Exquisitely expressed despair over the failures of the new South Africa.
My family moved from South Africa to New Zealand in 1975 when I was eight and I always find reading about the basket-case state of Africa painful - because of guilt, powerlessness, regret and wussiness. However, I forced myself to read Harper's Magazine's intensely powerful essay by exiled Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, "Mandela's Smile: Notes on South Africa's Failed Revolution", the most anguishing but important piece of writing I have read recently about the land of my birth. In a 10-page open letter to Nelson Mandela, Breytenbach shares his vision for Africa, as well as his profound sadness at its current disarray. The gruesome tales of violence "slick with blood" are nauseating but redeemed by Breytenbach's exquisite writing. His conclusion: "If a young South African were to ask me whether to stay or leave, my advice would be to go." Breytenbach served seven years in prison in South Africa for his anti-apartheid activities. Harper's Magazine does not put any of its content online for free but the article has provoked debate in the blogosphere. Photo-journalist Trevor Snapp's blog links to a free version of the essay on Google. As Snapp says, "if you are at all interested in Africa (and imagination and sadness and poetry)", it is worth downloading.
Harper's Magazine also blogs free on the scandal of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, charged with trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. "Number of men elected as Illinois governor since 1960: 7. Number who have been charged with criminal conduct: 4. Number who have served time in prison: 3," writes Ken Silverstein, who also links to the original FBI documents on the Smoking Gun website.
Hoorah to Joan Didion's clear-thinking piece about Obama in the New York Review of Books: "Obama: In the Irony-Free Zone". As a genuine 1960s radical, Didion nails the scepticism about the cult surrounding Obama and his bright-eyed supporters, who have drunk the Kool-Aid but are too young to remember where that phrase comes from. "Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into 'hope', was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized ... I couldn't count the number of snapshots I got emailed showing people's babies dressed in Obama gear." Didion is uneasy about the militant idealism Obama inspires, and points out the social revolution of the 1960s - often evoked following Obama's win - was not about babies in cute T-shirts. In contrast, the companion piece by black writer Darryl Pinckney explores his crush on "thrilling", "calm", "graceful" Obama - he is "enthralled" by his voice, intelligence, literary gifts and "a mystery about him that he is not likely to explore with us". Gush, gush.
Is China the new plastic? Remember the cocktail party scene in The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock, is advised the future is in plastics? These days, just substitute the word China. True believers return from Shanghai with a fanatic gleam in their eyes - "a bit like the folks who report meeting space aliens or a personal visit with the Virgin Mary", as Nathan Myhrvold writes on the Freakonomics blog. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer of Microsoft, reports on the commercial exuberance of Shanghai and wonders whether it will last - or whether factors out of China's control will bring it crashing down. "Were the dinosaurs to blame for the asteroid that wiped them out? It hardly seems fair to blame them, but absolution won't make them any less extinct."
I find Nicole Kidman deeply annoying; I adored it when Sharon Osbourne pointed out that her Botoxed forehead was like a flatscreen television. However, Shane Watson - a chick-lit author, not the cricketer - asks in the Times why we all have some female celebrity we hate. Do Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller and Victoria Beckham deserve the vitriol? Apparently the problem is that we don't like it if women achieve success too easily - Keira hasn't suffered enough. But there are no rules. "Sarah Palin, anti-abortionist and bear killer, how has she ended up on the rave list? Where exactly did Gwyneth Paltrow slip up? Angelina Jolie is surely no friend to women, yet we'd rather save our sniping for the harmless toy-dog owner Geri Halliwell." What bitches women can be.