Dr Gordin’s agony column

Jeremy Gordin on dealing with the depressing news cycle, and getting laughs when one can

If I were to write the name Spock, which I just have, most of you, especially my learned colleague Andrew Donaldson, would probably think of actor Leonard Nimoy.

It was he who appeared as Spock, a half human, half Vulcan person, serving aboard the USS Enterprise as first officer and then as commanding officer, in the Star Trek series.

But I would in fact be thinking of the now largely forgotten Benjamin McLane Spock (1903-1998), the American pediatrician and “liberal political activist” whose book Baby and Child Care (1946) was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century [i].

As Wikipedia points out, Spock’s parenting advice and recommendations “revolutionized” the upbringing of children world-wide; and Spock is thus considered “to be among the most famous and influential Americans of the 20th century”.

What Dr Spock suggested to several generations of parents was to be more flexible and affectionate with their children and to treat them as individuals.

However, (I assume that) partially because Spock became an activist in the New Left and anti-Vietnam War movements during the 1960s, and partially because many folks subscribe to Proverbs 13:24 [ii], Spock was severely castigated by “conservatives” for propagating permissiveness and an expectation of instant gratification.

If you’ve ever been deafened by three unruly and undisciplined young children in your local supermarket, you’ve probably instantly understood the objections of those conservatives.

In short, there are many people (some of whom might be readers of Politicsweb) who blame Karl Marx et al for the general political, social, and economic degeneration of the world – but who, it occurs to me, ought really to hold Dr Spock accountable, or very largely so.

Perhaps needless to say, my mother was a dyed in the wool Spockian ...

And yet, and yet, there is a species of Spockian-type advice that has become one of the standard currencies of our time and drives me bonkers.

It gets handed out in hushed, gentle tones wherever you turn – by psychologists, counsellors, and suchlike on radio and TV, and probably on social media too. It goes something like this: “I know you’re feeling down or depressed. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Forgive yourself.” And so on.

Now then, one sympathizes (or I certainly do) with why many people feel down or depressed at the moment.

Take an average day’s TV viewing, for example. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

If today you’d switched on the BBC TV news, you’d have found that the UK (or the BBC anyway) is completely obsessed with whether PM Boris Johnson’s staffers had a number of parties at Downing Street in November-December last year while, in terms of then Covid regulations, they were prohibited from doing so, and while many people were dying of Covid.

I’m not denigrating the people who died, you understand. What I’m drawing attention to is the inane and tedious question time in the Palace of Westminster – where the incumbent government’s representatives are patently lying while desperately trying to kick for touch.

Of course, Boris’ staff had little drinkies parties and made jokes at the expense of “the rest”. What else would you expect from a bunch of upper-class toffs or (rather) wannabe toffs?

Here, meanwhile, if you’d turned to local TV news, you’d have encountered the DA’s Natasha Mazzone trying during question time to get deputy-president David Mabuza to explain why he spent so long in Russia, ostensibly for a medical checkup, and/or whether he’d travelled there because he was poisoned.

Needless to say, Mazzone never got an answer. National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula – the former defence minister, switched to parliament by President Cyril Ramaphosa following the July uprisings disaster, during which some 337 people died – made certain of that. She knows what she has to do. What else would you expect from an ANC apparatchik?

Or you might have encountered on TV the cavalcade of vehicles that headed today for Nkandla. These contained ANC councillors from eThekwini who’d made the pilgrimage to see the great man. Why? Well, according to one reporter, they felt it important to thank Gedleyihlekisa for saving the municipality following the local government elections last month.

The ANC looked set to lose control of the eThekwini metropolitan municipality. But then JGZ, so the story goes, managed to sway former ANC member, Abantu Batho Congress (ABC) president Philani “PG” Mavundla, to convince smaller parties to vote with the ANC. Mavundla is now deputy to mayor Mxolisi Kaunda [iii].

Depressing stuff. But even worse, a few minutes were today devoted on TV to the death of an elderly man who died soon after spending the night outside the Gugulethu offices of SASSA (the South African Social Security Agency).

He was forced to spend the night, apparently, because otherwise he might not have managed to get his grant, which he desperately needed. The Gugulethu SASSA offices are a notorious mess (disorganised, incompetent, over-crowded) – and, by the way, a number of other nearby SASSA offices, which might have eased the pressure on the Gugulethu offices, have been closed (like many post offices).

Ah, there’s an example of the point I want to make. The death of a person in Gugulethu is why I do sympathize with those who feel down or depressed. But it’s not about forgiving yourself. What happened to that person in Gugulethu was the consequence of an act of criminal negligence.

What one ought to feel is anger – and to remember that there is a way of getting rid of those responsible for spending their time fiddle-fuddling in the national assembly, trying to shore up their power while such negligence (and worse) takes its toll.

Yes, I know it’s a slow and cumbersome method and many Seffricans have clearly lost hope in it – lame as it might sound though, it’s all we’ve got for the moment, and we will eventually reach the 2024 general election. Garner your anger rather than feeling sad.    

Then there’s the whole business of Covid. There’s no gainsaying that a pall of gloom swept down on all of us a couple of weeks ago when it became clear that the Covid wasn’t over. Many really hoped that we were seeing the end, or the beginning of the end, of the pandemic.

Now it seems we’re starting this particular struggle all over again – though, anecdotally, Omicron is said not to be as much of a killer as Delta.

I feel particularly sorry for those who’ve had significant parts of their youth stolen – getting together with their friends from school and doing all those crazy things one is supposed to do at university – it’s all been ripped away from them.

Still, the world’s scientists and others have worked overtime at creating vaccines and we know what we must do to stay safe. Better to be here than to have been caught in the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. At least one has a vague understanding of what’s happening.

So, no need to forgive yourself in connection with Covid, not unless you were munching bat soup.

Of course, we also need to combat depression by having a good laugh if we can. That’s why I want to show you the following picture, which I got from here.

It was taken when President Cyril Ramaphosa was honoured with a chieftaincy by the governor of the Autonomous District of Abidjan, Robert Beugré Mambé, in Côte d’Ivoire last Friday.

It doesn’t get much better than this, does it? There’s our buffalo soldier; Ramaphosa even has little horns attached to the side of his headgear. But it’s his expression I like the most. Mr Clean himself, only mildly abashed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, dear readers, I must rummage in the medicine cabinet (actually a cardboard box in a kitchen cupboard) for some anti-depressants.


[i] It sold 500 000 copies in the six months after its initial publication in 1946 and 50 million by the time of Spock’s death.

[ii] “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them”.

[iii] Was it only JGZ’s words of wisdom that did the trick? One doesn’t know; at the time, according to DA KZN chairperson Dean Macpherson, the ANC swung the mayoral election by calling on its eThekwini “tenderpreneurs” to collect money for bribing voters .Perhaps a judicious mixture of sage wisdom and money ...?