One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I’ve only just got a site organized.
What I’m also scratching my head about here is the techniques and qualities of senior opinion journalists.
Allister was chief editor of the Rand Daily Mail from 1967 till 1981. He was a briar and a thorn in the eyes of National Party apartheid governments, and in that sense a great hero. According to his own autobiographical pieces, he had to face off police, troublemakers, people already suspected of political assassinations for the government, and the courts.
But one noticed, when on other issues, what a terrible old blusterer and trumpeter of high idealism he was, who kept dragging emotive red herrings across one’s path so one couldn’t think straight about what he’d last said or the main thrust of his argument. It was a technique of overwhelming one’s thinking processes and of winning arguments . (Perhaps he carried on like this when he was making the apartheid government uncomfortable, but then it was in an unmixed good cause.)
He had a habit of pretentious quote-dropping and name-dropping, including first names – Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance.
He wrote that he admired Archbishop Tutu’s ‘theology’. What does that mean exactly? ‘Theology’ is the basis of almost everything Desmond Tutu wrote and said. But it sounds good — lots of atheists who know nothing of theology have this way of talking. And of himself, Allister said he was a ‘secularist’. He should just have used the ordinary word ‘atheist’.
The only actual examples of this style of his I can presently find on the Web are here, and also in www.unesco.org, UNESCO conference, Qatar, 2-3 May 2009 ‘Reporting across the cultural divides’ by Allister Sparks, but I can’t find the latter on the Web now.
Allister had the gift, like politicians, of ‘having a mouth on him’, of being able to get up on his hind-legs at a moment’s notice and hold his own by means of polemic, rhetoric, and yes, demagoguery. Not only a mouth, but primarily a pencil or key-board.
As a reader, one was beaten back by his torrential flow, and by his sounding like a historian or historian of ideas — a roaring rhetoric of pretentious words compressing many meanings inside them so one didn’t quite know which one he meant or get complete understanding of what he had said. I suspect other senior opinion journalists do this too as a matter of course in practising their profession.
Do journalists get stuck in their development? After twenty or thirty years, they still sound the same to me. Is it because they spend their lives in the world of public opinion, so they don’t develop? Academics develop, but then they take ages before they express themselves, and then ages in long-windedly expressing themselves.
To get back to Allister, he was also famous later for his opposition to Israel, not just for its occupation of the West Bank, but for its existence as a Jewish state. He flew to Damascus in 2006, had two days with Hamas leaders, and wrote articles about them in South Africa’s Independent Newspapers in early July 2006, which seem unavailable now. The closest I can get to them are here which is a pro-Israeli site; and here, where he is speaking with someone like-minded to himself.
For the next few paragraphs, I shall list the impressions made on Allister.. He saw Damascus as a model of inter-religious co- existence, and seemed naively surprised that the leaders of Hamas made a reasonable, Westernized impression on him. Musa Abu Marzouk was a ‘softly spoken intellectual with a warm manner…a sharp mind [and] polished urbanity’ who reminded Allister of the young Thabo Mbeki (later President of South Africa). Marzouk ‘has a PhD from the University of Colorado and speaks fluent English. Communication with these leaders is easy and sophisticated.’
At Hamas headquarters ‘there were none of the flowing white dishdash ubiquitous in the Middle East. Marzouk wore a black suit while everyone else was dressed casually.’ And ‘Palestinians are the most secular of the Arab peoples’. (Does Allister really know this? And is Arab attire ‘dishdash’?)
They were sophisticated and pragmatic, “the only ones capable of negotiating a peace agreement that could stick – since, like the ANC, they are the…ones whose control extends to the people with the guns…Israel and the US refuse to speak to [them]– because they are ‘terrorists’.”
He thought it a bold concession by Hamas to offer Israel a temporary truce if it would withdraw from the West Bank. This, thought Allister, could lead to a final settlement.
‘[Allister] pitched to Abu Marzouk that if Hamas could get a meaningful degree of independence from Israel, then they would have numerous joint committees… and…relations between Israel and Palestine would evolve into something like the EU, and later into a confederated body… like Switzerland…’
And then Allister was astonished that a Left-Zionist Israeli ‘peacenik’ was aghast at these ideas: ‘But then we wouldn’t have a Jewish state! It would be like living in a diaspora again– and this time, in such a dangerous place!’
Allister thought ‘diaspora’ was a strange word for this Israeli to use since he would still be living in the same place! (He’d still be living in ‘Israel’, you see, even if it weren’t called Israel anymore and weren’t a Jewish state anymore!). Also, thought Allister, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been ‘solved’, why would it still be ‘dangerous’? (That’s not being logical, you see! How could a reasonable Israeli object to all problems being solved? )
Allister continues: Afrikaners in South Africa gave up ethnic dominance of their state, and a few years later are just fine. So why shouldn’t Israel merge with the West Bank and Gaza to form a single, non-ethnic, liberal state?
Are there other people as dim and dense as Allister as to equate the history and identity of the Afrikaners with those of the Hebrews, and also not know that modern Zionism is about having a Jewish state where they could be safe at last after living in other peoples’ states for 2000 years? He also equates the Arab and Muslim worlds and their histories, with the black tribes of Southern Africa.
In someone of Allister’s position it is astonishing. And he saw Hamas in their dark Western suits as liberal democrats, ready to create a Switzerland in the Middle East! I’m pretty sure I can also remember Allister in his role of salty old arch-reporter who really knew the pre-War Jews of Central Europe — all those semi-assimilated Max Reinhardts of the Berlin stage who fled or got murdered — so much nicer than the abrasive nationalists of today!
Allister was appalled too by the Wall that Israel built to prevent Palestinians coming over with belt-bombs and car-bombs. Walls, he said, have never worked against the spirit of Man! (Had he made a study of the history of walls? Hadn’t Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China fulfilled their purposes for good or ill, and taken hordes of men weeks or years under orders to build? But that’s the sort of.blustering humanistic idealism Allister uttered).
Allister published his pieces in July 2006, before Hamas took over in Gaza, but I rather think he maintained his opinions of them for years afterwards.