Andrew Donaldson on the British press' obsession with the new SA Covid variant, Putin's Nkandla, and other matters
A FAMOUS GROUSE
IN what the Presidency modestly hails as an “historic development for transparency and accountability”, Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that the Political Party Funding Act will come into operation on April 1. The new legislation sets in place reporting requirements to the Independent Electoral Commission which limits and opens to public scrutiny funding to political parties.
While this is seen as a largely positive development on Squirrel’s part, a bold move to combat corruption in the public sector, etc, at least one commentator, political and investment analyst Nic Borain, has pointed to a potential oversight in the legislation.
In a blog post, Borain notes that the “more serious serious influence-peddling, pork belly politics and straight forward corruption has taken place within the ANC and, up until now, hidden from any form of public scrutiny”. Given the party’s dominance from 1994 to the present, the “real money” in this regard is the investment in the party’s presidential elections — as the victors go on to be president of the country and head of government. The cost of such a campaign is in the region of R400-million.
“Now this might not have come as a surprise to those who watched Jacob Zuma’s successful campaign leading to his election at the Polokwane national conference in 2007,” Borain writes. “But it should be clear that if the ‘money politics’ in the ANC is not part of the anti-corruption reforms being led by Cyril Ramaphosa across a broad front, the battle is lost.”
Elsewhere, Squirrel has been raising a stink about vaccine nationalism, telling the World Economic Forum this week that the government is “deeply concerned” that the richer nations snatched up huge batches of vaccines from suppliers, in some cases up to four times the amount needed by their populations, while the poorer countries (like the one that bankrupted itself through corruption and ineptitude) got nothing.
All of which is old hat. It’s coronavirus nationalism that’s making the headlines now. The South African variant is now right up there in the news cycle, and the columnists have been having a field day.
This from Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times: “The South African Covid tapped into the goodwill many feel towards this vibrant democracy. The Brazilian variant conjures up Ipanema beach and rhythmic music, and may well appeal to the young … Soon there might be a more imaginative variant: ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Covid!’ And then, maybe a few years down the line, marketed in its original livery but with a pangolin’s spleen embossed on the wrapper: ‘Classic Covid – you can’t beat it!’”
Not to be outdone, Giles Coren followed up a few days later with this drollery in The Times, partly in response to some spluttered jingoism from prime minister Boris Johnson: “…we’ve had the doughty British variant, the evil racist South African version and the flamboyant, transsexual Brazilian one, which is transmitted by body waxing. So one can have a pretty good guess at which others lie in store for us.
“The French variant, for example, will make a lot of noise but then retreat at the first sign of a vaccine. The humourless German variant will be transmittable only by laughter, so nobody will get it. The Italian variant will be seen off by staying in bed all day in your vest while your mama brings you pasta and the Swiss one will let you keep it secret if you hand over enough money. The Australian virus, now that’s obviously just a hangover…”
Social media monsters
Among the many Holocaust Memorial Day reports that chugged their way through my news feed this morning was a small item in The Times that Amazon had removed 92 antisemitic titles from its websites.
The books in question include a number of notorious Holocaust denial texts, like The Leuchter Report, a pseudoscientific mess that falsely claims the gas chambers did not exist, The Six Million Swindle, by Nazi sympathiser Austin Joseph App, and The Auschwitz Myth: Legend or Reality, by former Nazi officer Wilhelm Stäglich. Also included are a number of volumes of the Journal for Historical Review, a far-right publication that has published Holocaust denial articles.
Their removal from sale has been commended by many. Board of Deputies for British Jews president Marie van der Zyl has, for example, called on other publishers, retailers and book distributors to follow Amazon’s example. “We look forward,” she has said, “to continuing to work together [with Amazon] in the future to combat Holocaust denial and ensure that antisemites cannot spread their lies with impunity of the websites of the world’s largest bookseller.”
However, we should perhaps question why Amazon was selling these titles in the first place. Over the years, the “world’s largest bookseller” has effectively obliterated its competitors. As independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores disappeared from the High Street, Amazon happily stepped in to pick up their trade, selling anything as long as it was on their terms. Only now, it seems, and thanks to consumer activism, the on-line retailer is beginning to question what it sells. It accepts it has “responsibilities” where broader community interests are concerned.
A more interesting debate, though, would focus on the future of print itself. Just as they are no longer Amazon’s core product, so too have books fallen by the way when it comes to shaping opinion or shoring up convictions. Put more bluntly, you don’t need to read Frank Leuchter or Stäglich to become a hater – there’s tons of rubbish on the internet that will help you on that score.
How many conspiracy theory videos must one watch before it counts as “research”? A dozen? Less? More? If you persist in watching them, hunched over your laptop like some hopeless porn addict, will you eventually crack peak specialist status, and be instilled with that rare insight as to who really controls everything and why the kids are disappearing? Or were you always clever?
I’ve had run-ins with readers who dismiss concerns about the demise of newspapers. They crow that our “dinosaur” time has passed. They jeer that old school journalists can “no longer control the narrative”. The more traditional and trusted the source, the more obvious the “fake news”. We are now unable to peddle our “lies” as “the truth”. Such is the naïveté that passes as “logic” to the book burner.
The thing is, “the narrative” is being controlled. Slowly but surely, digital platforms are beginning to realise their responsibilities as “publishers” and disseminators of information. Nowhere was this more evident than the suspension of Donald Trump’s accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere during the last weeks of his presidency. It came late in the day, after more than 30 000 lies and falsehoods tweeted during his term of office, but it was a start.
Was this a form of censorship? I don’t know. The golf cheat, after all, has not been denied his first amendment rights. He may still freely insist the election was stolen (as he does); it’s just that he’s running out of platforms from which to do so. Perhaps he should start his own cable news station and social media service.
What’s to stop him? The tech giants? They do have too much power, I believe. In this regard, Australia’s plans to introduce legislation compelling monopolies like Google and Facebook to negotiate with media organisations over payments for news content posted on their sites are to be welcomed. Google has, in turn, threatened to shut down its operations in Australia altogether. Which is unseemly bullying, to say the least.
Speaking of which, Twitter remains the ideal medium for those who wish to amplify confected outrage and artificially emphatic stances and false certainties stripped of ambiguity. As a means to publicly shame, humiliate and rabidly scapegoat citizens it has no equal. It is a digital cancer that has debased debate, reducing nuanced arguments to idiotic soundbites and simplistic assertions. Unsurprisingly, it is the platform of choice for demagogues and populists.
Lastly, it’s worth recalling Godwin’s Law, which states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” It was promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990 in reference to Usenet newsgroup discussions. This was long before the present era of social media, but it still applies to any threaded discussion online where the Nazi card is played.
Godwin was originally commenting on the lazy oversimplification in likening any old right-wing knuckle-dragger to a Nazi. Those who resorted to reductio ad Hitlerum, he suggested, needed to read up on their history; the inference being that those who did this immediately lost the argument. He changed his tune a little, however, in August 2017 after the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. “By all means,” he tweeted, “compare these shitheads to Nazis. Again and again. I’m with you.”
Personally, I’m not entirely comfortable with this. But, what the hey, it’s not a hill I’m prepared to die on.
The help’s always going to be a hassle. Hunter S Thompson said as much in a feature on the 1982 Pulitzer divorce trial for Rolling Stone magazine. Much of the testimony of orgies and drug binges that laid bare the seedy underbelly of Palm Beach high society came from the domestic staff, leaving Thompson to conclude: “The servant problem is the Achilles’ heel of the rich.”
It was nigh impossible, he claimed, to hire a maid who was smart enough to make a bed but too dumb to wonder why it was full of naked people every morning. The chauffeur, he continued, “will also understand what’s happening when you send him across the bridge to a goat farm in Loxahatchee for a pair of mature billies and a pound of animal stimulant”. What’s more, “the time is long past when it was legal to cut their tongues out to keep [servants] from talking”.
Not only do they jabber on in an indiscreet manner, but these days they have smart phones as well. Which does explain the vivid detail in Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s film of Vladimir Putin’s R20-billion private residence on the shores of the Black Sea. Here is a jaw-dropping tackiness that normal megalomaniacs like Sol Kerzner could only ever dream of. You can’t sling up something that awful and not expect the builders and masons to sneak a few selfies and videos, if only to later remind themselves that, yes, it really is that vulgar.
Put together while Navalny was recovering in Germany after being poisoned by a deadly nerve agent last year, the 113-minute Putin’s Palace is not only effective political satire, but the timing of its release was a strategic masterstroke. Returning to Russia last week, Navalny was promptly arrested and imprisoned. Less than 24 hours later, the film was loaded on YouTube and went on to stir up mass protests in more than 100 Russian cities at the weekend. When demonstrators take to the streets in temperatures of minus 50 degrees C, as was the case in Yakutsk, you know you’re dealing with seriously angry folk.
The film, which has now been viewed more than 85-million times, is surprisingly entertaining. Navalny’s commentary is hilarious; even subtitled, there’s no escaping the dripping sarcasm that laces his “guided tour” of this modern-day Versailles. Using footage found on social media, as well as leaked plans and aerial photography, the doccie’s producers have constructed a convincing digital rendering of this vast secret estate. Putin has since denied he owns the place, but the film presents convincing proof to the contrary.
The estate itself is enormous, almost 40 times the size of Monaco, and encompasses several vineyards, an oyster farm, a subterranean ice hockey rink and a Roman amphitheatre that is never quite up to scratch (it’s forever being demolished and rebuilt.) The palace tour takes in its marble-decked cocktail lounge, a private theatre, a hookah lounge, an “aquadisco”, a private bar and strip club and the 260-square-metre main bedroom. It’s the kind of “sophisticated” place that would keep SABC3’s old Top Billing crew spaffing away at the furnishings for months.
Of course, the real purpose of the film is to investigate Putin’s rise to power and the unchecked corruption that keeps him there. But it is the house porn that grips the imagination. What is it about the despot psyche that compels them to live amid such cheesiness? Mobutu Seso Seko, Nicolae Ceausescu, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Franco, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, even low-rent B-graders like Jacob Zuma – they all built themselves these palaces. Many of them are now empty. Vandalised and in disrepair, they’re crumbling monuments to hubris and greed. There is a lesson of sorts there.
Candles in the wind
Reports that media consultant Jody Thompson almost burnt down her Kilburn, North London home when she lit one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candles raised much-needed cheer here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”). The $75 “wellness” item exploded unexpectedly sending molten burning wax flying across the living room. “The whole thing was ablaze and it was too hot to touch,” Thompson said. “There was an inferno in the room.” Luckily, the burning candle was thrown out the front door. “It could have burned the place down,” she added.
The This Smells Like My Vagina Candle is one of the flakier best-sellers on Paltrow’s woo-woo lifestyle website. Her Goop brand has come under fire from health experts who warn that some products pose “considerable risks to health”; the company has already forked out some $145 000 in fines over some products, like her vaginal eggs.
One can imagine an elderly forensic scientist, someone like arson expert David Klatzow, sifting through the ashes of a razed home in trendy Melville or upper Claremont. He catches a faint but “beautifully unexpected” whiff of geranium, citrusy bergamot and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed and declares, possibly in the manner of a wistful Sherlock Holmes: “Ah … Ingrid! Top Star drive-in, 1968 … Cool Hand Luke, perhaps?”