Pity the Foolby Brandon Edmonds / 30.08.2011
The whole Ard Mathews anthem “outrage” is a wetsuit wee. Warm, tingling relief that will pass into the (media) ocean. Relief? Well I hate the guy. With a cleansing fire of loathing. Hot enough to forge steel, blow glass and brand cattle. Hate best imagined while listening to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. I feel an actual physical twinge at the sight of him, just below my ashtray-heart. A near psychotic antipathy in place (trust me) way before the anthem slip-up. I’m relieved my unyielding aversion has been so richly rewarded. Only watching him undergo gender-reassignment surgery (against his will) could surpass my joy.
His too-small hats, too-tight dress shirts, too-full cheeks and swollen courtesan lips, his pubic facial hair, and immense self-satisfaction are immediate annoyances. Ard is the acme of mediocrity. Of ersatz settler culture (his band remains the “biggest-selling” local rock act). I hate his dead Joost eyes and suspect rumours of strip-clubs are true. His website is as slick as Patrick Bateman’s business card. His sincerity, shtick. I can’t get past that pre-meditated Eddie Vedder accent when he sings (justly exposed attempting Xhosa and Zulu). The faux-American vocal strain our dearly beloved Barthes called ‘the Grain of the voice’. That masculine throat-twang, like an engine starting up on a cold morning, pseudo-signifying “passion” and “commitment” – and really only permissable when Bruce Springsteen does it on “Born to Run”.
But all this is snarkily superficial and glancing without an argument. Luckily all we need is the killer combo of an egregious JustJinjer song called “What He Means” and a 1946 essay by George Orwell called “Politics & the English Language”.
Now endure the song.
Notice how ineffectual it all is. We’re meant to feel something. Some vague something. We don’t. We’re meant to follow a train of thought. We can’t. It is human rights kitsch. The meanings of the referents, the upper case notions, slide past us. They have been reduced to slogans without a campaign. The only lily being gilded here is Ard’s HUMANITY. As NP Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger once reacted to Steve Biko’s murder: “Dit laat my koud.” The lack of affect is a consequence of over-reaching for it.
Stringing together such emotive terms in a chorus (Peace-Love-Tolerance-Faith-Hope-Trust) is just, along with poor songwriting, sentimental overkill. It collapses the integrity of each into humanist soup. As Orwell put it, the debasing of English involves “a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
That plea for everyday creativity in speech, for using language freely, is a vestige of enlightenment in an era of message-management, spin and rote linguistic media-orthodoxy (entrepreneurs & foreign investment = Good / strikers & welfare recipients = Bad). Orwell suggests writers ask themselves “Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” and “Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
A line like “peace, love, more tolerance” is, to me, avoidably ugly. It is ugly because it is banal. Banal because it wants the inclusive melodic warmth and universality of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (a song, along with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, virtually secular scripture by now) without daring its powerful appeal to anarchic human potential (“Imagine all the people sharing all the world”). Lennon appeals to our agency, to the best in us as individuals. Imagine. Ard downplays intellect and rationality (“it doesn’t matter what book you read”) and abstracts what’s best in us (peace, love, tolerance) into symptoms of God’s will we poor fools on earth misread by behaving badly. Which is insulting if you don’t share his belief in an ancient, all-knowing sky-god. Here’s Orwell again: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed” and debased English “gives an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The line is also ugly because it’s dumb. Asking for “more tolerance” is meaningless without a context. Poles tolerated death-camps. We tolerate Malema. How much tolerance is enough? Enough to stay silent when we should act? Enough to look the other way? Isn’t tolerance, in the bourgeois sense of “minding my own business” as the world turns, a problem, since it ensures the absence of a concerted mass alternative to the status quo with its irrational growth mania evidently killing the planet? Having “less tolerance” in some cases (in the face of injustice etc.) is surely more valid than having more of the stuff in general. Orwell is on point: language becomes “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Then there’s “acceptance is the key to all we know” (a self-help inspired re-formulation of “more tolerance” essentially) and another emotive string (compassion-lenience-understanding-sympathy) and another (deliverance-comfort-mercy-freedom-kindness). As if saying makes it so. As is every word is, what linguist JL Austin called, in How to Do Things with Words, a “performative” – an illocutionary act that does something in the world, rather than just describe it, like pronouncing a couple married or sentencing someone to death. Again all these throbbing terms really amount to are, what Norman Mailer once called, “advertisements for myself”. They signal Ard’s big heart.
Finally, Orwell says “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them”. The song expects us to surrender to it’s emotive anti-war flood. But words won’t obey long. They can turn around and bite you on the ass as Matthews discovered when they eluded him.
The attempted recovery: