We all need a (working) bullshit detector

Iran/Belgium fashion week
Iran/Belgium fashion week

Men who wear bow ties, cravats, and/or glasses on a string. People who join MENSA. Middle class people who go on a bit too long about ‘their’ football team.

All these categories may be victims of blind prejudice, or alternatively they may simply be stimulating a fully functioning bullshit detector, which is an essential piece of one’s armamentarium these days.

In medicine, beware of the patient loudly proclaiming they have a ‘high pain threshold’ – they will squeal like a pig as soon as you examine them. Junior surgeons who boast of their huge list of operations, personally undertaken are often the most callow and ineffective, prone to panic and misjudgement. Patients who enthusiastically medicalise their every feeling, for whom new diagnoses with arcane names such as fibromyalgia are the gift that keeps on giving. Doctors who are anxious to tell you how busy they are always have all their holidays booked, know their exact leave allowance, and go to silly meetings and get out of clinical duties more than any of their quieter colleagues.

So when I first saw Camila Batmanghelidjh, now of Kids’ Company notoriety, I think on Question Time a few years ago, I assumed she was of Nigerian heritage, or something similar. Why would she dress like that otherwise? The bullshit detector should have kicked in. Her exotic Belgian/Iranian gene pool doesn’t suggest an immediate affinity for sub-Saharan Africa.

Of course it now seems evident that at best she was naive and bad at running things, but today’s revelation that she had an expensive chauffeur, because she didn’t like walking or getting public transport, suggests a more calculating persona, perhaps.

Normally I’d be indifferent to this sort of nonsense, were it not for the fact that her organisation seems to have hoovered up literally millions of taxpayers’ cash, with, as it happens, not much to show for it beyond a few anecdotes. Dave’s own involvement suggests he needs a new bullshit detector. Worrying in a prime minister.

Most people reasonably assume charities compete for money that the public may or may not choose to give away, not just sign up with the government for enormous handouts. If you did want to spend all that public money on the disadvantaged, you’d be far better handing it out in the street a la helicopter money, rather than funnelling it through some loosely structured inefficient fiefdom like Kids’ Company appears to be.

So, I have to add to the above list, which is far from exhaustive anyway, a proclivity for dressing flamboyantly in a manner suggesting a different ethnic group. There are parallels here with the defiantly white black activist Rachel Dolezal, and indeed former candidate for the Democratic nomination, 1/32 Cherokee Elizabeth Warren.

Douglas Murray’s neat discussion of the ‘halo effect’ is as good an explanation as any of how previously well functioning bullshit detectors can be disabled:

It has often occurred to me that if you wanted to perform any great con trick these days you could do no better than to have a hard to pronounce name, wear achingly ethnic clothing and cultivate a sort of ‘mother earth’ persona. The search for authenticity is such that before long every culturally embarrassed media and political creep would beat a path to your door, sit at your feet and hug you like a tree. In reality you would never need to do anything much because you’ve already ticked all the culturally correct boxes.

Those of us who feel this way could be accused of being wise after the event, but once you’ve identified, well in advance of their current diminished popularity, Tony Blair, Bono, Richard Branson, Alex Salmond and many others, I feel one is entitled to claim a degree of authority in this emerging discipline.


Yet more of the Mandela I knew…

The best three things  that I’ve seen, that actually enlighten the reader on the whole Mandela/South Africa thing, are not to be found in the mainstream press.

Firstly, the always excellent Charles Crawford, at the Commentator. Crawford is an  ex-ambassador, and a very accomplished writer. He has the relevant personal experience, and a complete lack of the usual bullshit:

So, why is Mandela so revered? Partly it’s a carefully cultivated mythology that this saintly man presided over a saintly process. Type “South Africa peaceful transition” into Google and over a million hits appear.

There are references aplenty to statements such as this: South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was indeed a miracle that captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Fine, soaring sentiments. And quite untrue.

Between 1985 and 1996 deaths from political violence in South Africa exceeded 20,000, with a large number taking place in the KwaZulu/Natal area. In Poland by contrast deaths from political violence of different shapes and sizes during the Solidarity period and through to the first free elections were very rare, to the point where individual killings of pro-democracy activists such as Father Popieluszko were a major mobilising event.

That small death toll did not make the Polish transition from communism ‘peaceful’. During the Martial Law period thousands were beaten or tortured or imprisoned or harassed or otherwise brutalised. From the outside it probably looked relatively calm and restrained. For Poles at the receiving end of this nationwide oppression it did not feel that way.

The point is that the world sees South Africa as a ‘peaceful’ transition only because not many pale-skinned people were killed. The fact that tens of thousands of dark-skinned people died in a disgusting civil war between Mandela’s African National Congress plus its Communist Party ally with every other African political tendency across the political spectrum is too ghastly to contemplate. So we don’t contemplate it.

Much more important – because it is true – is that Mandela came to symbolise a powerful idea that took hold round the planet: that categorising people by race is morally and politically unacceptable.

Secondly, the noted uberlefty, colonial journalist John Pilger.  Pilger has a few blind spots, but many fine attributes: he is a real reporter; he certainly cares; he has quite a few scoops, not least the incredible expose on Pol Pot’s killing fields. He also knows Mandela and  South Africa. Here he is a few months ago on Mandela’s legacy:

I had asked him why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks – and “a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”. Once in power, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned, with one of his ministers boasting that the ANC’s politics were Thatcherite.

“You can put any label on it if you like,” he replied. “…but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.”

“That’s the opposite of what you said in 1994.”

“You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change.”

Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with prominent members of the Afrikaaner elite at meetings in a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the ANC between the “moderates” they could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo) and those in the frontline townships who led the United Democratic Front (UDF). On 5 July, 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P.W. Botha, the white minority president known as the ‘Groot Krokodil’ (‘Big Crocodile’). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid was ended, and economic apartheid had a new face. During the 1980s, the Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them set up companies outside the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with a rampant cronyism. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

Which references, to Thatcherism and PW Botha, bring us neatly to the last piece, which is Maggie’s detailed and exceptionally well argued letter to the Groot Krokodil, back in 1985, where she politely and with real insight explains how SA should get out of the mess that it was in, including, very specifically, releasing Mandela. It’s on a pdf file here, and it’s worth reading in full. I had never realised, until I read this, quite how brilliant a writer Maggie could be, and how, very concisely, she could convey a complex message. The letter is a masterpiece of living history. As someone who lived through the 1980’s listening to my peers singing and shouting about freeing Mandela, without actually knowing who he was – that was most people, believe me – it’s quite an eye opener to find just how switched on the Hated Thatcher was on all the necessary detail, and how influenced she was both by basic morality and pragmatic common sense.

So, a tribute to Mandela turns in part into a tribute to Maggie. It’s what he would have wanted.


Mandela and me (part 2,564)

I hate to admit it, but both Tony Blair and Bonio can indeed legitimately claim to have been pally with Nelson Mandela. Megairritations though they are, it’s fair enough.

Not so most of the others desperate to share their ‘friendship’ with Madiba, today bringing us a delightfully nauseating attempt by the man who never knows when to shut up, John Prescott, or Gordon Brown’s baffling but hilarious claim that Nelson taught him ‘courage’. Yes, that Brown.

All these desperate attempts to get a photo opportunity with a demented amiable old man who has zero interest in who you are culminated in Dave’s particularly egregious effort, shown below. Thank God Cleggy wasn’t with him.

Who are you again?
Who are you again?

Which brings me to The Knife’s sort of Mandela link, tenuous though it is. I used to work for a very charismatic and gifted surgeon, who was a South African jew. He had a glittering career lined up in SA, but he hated apartheid, and chose to work in the townships, notably at the enormous Baragwanath in Soweto.  When he came to the UK, effectively as an exile, he had to start again from scratch. This admirable man often mentioned Desmond Tutu as an “amiable little fellow” who’d been at the hospital. The social worker was a different story, Winnie Mandela, who even then (mid 1960’s) was apparently milking the fact that she was the first black social worker there, and had a very famous imprisoned husband. However, every time my ex-boss brought her a problem – typically a father of three, severe assault, head injury, would never work again – her response was the same “these blacks are hopeless, you can’t do anything for them“. A true story, and an inkling of what kind of monster Winnie later became. No wonder Nelson got rid.

My boss was part of what might have been the first medical diaspora from SA – principled, talented people who just couldn’t stomach the regime. He lived to see Mandela’s release, and the subsequent ANC stranglehold on power. That is what led to the second diaspora. By the mid-90’s established consultants were leaving SA en masse, giving up lucrative practices, and inevitably depriving those left behind of some very gifted doctors and surgeons. The reason was the ultraviolence in society, that has yet to be fully dealt with.

One distinguished academic colleague told me that he essentially was living in a gilded prison (perhaps not unlike Nelson, in the years after Robben Island). If his daughters were out socialising, he had no idea if they would make it back. It was that bad. These people are now heading for retirement from their NHS jobs, and very few of them – native South Africans all  – want to go back, much as it was their home. It’s not as if they love the British weather.

Mandela never denied resorting to terrorist violence, his great achievement was renouncing that and displaying a rare gift of forgiveness, and talking to one’s former enemies.  If you want to be truthful though, he has left a pretty mixed legacy, more than 20 years on. The ANC is so power crazy and dysfunctional, that it’s only had one good leader – Mandela. When an avaricious moronic thug like Jacob Zuma is running the show, then you know that something’s gone badly wrong. Likewise, despite an OK World Cup, South Africa is a very dangerous place, not just for affluent whites like me, but particularly for the black population. Lastly, Nelson promoted unfettered abortion. You don’t have to be Catholic to think that this might have major adverse consequences, and was hardly a priority in a country that has many many serious problems.

The Africans with whom I work are all convinced that Nelson had been kept alive – just – on a ventilator, until the most propitious time of death for the ruling elite in SA.  As a number of people have pointed out, not least The Knife, given the current OTT response of politicians and media, we must also keep Bonio alive for as long as possible.