23 May 2022

The Origins of Racism

Someone asked me on Twitter what I thought the origin of racism was. Was it just a matter so skin colour, or was it more an economic thing?

That's a big questiopn, and can't be properly answered within Twitter's 250 or so character limit, so I just said it was a matter of both, but the proportions of the mix might vary according to circumstances. The bloke who asked wasn't too happy with that, so I thought I'd try to respond at greater length. He asked for my personal view, but I hadn't given too much thought to the origin of racism, seeing it more as a thing that is there and that we have to deal with whenever and wherever we find it, regardless of its origin.

He also asked for my personal view, so what follows is what I think, and not necessarily what anyone else thinks.

One way of answering the question is by evolutionary biology, which can be used to give an explanation for the origin of racism, xenophobia and prejudice. Human beings seem to be hard-wired with a distrust of things that are strange. Strange people, strange animals, strange plants, strange or unusual events. If you see something strange, treat it as dangerous until it is proved to be safe. In terms of evolutionary biology, in the past, some people didn't do this, and they died, because the strange thing turned out to be dangerous. If they died as children, they did not grow up to have kids of their own, and so those with the trustfulness gene did not pass the gene on to their children, and those with the supicion gene lived to pass that on.

It's also a learning thing. Once, when I was about 4-5 years old, we came home and found a large puffadder lying stretched out in the garden path. I thought it was dead and my parents called me away and said it was only sleeping. And so it proved, when it woke up. And so I learned to distrust apparently sleeping snakes. If my parents had not been with me and warned me, I might not have lived long enough to write this. And so we learn prejudice. I am prejudiced against sleeping snakes. And those who learn prejudice young tend to live longer than those who don't. It is an evolutionary survival trait.

And so we learn to distrust strange people, those whose language, customs appearance etc differ from our own. And that is partly learned behaviour. amd partly an inherited evolutionary characteristic. Those who are suspicious of strange things tend to live longer and to breed more. So much for evolutionary biology.

But there is also a mythical/theological explanation.

One of the best descriptions of this is in C.S. Lewis's science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet. In the story two men, a mad scientist and a greedy financier, build a spaceship to go to Mars, which they want to colonise and exploit. They kidnap a philologist, who quickly learns the language of Mars, whose population is in three races that live in harmony. Mars, which the locals call Malacandra, has a spiritual ruler, a planetary angel, called the Oyarsa, and it turns out that earth, the "silent planet" of the novel's title, has a bent Oyarsa, who has corrupted his planet and its inhabitants. The mad scientist speaks to the Oyarsa of Malacandra, a racist rant about the human racve being superior to all others, and so destined to dominate and displace them. The Oyarsa of Malacandra says he sees what the bent Oyarsa of earth has done -- he has taken one good, the love of kin, which is not the greatest good, and twisted it to persuade the human race that it is the only good. In other words, racism comes from the devil.

While I see the explanatory value of both of these -- the evolutionary biological, and the mythic/theological, it is only the latter that enables us to fight racism. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, racism is neither good nor bad; it just is.

The National Party (NP), which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994, defined "nationalism" as "love of one's own". The NP claimed that its policy of apartheid was based on "Christian Nationalism". But what is "Christian Nationalism". B.J. Vorster, who became Minister of Justice in the NP government in 1961, and Prime Minister in 1966, said in 1942, when the NP was still in opposition:

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call the anti-democratic system dictatorship if you like. In Italy it is called fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.
But it was very clear that in spite of the "Christian" epithet that they tacked on to it, race trumped Christianity. One's "own". in the NP worldview, were not one's rellow Christians, but one's fellow white Afrikaners, who could accept other white as allies, provided they served the Afrikaner nationalist cause, but not fellow-Christians of other colours or races. The blood of kinship, of volkheid, was thicker than water, even than the water of baptism. "Christian Nationalism" meant that the "volk" came first, and Christ was second or lower, and certainly did not count in determining who was "one's own". And this the God who said "thou shalt have no other gods before me".

And so, in C.S. Lewis's story, after the mad scientist has ranted on about the superiority of the human race, its civilization, its science, medicine, law, armies, architecture, commerce, and the right to succeed other races as the right of the higher over the lower, the Oyarsa of Malacandra says.

I see now how the lord of the silent world [the devil] has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [intelligent creatures] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind oyarsa in your brain.
And that is the essence of racism, "love of one's own" blown up out of all proportion until it becomes thoroughly evil.

The Herstigte Nasionale Party, a far-right breakaway from the NP, put a further twist on the concept of "one's own" when they coined the slogan "eie volk, eie land", and I wonder if the irony of the English translation escaped them or was intentional -- "own people, own land", when owning people, of course, is slavery. They seem to have dropped the Christian epithet by then, because their concept of owning land took no account of the God who said "Woe to those who add house to house and field to field until there is no more room" (Isaiah 5:8).

So yes, I believe that the ultimate origin of racism is the devil.

But what about the relation of racism to skin colour and economics?

That varies from place to place and time to time.

I suspect that a lot of white racism in America is economic in origin. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade period thousands of black slaves were exported from Africa to America. During that period in the Americas nearly all black people were slaves, and nearly all slaves were black people. And slaves were ipso facto at the bottom of the economic pile, and so inferior in status, in power, and in almost every other way to non-slaves. And so in the Americas slavery became associated with blackness, and blackness with slavery, and hence with inferiority. This, in itself is probably sufficient to account for racism in the Americas. There may have been other causes too, but the historical link between blackness and slavery is certainly the main cause.

Something similar happened in southern Africa. Slavery in the Cape Colony, which lasted until 1835, was mostly of black people from other parts of Africa and people from southern Asia. But it differed from America in that on the eastern border of the Cape Colony, during the slave period and after, there were large umbers of free and independent black people, who outnumbered both the slaves and the free people of the Cape Colony.

It is also worth noting that white racism increased exponentially at the time of the New Imperialism, which lasted from about 1870 to 1914. White Christian missionaries who came to Africa from Europe before 1870 may have had a certain amount of ethnocentric chauvinism, in preferring their own customs and culture to those of Africans they encountered, but they had no problems, for example, with appointing a black Yoruba ex-slave, Samuel Crowther, as Anglican bishop in Yorubaland, which later became part of Nigeria. But their successors during the New Imperialism denounced that as unwise and premature, and it was a long time before there was another black bishop in Nigeria. This was not so much economic, as about skin colour and culture. The New Imperialist white missionaries (and colonial officials, and businessmen) were imbued with a sense of their own superiority as white men.

There was a connection with economics too, but skin colour drove economics rather than the other way round. In the British colony of Natal laws were passed to diadvantage black farmers and favour white ones, limiting cattle trading and the like. And in the Union of South Africa in 1913 the Natives Land Act prohibited black people from acquiring any more agricultural land. And later, in the 1950s-1970s the NP government tried to deprive black farmers even of the little land they had, simply because they were black.

But the question of the origins of racism arose in the context of a different discussion on Twitter, when Jay Naidoo observed that he went to a restaurant where the food was good and the garden was good, but he was the only darkie there, and he wondered why that was.

I commented that at most of the restaurants I've been to recently there have been people of all colours there. But most of the restaurants I've been to in the last 10 years have been in the middle-class eastern areas of the City of Tshwane, Other places may differ. But (and this is where the economic factor comes in) most of the patrons of those restaurants, regardless of colour, have clearly also been middle class. That particular part of the city is also embassy territory, so in any given middle-class restaurant, on any given occasion, there might be a fairly cosmopolitan clientele.

But imagine if a homeless person, dark or pale, came in for a meal. Middle-class people, whether black or white, would ne likely to notice and wonder what was going on. They might think it too rude to stare, but they would notice. And perhaps some of the proprietors might invoke "right of admission reserved" notices to turn away someone of an obviously different class, lest the middle-class patrons be put off and not return, because they feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is so obviously not one of them.

So, regardless of the origins of racism, and though I think it is still a factor in South African life, I think class is a more important factor, which is why in South Africa the gap between the rich and the poor is among the highest in the world, and the attitude of many seems to be that expressed in the following verse, sung to the tune of "The Red Flag" (O Tannenbaum):

The working class can kiss my arse
I've got the foreman's job at last.

18 May 2022

Memories of Canon John Suggit

 Memories of John Suggit

Canon John Suggit celebrated his 100th birthday in 2022, and various people who had known him were asked to contribute their memories of him to a commemorative booklet. Owing to the vagaries of email my contribution arrived too late for inclusion in the volume, so I'm posting it here instead.

1. Introduction

I first met John Suggit in October 1968, when he was Warden of St Paul's Theological College in Grahamstown. Within a couple of weeks of meeting him, I was convinced that he was a saint. To explain this, I need to explain the circumstances of our meeting.

2. Circumstances

In 1966 I had gone to study for a post-graduate Diploma in Theology at St Chad's College, Durham. That had been arranged by the Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, and in June 1868 I had written my final exams and gained the diploma. But St Chad's College had a two-week September term for those of its students who were preparing to ordination in the Anglican Church.

I met Bishop Inman, who was in the UK for the Lambeth Conference, and he said that if I wanted to go home rather than hanging around for the September term, he would try to arrange for me to spend a term at St Paul's in Grahamstown instead. I eagerly accepted, and thought it would be interesting to see how South African theological education compared to the English version.

The principal of St Chad's College, John Fenton, was a fan of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and demythologising the gospel, and though I thought he was a very nice bloke, we did not see eye-to-eye theologically at all. The first essay he had asked me to write was on Jesus and the demons, and after I had read it to him he said I had not told him whether I thought the demons existed, and I had tried to explain to him that, coming from South Africa, with it's demonic system of apartheid, the question of whether the demons existed seemed unreal. When one is run over by a bus in the street, one does not, while lying in the road in pain, start asking philosophical questions about the existence of the bus. As another wise priest said, when I had told him about this, "The question of the existence or non-existence of demons is not important. The important thing is that, whatever demons are, Christ has the mastery of them."

So I returned to South Africa in July 1968, and prepared to go to St Paul's for the September term.

3. St Paul's College in 1968

John Suggit wrote to me and said that he had heard that I had a beard, and that St Paul's had a rule that students were not allowed to have beards. I thought it was a silly rule, but I wrote back to him and said that if one wants to join a Christian community, one accepts it as it is, with all its customs and idiosyncrasies.
I arrived in Grahamstown on 5 October, and immediately went to meet John Suggit. To arrange what I should be doing during the term. I was under do academic pressure, having already written and passed my final exams for the Diploma in Theology at Durham, so he said I should attend ethics seminars and pastoral lectures, and read widely in the college library.

 He asked me about life at St Chad's College, and immediately impressed me as someone who was concerned to do what was best for the students to prepare for future ministry, and was open to new ways of doing things.

The following Monday we met to arrange the ethics seminars and John Suggit asked me to prepare a paper on the ethics of punishment – something I had never thought about before, but there was a new book in the library on the topic, so I read that, and it gave me some ideas, mainly the idea of punishment as being a kind of sacraments. In Anglican theology a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and so punishment, in a theological sense, was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

I was impressed by John Suggit's wisdom in setting that exercise, encouraging the discovery of new knowledge, and the gaining of new insight. A week later I read my paper to a seminar group, but the discussion that followed was disappointing and mainly concerned the relation of law to gospel, and whether one should hand over law-breakers to the police, and rather seemed to miss the point. Nevertheless, I was grateful to John Suggit for setting me that task, and it gave me something to think about.

St Paul's College was not isolated from other currents in life and society. Across the valley was Rhodes University, and the then fairly new University Christian Movement (UCM) was in full swing, with a triumvirate of radical Methodist ministers were trying to introduce the latest Western theological trends to South African students, such as the mainly-American "God is dead" theology. Other Methodist ministers, like many of the St Paul's students, were more interested in a more indigenous South African initiative, A Message to the People of South Africa, published a few weeks earlier by the Christian Institute and the South African Council of Churches. It noted that the official ideology of apartheid was not merely a heresy, but a false gospel; it was not just unjust in its implementation, at was radically anti-Christian in principle. This, it seemed to most of us at St Paul's, was far more significant than the imported American theothanatology being propagated by UCM.

John Suggit was known to the St Paul's students as Fronnie, derived from the Greek word fronimos, meaning mentality, or state of mind. The students seemed to think that it meant over-subtle or devious, but after I had been at St Paul's for 10 days I wrote in my diary:

I suppose I have now been here long enough to make some sort of judgement on the place, and make some comparisons with St Chad's. In obvious things, the discipline here is far stricter, but that doesn't matter, because it is at least a genuine expression of some sort of Christian community. At St Chad's the rules were ignored because there was no cohesion, the confusion and loss of identity, which was the dominant feature of St Chad's, may be yet to come here. St Paul's may not yet have experienced the winds of change, and doubts and confusion that have hit the Church of England. There is some measure of concord between principles and practice, between politics and theology and liturgy.

The Warden, Fronnie Suggit, is also a very good bloke. One cannot say of him, as we did of John Fenton, "White man speak with forked tongue." Fronnie is a man of no guile. His practice reflects his principles. He is gentle, loving and concerned. He takes an interest in people, and tries to understand them. Fenton was remote, insulated by his risqué jokes, and making of outrageous statements without being able to show what they mean in practice. Fenton gives unconvincing reasons for doing things, because you feel that he himself has not been convinced. Fronnie seems to do things only when he himself is convinced about them, and though I think in some things he is wrong, at least his conviction is genuine. That at least makes it possible to bargain, to compromise, to agree to differ. And coming here has also exposed, once and for all, the myth that "overseas" things are better. Certainly St Paul's is better than any theological college I have seen elsewhere. The system may be open to criticism on many grounds, but whatever its faults, it works. More than ever I am convinced that it would be desirable for some English ordinands to come here -- not only because it might broaden their outlook to go to another country (which is the only advantage I can see in sending South Africans to England), but also because they would get a better theological training.

And if, like some students at St Chad's I might say of the Principal, "white man speak with forked tongue", by then I was saying of John Suggit that "he speaks with authority, and not as the scribes."

Not that I disliked John Fenton. He was a very likeable person, and after leaving St Chad's I corresponded with him occasionally until his death, but his theology seemed somehow defective and uninspiring, and in spite of his admiration for Bultmann and Bultmann's supposed existentialism, he would sometimes say some very unexistential things. For example, he once said that he did not believe in the Kingdom of God. So we asked him why, if he did not believe in the Kingdom of God, did he think it important that we attend daily Mattins and Evensong. And his reply was "Because you've got to do it when you get into a parish." And I was sure that John Suggit believed that daily Mattins and Evensong were important because he believed in the Kingdom of God. When worship is divorced from life and genuine faith it becomes of no more value or significance than the musical banks of Samuel Butlers Erewhon.

A few days later, on 18 October, St Luke's Day, when I had known him for just a fortnight, I wrote in my diary:

After supper there was Evensong, and Fronnie gave an address on the new theology of secularisation and the death of God, and pointed out their limitations. I find myself believing everything he says, and he is one of those blokes where it doesn't matter what he says, because if he says it, it must be all right. He is, in short, a saint.

4. After St Paul's

After leaving St Paul's I saw John Suggit quite rarely, either when passing through Grahamstown, or at synods, but on those kinds of occasions there was little opportunity to speak for long.

Stephen Hayes
E-mail: hayesstw@telkomsa.net
Tuesday, 26 April 2022

10 May 2022

The Caliban Shore: anatomy of a shipwreck

The Caliban Shore

The Caliban Shore by Stephen Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There have been many shipwrecks on the coast of southern Africa over the centuries, but only four stick in my mind -the wreck of the Grosvenor on the Pondoland coast in 1782, the Birkenhead just east of Cape Town in 1852, the Dunedin Star on the coast of Namibia in 1942, and the Oceanos in 1991, a little south of where the Grosvenor was wrecked. I learned about the first two at school -- they made it to the history books as being among the most famous shipwrecks on the southern African coast. The wreck of the Birkenhead was famous for establishing the principle of "women and children first", and the wreck of the Oceanos was famous for the abandoning of that principle.

All aboard the Dunedin Star and the Oceanos were rescued. Many of those aboard the Birkenhead died, but their fate was known. But the wreck of the Grosvenor became the stuff of legend, because the fate of the majority of its passengers and crew remains unknown to this day, nearly 240 years later. And that is what Stephen Taylor explores in The Caliban Shore -- what happened to the ship and the people in August 1782. In doing so he reveals some interesting facets of the history of India, southern Africa, and the UK.

The fascination of the story is partly in the mysteries. We quite enjoy watching the TV series Air Crash Investigation, where the interest is in the search to discover what happened and why. It is a puzzle to be solved. Was it a mechanical error or a human error, or an event outside human control, like weather, or a volcanic eruption? If it is a human error, it is sometimes caused by human relations -- what were the relations of the crew members? It can also be poor training and skill. These issues are explored in the TV series in a formulaic way, but in the case of the wreck of the Grosvenor, Stephen Taylor does it much more thoroughly.

We learn something about the economics of India, and especially of the trade between India and the UK, which the British East India Company sought to monopolise, but though it dominated the trade, it did not control it completely. We learn, for example, that of the 740 tons of cargo that the ship could carry, the Captain was entitled to use 58 tons for his own personal trade. The Captain also decided who could be passengers, and how much they should pay.

In addition to the mystery of what led up to the fate of the ship, there is the mystery of missing persons. The fate of the majority of people on board remains unknown. The nearest port where they could hope to get a ship to continue their journey to Britain was Cape Town, 800 miles (1290 km) away, measured by modern roads, but in those days there were no roads for about half the distance. There were young children, pregnant women and sickly old people among the survivors of the wreck, and most of them did not survive the journey, or else gave up.

[author Stephen Taylor] examines all the known remaining records of the event to trace the lives and careers of those who were aboard to ship, to try to piece together what happened to each. Some are known to have died on the journey. Others were abandoned by their fellows in circumstances where they were assumed to have died. The route to Cape Town passed through a war zone; it was the beginning of the 100 Years War between the Xhosas and the Cape Colony, though history usually divides it into nine "Frontier Wars". And the Dutch who controlled the Cape Colony were at war with the British, so British ships did not call there. A few of the survivors managed to get on Danish ships. But some decided to stay put and settle where they were, among the local Pondo people, others may have done so, but it is not certain who they were, or where they settled.

 The news of the shipwreck took a long time to reach Britain, and when it did it was sketchy and gasve rise to sensational and highly speculative press reports. The voyage from Britain to India in  the 1780s usually took 6-8 months. Much was made of the anxiety of the families of those involved, who lacked what the media nowadays call "closure". For many, it seems, the good news would be that their relatives had died, for to be marooned among a strange and unknown people was seen as "a fate worse than death". 

For the local people, the wreck was both an opportunity and a threat. Pondoland had no deposits of iron ore, so people in the vicinity of the wreck, ignoring the castaways and their plight, set about burning the wooden wrekage of the ship to retrieve nails and any other bits of scrap metal they could find. When the castawats tried to approach them, they drove them away, and this was seen and portrayed as evidence of the "savagery" of the local people, though it seems that in our day people who are shipwrecked while travelling from Africa to Europe are treated just as badly by Europeans, who seem to be equally savage, 

With hindsight, and research, Taylor explains this -- August, when the ship was wrecked, was the end of winter. The grazing was poor, the cattle were thin, and the previous season's crops were almost exhausted, so the prospect of 140 uninvited guests for dinner was just too much. Later, when the shipwreck survivors had split into smaller groups, they were treated more hospitably.

Another interesting thing is that the ship carried a report on corruption in the British East India company and its officials. Both the report and the bearer failed to make it to Britain as a result of the wreck. I found this interesting because I studied a related incident in history at university -- the Impeachment of Warren Hastings. This book made a great deal more sense of what he was impeached for and why, and perhaps also helps to explain some events in our own time, when the Gupta brothers engaged in state capture in South Africa, and promoted corruption in business, the civil service and in state-owned enterprises. It seems that the British East India Company was very much into state capture. I'm not sure whether they started it or just passed on what they had received from others, but it seems that the Guptas were heirs of that tradition, and have passed it on to the RET crowd in South Africa.

The books explores the history, the legends and the rumours, and tries to establish, as far as possible, what actually happened. So there is history, an investigation into a shipwreck, a survival story, and a search for what happened to missing persons as well.

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06 May 2022

A Dystopian View of the Generation Gap: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first read The Midwich Cuckoos, sixty years ago, I thought it was one of the better sf novels I had read. That was so long ago that I'd forgotten most of it except the main plot outline. Now it reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End -- both are about a strange generation of children appearing in the world.

I thought John Wyndham was one of the better science fiction writers, though in re-reading The Kraken Wakes I found it rather pedestrian. The Midwich Cuckoos is better, but still slower paced than I remembered.

What I liked about Wyndham's books, however, is the same thing that I liked about Charles Williams's books - they are set in this world. As with fantasy, so with science fiction, I'm not particularly interested in outer space -- the sf books I've enjoyed most have all been set in this world -- Brave New World, A Canticle for Leibowitz and so on. And I read them all in the early 1960s, and have reread most of them several times since.

But John Wyndham belonged to my father's generation, and now I notice that many popular British novels of the 1940s and 1950s have characteristics that strike me as odd now. Not Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but John Wyndham, Nevil Shute and others. Apart from all their descriptions of people smoking, they are all conscious of class, and written from a self-consciously upper middle-class point of view, seeing themselves as the "educated class" and the others as uneducated. They often have a Sir Somebody-or-Other in them who is respected for his expertise in a particular field, almost as though one cannot be an expert in anything unless one is a Sir. Wyndham would have been at school during the First World War, and was in the army in the Second, and so in addition to the division between the "educated class" and the rest, there is also a "Service" point of view that the main characters identify with.

Wyndham also now appears to me as sexist, not overtly, but quite subtly so. One of the minor characters in The Midwich Cuckoos has a PhD, and I get the feeling that Wyndham sees her as an oddity. That is a perhaps a generational thing, and perhaps The Midwich Cuckoos and Childhood's End speak of how people of Wyndham and Clarke's generation approached the generation gap.

In my own life, the 1950s now seem a foreign world to me. That was when I was at school, and the adult world of "business" seemed strange and alien to me. My mother used to dress up to go to town, and to go to church, and I hated dressing up, from about the age of 11 onwards. I was most comfortable in khaki shirt and shorts, which we wore at Mountain Lodge school most of the time. Shorts were uncomfortable for riding horses, and at first I went for jodhpurs, because that is what one did, but Mr Groos, who taught me riding, wore riding breeches. But later I found jeans more comfortable. And perhaps our whole generation was like that, because by the late 1960s everyone was dressing as I had imagined I would like to dress when I was 11 or 12.

In 1962 when we went to church in casual clothes people stared at us, but now everyone dresses like that, and most people I know tend to speak rather disparagingly of "suits". The change came between 1962 and 1967, and has persisted ever since. But perhaps Wyndham and Clarke could see it coming in the 1950s, a strange and alien generation of children growing up to become flower children rather than "Service" children. Books written before 1962 have a different style. Nowadays people speak a lot of different generations, giving them letters, X, Y, Z and so on and I have little idea of what they mean. My own generation seems to have no name and no letter. Back in the day of Childhood's End and The Midwich Cuckoos we did have a name, however. Those born after The War were "baby boomers", and we were "war babies", but since the 1950s no one has spoken of that distinction much, yet for me, at least, that distinction is far more real than the XYZ one, which seem quite indistinquishable to me. If one wanted to give our generation a name today, I suppose it would be the Beat-Hip generation, falling between the Beat Generation and the hippies. Roughly the time when "hipster" got shortened to "hippie", and before it go lengthened again.

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