Monday, September 14, 2009

conservative questions

This weekend, the headline of our favorite South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, read "Zuma's New God Squad Wants Liberal Laws to Go".

In short, the headline, as well as an editorial inside, describes a shift underway in South African society in which powers of "conservative" religious faith are gaining a greater hearing with SA's new president, Jacob Zuma, than they had with his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Under Mbeki's leadership, South Africa legalized abortion and gay marriage, two laws which Zuma's alleged "God Squad" would now like to repeal.

The articles describe some of the deep paradoxes of South African society. For example, although South Africa is reputed to have "the most liberal constitution in the world", it has arguably one of the world's most conservative populations. Conservative tendencies cut across racial, economic, and religious lines, from deeply religious supporters of the old Apartheid regime, founded as it was upon the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church, to members of Pentecostals and African Initiated Churches, to various Islamic groups, to staunch proponents of everything held to be traditionally "African."

Zuma, of course, was swept into office on the popular support of those who held that Mbeki was a European-educated, out-of-touch elite; Zuma, the story goes, embodies the hopes and values of the common person. Of course, the lines are never tidy; Mbeki too styled himself an authentically African leader with "African solutions to African problems", a rationale on which he championed a traditional "African" diet to the exclusion of "western" antiretroviral drugs as a treatment for persons suffering from HIV-AIDS. The Zuma-led African National Congress (ANC, the ruling-party in SA) immediately repudiated Mbeki's policies on AIDS.

In light of such paradoxes, when one leader "conserves" traditional cultural norms in one way yet not another, we might ask, "Who is conservative [or substitute "liberal"]? " Or, what classifies as a 'conservative' issue? Relatedly, who is African? What classifies as an African issue?

Who is an American? What must one uphold to be authentically American?

Or why should that be our criterion? Is there nothing else?


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