Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring

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Songwriters and demagogues: Leonard Cohen sang of what it is to be human. Populist politicians Julius Malema and Donald Trump speak in inflammatory rhetoric to seek power.

THE death of musician-poet Leonard Cohen and the ascent to power in the United States of billionaire-politician Donald Trump reflect the confusion of our era. Millions mourn Cohen, with his songs that touch the core of what it is to be human; it is hard imagining iconic pieces such as his “Hallelujah” ever being surpassed.

We don’t know what legacy President-elect Trump will leave. His attitudes echo rising right wing, fascist figures in other countries. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism and other social ills that were unacceptable in the last few decades, become respectable again.

Shocked Americans dismayed at his election win, look for a “silver lining”. Perhaps one aspect is that radical change is sometimes inherently good, as it moves people out of stale comfort zones and creates new energy. In the lyrics of his song “Anthem”, Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

It is hard imagining Trump as a bringer of light, but perhaps the crack in the political order was the left’s complacency and arrogance. In its enthusiasm for globalisation and multiculturalism, it neglected masses of ordinary local people worldwide who became poorer and jobless, while wealthy international elites were creaming it. Trump became the voice in America of those angry masses.

In times of social upheaval, minority ethnic groups always look around nervously for how they will be treated by the majority. Jews instinctively ask: “Is it good or bad for us?” Muslims in Western countries ask the same. Black people ask similar questions in white-dominated countries.

There is cause for concern: The rise of the new right brings racist stirrings, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism and hatred of other minorities. In countries where speaking publically against Jews has been taboo, open expressions of Jew-hatred have now become common. In France, Jews are emigrating in droves because of attacks on them.

Even in South Africa, which still clings to the memory of Mandela’s rainbow nation, the signs are worrying. Earlier this month, for example, graffiti at Wits university said “Kill a Jew!” and “Fuck the Jews!”; last month, a kippah-wearing student was called a “Motherfucking Jew!” by fellow students.

Despite such incidents, South Africa by and large has good inter-group relations. Anti-Semitism remains low compared to many other countries, and interactions between ordinary blacks and whites in the cities are generally friendly.

But racist talk from populist politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to speak for millions of angry, jobless blacks, could change things. His tactics are similar to Trump’s, but from a leftwing perspective.

Demagogues like Malema use any means to gain power. He has not publically expressed anti-Semitism, but his insistence that “white monopoly capital” is the root of the problem could easily be tweaked to “Jewish (or another group) monopoly capital”.

Trump may turn out to be less catastrophic than the doomsayers predict. In politics, yelling recklessly from the sidelines is easy, but once a person gets his hands on the steering wheel, things look different. And the many checks and balances in US politics make it hard for any leader to go completely off track.

But for Malema, the political safeguards in South Africa are less robust, giving him freer rein. Just look at how President Jacob Zuma has got away with his rampant corruption and other shenanigans.

There are no prophets to tell us the future. One thing for sure is that we’re in for an interesting few years ahead – like Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future”, which ends with the words: “Things are going to slide in all directions…”

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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