Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Say NO to smiting!

"I really couldn't see the point of the whole business, to tell you the truth. Shouting, smiting, getting angry all the time... don't think anyone was getting anything out of it really. But the worst part... You know the worst part? The worst part was that if you actually stopped the smiting, people wandered off and worshiped someone else. Hard to believe, isn't it? They'd say things like, 'Things were a lot better when there was more smiting,' and 'If there was more smiting, it'd be a lot safer to walk the streets'."
Pratchett, Last Continent
I'm very tired of people who say it was better before. It's not true. It's not true ever, anywhere (unless you're a weirdo who likes sleeping in trees with lions about), but it's particularly not true here. And yet people continually assert that things would be better if the army was on the streets ('preventing crime' and 'enforcing laws') and the justice system was swifter (and more popularly-controlled) and people did what they were told (at gunpoint if necessary), i.e. if we could go back 20 or so years.

The problem with this discussion is that things probably were 'better' - for a given definition of better - back then. That definition isn't all ridiculous, either. A lot of people's subjective experience of ordinary crime was probably a lot less severe at the time. Granted, this was partly because ordinary criminals were nothing compared to what the security forces were like, but it's still true. And education was 'better' - teachers were given a very specific, exacting syllabus and they taught what they were given and nothing else (or else). And there was better discipline in classrooms. This was partly because the 'trouble-makers' (i.e. leaders) were generally in exile or boycotting Bantu education, and anyone who questioned the system was simply expelled. And the syllabus didn't teach particularly useful skills (except to be a manual labourer). But the schools were better controlled and provided a better experience for teachers and parents. A given definition of 'better'. Police were a lot more scary then, too. This was mostly because police brutality was not only allowed but encouraged, but is still true. And justice was swifter and more deadly. Often inaccurately deadly but therefore swifter.

I often find myself struggling with this. The fact of the matter is that South African society was more disciplined and probably more oraganised, and perhaps even more efficient during Apartheid. The bleeding heart liberals will deny even this, but that's why bleeding heart liberals are not taken as seriously as they would like. The facts are there, whether they are denied or not. The trick with this discussion is to move past the facts and question the evaluative framework. South Africa's authoritarian regime was more efficient. So was Nazi Germany. So was 1970s and 80s China (along with the other Asian Tigers - don't get me started). So is almost any authoritarian regime. That's the problem. When considering what style of government to adopt, it's important to define the ideal individual experience you're looking for. If your overriding goal is efficiency and control, authoritarianism is the way to go. It's also quite profitable, at least until the cost of waging war against your own citizens, to make them accept the authority of an illegitimate government, becomes prohibitive (see SA recession circa 1980s for example).

A democratic system is not as efficient. It is not as organised. The New South Africa has disorgansed, inefficient corruption and exploitation and messy political disagreements and media upsetting sensitive business and government deals. And the trade unions do disrupt work. And there are serious problems with service delivery in some areas. And there is lots of traffic. And sometimes an idiot will be elected president. Democracy is a much, much harder system to organise and control. It is an extremely messy system which requires the voters to get their hands dirty to be truly effective. But it is a system which (particularly in the constitutional democracy form) values and protects freedom. We have exchanegd structure and discipline for freedom.

And this is perhaps the reason this discussion leaves me frustrated - because the people who would like 'more smiting' just cannot understand why I have this bizarre obsession with freedom. Freedom is a terribly intangible thing that you can't really appreciate until you haven't got it. Worse than that, many of those who have never had it - and lived perfectly ordered, boring, externally controlled lives where someone else provided and they were taught not to value choice - also don't see the point of it. Freedom is also a wonderful, marvelous thing that means you get to make your own mistakes and take the consequences. It seems that only a very small percentage of people in the world truly value freedom for itself and for everyone (even the bad men). For now, that freedom is safe (at least in SA) but as I watch other countries and the political trends here, I am increasingly aware that awfully large numbers are joining the 'more smiting' brigade and that, temporary respites aside, the fight for everyone's freedom will never really be over.


  1. Cough. Cough. Russia.. Cough.

    I once heard a very clever man (no, it wasn't me) point out that freedom is one of those things that you will have to fight for without end simply to maintain. And in that sense, it is an unwinnable battle, given that the moment you stop fighting things start to regress.

    But that didn't mean it wasn't worth persisting forever.

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  3. And Russia. Which was actually pretty industrially efficient until they ran into the usual war-on-citizens-costs-a-bundle problem. And now has something which is called 'managed democracy' and sounds worryingly smite-friendly.

    And, yes, definitely worth persisting. "We will never surrender...", aluta continua, etc.