It’s become terribly unfashionable to be “judgemental”, but the fact of the matter is that life calls for judgement, all the time. So we should learn to do it well. For me, this is the purpose of philosophical practice: to study and understand what’s going on in the world and in oneself, in order to respond appropriately and skilfully. In short, to learn to judge wisely. Our current “interesting times” are ripe for philosophical enquiry.
Here in South Africa, the national executive of the African National Congress (ANC) last month “recalled” state president Thabo Mbeki after high court judge Chris Nicholson found him responsible for political interference in the national prosecuting authority. We now face a continuing circus of power plays by leading members of the party and government. What are we supposed to think? What’s really going on? Who and what are we to believe, or trust? Judgement is called for.
When everything is up in the air and you can’t find your feet or your head, stop. Withdraw from the fray. Take a breath; gather yourself. Notice and set aside the mental blinders of past identifications, partisanship and habit. Remember what matters. Begin again, fresh.
In the political realm, power matters. In a democracy, the source of that power is always we the people, citizens descended from generations who organised and struggled so that we might live together better. This power we delegate to the state to provide various public goods. No matter what popular cynicism would have us believe, politics is not, at heart, a dirty business – when state and private agents abuse that power to serve their own interests, it is precisely a corruption. Our responsibility is to hold them accountable or repossess our power.
In South Africa, what matters is poverty, inequality, unemployment and other insults to human dignity. Everyone knows that; just see how all the circus performers need to identify themselves (and cudgel their opponents) with “ANC tradition”, which means, at heart, popular participatory democracy. The circus is not the only show in town. I don’t know what’s really going on, but there are still good people at work, trying to be effective in difficult conditions. My advice? Don’t listen to what anyone says – pay attention to what they do and have done. Think. Judge wisely.
Elsewhere, reckless behaviour in the United States has sent the world banking system into a tailspin, which is being fed by investor panic, fed in turn by constant reports of panicking investors. This crisis is not a natural disaster. It’s the inevitable consequence of a corrupt exchange system based on narrow self-interest and irrational crowd behaviour. Trying to be first in the pack is how these guys got so wealthy in the first place. And it is their “risk aversion” (more correctly, “responsibility aversion”) and herd mentality that has helped put so many developing economies in jeopardy. Let’s all calm down. Panic won’t profit thee and me. Stop. Take a breath. Think.
P.S. Judge Nicholson’s ruling in Zuma v the NDPP is a fine example of principled and thoughtful legal judgment, but it’s been lost in all the frenzy. That’s a mistake. Carefully and clearly argued, it is a rich resource that deserves public debate. If you missed the full broadcast last month, check it out here.