designs, and fought against the Brits in the Anglo-Boer War. In WW1 he fought against Germany. He was the main force behind the formation of the League of Nations. He was in Churchill's War Cabinet. He wrote the preamble to the United Nations Charter. And he wrote “Holism and Evolution.” Einstein said two mental constructs would direct thinking in the next millennium, his own relativity and Smuts' holism. Einstein was right, except everyone has forgotten who came up with the holistic idea and coinage in the first place. The whole notion of our internet activities and social networking developing into one big brain follows straight from Smuts. If Smuts were an American, we'd be studying him today along with Rachel Carson and John Rawls. (I'm throwing this out as a provocative challenge because I know some 3QD academic will go medieval on my post-modern ass if I'm wrong.)
15. NOT PURE ENOUGH FOR REAL AFRIKANERS
Smuts was controversial in right-wing Afrikaner National Party circles as a man who happily bestrode the world in the role of international statesman, but neglected his own people. These true-blue Afrikaners (shades of the Tea Party folk) stigmatized Smuts as a traitor. My mother's Dad was a similar Anglophiliac: he married two non-Afrikaans wives, first a Scot, then a Brit. The anti-Smuts “pure” Afrikaners did not want to forget our Afrikaner Holocaust (“forgive but don't forget” wrote one of our poets). And, unlike the United Party of Smuts, which favored a more hypocritical segregation (shades of America's northern racism), the National Party wanted to legally institutionalize segregation (shades of southern racism).
In 1948, the National Party won the general election. Finally, our Afrikaner holocaust was avenged. The National Party was led by D.F. Malan, related to Rian Malan, the writer of the best book about South Africa, perhaps about any country, the classic and riveting “My Traitor's Heart.” Eventually the Dutch-born PM Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd systemized the white suppression of the black people into the apartheid system. Verwoerd's boychick was a grade behind me at Afrikaanse Seuns Hoerskool and, like his father, he was a bit of an earnest plodder.
16. VIOLENCE IS AS SOUTH AFRICAN AS MIELIEPAP
Of course there was a parallel, a far greater genocide-cum-enslavement — that of the various Black nations in South Africa (they used to call them “tribes”; the English language is a handy tool of colonialism). These Black nations had been defeated by the superior technology of the Afrikaners and the Brits.
Guns vs. spears.
The first big battle between the Afrikaner Voortrekker Boers and the mighty Zulus happened at Blood River in 1838. Earlier the Zulu King Dingaan had received a party of Boers who came to make a treaty. These treaty-seeking Boers had to leave their guns outside the pow-wow, and after the treaty was signed, Dingaan gave an order and his impis attacked the Boers. Their penknives were no match for the Zulu spears.
Before the big battle, which was about revenge as much as survival, a certain Sarel Cilliers led the Boers in prayer. They promised to keep that day, December 16, 1838, as a covenant to God if He helped them prevail over the Zulus. 470 Afrikaners faced off against 10,000 to 15,000 Zulus, and the river ran red with the blood of 3,000 Zulus. Not a single Voortrekker died that day. King Dingaan strangled one of his generals with his own hands after his losses against the Boers.
Some decades after Blood River, the Brits themselves were hellbent on clobbering the uppity Zulus, but got thrashed at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 where 20,000 Zulu warriors beat a force of 1,600 British and 2,500 Africans (you could always get blacks from other nations to go against the Zulus). The Brits had been split by their arrogant commander Lord Big Fat Idiot Chelmsford. The Brits held a reserve force of Zulus at bay at an outpost at Rorke's Drift. As late as 1964 the Brits made a movie about this battle called “Zulu” with a young Michael Caine playing a toff — a movie that celebrated heroic British pluck, when the Brits were playing their usual rip-off game of slaughtering indigenous peoples by the ship load. Lord Grey once wrote a pithy paragraph that I vividly remember from many years ago, but cannot find on the internet (which is very good about stuff that happened after the internet appeared, but less good about anything that happened before it). Here's the gist of what he wrote that I recall, in my paraphrasing.
In order to get black people to work for the white Englishman, black people have to be made ashamed of how they dress by the example set by whites, and by missionaries and conversion to Christianity if necessary. Then the blacks will want to buy clothes, imported from Manchester and other places in England. They will need actual cash to do this, not their cattle and shells and stuff. To get this actual cash, they will then have to work for the white man. That is how you get the blacks to work for you.
This statement by Lord Grey was breath-taking in its cynicism, devoid of all morality, and regarded religion as just one among many instruments to inveigle the blacks into becoming docile tools of the British empire. It was a little like reading something said today by a spokesperson for Goldman Sachs or BP. In the same way that I.F. Stone's “all governments lie” is a bedrock mantra to many progressive crusading journalists, this paragraph by a British Lord is the cornerstone that undergirds my doubt of anything that comes out of the mouth of any member of any elite ever, be they Barack Obama or Glenn Beck or Bill Clinton or Hillary or Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sakozy or Lloyd Blankfein or Bill Gates or Bono or Gloria Steinem or Noam Chomsky or Katrina Vanden Heuvel or Susan Sarandon or whoever. I doubt their motives to a man and a woman. I might like a person because they're on my side, but I still doubt their motives. After all, I doubt my own.
18. THE STORY OF THE ANC (MUCH TRUNCATED)
The ANC was founded in 1912, when blacks got together across “tribal” lines. In 1913 the notorious Land Act was passed by the parliament of the new Union of South Africa, with the United Party in power, the coalition of English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaners. This terrible, terrible law — akin to an original sin — robbed black farmers of their land by restricting their land ownership to 7% of South Africa's land; this forced them to look for work in the white cities. The Afrikaners always get blamed for apartheid, when the English-speaking South Africans were right by their side. Even the Progressive Party, with their sole representative, Helen Suzman, which stood for enfranchising black people, had an educational requirement that would've disenfranchised most blacks.
The ANC agitated peacefully for their human rights, with delegations, marches, bus boycotts and passbook burnings, all to little avail. Running out of patience, Nelson Mandela and others, in consort with the South African Communist Party, formed a military wing in 1961, called “Umkhonto we Sizwe” or MK (“Spear of the Nation”). This really set the teeth of Afrikaner supremacists on edge. I remember discussions at school being a salty mix of racism, paranoia and bring-it-on: we'll show those bastards we're made of tougher stuff than them (shades of Bush-Cheney). The ANC also had recruitment and training camps across the border in Zimbabwe and further afield, where a fair amount of chaos reigned: torture was routine and executions happened. I once spoke to a black ANC woman who trained in one of those camps, and she was pretty bitter and twisted about the extreme sexism that prevailed. It's always good to remember that the good guys aren't all good, and the bad guys aren't all bad. Heck, Hitler was a vegetarian and loved his dog.
19. THE JEWISH COMMIE WHO ENGINEERED THE BLACK TAKEOVER
Joe Slovo, the head of the South African Communist Party, was one of the most interesting guys in the struggle against apartheid. He was Jewish, and headed up the black guerilla war machine of the struggle. Back in my slam poet days, I never tired of freaking out the many anti-Semitic black poets by telling them about Joe Slovo. Their internal struggle with this fact of South African liberation was always a joy to contemplate. A Jew was the General of Black Guerilla Warfare against Whitey in apartheid South Africa! It REALLY messed with their prejudices.
Slovo survived to see the Big Change, and after Mandela became President in 1994, Slovo became the Minister of Housing before passing on in 1995. Slovo was the genius who came up with the “sunset” clause idea that guaranteed the pensions of the white government employees and led to the breakthrough in negotiations that put the minds of De Klerk and his Afrikaner cronies at ease, allowing for an election to happen and the ANC to come to power (a self-described “disciplined force of the left” in a triple alliance with the South African Communist Party and COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions; in the 2009 elections the ANC got 65.9% of the votes).
Joe Slovo's wife Ruth First attended the University of Witwatersrand where Nelson Mandela was one of their fellow students. She died in Mozambique in 1982 when she opened a letter bomb from the South African Security Police. Her daughter Shawn Slovo wrote the 1988 movie, “A World Apart,” based on her life as a young girl with activist parents, starring Barbara Hershey as her mom.
What did Joe Slovo, a hardcore Marxist Jew committed to the freedom of South Africa, think of Israel? This is what he wrote in an unfinished bio published after his death:
“Within a few years the wars of consolidation and expansion began. Ironically enough, the horrors of the Holocaust became the rationalization for the preparation by Zionists of acts of genocide against the indigenous people of Palestine. Those of us who, in the years that were to follow, raised our voices publicly against the violent apartheid of the Israeli state were vilified by the Zionist press. It is ironic, too, that the Jew-haters in South Africa — those who worked and prayed for a Hitler victory — have been linked in close embrace with the rulers of Israel in a new axis based on racism.”
Ouch. Not a guy who pulled his punches. A lifetime of struggle against apartheid didn't leave much room for sentimentality.
I've always marveled at the mawkish sentimentality of Americans. I used to think it was introduced by Walt Disney, and carried on by the TV commercials we in the business call vignette commercials, of which the “Be All You Can Be” ads for the Army were the most puke-worthy examples. “Be All You Can Be,” indeed. Be all you can be with half your brain missing from an injury in the stupidest war since the last stupid war we fought, more likely. Lately I've begun to think this kitschy sentimentality is all the fault of church music. Down south, after a hard week of visiting your various black concubines on your plantation, you needed those sentimental Sunday airs to put you in a sentimental mood for sidling up to your sentimental white wife for some sentimental but boringly licit nooky.
That's my theory, and I'm sticking with it until my brilliant girlfriend tells me to give it a rest already.
20. THE DAY THE SCHOOL KIDS TOOK ON APARTHEID
In 1962 Nelson Mandela was caught after the South African Security Police got a tip about his whereabouts from the CIA. He was sentenced to life in prison. Nothing immensely dramatic happened after that except various police riots in which black people died; the usual travesties, in other words, but nothing as dramatic as the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, where officially 69 folks were shot, many of them in the back as they were fleeing (shades of Katrina, when those New Orleans cops murdered unarmed folks on that bridge).
Then came June 16, 1976. That's when the cops in South Africa shot school kids en masse. It's certainly the most disturbing day in this South African's life, more disturbing even than 9/11, which I watched unfold from my East Village Manhattan apartment rooftop.
On that day in 1976, I was working on the top floor of the tallest building in Johannesburg, and we saw the smoke rising from Soweto. In the chaos, the authorities didn't clamp down on black newspapers with their usual alacrity, so we read enough to realize it was a major police riot that started because the trigger-happy white cops had opened fire on kids marching peacefully against a new decree that made it mandatory to learn half their subjects via Afrikaans, the language of their oppressor — and not a case of black people going Neanderthal apeshit as the official media told us. (In America, Fox News is pretty much EXACTLY like the official media of apartheid. Growing up in a fascist country makes it fairly easy to spot those tendencies elsewhere. The first time I heard Ronald Reagan speak, my racist-fascist detector went on automatic red alert, and that was before Reagan called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. The biggest difference between President Reagan and any South African apartheid President is that Reagan had more hair.)
On June 16th, somewhere between 600 to 3,000 school kids were shot dead by South Africa's Security Police. The country was stunned. Protests broke out everywhere. The time had come for change. We all waited for President John Vorster, Pa's old pal, to come up with some big announcement about some compromise, some lessening of the weight of the state on black necks. But when Vorster spoke, this is what he said:
“This is a storm in a teacup.”
Vorster shrugged off the greatest event in the history of South Africa, but there was a massive metamorphosis in the psyches of the black kids. Unlike most of their parents, they refused to succumb humbly to oppression. They did not fear the Man. They did not fear the guns of the Security Police. They were too young to make any compromises with life. Or death. They walked right up to the armored vehicles of the oppressors, Molotov cocktails in hand. It was a revolt of the fearless Twenty-Somethings and the Teens and the Tweens and the Toddlers. The never-ending intifada of South Africa's black youth had begun.
21. THE MANDELAS STAGE A CHARM OFFENSIVE
Meanwhile, as the revolt of the youth continued, and incarcerated youngsters joined Mandela on Robben Island at “Mandela University,” Winnie Mandela was being persecuted by the authorities in Soweto, and stirring so much shit, the government banned her in 1977 to the little town of Brandfort in the Free State.
This was before Winnie did things so bad, the people of the neighborhood tried to burn her house down. This was before her involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Moeketsi by her bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club. Stompie was an activist; detained without trial at the age of 12, he'd been South Africa's youngest political prisoner. The man who slit Stompie's throat, Jerry Richardson, said Winnie ordered him to kidnap Stompie and three other boys. The boys were accused of being police informers, and beaten. In 1991 Winnie was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault, and sentenced to six years in jail; on appeal it was reduced to a fine and a two-year suspended sentence. In her appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Stompie's mother present, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a friend of the Mandela family, appealed to Winnie to speak the truth, but she remained defiant and called her accusers all sorts of names. No doubt being persecuted all her adult life had been traumatic, but it's clear this exemplary symbol of defiance went rotten, and that her moral compass spun right off true north; she has never shown the slightest remorse, because she obviously doesn't feel the need to. The defiance that sustained her against the apartheid authorities, now makes her refuse to admit to any culpability in a brutal murder.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela was granted a divorce from Winnie. He had wanted a quiet divorce, but she made a big fuss, so he was forced to reveal their dirty washing. He told the court that he'd been “the loneliest man” after he came out of jail, because she never entered his bedroom while he was awake. She was having an affair with a younger colleague, Dali Mpofu. Mandela said that having a marriage in name only was “embarrassing” and that Winnie “takes opportunities at public functions to show affection for him,” which he found distasteful.
OK, let's get back to the good old bad old days, when Winnie was a worldwide symbol of defiance against apartheid.
In the Brandfort ghetto, there was no phone, so Winnie would brazenly march to a pay phone in the white town and use it. Soon she was charged with breaking her banning orders. By law she needed an attorney to represent her in court, and it so happened that the only attorney in town who could do that, an Afrikaner, used to be the college roommate of a guy who had gone to the big city and become the Minister of Justice or something. So the attorney called his friend and asked if he'd get into trouble representing this well-known shit-stirrer Winnie Mandela, who had already organized the local ghetto into a hotbed of uppityness. His friend said it's totally OK, so this Afrikaner attorney met with Winnie as her attorney. She would come to his house to discuss her case and while there, she became bosom buddies with his Afrikaner wife, trading recipes and knitting tips and jokes. So he calls his pal in the big city and says, listen, maybe you guys should talk to Nelson Mandela, these people are reasonable people we can make a deal with, and besides, Winnie Mandela is great to hang out with. So a little later it happens that Mandela is sent from jail to a hospital because of some ailment, and the friend of Winnie's attorney and some other Afrikaner Cabinet members say, hey, it would have been beneath our dignity to visit Mandela in jail, but now we can go and see him in the hospital. So they arrive there and a smiling Mandela gets up from his hospital bed and graciously introduces them to the staff of the hospital, seeing as he had everyone eating out of his hand within minutes of arriving, and the Afrikaner big wigs walk out of their session with Mandela basically liquified: they're stepping on air, their pants charmed right off their thick Boer legs, their closed Afrikaner minds now spinning wildly from the Mandela reality distortion field. Soon they're taking him on secret trips out of jail, and then they release him and unban the ANC. That's essentially how South Africa's black and white holocausts were expiated, and democracy came to South Africa without a massive bloodbath, all through the charm and forgiving spirit of one of the greatest men who ever lived.
And now of course I'm tearing up again, because a miracle is a miracle, and this one man did it, with an unknowing assist from his then wife. (If only America and Davos Man and Wall Street and Obama could absorb one iota of a spittle of a splat from this man's spirit.)
22. SOME STUPID THINGS THAT ISRAELIS SAY
My brother, who lived through the whole thing, and lost four friends to Security Police bullets, told me he saw Mandela only once look like he was about to lose his temper. It was when, during the negotiations, De Klerk insisted that the ANC renounce violence and give up their arms. Barely containing his anger, Mandela pointed out that De Klerk's people, who had murdered black people for decades, were hardly in a position to tell anyone else to renounce violence. De Klerk shut the fuck up about renouncing violence after that. Maybe someone needs to make the same point to Israel.
There are three things said by Israel that I find ridiculous (as stupid as any of the things said by Palestinians).
One: Palestinians should renounce terrorism before negotiations can take place — when the Israelis are killing far more Palestinians than the other way around, and Israel was founded because of the terrorists/freedom fighters of Irgun, who targeted civilians. All you need for negotiations is a cease-fire, for chrissake.
The second point: the Palestinians should recognize Israel's right to exist. Personally, I don't give a a rodent's posterior if someone doesn't recognize my right to exist; if they negotiate with me, I assume they think they're dealing with an existing entity, whatever their stupid charter says. Reagan called Russia an evil empire and still negotiated with them about reducing nuclear weapons. (Also, how about Israel recognizing the right of Hamas to exist, the democratically elected government of Gaza?)
Then there's the point that Hamas fighters hide behind civilians. WTF? The entire population of Gaza is in combat, for chrissake — they're all living like refugees. What is Hamas supposed to do — hire BP to build them some platforms out at sea where there are no civilians to hide behind?
These are three BS positions sucked from some totally BS butt on some totally BS idiot, bought wholesale by fuckwits like Obama and Hillary and crew and our inch-deep media, under cover of which Israel keeps settling more and more land on which some Palestinian family has grown olive trees since before Jesus said we have to turn the other cheek.
Listen, I don't think Hamas is so great either; they can be just as intolerant and nasty as Israel, and just as noxiously orthodox, if not more, in their religious beliefs, although they're not as corrupt as Al Fatah. Plus Hamas in Gaza and the PLO people in the West Bank probably hate each other more than they hate the Israelis. Moreover, the Palestinians don't tolerate dissidents in their midst, and Israel does, having a freedom of expression that more Arabs might want to emulate should some of them ever aspire to exit the 13th century. Also, Hamas talks youngsters — whose brains are still growing — into martyring themselves for the cause. I don't know about you, but I find the idea of a mom propagandized to the point that she's happy her young son or daughter is dead ever-so-slightly icky, especially when their body parts cannot be collected for a decent burial because they're atomized over many square yards of Israeli soil. There also appears to be among some Palestinians a vulnerability to the disease of extremist Arab Muslim intolerance of the Other — worse than our own Evangelicals, which is saying something. If the 500 Ph.Ds of Hamas, the most educated political party on earth, are maybe smart enough not to adhere to this intolerance themselves, they're mighty adept at summoning it to their advantage, just as Bibi and crew are mighty adept at feeding off the intolerance of the Russian Israelis.
But the question to ask is this: who is getting fucked here? Whose kids are being fed by charitable organizations, and whose kids aren't? Whose dads have got jobs, and whose haven't? I was in Israel seven years ago, and I can assure you, the lives of the Israelis closely resemble the lives of any middle-class people anywhere. Once upon a time the Israelis used to employ the Palestinians of Gaza and now they don't, and it doesn't seem to make all that much difference to the Israeli lifestyle one way or another. I can also tell you, I've met many, many Israelis who don't like what's happening to their country, and to the soul of their country, especially now that its current political elite seems hellbent on suicide. Just like there are lots of people in America who don't like what's happening to the soul of our country, which seems hellbent on inequality and cruelty.
I've often heard people say that Israel or Palestine needs a Gandhi or Mandela. I don't agree. They just need another Rabin — a practical dude who says let's talk, and who is prepared to compromise, something the current lot of troglodyte asshole idiots on both sides — and their troglodyte idiot asshole enablers on both sides (the Europeans and the Americans) — don't have anywhere in their troglodyte asshole idiot DNA. F.W. de Klerk was no Mandela, yet he made a South African compromise that in the end cost him his presidency, even though he could've kept Mandela in jail till the day Mandela became an ex-Mandela.
23. THE TWO FATHERS OF EVERT
I wrote a spoken-word poem about Pa and Mandela when I was a performance slam poet. I called it “Two Fathers” but everyone called it “that Mandela poem”, so now I call it “Mandela.” It was a useful slam poem, perfectly pitched to disarm black judges. One of my best moments in slam poetry was when I performed it for an audience of over a thousand performance poetry enthusiasts, barely a year after Mandela came out of jail. I sort of chatted the poem quite calmly, like a raconteur, and ended with some fireworks. The crowd went wild. Actually, they went totally nuts. There's nothing like a Mandela poem to stir a bunch of white and black progressives. Your bourgeois armchair revolutionaries really love to be milked by social justice rhetoric, whether they come from limousine liberal America, Africa or elsewhere. I should know; I'm one of them. When I walked back to my seat, I saw people in the audience with tears in their eyes, including some cynical, hard-bitten buddies of mine who needed a poke in the gonads with a sharp stick to activate their tear ducts. Here is the piece:
so this is why I’ve been
in New York all this time
to stand at the UN
and vote for a man
Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela
his life cut by twenty-seven and a half years
yet he said, I’m not bitter
I’m not bitter?
up here in the north
we sure could learn from his south
here the smaller the brain
the bigger the mouth
you liked New York, Nelson
but I've got to warn you
we poopscoop our dogshit
and giftwrap our bullshit
we’re all prisoners in a dark sitcom
some talk revolution
but the closest they get
is to call Doctor King
an Uncle Tom
your mother Nosekeni
your eldest son Thembi
they too went underground
unable to go to their funeral
where did you go?
the last walk to hell
a deep descent
but you came back
your back unbent
you knew a nation
marched from Lagos to London
Beijing to Boston
Moscow to Cuba
Zenani and Zindziwe
how proud for them yeah
that you were theirtata
my father was proud
when you went to jail
he, a ten-foot crackpipe
I couldn’t inhale
his idea of father
came straight from hell
he touched me only
to beat the shit out of me
and when he finished
he beat the shit as well
all those years I made up
two fathers for me
the one I could smell
the other one gone
Nelson, he ain’t here
I liked having one father who was missing
he made up for the one
who was too much there
but far from my fatherland
on the isle of Manhattan
where the hype high-fives
to maroela-tree size
you get to spot self-deception
it wears a funny green hat
check it out
the cold smile of fact
Nelson, I can never dig my tata
the way I love you
but marooned in my whiteness
how long? very long
in my self-imposed exile
I know one thing that’s true
the father who is my father
is my father
and the father who is not
amandla! – power
awethu! – is ours
the price of freedom has been paid
in blood, in pain, in tears, in rage
hey, dad, I count the scars
you wrote on me
I price the resentment
I kept forever on simmer
I total up the rage
I ate each New York night for dinner
but now today
as I make my cross
with Rolihlahla I say
sweet freedom at last
I’m not bitter
25. MA AND PA GET DIVORCED, SORT OF
The Big Change happened, and the whole of South Africa voted, and I voted for the first time in my life, at the UN in Manhattan, for Mandela, with a group of Afrikaner expat queers demonstrating loudly outside the voting booth. They were queer and they were here, and here was many thousands of miles away from South Africa.
My father was all for the Big Change, unlike Ma, who remained an unmitigated racist till the day she died.
It could be because she had become increasingly religious as time passed. In my experience heavy religion and racism go hand in hand, as does religion and homophobia. I'm not saying all religious people are racist: not at all: Dr King was deeply religious.
I'm just saying that Ma's religiosity and racism were all of a piece. She was also a victim of my father. My father had been mixed up with his secretary, who once arrived at some conference and made a big scene, and my mother had to talk her down in the bathroom, while my father's board members told him to sort out his problems or else. I reckon their big problem was that Pa's girlfriend was a vulgar pleb, and not of their class. The fact is, Pa was a pleb himself — he was simply reverting to his original class. He subsequently married this pleb, and she did something no one else could: she turned him into a human being, and defended her son against him. That son, my half-brother, has kids and is a great success. The only one with kids among my full siblings is my youngest sister. My theory is Pa and Ma had tired themselves out fucking up us four older kids, and left the late lamb alone.
Anyway, Pa had the habit of driving off every Sunday to have time alone with his pals, and one time my older sister saw a pacifier on the back seat of the car, and in a flash she knew Pa had a child by another woman.
Eventually Ma divorced Pa, but he still lived in the house. He told his girlfriend that Ma refused to divorce him, in order to buy time for him to find a rich woman to marry.
One afternoon Pa complained about the Sunday dinner, and Ma said, “I let you live here for free after our divorce and you complain about the food? Get out.” Pa had nowhere else to go, so he went and stayed with his girlfriend whom he then felt duty-bound to marry, all dreams of marrying a woman “met pitte” (with moolah) gone. The wedding was duly planned.
The morning of the wedding, my sister found my mother ironing — my father's suit. My sister was shocked out of her skull.
“Ma, why are you ironing Pa's suit?”
Said my mother:
“Ach, I can't have your Pa getting married in a wrinkled suit.”
I once asked my sister why Ma divorced Pa when she loved him so much and all. Ma had once told us kids when we were young that she loved us very much, but that she loved Pa more. Here's what my sister told me about why Ma divorced Pa:
“It was the only card Ma had left to play.”
26. MA DIED A RACIST; PA CHANGED AND THEN CHANGED BACK
So Ma died a total racist to the end, and Pa changed. One reason why was that Pa had hated President P.W. Botha, the Great Crocodile, who preceded the peace-maker F.W. de Klerk, and who had jacked up government salaries and, Pa said, saddled the new South Africa with a terrible legacy of debt (shades of our US elite complaining about government worker union contracts). But afterwards Pa became a racist again because his son-in-law had three cars stolen out of his garage, and there were newspaper reports of crime sprees in which black criminals broke into white homes, and not only stole everything, but also abused, raped and killed elderly white people in their 70s and 80s — my father' age at the time — in unbelievably gruesome ways. Tying the husband up with barbed wire while gang-raping his 78-year-old wife in front of him was one of the milder forms of abuse. Johannesburg is the murder capital of the world. With an unemployment rate of 25%, and AK47s pretty ubiquitous, and resentment over apartheid still lingering, whites still get it in the neck in various ways, even though they run the economy.
27. THE SWEET AND BITTER FRUIT OF TRAUMAS
Traumas abide and bear all sorts of fruit, both sweet and bitter, and cast centuries-long shadows, from great grandfather to grandfather to father to son. Look at the Serbs: every June 28 they celebrate the battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Serbian kingdom got thumped by the Ottoman Turks. That's over 600 years of victimhood to batten on. You can be sure that if the Serbs and the Turks played tiddlywinks today, the Serbs would be glued to their TV sets, cheering their guys on to crush the Turks with true Serbian resolve and flair at tiddlywinks. Israelis and Palestinians can cite the Bible and the Koran to claim victimhood over the other. We in America will be steaming about 9/11 till the last cows limp home, and consider everyone of the thousands of American soldiers we feed into the maw of our outrage a hero, and not even count the hundreds of thousands of non-culpable Arabs we've whacked on their soil because of the attack on our soil.
My brilliant girlfriend talks of “disproportionate reactions based on unresolved issues,” and that we have to be careful of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Sometimes I agree with her that all crime is an unresolved issue about child abuse, and that it needs to be therapeutized instead of punished, and I embroider into elaborate constructs her thought that all war is an unresolved issue about victimhood. It always amazes me how the European colonial powers saw themselves as the victims. I still remember the fear of whites vis-a-vis Kenya's Mau-Mau, when the whites were the aggressors. And we Americans see ourselves as the victims of 9/11, instead of the perpetrators of horrible foreign policies who got some dramatic blowback (in which innocent American were killed) for our much worse transgressions (in which way more innocent civilians were killed). Al Qaeda has been forthright about why they attacked us: the insult of our military bases placed near the holiest shrines of Islam in Saudi Arabia; the added insult of the US propping up dictatorial regimes that hurt local peoples across the Islamic world; and our support of Israeli land thefts and persecution of Palestinians. Most Europeans and many Americans think that these are terrible things we've done and still do, although we don't go around flying planes into buildings or strapping on suicide vests to go blow up moms shopping at Toys 'R Us.
There are good reasons we're often not the most popular nation in the Middle East. I reckon our overthrow of democracy in Iran in 1953 counts as one of America's greatest crimes, right up there with killing over a million Vietnamese and Cambodians, and killing Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands. Let's not forget we did it to help the oil giant BP rip off Iran with its puppet the Shah in charge, whose secret police SAVAK, started with the help of our tax dollars, tortured and murdered pro-democracy folks till the Iranian theocracy took over in 1979 and continued the killing. Reagan selling arms to Iran's Revolutionary Guard to kill nuns in Salvador is chicken feed compared to this. But is that the story told to us by our inch-deep troglodyte idiot assholes MSM?
No, mon cher confrere. Oh, the stories we tell ourselves!
I can't tell if Americans are subconsciously guilty or simply basted like Thanksgiving turkeys into deaf, dumb and blind self-righteousness. Why is it so easy to lie to Americans? Is dumbfuckery written into our Constitution or something? Why is it so easy to scare Americans? Our elite and our media are past masters at it. We're scared of everything — from terrorists to heat waves to food. Our elites screw us over 24/7 — today the bottom 80% Americans have to share a lousy 15% of the incredible shrinking American pie — yet the Tea Party people, the latest incarnation of outraged American victimhood, are more pissed than vampires stranded on a planet of bloodless robots at that black socialist demon Obama. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome: we've got it worse than the Romans under Nero. As we regular Americans burn while our elites fiddle, what do we do? We complain about the quality of the firewood.
28. A SEMI-DEMI-MEZZO DAD
My trauma ran my life even after I semi-lanced its boil by forgiving my father. I'm a mezzo-dad to my girlfriend's two boys by another man, but I have no spawn from my loins. I once saw the most brilliant shrink ever — his main thing was he didn't want to see you more than five times, and if he weren't able to help you by then, it was your lookout, because he didn't want to waste any more time on you. He told me that he'd never met a patient who resisted being like their father as fiercely as I did. Which meant, of course, that I wasn't ever going to have a child.
Parenting the two boys of my brilliant girlfriend has turned out to be the biggest challenge of my life. I have no inner role model. I have to make it up. Painfully. I love them and their Mom more than life, but there's still pain going round. Before this challenge, I had yelled at only two people, once each, in my entire existence (they were both meddling supers, one in Johannesburg, one in Manhattan). Last year I yelled at the boys somewhere around fifteen times, probably more, all to protect their Mom, and I felt terrible each time, with my apologies sounding hollower to me every time. One incident will haunt me till the day I die. I was looming over the eldest one, who was then 9, and I was about two or three feet from his face, yelling. He said: “Move away from me, move away from me,” his little face spooked, but he held his ground (something I wouldn't have dared to attempt against my father). I will never get over the fact that I scared a 9-year-old to that extent. And now of course I'm tearing up again. I never have, and never will, raise my hand to these two beautiful boys in any way whatsoever; that crime of my father and my father's father stops with me. But I'm stunned to my marrow that I scared that boy so much; it was a terrible, terrible thing I did. May the God I don't believe in forgive me. I know I have to forgive myself for that, but forgiveness of yourself is hard when somewhere in your heart you're still an Afrikaner.
On Father's Day this year, that very boy I scared, now 10, said to me: “You're like a father to me.” That is the single best thing anyone has ever said to me. And now I'm tearing up again.
The boys are basically giving me a lesson in being human, and I think the fact that I have now, in the last three months, with many hugs and jokes and “I love yous,” arrived at some new plateau of easy-to-say love with them, is the thing that made me want to see my father.
We went away camping earlier this month, and I saw two little girls in the same outfits, and my heart burned to have a little girl of my own, with my genes and her mother's genes swirling 50:50 in her. But it is too late. So there. I will have to go through the rest of this life missing out on the biggest experience a human can have. After having experienced just about everything else short of war.
29. NOW HE'S A LITTLE OLD MAN
My father is a little old man now, shrunken to dwarf size. He's 93, and not long ago he fell out of a tree he climbed to prune. He told me at least 15 years ago that he was bored and wanted to die. He has outlived all his friends. He was particularly stricken when an old flame of his died in 1996, Hetta Empson nee Crouse. She was the most beautiful girl in college in Stellenbosch, and went on to marry the poet-critic William Empson (“Seven Types of Ambiguity”), and lived a most Bohemian open-marriage type life in China and London. The few times I visited in London, she drank like a fish, while William kind of apologized for her, and when one kissed her goodbye, one would find the old lady's tongue halfway down one's throat. When she died, a whole era died for Pa.
One of Pa's Oxford professors failed him in an exam with the comment that he had never read a more brilliant essay in which it was clear the writer knew absolutely nothing about the subject. My father's downfall at Oxford was the fault of the English-speaking South African Rhodes scholar (there were two Rhodes scholars from South Africa every time, an English-speaking one and an Afrikaans one). This guy took Pa under his wing on board ship to London, and introduced him to the pleasures of alcohol. Although that guy's brilliant career was ruined by drink, Pa's future was saved by his Mom's belief in castor oil. In Pa's day, besides having the crap beaten out of you, you got castor oil for being naughty or sick or whatever. Gallons of castor oil in his salad days so ruined Pa's guts he could never become a serious alcoholic.
Pa once told me about drinking in Russia where he went for an international agricultural conference. There were all these toasts, and these burly dudes standing against all four walls, away from the table where the dignitaries sat and drank toasts. After a gazillion toasts, Pa passed out in his main course. The next thing he knew, he was frog-marched to the bathroom by two of the burly guys, one of whom stuck his fingers down Pa's throat. Pa retched long and hard, and then they washed his face and splashed him with cold water, and marched him back to the table to continue the toasts.
Ever since that story, I've always known that Russia is fucked for all time.
But South Africa isn't. Heck, it's no paradise, with 25% unemployment, 30% if you count people who've given up looking for work, a world-class crime rate, and babies being raped because some black dudes believe this will cure them of AIDS. It's the most unequal society in the world, but it can also put on the World Cup, and it's not nearly as corrupt as the other big African state, Nigeria, which is generally rated alongside Russia and Afghanistan and the Sudan as the most corrupt in the world. The most obvious ANC corruption happens around tenders for public projects. For example, those stadiums that were built for the World Cup (shades of how failed oil man George W. Bush made his little fortune). Hence the coinage “tenderpreneurs.”
What else is wrong in South Africa? Well, the former President Mbeki had some idiotic notions about HIV, which means at least 355,000 people died who needn't have. The current leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, has voiced support for Mugabe. If you're an immigrant from Zimbabwe or elsewhere in Africa, you may be killed by xenophobes.
What is right? Life goes on. Look how it went on during the World Cup. Now the guy who worked for sixteen years to get the World Cup for South Africa, and to make it the most profitable World Cup ever, Danny Jordaan, is aiming to get the 2020 Olympics to South Africa. The last time I was there I bought fruit and vegetables at the open-air market in Yeoville in Johannesburg, with smiling faces all around; I was the only white guy I saw. Most of my white friends live in the same big houses they lived in during apartheid, living the same free-and-easy life they did then, except now they might have corralled themselves some useful black business partners to stay on the right side of the powers-that-be in the new South Africa. One of my buddies lives a few blocks from the Mandelas. If you're white or black and rich enough to be paranoid, you might have high walls and “immediate armed response,” which means guys with machine-guns will be there in minutes when you call. One time Johnny Clegg was on tour with his band Savuka when his wife called to say there was a battle on their front lawn. Their gardener was shooting back at some would-be robbers. Johnny the honorary Zulu is sitting in a hotel room in America listening to the rat-tat-tat and the ricochet of bullets, talking to his wife in Johannesburg, who is holed up in their house with the kids behind one of the iron gates in the corridor. Eventually the robbers gave up.
There's a sizable black middle-class in South Africa, some of whom have discussions about which ethnicities of blacks make the best servants. South Africa has a lively media free-for-all, with a sophisticated degree of political analysis by regular South Africans that make our pundits look like junior high students. It kind of raises the level of debate when the governing coalition contains flat-out well-read Marxists. Imagine if Bush-Cheney had four or five Chomskys in their Cabinet. You can't, can you? Precisely.
30. RAPE IN SOUTH AFRICA
Rape is a big topic in South Africa. Two out of five South African women report that their first sexual experience was rape.
One of my best friends there was repeatedly raped one night by a maniac wielding an axe who said he would chop up her child sleeping in the room next door if she didn't submit. She knew he meant to kill them both after he was done. So, like Scheherazade, she kept talking. And talking. And talking. Eventually, towards morning, he left without killing her or her child. Afterwards she identified him in a line-up.
One time a well-known South African woman was raped by a gang of black teens, and she wrote afterwards that she thought they did it for fun, and had a right old rip-roaring playful time gang-banging her, and a huge uproar ensued, because hardcore feminists couldn't deal with a rape narrative that wasn't based on narrow-bore 100% unadulterated rage against women.
31. APARTHEID BASTARDS DO BUSINESS ALL OVER AFRICA
Sometimes I think racism will follow me wherever I go, even in the Ivy League college town where I live now. I once worked in North Carolina for two years for an advertising agency. One of my best friends in the agency was a street-smart black dude, an excellent story-teller, years younger than me, and tremendously talented. He couldn't spell, so I fixed his very creative copy. One of the higher-ups, a guy with a Harvard degree, who liked me because of my accent, couldn't stand this guy. I wasn't there more than a month when the agency went out drinking, and in the bar, it soon became obvious that my black friend couldn't get any service. Racism, Southern style, 1997. Our creative director informed the bar owner that we'd never come back, and that his bar was going to miss out on a lot of money, because we were big, big drinkers. In his pain my black friend had left before any of us and was walking alone in the darkness. I was the one who ran out after him, maybe because I knew about trauma myself. Pain can be a mutual bond, though most of the time we laughed a lot. I hope he doesn't read 3QD, because I'm pretty sure he'd get mighty pissed about my attacks on Obama.
Strangely enough, the very same Afrikaners who were the top businessmen under apartheid, have now laid cable all over Africa, and regularly sponsor an African Film Festival, and are helping Africa stride forward into the 21st century. An Ethiopian friend, who was taught that the Afrikaners were swine from hell, says his African friends still can't believe they're making deals with those very swine today.
How can this be? Here's a story that might furnish some kind of explanation. Back in apartheid days, my father once told me, there was a drought which badly hit the Free State province of South Africa and neighboring Lesotho, a black state. The white farmers recovered quickly, and then said to themselves: “Jissus, we've got to go and help those poor kaffir farmers across the border.” So they took their tractors and whatnot and went and ploughed the fields of their black fellow farmers across the border and helped them get back on their feet, with no payment, just out of a patronizing fellow feeling for fellow farmers down on their luck. It's that spirit that drives former apartheid bastards deep into Africa to help out — and to make good money in the process.
32. THE FACES OF RASCISM AND FASCISM ARE A CONTINUUM
One time an Afrikaner farmer said to me: “People call me a racist, but last week, when I dondered my foreman half-dead, who took him to the hospital in the back of his bakkie (truck) to save the kaffir's life and have him patched up? Nobody but me.”
Racism and fascism: they have many faces, some nastier than others. Some friendlier, too. My mother and father never called a black person a kaffir to their face, and taught us kids to be polite to black people, unwittingly laying the foundation for our progressive beliefs. So they were “good” racists. Or slightly less bad than the guy who beat his foreman to a pulp. My father bought a house for our life-long black maid, and the last time I saw her, post-apartheid, at my mother's funeral, she said her son, named after my brother, was going to be a doctor.
Here's another example of how racism operates. When I was working as a copywriter in Johannesburg in my thirties under apartheid, I lived in a cottage with a thatched roof 20 minutes from work, on a farm bought by a collection of rich white dudes who were waiting for the suburbs to crawl up to the farm so they could then develop the farm at vast profit to themselves. In the main house lived one of the speculators, a liberal English-speaking chap, whose forehead was shaped like the front of a Jaguar car, and whose wife was blond and beautiful, and whose daughter had a horse, and whose livingroom had a Ming Vase — which his house servant broke: “this vase survived many dynasties and countless revolutions, but it couldn't survive one Jacob,” he wryly cracked.
If I felt like having a barbecue or “braai,” or my music business friends in the next cottage did, or my dropped-out-of-advertising friends in the third cottage did, we simply yelled into the blue, “Daniel!” Soon Daniel would appear and be instructed, and a fire would be built and everything made ready for the barbecue. Talleyrand talks of the sweetness before the revolution, and how no-one who lived after the revolution would know such sweetness. Well, old Talleyrand managed, as a prominent French aristocrat, to hold on to his head during the Terror, and served the state after the French Revolution as diligently as he did before it. (He could teach the Democrats how to survive the mid-terms.) I knew the sweetness of which Talleyrand speaks. I was radically upset by the cruelty I saw around me, and radically upset when I saw my high-school friends turn into racists in front of my eyes, but I partook of the fruits of the very oppression that they believed was just and that I believed was unjust. It was a very privileged position. I was, like all white people pre-June 16, 1976, invincible.
33. MY WHITE INVINCIBILITY
Let me explain the nature of that white invincibility. On a Saturday night at say nine o'clock, my favorite maid servant would knock on the window of my cottage, sporting a big black eye. Her boyfriend was beating her again. In a white man's snitfit, I'd stride down to the fire where the 40 black people who lived on the farm were partying. Any one of the men there could've easily broken me, a diminutive white man, in two, and thrown my various parts to the four corners of the farm. But hey, I'd march into the center of the black gathering, and watch their eyes go big as saucers, and their voices turn back in their throats like rabbits scared into their holes, and I would address them sternly as follows:
If Lizzy comes knocking on my door one more time, the whole lot of you are going to be in big trouble. Jonathan, don't you dare touch a hair on her head again. You better watch out, because I'm on your case. You understand?”
There would be murmurings of “Yes, baas,” and “Sorry, my baas,” and then I would stalk off, very proud of myself for having successfully intervened in a domestic dispute and having saved Lizzy's other eye from Jonathan's knuckles.
Yeah, I was some kind of big apartheid hero, for sure. Mr. White Privilege himself. Unlike braver folk, I did not seek out the underground, and did not join them. I did spend some time in jail, but that was for smoking marijuana and being a hippie with long hair.
My revolution happened inside me. I read Freud's “The Future of an Illusion” and Alan Paton's “Cry the Beloved Country.” In the end I left South Africa, having rejected my parents, my religion, and my nation. There was that “storm in a teacup” remark, and a police riot outside an advertising agency that I was a partner in, in which mulatto cops beat mulatto protesters while white cops looked on with big grins on their faces, and the banning of my first play, when the cops put a lock on the door of the theater.
Do I regret that I didn't get my balls connected to a generator to suffer at the hands of the Security Police in order to have a clear conscience today? Yes and no.
Yes, because I did nothing but rant. No, because I'm alive today to help raise two magical boys.
Do I forgive Pa and his pals for what they did to the majority of South African people, many of whom did not live long enough to see the Big Change? Yes, I do. I weep for Bram Fischer, the Afrikaans-born lawyer who defended ANC members, who went underground, and was then caught, and died in jail. I weep for Steve Biko, who would've made a great president after Nelson. And I weep for my mother, who died bemoaning and decrying the new South Africa, and got a lively gleam in her eye whenever she found some black transgression to fatten her racism and to throw in my face. I forgive all those who kicked blacks to death, and all those who killed whites. I even forgive the monster of Vlakplaas, Dirk Coetzee who, while he was having a barbecue, burnt the remains of a black man he murdered, and got amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the bigger monster of Vlakplaas, “Prime Evil” Eugene De Kock, who now sits in jail for 212 years, and asked forgiveness from the families of those he tortured and killed. The poor sap thought he was doing his patriotic duty. No doubt our American torturers felt the same.
34. THE FREEDOM OF THE INDIVIDUAL VS. THE FORGIVENESS OF UBUNTU
Forgiveness is possible in Africa, because of African justice, which goes beyond punitive/retributive justice and rehabilitative justice to enshrine restorative justice, where the wrong-doer is given a chance to re-integrate into society. This was what our Truth and Reconciliation Commission was all about. If you owned up to your crime, and it was clearly committed out of political motives, and not disproportionately outrageous, you would be free to live your life, even if you threw a bomb that killed civilians, or tortured a black man to death whom you suspected of “subversive” activities.
Such forgiveness is possible because of the concept of “ubuntu,” a certain generosity and selflessness and sharing and openness of spirit that knows we are human only through other humans. Mandela has ubuntu. No public figure in America has even a microbe of it. Violence is as American as apple pie, but forgiveness is as un-American as a dung floor. (In South Africa we use cow dung as a building material — it makes a great floor; we smear it on with our hands.) This lack of forgiveness in America, together with the prevalence of our popular narrative of revenge, enshrined in all our action movies and video games and unnecessary wars, is the dark side of our bright and shiny ideal of the freedom of the individual. It's the reason our elites will continue to screw us with profitable abandon (and the world outside our borders), and it's the reason why we will let them. We don't have ubuntu; our puritan Pilgrim fathers never had it. Our school system pays some lip service, but it is not bred in our bones. We can be tremendously generous and giving when bad stuff happens, but that's a temporary outburst of humanity, born from our mawkish sentimentality. Wonderful as it is, it's a temporary and flighty half-assed facsimile of ubuntu. Take Haiti and New Orleans: they're still screwed. When we decided to put the freedom of the individual on a pedestal — a shining example to the world, which sorely needs it — the price we paid for that was putting ubuntu forever out of our reach.
That's my theory and I'm sticking with it even if my brilliant girlfriend tells me to give it a rest already.
35. VARIOUS GIRLFRIENDS, VARIOUS FAMILIES
America had one brief moment in the 60s of marching against the establishment, not from ubuntu, but because students did not want to be drafted, and our marching stopped that stupid Vietnam War. Dr King had ubuntu, and for that many black activists later called him an Uncle Tom, and many white folks wished him dead, and one killed him.
Today, our boys and girls in uniform die, but most of us don't have any close connection with them, and don't give a damn. Some of us protest, but most of us just watch as Obama and Hillary and Petraeus and Holbrooke and assorted other White House and Pentagon assholes screw things up in an unwinnable and costly war, sacrificing American and Afghan kids for some dumb-fuck construct in their dumb-fuck minds — “we can't let the Taliban back in because they'll just make a safe haven for Al-Qaeda” or “if this doesn't work out, at least we'll know we've given the Afghans the best chance they've ever had” — a dumbfuck construct that's all about us and not about the Afghans, who were there before we came, and will be there after we leave with the dollars with which we've totally corrupted them. All this while our pundits in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post regurgitate these dumbfuck constructs even though some of them are old enough to remember the cover story in Time Magazine about how we were winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese with a new strategy a few months before we had to get out with our tails between our helicopters. All this while our own kids in the Bronx and Detroit and Appalachia and Mississippi are damned to a life of drugs and despair. We rant and rage about the fat cats on Wall Street, but we don't move our money out of the “too big to fail” banks like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and into small community banks and credit unions.
Weep, our beloved country of utter dumbfucks in high places and TV-addled dumbfucks almost everywhere else.
It's hot here where I write on my trusty Apple, one of the fruits of America's entrepreneurial capitalism (very different from Wall Street casino capitalism, and very wonderful). The kids have gone to play at a friend's house, and now in the aftermath of the South African World Cup, many more stories come running back to me — on urgent, tiny feet that sound like strings plucked in a Bang-on-a-Can Sonata, or like the pitter patter of new-born critters; you might be regaled with them at some future juncture. What I've told so far is the tip of a hundred icebergs. Through various girlfriends I've been privileged to know the most amazingly dysfunctional families, some of them more dysfunctional than my own family. Some stories cannot be told until some people die, and others have to remain secret because privacy is privacy is privacy. But ohmigod, when I think of at least four big families, of which the mother committed suicide in two of them, and of the four men from these families who were household names in their respective eras and countries, there is a memoir and/or a novel there, straddling four generations from before the First World War through today, set in South Africa, the UK and America. A global pre-modernist-to-post-digital epic saga.
Whatever. Here are two final stories, apropos of nothing.
36. THROW MOMMA OUT OF THE BUSINESS
Last month I met a South African friend of mine for the first time in 40 years. I will call him Mike (not his real name). When last seen 40 years ago, Mike and I were smoking weed and talking music, and laughing hysterically as we thought up the grossest menu items we could imagine (you know, cockroach tartare on a bed of batshit, that sort of thing). Now we're supposedly mature, so the stories with which we regaled each other last month smacked of lives lived, and of an appreciation for life's hilarious absurdity in the face of death and destruction.
Here's a story I told Mike.
My Jewish father-in-law, the one who spawned my late wife, walked out of Russia and its pogroms when he was eleven. He ended up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he, at the age of 21, conspired with his weak-willed Dad to throw his Mom out of the business she started. Subsequently he built her modest little business into a huge textile and fashion empire in which he employed 26,000 people, but despite this mega-success, his Mom never forgave him for kicking her out of her own business. When she died, she was generous to the whole extended family, but she left him, her only son, just one chair.
Here's a story Mike told me.
Mike went to see a mutual friend of ours, whom I will call Jeremy, who was dying from some wasting disease, no doubt accelerated by Jeremy's fondness for the demon powder cocaine, with which Nigerian gangsters have flooded South Africa. Jeremy was a really funny, really generous, beautifully naive soul. A prep school boy with all the grace and none of the annoying entitlement of his privileged upbringing. Yet his family suffered from some kind of curse: they were pukka English-speaking South Africans, living in a Parktown mansion in Johannesburg, but the daughter was murdered, and the other brother committed suicide, and Jeremy was dying, and his Mom was dying too, from terminal cancer. My friend Mike used to visit Jeremy in his last months. The last time he saw Jeremy, a few days before his death, Mike walks into the room where Jeremy is sitting in his wheelchair, some breathing apparatus over his nose, while his chemically devastated and cancer-ridden Mom sits madly scribbling at a table, an emaciated dried-out prune of her former self.
So my friend asks: “How are you doing, Jeremy?”
Jeremy adjusts his breathing apparatus, glances over at his dying Mom, a skeleton scribbling away, then looks back at Mike and says:
“It's neck and neck, Mike.”
That's about as South African as it gets. The rest, for now, is silence.