Charlottesville and Joburg: The impact of a blunt instrument

KKK and xenophoba

What does it take to talk? Is it possible for the Ku Klux Klan to re-emerge as a force to silence all in their way? Can South Africans get past their racial history?

IT has seemingly again become a trend to stifle arguments with blunt instruments. It might appear to be stretching a point to contrast recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, with post-apartheid South African discourse. But as our world increasingly sinks into hatred and intolerance, driven by populist leaders who care only for themselves, trends stand out which are weakening the post-Second World War ideal that people of different cultures and creeds can respect one another, and talk together.

Last year’s election of the lying, tweeting Donald Trump as United States President, with his contempt for ‘the Other’ – Mexicans, refugees and so on – epitomises this. His reaction on Sunday to violent demonstrations by alt-right, anti-Semitic hooligans in Charlottesville, in which a woman demonstrating for peace was killed by a car driven headlong into the crowd by a militant racist – a blunt instrument – confirmed it; he refused to immediately condemn the alt-right, since they were part of the constituency which elected him.

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history and political travails, and the damage President Zuma inflicts, this country is doing relatively well in inter-group tolerance. Remnants of Mandela’s dream remain, even if somewhat sullied. But an illustrative incident occurred at a Jewish-organised Limmud conference session last week in Johannesburg when a young black woman on a panel declared to the audience of mainly white Jews that she was going to be “brave”, and then pronounced vociferously: “There is no rainbow nation!” All whites were inherently guilty, and blacks had to separately re-examine their attitudes towards whites. The session’s topic was “The Tarnished Rainbow: South Africa in 2017”.

Audience members were angered by her bluntly lumping all whites together. In the auditorium were white veteran political activists, participants in projects of cultural engagement, helping the marginalised and poor, and so on. One white person countered her by saying her generation of young blacks had scant personal experience or knowledge of the role some whites played in demolishing apartheid, and their sacrifices.

Then a youngish white man spoke up, saying he agreed the country had racial demons to overcome because of its history. He then said politely but pointedly: “I am white and doing my best. What else do you want me to do now? Will it help, or atone for white sins during colonialism and apartheid, if I give away all the money in my bank account, give up my job and car, and go and sweep the streets?”

The audience waited for some constructive response. Instead, she angrily retorted that his very question exposed his racism, because he seemed to believe black people just “sweep the streets.” A ripple of annoyance ran through the audience. One white woman muttered that the country’s black middle class numbered 6 million today, larger than the white one.

But the interaction showed something important. This young panellist’s ignorance and anger notwithstanding, many South Africans are trying to talk to each other. Indeed, she herself had come to the Limmud forum, to challenge a white audience and be challenged.

Turning back to the thugs in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seems incredible that after all the years since World War Two and the Holocaust, people still needed to protest against unmitigated Nazism from closed-minded people with no desire or willingness to talk. People who carried flags with large swastikas on them. At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, a sign held by a white-hooded participant read: “Jews are Satan’s children… Talmud is a child molester’s bible.”

Despite how much anger there is in South African society, a sign like that would not be permitted.

It would be naive, of course, to think that all is perfect – far from it. There is as much to worry about in South Africa as anywhere else. But perhaps Donald Trump’s American South can learn something from this country about how people still manage to talk today, even across chasms.

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

 

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The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

golem 3

Will unrestrained gadgets save or kill mankind? Religious sources celebrate humans’ creative genius, but warn about the monster hiding in the shadows

WHAT do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid ‘disruptive innovation’ an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-gadget expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but relevant Jewish perspectives at a conference in Johannesburg last weekend.

The Limmud conference is an annual weekend gathering held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban attended by hundreds of people, with speakers and facilitators addressing myriad themes ranging from theology to politics, music, spirituality, history, technology and other topics.  It is part of an international network of similar conferences taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present and into the future, Goldstuck left his audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is constantly being technologically disrupted – or re-innovated – at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up. And technology is all very well, but can machines make moral choices?

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some 2 billion people – 1 in 5 of the world’s population – and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The benefits are manifold, but the spreading of ‘fake news’ is also one of the dangerous outcomes; and the idiocy of people like US President Donald Trump carelessly using facebook and Twitter to spread his political rantings, could just as well start a war by accident.

The next major innovative platform will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away. Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff – Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor. Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock – such as dairy cows – in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour. Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. Someone could hold you to ransom with such information. Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff – this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if ‘intelligent’ devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, ‘Brave New World’ in 1932. How do religious traditions view all this? What role for faith groups in restraining them?

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a legendary man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher the Maharal in the 1500s – the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society. Legend held that the Golem was given ‘life’ when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be ‘switched off’ by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern Artificial Intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Other Jewish sages approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but said the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct – meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line. With personal privacy being so crucial, including the ability to make moral and practical choices, trust in technology is lacking, even as people rely on their smartphones for more and more of what they do.

The sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. How to control it may be one of the biggest challenges of our times.

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