23 April 2023

What is Extremism?

The use of terms like "extremism" and "extremist" seems to be increasing, but frequency of use seems to be inversely proportional to clarity of meaning.

Most people who use the terms frequently seem to think extremism is a bad thing, but they rarely say what it is that they are denouncing as bad.

I assume, since the opposite of extremism is moderation, middle-of-the road, mediocrity or sitting-on-the-fence, that people who denounce extremism favour vagueness, and not holding strong opinions about anything. One gets the impression that the role model for anti-extremists is Wither, the deputy-director of N.I.C.E. -- the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments in C.S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength.

It is the custom of some Christian bishops to sign their official correspondence with a self-designation like "the humble mediocrity", or words to that effect, and this might give the impression that the Christian faith is anti-extremist, until one reads the words in the Revelation of St John the Divine:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

Whatever the Church of Laodicaea was back then, it certainly could not be accused of extremism, but its lack of extremism brought not praise, but denunciation. And people like Christian saints seem to have bee characterised by extremism. Most of us mediocrities admire them, but do not really seek to emulate them. That would be over-the-top. The safest position is a moderate disapproval of evil, and a moderate approval of good, but nothing extreme, you understand. 

Being extremist is, in fact, neither intrinsically good not intrinsically bad. It is not being it extreme that is good or bad, but rather what you are being extreme about.

Extremism and extremist are weasel words. Avoid using them, and be wary of people who use them too much. Those who are extremely anti-extremist are themselves being extremist.

12 April 2023

Life Off the Grid -- then and now

We were off the grid for 42 hours this week  It was quite scary.

On Monday morning I woke up early, as I often do. It was dark, and there was no electricity. Nothing unusual, I was prepared for that, it was one of Eskom's scheduled load-shedding periods, so I booted up my laptop, lit a candle and worked for a couple of hours. Some time between 4:00 and 4:30 am the power should come on and charge up my laptop, and I'd copy my work to a USB flash drive, boot up my desktop computer and continue working there. Only by 4:30 the power had not come on again. and my laptop began beeping that its battery was getting low. There must be a fault in the power supply, so at 4:34 I sent an SMS to the municipal Electricity Department to report it. 

Usually when one sends such an SMS to the Electricity Department a reply comes back in a couple of minutes saying "Your reference number for the power failure at (your address) is xxxx", but this time it didn't. That usually means that the power failure is widespread and the system is jammed with lots of such messages. 

At about 7 am our son Simon got up, and said the power had gone off at about 9:00 pm on Sunday evening -- Western Easter Sunday. That might mean that a lot of the staff of the Electricity Department might have gone off for the long weekend so repairs might take a bit longer. T thought I'd better go on to Facebook and warn family, friends and acquaintances that I might not be replying to email for a while, so I switched on mobile data on my phone and tried to get on to Facebook. "Connect to a network" it tells me. Oops, that must mean that the standby batteries  in the cell phone towers have run down (perhaps with all those SMSs reporting the power failure). 

My wife Val went to the shop to buy bread. Because of load shedding they have generators, and perhaps they use gas for baking the bread, so they had bread, but cash only. Their card machines won't connect to the bank, and no one uses those old zip-zap card thingies any more. It seems like we're well and truly off the grid. Our other son has Whatsapp on his phone and had managed to connect to the neighbourhood watch group, where someone had heard that some pylons had blown down in a storm on Sunday night.

We went to the Alkantrant library to renew our books -- we used to be able to do it by email. On the way we tried to charge our phones with a USB cord plugged into the cigarette lighter (does anyone actually light cigarettes in cars any more?)  The robot was working in Stanza Bopape Street, and the lights were on in the library, so it was only to the north of that that the power was off. The librarian said that, though the lights were on, the library computer was down because the server was in the area where the power was off. She also told us that the pylons that had blown down in the storm on Sunday night were on the highway between Simon Vermooten and Solomon Mahlangu Roads, and that the power had been off in Mamelodi where she lived too. 

We drove out along the highway to see the scene, and see the progress, if any, on repairs. There were a few vehicles at the side of the road, and in a gap in the bush I caught a quick glimpse of a fallen  pylon, but no sign of progress on repairing them. It looked like it might not be a matter of days, but more like weeks, or even months, before it could be repaired. 

We went to The Grove shopping mall, and while Val was inside she left the car engine running to carry on charging the phones, and I took advantage of the signal to put a message on Facebook that we might be incommunicado for an indefinite period. We got a newspaper at another shop, and there was report on what had happened. About six pylons, weakened by the depredations of metal thieves, had blown over in a storm on Sunday night, The mayor was quoted as saying that the public would be kept informed about when the power was likely to be restored, though how that information was to reach those most affected, he did not say.

So all the things that we have become dependent on that rely on electricity are suddenly no longer there, indefinitely. No phones -- cell phones won't connect, and even if they did, the batteries would soon be flat. The landline won't work -- since it was converted from copper to optical fibre it needs electricity for the ONT. Get a UPS, they say, but does a UPS last for 42 hours? We'll be scared to go out because the burglar alarm battery will be flat. You can't draw cash from an ATM, so you can't buy anything at the shop, no card, and no cash either. It's a daunting prospect. 

Yet in my youth, between the ages of 8 and 12, I lived off the grid for more than four years, and survived.

We lived on a smallholding in  Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg/ The municipal boundary ran along George Avenue, Sandringham. South of George Avenue was Sandringham, which got municipal electricity, north of it was Sunningdale, which did not. We'd have to ask Escom, which had no plans to supply the area for several years to come. The house had a 32V DC system, driven by a petrol generator, with a bunch of car batteries, but it soon stopped working. So we used paraffin lamps for light -- ordinary ones with wicks for bedrooms and bathrooms, Coleman lamps with mantles for the kitchen, dining room and sitting room. For music we had a wind-up gramophone that played 78 rpm records. There was no telephone. We applied for one at the post office, but their waiting list was four years long, and, like Escom, they didn't have wires in the area, and would have to erect the infrastructure if enough people applied. We did eventually get a phone when I was about 11 I'd almost forgotten how to use one; the last time we'd had one was when we'd lived in Westville, near Durban, when I was 6. The number we got, 45-1870, is the only previous phone number I've ever had, apart from the current one, that I can still remember.

We had an ice box, a real icebox, a wooden affair that you put a big block of ice in, with a drip tray underneath to catch the water as it melted, Fortunately for us, my father was a chemist and the factory where he worked made dry ice -- frozen carbon dioxide at -78 degrees, but whether F or C I can't remember. It didn't drip, it evaporated, and my father brought it home in a cardboard box once a week. We'd just take out the old empty box and put in the new full one. When my parents had parties they filled the bathtub with water, put in a few dozen bottles of beer with a chunk of dry ice in it. It bubbled away as it evaporated, and there was a plentiful supply of cold beer.

We also had cows and chickens and fruit trees and almond trees and (cape) gooseberry bushes. In school holidays I would go round with my mother in her little Wolseley 8 helping to deliver eggs, butter and cream to customers all over Sandringham and Sydenham.

When I was 12 we got a diesel engine and generator which produced 220V electricity, and suddenly the appliances that had sat gathering cobwebs for 5 years began to be used again -- the washing machine, the radiogram, the electric sowing machine (in the mean time my mother had got used to using a treadle one).

But back then, living off the grid wasn't a big deal. People paid by cash or cheque, no credit cards. Accounts came by snail mail, no email (I've just heard a rumour that the post office has filed for bankruptcy -- is it true? Another of Maggie Thatcher's chickens coming home to roost).

When we lived off the grid my father took me to school in the morning, to Fairmount Government School, a mile away. In the afternoon I'd walk home, at the age of 8, over the bare veld, which is now the leafy suburb of Glenhazel. But now we have become so dependent on electronic devices that living off the grid becomes so daunting as to be almost unthinkable.

09 April 2023

Rebellious Victorian schoolboys: Stalky & Co

Stalky and Co.

Stalky and Co. by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book, and perhaps for that reason I took so long to read it.

It's a school story about three teenage schoolboys at a boarding school in North Devon in England, where Rudyard Kipling himself went to school. These three, Beetle, Turkey (M'Turk) and the eponymous Stalky himself are rebels in the school, rebelling against the teachers, the prefects, and the system of authority. Since the school is in the same area, and shares many of the characteristics of the school that Kipling himself attended, it probably reflects Kipling's own response to his schooling, and his thoughts on education, authority and discipline.

Many of the pupils at the school are children of British army officers, and, since it is set in the late 19th century, it was at the height of British imperialism, so most of the boys were born outside the UK, and many of them plan to have careers in the army.

The school also appears to be run on the lines of a neo-liberal dream, except that it was probably the economic proto-liberalism that neo-liberalism is nostalgically trying to bring back, and which was satirised by its contemporaries, Gilbert and Sullivan in their comic opera Utopia Limited. So the school pays a dividend of 4% to its sharefolders. 

I myself went to a school like that, though it wasn't a high school, it was Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, which was private not just in the sense of not being run by the government, but privately run for profit. It came to an end in 1952 when the "Bursar" Mr Burnford absconded with the funds.

One thing I liked about the book is that though many schools of that kind are run on authoritarian lines, and are calculated to foster an authoritarian outlook in their pupils, the three heroes of the story cock a snook at authority and put down authoritarian teachers and prefects. What I didn't much like about it was the sadistic and vengeful manner in which they often did so, and most especially Kipling's evident approval of this.

At Mountain Lodge we had some similar rebellions against authority, though, since we were all pre-teens, they were not as sophisticated and planned as those in Stalky & Co. On one occasion the whole school went on strike over an authoritarian teacher. And, rather as in the book, the whole school was caned, but the following term that teacher did not return.

Kipling makes the point, which I think is a good one, that much of the learning in school actually takes place in extra-curricular activities and is quite unplanned. This would go right against the idea of the Outcomes-Based Education that was recently tried in South African schools with not much success. The outcomes in Stalky and Co are without exception unplanned and unexpected, at least by the school authorities. That too, as been part of my own experience, though mo0re at the level of tertiary education than secondary. Most of the real learning takes place outside the classroom.

The last chapter shows some of the main characters, with the exception of Stalky himself, meeting again after having been out of school for some years, having all seen military service in India, and they share some of their experiences and rumours of Stalky, who has been disciplined by the army as he had been at school. It appears that he had been a military success, but in an unconventional way. Kipling's idea of a good army officer is an irregular and unconventional one. Perhaps Kipling's ideal military leader would be a guerrilla leader, like Che Guevara, or a mercenary leader, like Mad Mike Hoare.

Nearly sixty years later, in 1968, someone made a film with a similar theme. The film was called If, and it is now nearly sixty years since it was made, so Stalky & Co is about life in a school more than 120 years ago, and much of the contemporary schoolboy slang is difficult to follow, but education and its problems seem to continue, regardless of period. The most recent school stories I have read are the Harry Potter books, and even they are now 20-25 years old -- do the current crop of school children still read them, or perhaps they have them set as compulsory boring texts. But some things persist, regardless of period, like Zemblanity in eduction.   

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