by Lorenzo A Davids
In his video article two days ago in the New Yorker, American journalist and author Andrew Marantz wrote that, “The long arc of history doesn't just bend itself. We have to do the work of bending it.”
The phrase is a restructuring of the quote used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, which is a quote from an 1853 sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker.
Marantz’s reflections on the storming of the US Capitol Buildings by Trump-aligned insurrectionists are sobering. He states that both politicians and the public see this insurrection as shocking and refers to it as an aberration of who we are.
The common refrain is “this is not who we are”. Marantz, however, argues that it is the wrong conclusion to make. He states that what we see playing out in front of us is because of who we are: we are what we see in front of us.
We have seen despicable aspects of our own democracy – our corruption, violence and abuse of privilege. During these occurrences we speak of “this is not who we are” and call on “better versions of ourselves” to emerge at the end of all this.
When, as citizens, we express shock at what we see around us – the poverty, the corruption, the violence – we have to accept that this is who we are. There is no “better version of ourselves”. The version that is currently controlling the arc of our own history is the one that burns down libraries and barricades buildings and embraces injustice and corruption.
At the end of WW1, fascism began to emerge as a political ideology across Europe. Historian Robert Paxton describes fascism as a form of political behaviour marked by a preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood in which a mass-based party of nationalist militants abandons democratic liberties and pursues their goals with violence and without ethical or legal restraints.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler had grown a small idea into a resistance movement of 15 000 men called Sturmabteilung SA (storm troopers) — made up mainly of unemployed and disenchanted people — and had access to hidden stores of weapons. That year, Hitler attempted to overthrow the elected regional government of Bavaria in a coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch. It was the beginning of a period in which the arc of world history was bent towards fascist rule, racism and the mass destruction of life by ordinary people.
In South Africa, our democratic journey began in 1994. It was a response to centuries of oppression of black people and the recognition of the human rights of all.
We have seen the corruption of our public representatives. Their flawedness is not an aberration. The unpredictability of human nature, especially in those who have been given power to rule, is the big risk.
In every political ecosystem, what we see playing out in front of us is who we are. Our justifications for these aberrations and our view that “in the end it will all work out” is the reason why we have the present.
The present chaos is a consequence of who we are. If we were a different people, the consequence would be different.
Switzerland has the most guns per capita in the world outside of the US and Yemen. Yet it only has 22 gun murders on average per year. That’s who the Swiss are.
South Africa had 7 351 gun murders in 2019. The violence on our streets, the corruption, or the violent disruption of our Parliament is because of who we are. There is no “better version” we can appeal to.
We must stop believing that the present chaos will, in the end, all lead to a better world. If we are going to bend the long arc of the moral universe towards justice and peace, we have to do the hard work — now — of bending it ourselves.
* Lorenzo A Davids is chief executive of the Community Chest.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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