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Update 5: Bullard burns at the stake

Bullard gets burntDavid Bullard has been fired by the Sunday Times. Ostensibly, it was over last Sunday’s column, in which he envisioned what South Africa would look like had it not been colonised by the Dutch and the English. His vision isn’t exactly complimentary.

The column is condescending at best, and probably racist. But so what? It stokes debate, and that debate should not be about freedom of speech.

Before I talk about that debate, the obvious question is why fire Bullard for being offensive now? Hadn’t the Sunday Times‘s editor, Mondli Makhanya, read him before? Doesn’t an editor who once bravely put “Manto: a drunk and a thief” on the front page agree with Salman Rushdie that without the freedom to offend, freedom of speech ceases to exist? Maybe he does. But Bullard made the fatal mistake of offending his paymasters. For that, of course, they have every right to tell him to sod off and exercise his freedom of speech elsewhere.

Except that his paymasters deny that’s why they’re firing him. Makhanya says his 19th century views are unacceptable in the newspaper. Yet Bullard has been cultivating that persona in the very same newspaper for years. He unapologetically trades on his arrogance, his Victorian superciliousness, and his ability to provoke outrage. If he steps over lines, it’s because with his dandy sartorial style, his whisky-drinking tastes and his cigar-smoking condescension, he consciously — and self-consciously — stations himself above arbitrary lines drawn by the hoi polloi.

It is certainly not the first time Bullard has been racist or offensive. Why didn’t he get fired before? The only other possibility that springs to mind is that the political class strongarmed the newspaper by threatening to pull advertising. That is, of course, their right, but it would genuinely surprise me if Makhanya, who stood firm in the face of far heavier political pressure caved over something as inconsequential as a column by a known stirrer. My bet is Makhanya was just waiting for an excuse to fire Bullard after the latter’s scathing attack on his bosses in the recently-launched media magazine Empire — an attack he has exploited on several public occasions to arouse shock and mirth. Sarah Britten speculates along the same lines, and reckons his axing can only be good for Empire. Bullard himself agrees. (I share Britten’s wish that Empire would get around to discovering these newfangled intarweb tube things. On the other hand, we all know what Bullard thinks of the internet. And in the interest of full disclosure: I too write for Empire.)

For my part, I agree with Rushdie. If Bullard’s column is racist, or offensive, or contains 19th century views, so what? You’re free to disagree. In fact, it’s far better for racism to be declared openly and discussed freely than to be suppressed. Just because it’s taboo in public discourse doesn’t mean it’s not flourishing in pub discourse. Or should that read “festering”?

What will get lost in the noise is the debate Bullard appeared to be trying to stir. Not very well, in my view. He expressed the argument in an offensive, condescending way, but there is a valid debate to be had about the modern tendency to dismiss colonialism as mere racist oppression and exploitation. It definitely was, in many cases, mercenary and ruthless. The degree of depravity differed from one colonialist to the next, and the English were far from the worst.

Many writers take the line that colonialism in India, for example, had substantial benefits, in addition to the well-known drawbacks and injustices. Those writers are not only Western apologists for racist oppression, but also Indian economists, historians, and prominent politicians, writing about their own country. For all the harm colonialism did, they argue, it also brought with it civil institutions and infrastructure. India can thank Britain, they say, for its liberal education, modern jurisprudence, and functioning civil service bureaucracy. Once liberated, it was on these institutions that economic progress could be built.

Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of this issue. As Bullard shows, the same goes for unreasonable arguments. But that his column was grating and offensive does not mean it’s not a debate worth stirring. Yes, it means suspending conventions about what is politically correct. It means challenging well-established orthodox thinking on issues of history. It means treading sensitively around, and not being over-sensitive to, issues of race and oppression. It means rejecting the victim complex to which Bullard refers in his final paragraph, as well as the instinctive slam-dunk defense offered by perceptions of racism. But is it a debate worth suppressing?

I don’t think so. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, once expressed the 19th-century view that “[t]hose who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

It appears that view is also too 19th-century for Mondli Makhanya’s Sunday Times.

Update at 21:00 on 11 April 2008: If you’re interested in David Bullard’s columns, I hope you have bookmarks. Because you aren’t going to find them — not even previously published ones — at The Times website. They appear to have been orphaned. They still exist. For now. The link to his column in the copy above still works, and so do the links from that page, but without an article ID number, David Bullard is just a bad memory for the Sunday Times.

Update at 22:00 on 11 April 2008: Bullard responds, inserted in the copy above.

Update at 13:00 on 12 April 2008: The Saturday Star was quick to exploit this competitive opportunity, and published a page three article on Bullard in today’s first edition. It isn’t yet available online, but an image of the page is here. In it, he is quoted as saying that the column was merely an excuse for Makhanya to get rid of him, after he refused to apologise for claiming, in his Empire column that standards at the Sunday Times and other Avusa publications were in decline. After all, he says, his brief was to be “controversial” and “outrageous” and “to upset people” on a Sunday. “I was found guilty in the kangaroo court of Mondli Makhanya,” the piece quotes. Marvellously in character, he is pictured in a flashy pin-stripe suit and tie at the opulent Rand Club. “Wait until you see the next article in Empire,” he promises, “because now I don’t have to hold back at all.”

Update at 12:00 on 13 April 2008: Prompted by my response to Dawn in the comments section, I posted a short follow-up piece on the debate I believe Bullard was trying to stir: In defence of colonialism.

Update at 15:00 on 13 April 2008: Bullard’s Empire column, along with a full complimentary issue, has been published online. I noted it here. The direct link to his column is here.

 

  • Cicero

    Has David Bullard been vindicated? You might consider this web-site opinion.
    http://sarahmaidofalbion.blogspot.com/2009/05/zimbabwe-model-of-cause-and-effect.html

  • Carla

    Hank Small, you took the words right out of my mouth but ever so much more succinctly. Excellent comment and it is indeed sad that we can be called any manner of racist names as whites, without any repercussions.

  • Hank Small

    Bullock was fired because he dared to write a satire with large elements of truth. His column contained satitircal references to Africa’s inablity to make technological or civilisational advances, as well as the endemic externilasation of blame which is so characteric of Africans.
    Secondly, he focused on crime, and he did it as a white. Could he be so stupid? Had he been black, he could for example have followed in Jon Qwelane’s footsteps when he wrote:
    “What actually happened was that Mugabe, being the true revolutionary that he is, decided to follow the actual spirit of the liberation struggle to the letter by repossessing every inch of Zimbabwean soil from the marauding invaders and, in most cases, refused to pay them for the land because, quite logically, ‘the white people did not pay a cent for the land which they now claim is theirs in a country which they do not recognise, and to which many refuse to owe loyalty’.”
    Note: Qwelane calls whites “marauding invaders”, but his black skin in effect a “get out of jail free” Monopoly card – he may write what he wishes, whether it is factual or not (and without reverting to satire, which he is incapable of).
    Once again I must bow to the words of Orwell, a person who showed amasing insight into the workings of a Marxist, totalitarian state which Zimbabwe and South Africa in fact has become. He wrote: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” Bullard made the mistake of coming too near to the truth in his satire. He wrote what most thinking people know, therefore the thought police had to get rid of him.

  • tlotlo

    i was really sad when i heard that dave got fired so in support of dave i stopped buying that newspaper because without dave who else will i read? the column was provoking and my sunday mornings are going to be boring without him, i really loved your column even if i never i agreed with what you said. someone said this ‘i do not agree with what you are saying but i will fight to death for the right for you to say it’and i cannot wait for you to be back doing what you do best; making me so mad every sunday morning
    tlotlo

  • Cam Silver

    Check out the funny take on Bullardgate from South Africa’s best satirical website Hayibo.com

    They suggest Minister Shabangu now wants to kill Bullard! http://www.hayibo.com/articles/view/752

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    Nonsense. I spoke to David Bullard by e-mail, and he said, “Oh, how I suffer unjustly, a martyr to the cause. Wish I were a lowly, obscure, underpaid and ultimately irrelevant columnist like you, young Vegter. The burden of popularity is so heavy. The responsibility of fame so great. All that traffic my name is driving to your blog is a curse, my lad, mark my words. Nothing but a vile curse. I think I’ll go change my name now.”

    I haven’t heard from him since. Not as David Bullard, that is.

  • Paul

    How David Bullard must be enjoying all the fuss over this.

    Given that his departure from the Sunday Times was on the cards anyway, and that his future income is based upon his face-time in the media, all this support/criticism must have done his career no end of good. He must be positively wringing his hands with delight, as supporters undoubtedly outweigh his detractors in terms of media buying power, and that can only be good in the eyes of his next paymaster.

    One might even suggest that given that the Sunday Times probably also knew that he was going (either by jump or by push), playing the race card and stirring up a storm was less about actually caring for the perceived racism, and more about selling more newspapers in the eye of the hurricane. For why else would the editor risk his credibility in public when clearly we all know that the very first bullet point on his employment contract refers to his requirement to edit what is to be published. Which he clearly didn’t. Was it really an oversight (I’ve known editor’s fired for oversights of far smaller magnitude) or intentional?

    Either way, one has to question the general South African public’s ability to appreciate irony and satire, particularly given the columnist’s clear and obvious brief to stir up controversy in this manner. Must be the same bunch that get infuriated with Ben Trovato each week (every Tues in the Cape Times and on IOL).

    Sometimes the irate (ignorant?) masses are even more humorous than the article itself. And that’s probably the second reason that David Bullard is chuckling through is English muffin this morning…

  • sheila

    There is absolutely no doubt that colonists brought expertise to sub saharan africa – there were casualities but also benfits in the long term. Would Africa have rather preferred to be left alone and isolated from the global village? As David said, they were living an idyllic simple life. There will always be cultural differences, which we must strive to accept, not necessarily like or feel comfortable with e.g – I feel uncomfortable watching “praise singers” and ululating women.

  • Grandpa Edison

    The powers that be, must take a very close look at what freedom of speech means. If a race or individual are feeling compromised by someone’s statement use your brain to argue against it. Use the kindergarden advice from parents to their child – “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never harm you” As soon as there is physical actions, then this is unacceptable. While there is a word war – grow up and learn to argue or at least pay someone to argue on your behalf. Quit taking offense and get on with life!!

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    Responsibility? Lemme check.

    16. Freedom of expression

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­

      1. freedom of the press and other media;
      2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
      3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
      4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
    2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
    3. propaganda for war;
    4. incitement of imminent violence; or
    5. advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

    Nope, don’t see anything about responsibility in there.

    Even if you agree his comments are racist, it’s hardly hate speech as contemplated in section 16.2.3.

    Besides for the responsibility to comply with laws (which are meant to be well-defined and narrow in scope, such as the statutes on libel), what do you mean by “responsibility”? Who gets to define it? Responsibility for what? And what responsibility would Bullard have had that he failed to meet?

    I have argued in a column in Maverick magazine why I don’t believe excluding hate speech from the right to freedom of expression has merit. It is subjective and open to abuse, and the repression of perceived hate speech is more likely to be counter-productive than beneficial. It’s not like those people heed that restriction among themselves. I’d rather they make themselves known in public rather than plot in dark pubs or shebeens among like-minded buddies.

    A restriction based on some undefined “responsibility” is even broader. As I quoted above, the right to free speech is not just threatened, but ceases to exist without the right to offend. Any restrictions on the right to free speech are dangerous, and the more easily they can be abused for political ends, the more dangerous they are.

    Let me ask it this way: what “responsibilities” do you think Robert Mugabe would consider reasonable to expect from a journalist? Such a demand is wide open to political abuse, which is exactly why we have a right to free expression in the first place.

    PS:HTML/CSS gurus, I implore thee, speak unto me. How does a mere mortal, fallible and short of patience, insert a (nested) ordered list into a blockquote without losing the blockquote’s background style? I could use preformatted text, but that makes assumptions about screen width that I don’t want to make.

  • Nkadzi

    Just one question: doesnt freedom of speech go hand in hand with responsibility?

  • Phakz

    I have no doubt many Sunday Times readers liked the Bullard. I say (to all those who want bullard back) lets look for a week in which we wont buy Sunday times, so they would know what they have done is very wrong. He used to be one of the factors i read S.T. People shud learn to be open-minded en stop thinkin about racism evrytime they wake up. I say Bring Back David Bullard!! mind u i’m a proudly BLACK S. African.

  • Amanda.Vermeulen

    Re the axing of David Bullard
    You will be judged by history.
    The grandchildren will say: “Surely they weren’t that ridiculous in those days. ”
    “Yes my dear, they were allowed to criticize and blame and discriminate but we weren’t allowed to respond. Eventually all whites were scared and we shut up.”

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    @Dawn: Indeed, someone should. I, for obvious reasons, can’t. I have, however, read a fair amount of editorial opinion articles along those lines, some more realistic than others. I don’t have references handy, but I agree that such views, speculative or otherwise, would form part of any discussion Bullard might have tried to stir.

    My own view on colonialism is that it was a logical development in a world that had until then been isolationist and mercantilist. At the time, trade with enemies or foreign countries was often embargoed, subject to high tariffs and duties, or simply forbidden. Establishing friendly trading colonies was a necessary step on the way to building global trade.

    Though deeply marred by illiberal practices such as corruption, annexation, slavery and war, they do not negate the mutual benefits of trade expansion, which was the primary purpose of colonial expansion by the major economic powers. One could argue that some (though far from all) colonial trade was involuntary, and that some colonialists did not respect the property or political rights of indigenous peoples. Inasmuch as this was the case I’d agree that an honest case for “mutual benefit” cannot be made, but then, inasmuch as this was the case, the trade wasn’t free.

    These are among the reasons that colonialism would always have to be superceded, and why it couldn’t be anything other than a step towards a freer, more modern world in which the benefits of trade can be enjoyed by all its citizens. However, that it did expand the world’s horizons and build the world’s institutions to a level at which capital could be more efficiently deployed and resources more efficiently harnessed, is hard to dispute. Without the expanded production base created by growing trade, I doubt we could have supported the unprecedented population growth of the 20th century. In fact, I doubt that growth — and the concomitant growth in global prosperity and quality of life indicators — would even have been possible without growing global trade.

    That we’re in a better world now than under a colonial trading system is indisputable. The advance of liberty is always an improvement in society, as is the growing sophistication of governments, markets and the institutional structures that support them.

    That a colonial trading system was a useful step on the way to today’s increasingly free and prosperous world is perhaps more controversial, and whether its benefits exceeded its obvious costs is less immediately clear. But it’s a debate worth having, if only so that in focusing our efforts on an increasingly free future, we can learn valid lessons from our less free past.

  • Dawn

    Perhaps someone should write about a black south african’s view of an africa never touched by the evil of colonisation.

  • keith

    More evidence that the new establishment is behaving like the old one or as someone put it, ” the Left is the new Right…” George Orwell said it all in Animal Farm

  • BuZ

    Man, you are really disappointing me big time. I thought at least you would have understood … another baloon popped …

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  • Hennie Coetzee

    Dave you are a champion!!!!!!!

  • Seamus

    Why fire the messenger? It would have been preferable to take issue with the content of the article. Either refute it with facts or alternative scenarios. However, so typical of the recent style – if you can’t manage it, no need for reasoned debate, just ban it.

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