Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shoe today, bomb tomorrow

There were not many highlights in the George W Bush Presidency. But one event, other than the occupation of Iraq, that stands out in my mind was the shoe-throwing attack on Bush by Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi.

As everyone knows by now, Zaidi, as an insult and a form of protest against the illegal occupation of Iraq by the US, hurled his shoes at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad last December.

For his troubles, Zaidi has been imprisoned, allegedly tortured and potentially faces two years in jail. He has also become an international icon. Zaidi’s internment has led to protests and shoe throwing has become a global phenomenon and a symbol of resistance.

Shoes were left at US embassies around the world as part of the demands to release Zaidi. Various protest groups have engaged in symbolic acts of shoe flinging. Antiwar group Code Pink tossed shoes at a Bush effigy outside the White House. Others have engaged in similar acts. Another creative initiative included building an enormous sculpture of a shoe to commemorate Zaidi’s bravery. The sculpture was built by children at an orphanage in Tikrit. Earlier this month, in a copycat attack, a protestor wishing to register his disgust at the Chinese human rights record threw his shoes at the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, during a speech at Cambridge University.

In short, shoe throwing is catching on and I am not surprised. There are so many global events that ordinary people have less and less control over these days. Wars are waged in the name of regular citizens when, in fact, many want nothing to do with warmongering. Many of us fantasise about doing things differently or forcing governments to be agents of peacemaking rather than peace breaking. But it is normally impossible to get your voice heard.

Peaceful protests are becoming increasingly ineffective against counterattacks from media agencies controlled by governments. Tight security makes it difficult to get near political leaders to express your opinions. Blogs, letters and email peti- tions are popular ways to register disagreement but they are often only read by those who share your views rather than those in power. There is a popular senti- ment that political leaders now live in a detached bubble and, even in democracies, the only time you can register your protest in a meaningful way is in the ballot box every couple of years.

People need an outlet and many are fed up with being disempowered from decision-making. Hurling shoes provides a relatively harmless way (well, as long as hobnailed boots are not used) of effectively registering your opinion. Shoes are readily available, easy to transport and simple to get through security checks since most of us wear them (unless you are Zola Budd).

Of course, I am not advocating unbridled shoe chucking every time we are unhappy. But we should salute the courage of those who choose to register their voice in a way that is direct, yet, broadly speaking, a symbolic gesture of disgust rather than a hard-core act of violence. I know such a comment is controversial and I wonder how Gandhi would feel about it. Is shoe tossing, especially if you miss, an act of peaceful protest? I do not know. I also acknowledge that Zaidi’s act was not particularly professional from a journalistic perspective, and he might have caused Bush a mild head injury, causing him to do something rash, like starting a war without planning it.

But, equally, we must acknowledge the frustration felt by ordinary citizens the world over who feel excluded from politics and marginalised from key decisions. We must find ways for average people to be heard and influence global events, whether in Iraq, South Africa, or the US. Without this, a shoe today will be a bomb or a gun tomorrow and that would be no laughing matter.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 February 2009.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What I learnt in 2008

There is a saying in cricket that, if you are going to go for a big, shot go at it hard. This might sound obvious, but there is a tendency among batsmen, even when deciding to play a specific shot, of not committing to it fully, in the hope that they can prevent themselves from making a mistake as they strike the ball. But it is often hesitation, coupled with a lack of confidence, that can be a batsman’s downfall.

So what has this got do with what I learned in 2008? Let me explain.

The year 2008 will be remembered for the collapse of the global economy, with giants such as Lehman Brothers going under. But it was also the year of the bail-out, with governments pouring trillions into failing banks. Apparently, without the bail-outs, a ripple effect could have ensued, destabilising the entire economy and resulting in mass unemployment.

So the lesson is that, if you are going to undertake a business venture, do it on as big a scale as possible. The more people tied into your transactions and borrowings, the more likely someone will come to your aid. Being in R1-billion debt is not too different to being in R1 000 debt if you cannot pay your dues. In other words, and paying homage to McDonalds, if you are going to go for it, go large.

Robert Mugabe has successfully employed the 'go large' strategy too, coupling it with a passionate belief that he is doing the best for his people. But Mugabe, in the words of blogger and UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, proves that “there is no more destructive force in human affairs – not greed, not hatred – than the desire to have been right”. But believing one is right is often not based on rational thought.

Robert Burton, a neurologist and author of On Being Certain, argues that although we may feel we know something and we think it is a product of reason, this is generally not the case. Scientific evidence suggests that feelings of certainty stem from primitive parts of the brain. These parts of the brain are independent of reasoning and conscious reflection. In other words, the feeling of being right is about emotion and is a psychological state.

This suggests that we should be wary of our own belief in certainty, whether this concerns politics or economics. Sadly, however, 2008 taught me the irrational opposite. When it comes to making money and furthering a political ideology or cause, it seems that fortune favours those who believe, whether misguided or not, that they are right and pursue their goals with vigour.

At the end of 2008, the Israeli government put this into practice by killing over 500 people (most of them civilians) in ten days, apparently to prevent Hamas from sending rockets into Israel. But, according to journalist Robert Fisk, Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, making the response savagely disproportionate. Of course, Israeli deaths are a tragedy too, but the overwhelming force used by Israel, besides other factors, seems to have stunned the international community into silence.

So this is my advice for 2009: whatever you decide to do, do it with the force of a hurricane and the confidence of a prizefighter, who cares nothing for consequence. The world likes single-minded arrogance, or at least does not act against it and sometimes even rewards it.

Fly as high as you can in 2009 and forget about bombed children, unemployed labourers and those with cholera in Zimbabwe because, after all, falling from 100 m has the same result as crashing to the earth from 100 000 m. What is more, flying at 100 000 m with gay abandon is a lot more exhilarating and seemingly no one will try to stop you, in case they crash and burn too.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, January 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 15 January 2009.