Opinionista Gwen Ngwenya 27 November 2019

Liberalism in a time of moral panic: We’ll keep calm and carry on

In theory, political analysts are meant to help the public make sense of the overwhelming political noise. In practice, many take it upon themselves to heighten the din. It is not clear what frightens Ismail Lagardien so, much of the lurid ranting of a liberal apocalypse is of his own creation.

On 27 November 2019, Ismail Lagardien wrote in Daily Maverick that “Ngwenya brings with her all the horripilation and secular eschatological panic of the end of Western civilisation”. The verbal incontinence makes clear who is truly panicking – but Lagardien’s literary bed-wetting is of exaggerated proportions considering the harmlessness of the bogeywoman.

In theory, political analysts are meant to help the public make sense of the overwhelming political noise. In practice, however, many take it upon themselves to heighten the din. It is not clear what frightens Lagardien so, much of the lurid ranting of a liberal apocalypse is of his own creation. I have never stayed awake at night thinking about whether Liberalism as a political label was under threat. Values which form part of the liberal tradition can survive the death or confusion of Liberalism as a political category.

They have already, since any coherent meaning of what exactly a “Liberal” is, has long been contested across the globe. And I hold no flame for some of the figures he mentions, nor could Lagardien provide evidence that it is with the likes of Shapiro where my sympathies lie. It is so wrong an analysis as fit for a conjurer, not a critic.

Here is what I do care about: I care about what it must be like to flee one’s country due to starvation and war; and the tension between taking care of those born within our borders while upholding our moral obligation to those who have nowhere else to go. And I think about whether our policy responses have risen imaginatively and compassionately to that challenge. I worry that they have not.

I think about what kind of society we can create if we cannot speak freely and equally with one another. I have witnessed people being told that they may not speak on a topic because they are the wrong sex, gender, or skin colour. This does not happen on the fringes of society but among “polite” company in academic seminars and in boardrooms. And more horrifying than their exclusion was the censoree’s own casual acceptance of the new order.

There is no doubt that on those occasions as a “black” female I was the one in a powerful position. And I made sure to wield that power to say “not in my name”. My voice is not so fragile, and my ideas are not so ill-formed that they cannot withstand the scrutiny of a man or a “white” person. There is no doubt in my mind that a society where all have a voice is not built on the silence of others.

I think about how we can instil and communicate a less self-righteous advocacy of meritocracy. I think about Michael Young, the erudite British socialist who coined the term in the 1950s and his warnings about it. But Lagardien writes, “Ngwenya, now apparently Zille’s chosen one, believes (and she may be right) that everything she (and Zille) has achieved was through individual hard work and endeavour.” I believe no such thing, at least not about myself. In fact, I said the exact opposite when I recently spoke at the Economic Association of Namibia.

What I said there is that a meritocracy is not about just desserts, we have far less control over our innate abilities and how they are nurtured than we realise. There are many who labour strenuously and go to bed hungry, just as there are those who enjoy the finest of luxuries in reward for merely having been born.

The pursuit of excellence is good for society, but “deserve” and “fair” often have very little to do with it. Which is why a merit-based society can only thrive if there is a serious commitment to ensuring that lack of financial and social capital do not stand in the way of talent being uncovered in those who lack means. And it requires empathy, coupled with substantive measures to support those who are born without monetisable talent.

Mostly, lately I think about the unimportance of political labels, and the absolute necessity for clearly articulated values. What do you call a person who believes in freedom of movement, freedom of speech, a devolved government so that people are as close as possible to those who make the decisions that govern their lives, the inherent worth of the individual, as well as the virtue and perils of a merit-based society? An end-times classical liberal? A bleeding-heart libertarian? A social democrat? A left Republican? We should let Largadien and his ilk battle it out.

As for myself, and the DA, we draw strength from Henry Msimang, Helen Suzman, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and many others. Their legacy has always first and foremost been ours to preserve, and we will remain their torchbearers in reverence to that past, while lighting our own torches as the future requires.

As ever, the only message worth the time of those of us in the political barricades under fire from self-styled “intellectual” panic, is to keep calm and carry on. DM

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