French football legend Lilian Thuram tackles the scourge of white thinking in new book

French Lilian Thuram slips away from Italian player Stefano Fiore during the France vs Italy Final of the Euro 2000 soccer championhips in Rotterdam.
EFE-EPA/Michele Limina

David Murphy, University of Strathclyde “People aren’t born white, they become white.” This realisation dawned on the former French footballer, World Cup winner and anti-racism activist Lilian Thuram while he was engaged in talks with the white French organisers of a proposed exhibition on racism. As he recounts in the introduction to his new book, White Thinking, Thuram told those around the table that, instead of focusing on the victims of racism, the exhibition

should instead focus on those who profit from this discrimination, often unconsciously and unintentionally.

He was referring, of course, to white people. However, the idea that an exhibition on racism should focus on the problematic nature of whiteness was almost incomprehensible to them.

It was this failed dialogue around the nature of racism that prompted Thuram to write White Thinking, of which I am one of the English translators, alongside Aedín Ní Loingsigh and Cristina Johnston.

Thuram’s first book, My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama, published in 2010, sought to challenge the white version of history and culture that he had learned in school in France by telling some of the black stories denied him in his childhood.

Now, in White Thinking, he has come to the realisation that this white story and the white thinking that underpins it need to be overturned.

The book was first published in France in late 2020. It provoked both acclaim and heavy criticism. Elements of the right-wing press in particular lambasted the book for its “frequently racialising discourse”. Many journalists and politicians on the right politically, as well as conservative Republicans, viewed the book as “anti-white racism”.

This was a charge that had been levelled at Thuram in late 2019 when he gave an interview in Italy about the racism present in football stadiums, which he argued was representative of a wider racism in Italian and European society more generally.

There was, however, significant praise from liberal and left-wing publications, such as Libération and Télérama, which recognised that the book delivered often unwelcome but necessary truths about ongoing racial inequality.

Thuram’s book is hugely ambitious, an attempt to trace and examine the origins of white supremacy, understood in its widest sense. This is not simply a study of vile racists but of an insidious, unthinking form of racial hierarchy, whose origins can be traced back to slavery and colonisation, and which still shapes our understanding of the world today.

Indeed, white thinking, Thuram argues, is not limited to white people. He cites two examples from his frequent visits to Africa. In Ouagadougou, a man he encounters in the street tells him that

White people come second only to God.

When he tells this story to the mayor of Ouagadougou, he’s told:

It’s not surprising. We have a saying here: “God is great but the White man is not small”.

This, Thuram argues, tells us all we need to know about the pervasiveness of white thinking.

Challenging French universalist ideology

Thuram was born on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1972 and moved to the outskirts of Paris at the age of 9. An elegant full-back and centre-half, with Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, he won a record number of caps for the French national team, won the World Cup in 1998 (scoring the winning goals in the semi-final) and the European Championship in 2000.

Thuram began his transformation from athlete to activist while he was still a competitive sportsman. In the mid-2000s, he spoke out against politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking minister for the interior, and later president. Sarkozy had demonised youngsters living in the poor, marginalised and multi-racial high-rise estates in the suburbs, many of whom were children of immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2005, he infamously stated that he would clear out the “louts” from the suburbs, which should be washed out with a power hose (Karcher).

Thuram had grown up in just such an estate. So had many of his fellow players in the French squad.

In 2008, when he retired from playing, he created a foundation to provide a platform for his fight against racism. The Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against Racism is particularly concerned with anti-racism outreach work, often targeted at schoolchildren.

For many, Thuram will still be best known as a member of the multiracial French team that won the World Cup in 1998, and were famously celebrated as representing “la France black, blanc, beur” (black, white, Arab) in a play on the red, white and blue of the French tricolour flag.

Thuram believed the team did indeed constitute a celebration of the nation’s diversity. But he was perturbed by an emerging media and political discourse that sought to celebrate the team as embodying the success of French “integration” policies.

French universalist ideology typically imagines a nation made up of equal citizens and, within that framework, France has long given refuge to outsiders on condition that they are willing to be integrated into the dominant, secular Republican culture.

Or, to put it in the starker terms of a popular saying: immigrants and refugees can become French, as long as they leave the baggage of their foreign identity at the door.


The three translators of White Thinking were faced with the challenge of rendering in English slippery concepts such as “integration” for a British audience more accustomed to multicultural, hyphenated notions of identity. For example, how do you find a pithy way of explaining for the general public the French Republican antipathy towards communautarisme? It’s a term often used to describe as a threat to French universal Republican values any attempt to assert a particular, communal, minority identity or experience.

The translation experience brought to mind the work undertaken by Johnny Pitts in his pioneering study, Afropeans. Pitts seeks to explore both the particular nature of the black experience in various European countries and the commonalities that are all too plain to see when you take the time to look closely.

So, yes, we need to understand the specific nature of French Republican debates about race and citizenship. But, fundamentally, is there a major difference between the French discussion of integration or communitarianism and British debates about the “good” immigrant who respects “British values” and the “bad” immigrant who doesn’t?

Having worked with the Thuram Foundation on various projects over the past two years, I have been struck by how much Thuram’s words and ideas find echoes in the increasingly confident public proclamations on race (and other social matters) by young black British footballers such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings.

However, there remains a reciprocal lack of awareness of the black experience across national boundaries within Europe. And it is still far more common to look instinctively to the African American context for models of how to resist and bring about change.

In that context, the publication of White Thinking is perhaps another small step towards building that Afropean sense of identity envisaged by Johnny Pitts.The Conversation

David Murphy, Professor of French and Postcolonial Studies, University of Strathclyde

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: written in 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland imagines society without men

Ruth Hollick collection. State Library of Victoria

Donna Mazza, Edith Cowan UniversityRecent television series Creamerie, a dark comedy from New Zealand where a pandemic quickly kills (almost) all men and male animals, revives the concept of an all-female society with a contemporary take on ideas raised by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) over 100 years ago.

Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) is the kind of novel mentioned by critics who dive into speculative fiction dealing with gender or utopia, but it rarely gets serious consideration as a literary work in its own right.

Authors of feminist dystopia in the mould of Creamerie and The Handmaid’s Tale do owe a debt to Herland, but the work itself was out of print for 60 years and is a scarce gem in libraries and bookstores alike.

Sepia photograph
Charlotte Perkins Gilman photographed around 1915, when she wrote and published Herland.
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute

Perkins Gilman was an influential suffragette in America, and Herland was originally published as a serial in 1915 in The Forerunner, a monthly journal edited and written entirely by her for seven years. This is an extraordinary output for a single writer in any circumstances or era.

The book was published as a full-length work for the first time in 1979 by London based The Women’s Press Ltd. If not for the foresight of the feminist publisher, it might well have languished for more decades.

The novel is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist out to learn all he can, and one of three men – alongside wealthy American Terry O. Nicholson who bankrolls the trip and Jeff Margrave, a smarmy doctor – who are on an adventure holiday into the wilderness of a continent resembling South America.

When their guides tell them about Herland, an isolated country devoid of men, they are keen to go and try their luck with the women; Terry aims to be “king of Ladyland”.

A land without men

Soon after their first journey, the men return so they are not beaten to “the good lookers” in “the bunch” by some other fellows. They take a small aircraft to map the forest, landing on a wide rock “quite out of sight of the interior”.

“They won’t find this in a hurry,” says Terry, even though the women had run out of their houses and watched them fly over: this is one of many subtle digs by the author foreshadowing the way the men underestimate the intelligence of the women.

The original 1979 cover.

The men scamper through the landscape, armed and dangerous, fuelled by the promise of lusty adventures and thoughts of fending off the men they know must be hidden somewhere, as they have seen babies and children on their flyover.

But there are no men. The explanation for 2,000 years of ongoing procreation comes a third of the way through the novel, where a chapter is dedicated to the history.

After escaping slavery in a harem and having “no-one left on this beautiful high garden land but a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women” there followed a decade of working together,

growing stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then a miracle happened — one of these young women bore a child. Of course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia — their Goddess of Motherhood — under strict watch. And there, as years passed, this wonder-woman bore child after child, five of them — all girls.

The three men are captured and held in a “fortress” for six months under the watchful eye of older women they disparagingly dub “Colonels” — and kept well away from their trousers and any young women.

Clothed in the same tunic as all Herland residents, they learn the language and are quizzed about the lives of women in their own country. Here, they divulge “the poorest of all the women were driven into the labour market by necessity” and two-thirds are “loved, honoured, kept in the home to care for the children” but it is a “law of nature” the poorest have the most children.

Read more:
What is suffragette white? The colour has a 110-year history as a protest tool

The men “escape” under subtle observation and soon form bonds with the three young women they met up a tree on their arrival: Alima, Celis and Ellador.

By the end of the novel, Jeff is “thoroughly Herlandized” and all set to live with Celis in this utopia. The narrator, Van, marries Ellador and his social observations lead to some shifts in thinking (their story is the subject of the 1916 sequel, With Her in Ourland).

Wealthy misogynist Terry is intractable in his patriarchal attitudes. He is abusive to Alima, put on trial and expelled from Herland.

The Amazons

The 12 chapters of Herland are structured around topics (“A unique history”, “The girls of Herland”, “Their religions and our marriages”) that might easily be the titles of an anthropological work from the period.

The tone of the writing mimics an authoritative patriarchal voice. This is obviously intended to be ironic. The novel is darkly comic and filled with subtle digs at the male characters and the inequality faced by women in 1915, especially in response to work and economic disadvantage.

The concept of a female-led society has its roots in Ancient Greece, in the work of Homer who captured stories of Amazon warrior-women in Iliad. Amazon women like the fearsome Penthesilea, who battled Trojan warriors, feature in a range of Greek tales, where they are usually depicted as succumbing to the swords or charms of male protagonists like Achilles and Theseus.

The Amazons have been re-imagined by authors in many contexts since, featuring in art, literature — and Wonder Woman.

Read more:
The truth about the Amazons – the real Wonder Women

Herland pays homage to them, too. The legendary Amazons of Greek myth inhabited a remote homeland at the edge of the “world”; Herland seems to be located in an area resembling the Amazon.

Considering the geography of Herland is a well-forested triangle, the witty Perkins Gilman might also have been intending a symbolic connection with female anatomy.

The Yellow Wallpaper

In her time, Perkins Gilman’s ideas about the public role of women, prevalent male attitudes to women and the structure of the family were radically feminist.

This wasn’t the first work of hers which took up such ideas.

She is best known as author of The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a short story narrated by a woman locked in an upstairs nursery by her husband — who is also her doctor — to treat a nervous condition with the “rest cure”. The rest cure was commonly prescribed to treat what we now call postpartum depression, which Perkins Gilman suffered for three years. It involved restriction of all activity, including reading and writing, while being confined to bed.

Read more:
The Yellow Wallpaper: a 19th-century short story of nervous exhaustion and the perils of women’s ‘rest cures’

Deeply disturbing and gripping, The Yellow Wallpaper is an expose on the treatment of women by medical professionals and narrates the woman’s descent into madness in disturbing detail. Perkins Gilman’s own physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, read the story and, as she claimed, discarded the rest cure in response.

The Yellow Wallpaper predates Herland by a couple of decades, but in comparison, the writing in it is more loose and dynamic. Perhaps the first-person male protagonist in Herland was a less comfortable narrative position for the author, with her well entrenched feminist ideals. The writing in Herland is not as rich in motif and layers of meaning. Characterisation of the women in the novel lacks depth, but this may also be ironic.

Overwhelmingly, the purpose of this feminist classic is to critique the social and economic system that restricted American (and other) women through limiting education, financial independence and life choices. As a novel, it reads as ideology-driven and a vehicle for women’s rights — but it is also very funny.Its ironies are still potent, and sadly valid.The Conversation

Donna Mazza, Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not My Review: We Are Each Other’s Harvest – Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy by Natalie Baszile

We Are Each Other’s Harvest – Celebrating African American Farmers Land and Legacy by Natalie Baszile

Not My Review: Fatal Contact – How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples by Peter Dowling

Book review: Fatal Contact is a timely account of how epidemics devastated our First Peoples

Wybalenna, Flinders Island: the Aboriginal settlement 1847.
Courtesy of Libraries Tasmania

Cassandra Pybus, University of Tasmania

Review: Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples by Peter Dowling (Monash University Publishing)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.

As Peter Dowling reminds us in his introduction to this book, violence on the colonial frontier accounted for many thousands of deaths among the First Peoples — a truth unremembered in a process of historical amnesia labelled the “great Australian silence” by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner.

Australia’s sense of its past in collective memory, Stanner said in his famous 1968 Boyer lectures, was:

a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape […] a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.

A great deal has shifted in our understanding of the past since Stanner shocked the historical profession into a halting engagement with the truth of Australia’s settlement.

Yet, as historian Billy Griffiths pointed out in the anthology Fire, Flood and Plague, a key part of the “great Australian silence” has been our continued willingness to see pandemic disease that eliminated the great majority of the First People as “inevitable and apolitical”.

Read more:
Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on

In the face of the current pandemic, playing out on a global stage, Griffiths writes, we can observe that “it is not only about microbes; it is also about culture, politics and history”. The radically different consequences of this pandemic as experienced by different peoples has shown us we cannot blithely assume spread of disease is without responsibility.

This is what Dowling would have us understand in his timely and meticulous account of “the greatest human tragedy in the long history of Australia”. He examines the recurring outbreaks of fatal epidemics of smallpox, measles, syphilis, influenza and tuberculosis (TB), which “nearly wiped out Australia’s First Peoples”.

Catastrophic impact

At the time of colonisation, these diseases were so endemic in Britain that a high degree of immunity existed in the population, as well as medical strategies to control epidemic spread. But in the virgin-soil communities of Australia’s First Peoples, everyone was susceptible, with no-one spared. So there was no-one to provide basic needs for the sick.

The impact was catastrophic, as illustrated in the multiple accounts of the smallpox outbreak at Sydney Cove in 1789. This is widely known about now, but a wave of epidemics, including smallpox, continued to decimate the First Peoples well into the 20th century.

West view of Sydney Cove taken from the Rocks, at the rear of the General Hospital, 1789.
Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Alongside smallpox, syphilis also reached epidemic proportions in the Sydney region in the first few decades of settlement, gradually extending into every corner of the continent.

The scourge of syphilis was apparent in the early colony in Tasmania and a major contributor, along with influenza, to the rapid mortality that had all but eliminated the peoples of the south-eastern quadrant of the island by 1830.

Women and children at Corranderk in Victoria.
Courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

It was in Victoria where the magnitude of the disease was most apparent. In 1839, a cohort of Aboriginal Protectors were appointed to various districts across Victoria. They all reported overwhelming syphilis infection, accounting for as many as “nine out of ten” of the many sick and dying.

One reported of the First People in his district “the most extensive ravages […] will render them extinct within a few years”.

Another despairingly complained “no medicine has been placed at my disposal”.

Worst in camps

Epidemics reached into isolated First People’s communities well out of sight of authorities — the Spanish Flu of 1918 managed to spread its deadly tentacles into communities of the Western Desert. However, outbreaks were much more likely in the government-supervised camps, reserves, missions and stations, where dispossessed First Peoples were forcibly relocated.

Uniformly, these places of concentration had overcrowded and inadequate housing, low nutritional diets and bad water supply, combined with individual distress and depression — conditions favourable to the incubation and spread of diseases.

The First People’s high susceptibility to disease, Dowling argues, was probably a consequence of chronic untreated TB among those forced into camps and settlements.

He examines the settlement on Flinders Island in Tasmania between 1832 and 1847, which became infamous for its horrendous death rate, mythologised by the colonists who had expelled these people simply due to their “pining away”.

The records examined by Dowling show these people actually died of either TB itself or an associated respiratory illness worsened by TB’s immunosuppressant effects.

TB was also known to have been an efficient killer in the Victorian settlements at Lake Hindmarsh and Coranderrk: the attributed cause of more than 30% of recorded deaths in those places between 1876 and 1900. At these same settlements, a measles epidemic in 1874-5 killed 20% of people.

A group of Aboriginal men at Coranderrk Station, Healesville.
Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

It is no coincidence this was the same story as at the notorious concentration camps for dispossessed Boers the British created in South Africa at the end of the 19th century, where various epidemic diseases were allowed to rage.

Read more:
The COVID-19 crisis in western NSW Aboriginal communities is a nightmare realised

As I write, I am acutely aware most communities of First Peoples have the lowest vaccination rates in the nation — even though the government has assured us repeatedly vaccination for these most vulnerable communities was their highest priority.

In despair, I repeat the mantra: the past is not even past.The Conversation

Cassandra Pybus, Adjunct Professor in History, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Sindiwe Magona’s devastating, uplifting story of South African women

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International University

Reading South African author Sindiwe Magona’s latest novel When the Village Sleeps reminded me of my time researching and teaching in the country’s Eastern Cape province a decade ago. While involved in community engagement for Rhodes University I heard stories of young people who would deliberately contract HIV in order to receive government disability grants.

When the Village Sleeps spans three generations of women in one family and the central role of ancestral belief and ancient custom – or a lack of it – in their lives. It initially focuses on Busi, a promising young student who benefits from an education at a good school due to the hard work and friendship of her grandmother with her former white employer.

It reveals the devastating motivation behind Busi’s teenage pregnancy orchestrated to produce a financial reward in the form of a child support grant from the state.

The shocking story at the centre of Magona’s latest novel is as heartbreaking as it is cruel – and yet the character of Busi’s daughter Mandlakazi (or Mandla) completely overturns the notion that her birth is a tragedy. She becomes the heroine who unites her family.

A book cover showing the title 'When the Village Sleeps' inside an illustration of a giant moon, trees and lands in the foreground and the name of the author, Sindiwe Magona.

Pan Macmillan/Picador Africa

Magona is a pioneering writer who, with this new novel, continues to feature challenging contemporary issues in her work, with incisive commentaries on power, masculinity and the role of women.

The old and the new

Mandla’s great grandmother, Khulu, who takes baby Mandla to the rural Eastern Cape to recuperate from birth disabilities and strengthen her, is central to the story and it is her unending devotion that seems to bring about such a significant change in the “broken bundle” she brings home to Sidwadweni.

Referencing the poetry and teachings of celebrated isiXhosa-language author and historian S.E.K. Mqhayi, the narration frequently shifts into poetry to enable the voice of Mandla to articulate her nascent consciousness which seems fused with her ancestors, “the Old”. From her earliest moments she would:

fall asleep to the ministrations

of her hands infused with care

and into that sleep

the lyrics of songs pouring from an ancient throat

sink deep into my mind

into my brain, my heart, my limbs.

No wonder Mandla is so transformed by the years she spends under Khulu’s care. She returns to Kwanele township in Cape Town with a divine gift that enables her to access the ancestral realm, and predict the future.

Central to the novel is abenzakalise (those who have harmed) and the consequences of their actions. On a personal level this relates to Busi’s strained relationship with her mother Phyllis and her estranged father, and then, as a teenager, the alcohol and the street drug tik she imbibes in order to deform her baby and receive the state’s disability allowance.

However, all of these characters are shown to be capable of redemption and change, as long as they adhere to Khulu’s wisdom – which is by no means a fixed regurgitation of “tradition” but a practical, living faith. So the resilience and strength of all the female characters shines through, as it does in Magona’s celebrated 2008 novel Beauty’s Gift.

A devastating critique

On a wider allegorical level the novel reads as a critique of South Africa itself, the impact of colonialism and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who have harmed the people through corruption and a failure to tackle inequality, stunting the growth of a healthy, prosperous nation.

Explicit critique of the government and particularly government handouts which do nothing to really alleviate poverty, but just entrench feelings of helplessness, is evident throughout the novel.

Magona makes incisive judgements, through her characters – especially the elder Khulu and young Mandla – and offers possible solutions, which include honouring the earth and returning to self-sufficiency. This idealism can feel naïve at times but there’s something very seductive and straightforward about the self-care, and self-respect that comes from citizens helping themselves and transforming their communities from within.

Read more:
Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona

Towards the end, the book tips into a kind of disabled girls’ manifesto or set of instructions for how to set up community-based support for disabled and marginalised young people. However Magona expertly shifts the narrative at that point back to a dialogue with the ancestors and manages to transform the didactic elements of the tale into wisdom that reaches up to the present day and the threat of COVID-19.

Very recent commentary on the difficulties of enforcing social distancing in communities which rely on food parcels during the pandemic, forcing locals to gather together to collect much needed help, is painful to read. The mistakes are so preventable and obvious and yet are made time and again.

The prophecy

Most interesting to me is the way in which the novel manages to balance the re-introduction of neglected female initiation rites alongside the magic realism of Mandla’s prediction of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the 15-year-old Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse’s 19th century prophecy – which led to a millennial movement that culminated in the cattle-killing and famine of 1856-7 – Mandla’s foretelling that “the world will die”, comes true, although perhaps not on the scale the “voices” decreed:

The ground will not be able to swallow all the dead!

O-oh! The multitudinous dead!

There will be none left to bury the dead.

In many respects this prediction blurs, in my mind, with the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that killed more than 2 million South Africans, with 7.7 million currently infected with HIV. Magona has written searingly on this topic before.

Once again excoriating the corruption and failures of government, the Fields of Hope project, which young Mandla initiates to grow food for the township, shines like a beacon when “what government help does for the poor is cement them in poverty… Here comes help that is real!”

Ending on a shockingly blunt and abrupt note, Magona leaves us, as always, with a lot to think about.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Orwell’s ideas remain relevant 75 years after ‘Animal Farm’ was published

George Orwell’s writings have left a lasting imprint on American thought and culture.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Mark Satta, Wayne State University

Seventy-five years ago, in August 1946, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was published in the United States. It was a huge success, with over a half-million copies sold in its first year. “Animal Farm” was followed three years later by an even bigger success: Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

In the years since, Orwell’s writing has left an indelible mark on American thought and culture. Sales of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” jumped in 2013 after the whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked confidential National Security Agency documents. And “Nineteen Eighty-Four” rose to the top of Amazon’s best-sellers list after Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration in 2017.

As a philosophy professor, I’m interested in the continuing relevance of Orwell’s ideas, including those on totalitarianism and socialism.

Early career

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair. Born in 1903 in colonial India, Blair later moved to England, where he attended elite schools on scholarships. After finishing school, he joined the British civil service, working in Burma, now Myanmar. At age 24, Orwell returned to England to become a writer.

During the 1930s, Orwell had modest success as an essayist, journalist and novelist. He also served as a volunteer soldier with a left-wing militia group that fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. During the conflict, Orwell experienced how propaganda could shape political narratives through observing inaccurate reporting of events he experienced firsthand.

Orwell later summarized the purpose of his writing from roughly the Spanish Civil War onward: “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism.”

Orwell did not specify in that passage what he meant by either totalitarianism or democratic socialism, but some of his other works clarify how he understood those terms.

What is totalitarianism?

For Orwell, totalitarianism was a political order focused on power and control. The totalitarian attitude is exemplified by the antagonist, O’Brien, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The fictional O’Brien is a powerful government official who uses torture and manipulation to gain power over the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, Winston Smith. Significantly, O’Brien treats his desire for power as an end in itself. O’Brien represents power for power’s sake.

A copy of George Orwell's novel '1984' is displayed at The Last Bookstore on January 25, 2017, in Los Angeles.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (‘1984’) surged to the top of’s best-sellers list after Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration in 2017.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Much of Orwell’s keenest insights concern what totalitarianism is incompatible with. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” Orwell writes of “The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power … .” In other words, laws can limit a ruler’s power. Totalitarianism seeks to obliterate the limits of law through the uninhibited exercise of power.

Similarly, in his 1942 essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell argues that totalitarianism must deny that there are neutral facts and objective truth. Orwell identifies liberty and truth as “safeguards” against totalitarianism. The exercise of liberty and the recognition of truth are actions incompatible with the total centralized control that totalitarianism requires.

Orwell understood that totalitarianism could be found on the political right and left. For Orwell, both Nazism and Communism were totalitarian.

Orwell’s work, in my view, challenges us to resist permitting leaders to engage in totalitarian behavior, regardless of political affiliation. It also reminds us that some of our best tools for resisting totalitarianism are to tell truths and to preserve liberty.

What is democratic socialism?

In his 1937 book “The Road to Wigan Pier,” Orwell writes that socialism means “justice and liberty.” The justice he refers to goes beyond mere economic justice. It also includes social and political justice.

Orwell elaborates on what he means by socialism in “The Lion and the Unicorn.” According to him, socialism requires “approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privileges, especially in education.”

In fleshing out what he means by “approximate equality of incomes,” Orwell later says in the same essay that income equality shouldn’t be greater than a ratio of about 10 to 1. In its modern-day interpretation, this suggests Orwell could find it ethical for a CEO to make 10 times more than their employees, but not to make 300 times more, as the average CEO in the United States does today.

But in describing socialism, Orwell discusses more than economic inequality. Orwell’s writings indicate that his preferred conception of socialism also requires “political democracy.” As scholar David Dwan has noted, Orwell distinguished “two concepts of democracy.” The first concept refers to political power resting with the common people. The second is about having classical liberal freedoms, like freedom of thought. Both notions of democracy seem relevant to what Orwell means by democratic socialism. For Orwell, democratic socialism is a political order that provides social and economic equality while also preserving robust personal freedom.

I believe Orwell’s description of democratic socialism and his recognition that there are various forms socialism can take remain important today given that American political dialogue about socialism often overlooks much of the nuance Orwell brings to the subject. For example, Americans often confuse socialism with communism. Orwell helps clarify the difference between these terms.

With high levels of economic inequality, political assaults on truth and renewed concerns about totalitarianism, Orwell’s ideas remain as relevant now as they were 75 years ago.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Mark Satta, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Carmen Laforet’s Nada captures longing and desire in post-war Spain

Nationaal Archief, CC0

Ruth McHugh-Dillon, Monash University

If you haven’t heard of Nada, one of the most important European novels of the 20th century, you’re not alone.

Written in a few short months by Carmen Laforet, it was originally published in Spain in 1944 to immediate acclaim. It won a wide readership and Spain’s inaugural Premio Nadal, now the country’s most prestigious literary prize. Yet Nada took more than 60 years to become widely available in English translation.

A classic in Spanish, it is still shamefully under-read in English.

In the 20th century, Spanish-language literature was dominated by groundbreaking international names from Latin America such as Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.

Several of these writers credit Nada with forcing them to reconsider writing from Spain. Until belatedly discovering Laforet’s novel, Vargas Llosa writes, he had believed “everything over there reeked of fustiness, sacristy and Francoism”.

The atmospheric and cruel Nada overturned this verdict. Laforet’s achievement is remarkable, given her age (just 23 when she wrote Nada) and the challenges she faced as a woman to overcome the sexist bias of her time and secure her place in the literary canon.

Even now, analysis frequently emphasises the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical elements of the novel, diminishing its feat of extraordinary imagination.

A family drama

Nada centres on Andrea, an orphan who arrives in Barcelona aged 18, to stay with relatives she hasn’t seen for years. Escaping to Barcelona to study literature has long been her dream. But the city Andrea encounters resembles nothing of her happy childhood memories.

Nada book cover

Once glorious, Barcelona is now defeated and dilapidated, “its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies”. Arriving at her grandparents’ crumbling apartment, Andrea enters “what seemed like a nightmare”: a ragged array of relatives teetering between madness and starvation.

Andrea’s grandfather is dead and the household is under the command of her authoritarian aunt, Angustias, who promises to “mould” Andrea into obedience. Every day, the same violent dramas recur. Andrea’s arrogant artistic uncle Román goads his hot-headed brother, Juan, usually about his “piece of trash” wife, Gloria, who Román claims is obsessed with him.

If Gloria gets involved, Juan turns on her. Juan can be found either beating Gloria or painting bad nudes of her to sell for a pittance. Andrea’s tiny, tremulous grandmother tries to keep the peace, recalling how “there were never two brothers who loved each other […] like Román and Juanito”. The scowling maid, Antonia, lurks in the shadows with her dog, relishing the violence.

Censorship and stagnation after the Civil War

Nada, which in Spanish means “nothing”, emerged in one of the darkest and most stagnant periods of Spanish history.

For many Spaniards — already exhausted from the brutal Civil War that ripped the country apart between 1936 and 1939 — their worst nightmare had become a crushing, everyday reality. The dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, whose rebel armies had ultimately vanquished the left-wing Republicans, would drag on until his death in 1975.

Francoist demonstration in Salamanca (1937) with the paraders carrying the portrait of Franco in banners and the populace pulling the Roman salute.
Nada was written in the early days of the Franco regime.
Biblioteca Virtual de Defensa/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

While the rest of Europe was beginning to emerge from the nightmare of the second world war, by the mid-1940s Spain was settling into one of its bleakest periods. These early years of Franco’s regime are known in Spain as “the hunger years”.

It was in these hunger years Laforet wrote Nada. Andrea recalls how “[the] hunger I almost didn’t feel because it was chronic” weakens her will, making her irritable and unfocused. Sniffing around the kitchen, she drinks cold, leftover vegetable stock.

Bedbugs infest the rooms and characters have discoloured teeth; Gloria’s baby almost dies from pneumonia, a sickness of the undernourished. These are up-close glimpses of the severe deprivations that, as historian Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco argues, Franco used to consolidate his power.

Under Franco, literary works were subject to strict censorship enforcing conservative values and the fascist narrative of the Civil War. As sometimes happens to art made in restricted circumstances, the social and political critiques embedded within Laforet’s novel are all the more remarkable given her creative play with what can and cannot be said directly.

Read more:
Franco’s invisible legacy: books across the hispanic world are still scarred by his censorship

Apart from scattered references to the war, the political situation is rarely named. Yet the atmosphere is oppressive: walls ooze with damp, blinds are drawn against the daylight. Even the air itself is heavy. Family life is a gothic nightmare, replicated behind a thousand “darkened balconies” in Barcelona and beyond.

This apartment and the others like it, are haunted houses inhabited by the ghosts of past violence — but also by its survivors. Civil wars turn neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother. As they attempt to live side-by-side, the apparently intractable conflict between Juan and Román shows how violence can be subdued or domesticated, yet still bubbles beneath the surface.

A streetscape
Family life is oppressive, repeated again and again beyond darkened balconies.
Nationaal Archief, CC0

Gloria now views her joy at the end of the war as naïve:

How could I imagine what came afterwards? It was like the end of the novel. Like the end of all sadness.

With Nada, Laforet wrote the novel of what happens after: when the conflict ends but life continues.

A transcendent story of longing and desire

As a work of art, one of Nada’s triumphs is how it transcends this bleak and repressive atmosphere without ignoring it. Laforet’s novel offers compelling testimony of Spain’s post-war hunger years. But it is not a documentary. The novel’s compassionate portrayal of Andrea and its black humour draw the reader into a story that is unsentimental but deeply human: an impatient young woman, learning how to be in the world.

For Andrea, the only reprieve from the suffocating apartment is university. There, she makes friends with people her own age, who provide comfort away from the “ghostly world of older people”.

A crowded street
Andrea searches for respite from the suffocating apartment.
Nationaal Archief, CC0

The divide begins to blur, however, when her wealthy and magnetic friend, Ena, becomes drawn to Andrea’s uncle Román. Having already bewitched Gloria and the maid Antonia, Román’s predatory circling of Ena penetrates Andrea’s private world and threatens her most meaningful relationship.

Andrea’s relationship with Ena is charged with intense desire. She is drawn to Ena’s “pleasant, sensual face” and “terrible eyes” glittering with intelligence. Embraced by her friend’s family, Andrea must also endure the pain of watching Ena entertain her many male admirers. This, along with Andrea’s fascinated descriptions of Gloria’s naked body, has led to queer readings of the novel and its protagonist.

Named or unnamed, straight or queer, there is no doubt a deep sexuality surges beneath the novel’s surface. Angustias’s obsession with modesty, and her warnings Andrea stay away from Gloria, “an inappropriate woman”, represent the anxiety around sexual agency and transgression in Franco’s Spain.

Spanish culture before, during and after the dictatorship has challenged Franco’s repressive ideology. Written before the Civil War, Federico García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba (1936) also uses an authoritarian matriarch in the family home to explore repression and sexual freedom.

After Franco’s death, the Movida movement exploded in a riotous celebration of sexuality and transgression, on display in Pedro Almódovar’s many films.

Nada sits in between, passionate but understated, escaping the censors with a story of human longing, frustration and hope. Like all classics, it will be read, reread and given new context. Today, Andrea’s anguish at being trapped inside, waiting for life to begin, will speak to many.

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Pain and Glory: Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie is as much self-therapy as it is self-portrait

Correction: this article originally misstated the date of Nada’s English translation. It was first translated in 1958, but not widely available until 2007.The Conversation

Ruth McHugh-Dillon, Lecturer in European Languages (Spanish and Latin American Studies), Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The story of an African children’s book that explains the science of skin colour


Nina G. Jablonski, Penn State

Skin We Are In is a landmark South African book for children (and grown-ups) on the subject of skin colour. Published in 2018, it was co-authored by an artist and a scientist, both South African luminaries – the author Sindiwe Magona and the anthropologist and palaeobiologist Nina Jablonski. Here they talk about how – and why – the book came about.

Nina Jablonski: As someone who studies the human biological past, I had been writing about skin colour and race for academic journals and for adult readers for years. The idea of doing a children’s book was planted back in 2010 when a friend impressed on me the importance of writing up my research on skin colour and race as an illustrated book for young readers. Like many South Africans, he realised that skin colour had been transformed through the country’s colonial history from a simple bodily trait – something that covers our bodies – to something that determines human worth and destiny.

I had found, in the course of my work, that people knew its social significance, but they didn’t understand it. Many were convinced that there was a genetic connection between skin colour and other physical and intellectual traits, including intelligence. This information – about how skin colour had evolved and how it didn’t determine any other human traits – really needed to be conveyed to the people who counted most: young people.

But I had no experience in writing for kids and no idea where the story would come from. I had the big challenge of finding a storyteller. I turned to the writer Njabulo Ndebele for advice. He suggested you, Sindiwe, saying “she has the spirit and spine needed”.

Sindiwe Magona: The project scared me for I had never worked with a scientist. But the subject matter is one of the most important aspects of my life as it has been the bane of black life in this country and, indeed, the world. This was a book that could enable parents to broach the subject of skin colour with their children. All parents need help to deal with race and racism; many did not get good grounding as children. Skin colour is often a difficult subject and dealing with it through storytelling is a great aid.

Nina Jablonski: One of the things that most impressed me, once we were talking, was your ability to express the everyday wear-and-tear of skin colour and colour-based racism.

Sindiwe Magona: Racism in South Africa was a way of life as it was sanctioned. Social stratification, according to skin, was reinforced by apartheid laws that in turn embedded and entrenched poverty and lack of mobility for the oppressed. The darker the skin colour, the less legal protection accorded, to the extent of denial of citizenship. Just as skin colour is inescapable, so was poverty inescapable. This created and reinforced a deep-seated sense of inferiority in most black people while most white people suffered the reverse and felt superior.

A book cover with the words 'Skin we are in' on an illustration of five young people, each a different skin tone.
The cover of the book written by two South African luminaries.
New Africa Books

Nina Jablonski: You found the hook to start writing the book quite by chance…

Sindiwe Magona: Coming back from our first meeting, Nina, I walked through the gate and reached behind the post for mail. Right there, on the small bush whose leaves I often have to brush aside to look into the mailbox, sat a chameleon. I watched as it slowly made its way from the stalk onto a leaf … changing colour as it did. At once, I morphed into a child, a boy, and I envied the chameleon’s ability. If only I could do that. Strange thing is – never before and never since have I spied another in my garden.

Read more:
Learning from the story of pioneering South African writer Sindiwe Magona

Nina Jablonski: When you told me about Njabulo, who longed to change his colour, I knew we had a great story. From there, we worked step by step, fitting the science alongside the developing text. We began working with Lynn Fellman, the illustrator, to create the look of the characters and their setting…

Sindiwe Magona: Enter Uncle Joshua and a group of children – Njabulo, Aisha, Tim, Chris and Roshni. Given a recycling project, Njabulo offers his Uncle Joshua’s junkyard, where the group from a multiracial school should meet. Njabulo, waiting for his group, is suddenly assailed by misgivings. Will his “friends” find him wanting? Are they, indeed, his friends? That is when he comes across the chameleon and wishes they were all the same colour … or if one could change colour like the chameleon. Uncle Joshua is stricken by the realisation of the self-doubt that is the lot of the black child. Later, he gets the group talking about skin colour; and here Nina’s science comes in very handy. With understanding grows self acceptance and appreciation. The result is the song that the group presents with the instruments they make using bits and pieces from the scrap yard.

An elder woman smiles lightly as she looks into the camera, eyes warm and dressed in black, beaded traditional Xhosa attire, a zebra skin on the wall behind her.
Sindiwe Magona has written over 130 children’s books.
© Bjorn Rudner/Sindiwe Magona

Nina Jablonski: Uncle Joshua was a believable and trusted wise uncle, who talked to the kids about things like the effects of sunlight on the body and how people got it wrong when they equated skin colour with intellectual potential. The science content boxes on each page provided basic facts backing up what Uncle Joshua was saying. The characters are very true, I don’t know how you do it.

Sindiwe Magona: I am fortunate that I never discarded my childhood, or perhaps it never left me. This enables me to go into that world of the child, imagine its delights, its fears, its doubts, and the absolute thrill of discovery, of mastery.

Nina Jablonski: We can’t force books into the hands of children, parents and teachers. But we made the book available in all of the official languages of South Africa, and made free copies readily available to schools in the Western Cape through Biblionef South Africa. We are incredibly fortunate that we had support from the businessman Koos Bekker through the Babylonstoren Foundation to make these things possible.

Read more:
We need to unpack the word ‘race’ and find new language

Sindiwe Magona: All parents are challenged by the issue of race and racism. White parents often feel “accused” of racism and black parents, by and large, feel since they are at the receiving end of racism, it is the other side that should learn. If white people would just stop being racist then the problem would be no more. Were it that simple.

We all need to forgive ourselves and one another … so we can go on and own our past and what it dealt us and then rid ourselves of beliefs we have come to know or recognise as unfounded. From there, we might be able to hand over a cleaner, wiser belief system to our children.

You can order a copy of Skin We Are In over here.The Conversation

Nina G. Jablonski, Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.