David 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.