This is the record of a discussion held on the terrace of the Lodge at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve on 15 September 2008.
“The 50/50 Foundation,” Henry said, “is not some movement located at the lunatic fringe of society. No, it’s at the very centre of lunacy, because it rejects many of the core values and customs of the present global community.”
Two men were sauntering by. One was about 30, the other some ten years older. They could have been of German, Austrian, or Swiss nationality, and were probably homosexual by orientation. They came to a halt and pretended to be looking attentively at something in the middle distance.
“It’s standard procedure in most societies,” Henry said, “to label the individuals who hold radically different views as ‘mad.’ In this way their message can be invalidated; and if they still won’t shut up you can lock them away in an asylum.”
Being intimately acquainted, the two tourists were able to communicate purely by means of eye contact. Without exchanging a word, they seated themselves at the next table. This irritated Sedrick but Henry didn’t seem to care at all.
“If,” he said, “I were to propagate the ideas of the 50/50 Foundation on my own, I have no doubt I would be dismissed as insane. That’s why I’ve been obliged to assemble this group of eminent persons. Even if they’re not all universally respected, every one of them has an international profile and can’t be ignored. Most of the time they tend to play down their more extreme views in order to reach a wider audience. But as members of the Foundation, they’ll be encouraged to express themselves freely.”
“So what are these ideas?” Sedrick asked. “How do you propose to save the world by 2050?”
The two guests looked like they were casually admiring the view while waiting for the piece of ass to come and take their order. But Sedrick saw how their heads were being swivelled a centimetre to the left, a few millimetres to the right, making minute adjustments to ensure the very best in auditory reception.
“Well,” said Henry, lubricating his vocal cords with the black-brown beverage so popular among South African intellectuals and morons alike, “as I might have mentioned to you when discussing the essential elements of any ideology, the first thing to do is to come up with an honest analysis which identifies the main problems. This analysis is well under way, and has already revealed that a fundamental shift is needed in the way we construct our paradigms and models. We have to acknowledge that reality is becoming increasingly ephemeral, changing at such a pace that what we believe today could appear redundant or patently flawed in a year’s time.”
“I take it,” said Sedrick, “that what you’re alluding to when you talk about a change in paradigm or model is something like a Copernican revolution – instead of being at the centre of the solar system we’re just a revolving planet. That kind of thing?”
The younger of the two eavesdroppers had meanwhile been delving in his handbag and now produced a ballpoint pen and a small notebook. He flipped it open and jotted something down. The waitress arrived and took the older man’s order. She went off with eyebrows arched, a look of questioning surprise on her pretty face.
“Yes,” replied Henry, “that kind of thing. Changes in lifestyle, advances in science and technology, the rapid spread of information: these and other aspects of modern life require us to be constantly re-evaluating our world-view. Because this re-evaluation isn’t taking place on the necessary scale, we find ourselves in a situation of escalating confusion and conflict. The 50/50 Foundation will look at prevailing paradigms that have outgrown their usefulness and need to be revised or replaced. Then we’ll concentrate on devising appropriate systems relevant to the 21st century.”
“I’d be interested to know,” said Sedrick, “what these paradigms are. And how you’re going to persuade people to give up their entrenched ideas and beliefs.”
Henry was aware of the sceptical tone in Sedrick’s voice, but he was quite comfortable with this. He would far rather be talking to someone who was capable of questioning the veracity of his arguments, than to some credulous pumpkin who sat nodding his head in open-mouthed agreement.
“The way we perceive the structure and function of all the main institutions of human civilization will have to be revised.” Henry took another sip from his glass, thereby reducing its contents to a dangerously low level.
“These include,” he continued, “many key concepts in the areas of politics, economics, social engineering and the environment. And in order to prepare people for a radical revision of ideas we would first have to address the root causes of most of our dilemmas: religion and nationalism.”
“Ah, yes,” said Sedrick. “How does it go again? ‘I crap in the holy water, and shit on…’.”
“No, no, no,” Henry interrupted. “’I shit on the altar of religious conviction…’.” He paused, and then recited more slowly, out of consideration for the penman, who was scribbling furiously. “’…and wipe my arse on the flag of national pride.’”
“You’re not suggesting the complete eradication of religion and nationalism, are you?” Sedrick sounded incredulous.
“Well, yes, I am,” said Henry. “Eventually. I grant that it could take some time to achieve, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to aim for a global solution. I believe it’s possible, if we’re able to rapidly disseminate some important ideas. Like memetics.”
Henry drained his glass just as the waitress arrived with the neighbour’s order. She was the bearer of not two b and c’s, but four, and to his and Sedrick’s mild astonishment she called at their table first.
“Well, I’ll be fucked!” exclaimed Henry, raising the fresh glass. “This is a most timely and welcome surprise. An urbane gesture of good-neighbourliness. Most generous. Thanks, Fritz. Skol!”
All four of them held up their glasses and grinned at each other foolishly. “Skol, skol,” they kept saying, until Henry terminated the chorus with a vexed “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
He took a drink and put the glass down, a disgruntled expression temporarily souring his face. He regretted having been drawn into such an inane ritual.
“I don’t think I’ve ever come across memetics,” said Sedrick, picking up the conversation at the point where it had been interrupted.
“Well, you should have,” said Henry. “It goes back 30 years. Richard Dawkins, one of our founder members – he was supposed to be present today – coined the term in an attempt to explain how elements of culture are passed from one generation to the next. In the same way as evolutionary biologists claim that organisms are designed by natural selection acting on genes, our minds are designed by natural selection acting on memes. Memes are elements of culture like habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that’s copied from person to person.”
“I see,” said Sedrick slowly, his brain working on the new concept. “Then one would assume that if a meme is successful and survives, it must be genuinely useful to us.”
“A fair assumption,” said Henry, “if you apply the gene analogy. But we know that many genes are downright harmful. It’s the same with memes. To explain this, Richard came up with the idea of a ‘selfish’ meme. This is one that uses all sorts of tricks to get itself copied. You see, the selfish meme is possessed by a ruthless craving to be replicated, regardless of the effect it has on us; or our genes, for that matter.”
“What are these ‘tricks’ you’re talking about?” Sedrick wanted to know.
“They can be broadly categorized as threats and promises,” said Henry. “These memes act like viruses. A good example is a chain letter, or a ‘copy-me’ e-mail. But while this is a pretty innocuous example, there are others that behave like a pandemic. One of the worst of these selfish meme complexes is religion; which, as in the case of Christianity, perpetuates itself by threatening hell and damnation, and promising salvation and heaven, insisting that the faithful pass on their beliefs to others. By relying so heavily on our fears and other emotions, these meme complexes have become self-perpetuating and very difficult to cure.”
“Well, memetics certainly sounds as if it could be an effective theoretical tool in explaining some of the more bizarre traditions in our culture, like religion.” Sedrick was clearly impressed, as were the two German gents, who were nodding their heads in agreement.
“Yes,” said Henry. “It is bizarre how the world religions have remained strong and virtually unchanged for so long. In the case of Islam, the teachings emanate from circumstances pertaining in the Middle East 1 500 years ago. And 2 000 years for Christianity. Except for some of the core precepts relating to decent behaviour, almost all of the knowledge base these religions were built on is now totally irrelevant.”
Henry drank some more brandy and coke, for he was finding it most efficacious as a mental stimulant, in spite of its reputation amongst pharmacologists as a CNS depressant. He removed his cloth hat and dabbed at his moustache with it. The neighbours looked surprised, even disappointed, to discover the extent of his baldness.
“You don’t need a 2 000 year-old religion,” said Henry, replacing his hat, “to know that you shouldn’t go around murdering and stealing, and screwing your neighbour’s wife when he’s out at work. No, the world religions must be scrapped or completely revamped. In their present form they encourage violently aggressive inclinations and irrational decisions based on dangerous delusions.” He was shaking his head as if he found it hard to believe that his fellow humans could be so stupid. “If only we could break the meme transfer for one generation. Imagine trying to persuade someone who hadn’t been inculcated with religion that if he blew himself up on a busy street he’d wake up in paradise surrounded by a bevy of beautiful virgins desperate to impale themselves upon the male member of a Muslim martyr. Or that it’s possible to rise from the dead, turn water into wine, and then go for a stroll on the lake. He’d think you were totally kopbefokt.” The scribe looked up, perplexed. “Kopbefokt; malletjies; fucked in the head; nuts; bonkers; loony; cuckoo; mad; insane; wahnsinnig.”
“And nationalism?” asked Sedrick. “Do you also consider nationalism a mental virus?”
“Of course I do,” replied the founder of the 50/50 Foundation. “As a force, nationalism has always been more divisive than cohesive. And especially in the last ten years, with the advent of globalisation, it has become an anomaly. The Earth has shrunk in size and become overrun with migrating and miscegenating populations of humans. Nowhere is mysterious or foreign. Every square metre has been mapped and photographed. Thanks to the Internet every location on the planet has become instantly accessible. The paradigm of 250 separate nations with each nation under threat from 149 others is ludicrous. There is only one nation: the human race. And we don’t have any enemies. This is important, Sedrick, and bears repeating and banging on the table about. We don’t have enemies!”
He picked up his drink and banged on the table with his fist, making Sedrick’s glass bounce and slop.
“And if we don’t have enemies,” said Sedrick, mopping the table with a paper napkin, “we don’t need armies. All those resources being wasted on the military all over the world could be put to far better use.”
“You’ve got it, boy,” said Henry. “Convert the arms factories and transfer the technology. Shut down the academies of death and destruction and wean the people off all this horrible macho militarism and aggression. If there’s only one nation it all becomes superfluous.”
“And politics, Henry? What about political systems?”
“Ah, now there we need a major shake-up too,” said Henry. He took a more conservative sip, for the level was getting low once more. “Again we find ourselves trapped in an obsolete paradigm. This slavish obeisance to Western style democracy must go. Firstly, it’s a patently flawed arrangement, allowing for the election and installation of hell-bred fuckwits like George W Bush. And secondly, it’s a fraudulent farce, because the majority of the electorate doesn’t get a fair deal at all. Democracy is all about the rich and the powerful conning the populace into letting them carve up the cake for themselves and their pals. No. Instead, there should be a World Parliament with a constitution drawn up and implemented by panels of consensus-driven experts. And the performance of all public officials could be monitored by the citizens they serve.”
“A World Parliament?” Sedrick wasn’t convinced. “Something like the United Nations Organisation?”
“In some ways like the UN, yes. But structured very differently in terms of voting rights. At present the UN is grossly un-democratic. We’ve got to move away from the current situation where a few historically privileged nations wield al the power.”
“Henry, the scope of your vision is truly breathtaking.”
Henry gave him a hard stare, suspecting him of having loaded the compliment with an impertinent excess of irony. Sedrick hurried on, not wishing to deflect the eccentric drunkard’s energy away from the supremely important task of putting the world to rights.
“I mean it, Henry,” he said earnestly. “There can’t be many people with the…er…hubris…to tackle such a major overhaul of human affairs. I mean, to propose the eradication of religion and nationalism, and to reject the United Nations and democratic governance as incompatible with genuinely egalitarian principles is so wildly radical, and would bring about such revolutionary….”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Henry was annoyed. Even the German gents were looking at Sedrick with stern disapproval.
Henry picked up his glass and contemplated the pathetic remains of a once proud and brimming brandy and coke. Slowly he lowered it to the table and heavy dejection caused his shoulders to slump. Deep lines of anguish creased what was visible of his heavily bearded face. It was as if the commander-in-chief had just received news of another crushing defeat.
The elder member of the couple next door scrambled to his feet and urgently gesticulated in the direction of the waitress.
“Fraulein, Fraulein!” he called. “Bring ze brandy und coke, bitte. Schnell, schnell.”
Henry’s demeanour immediately brightened, and when the fresh glass was placed before him it was clear that the transitory melancholic attack had passed.
“I’m sure,” said Sedrick, “you also hold strong views on macroeconomic policy, and especially the influence of the IMF and the World Bank.”
“Economists,” said Henry, glad to get back to the ideas and aims of his Foundation, “are the most inept of theoreticians. They’re hopeless at predicting the future and hindsight always proves them wrong. But it’s such a complex area, I suppose we can’t be too critical of them. Economics is interrelated with political development, population growth, and environmental considerations, so it’s no wonder economic theorists battle to come up with a workable plan to manage the world’s resources fairly and sustainably.”
“Now,” he said, after sloshing some more booze down his throat and squeezing out the untidy overhang of moustache with his lower lip, “what we, the clear-sighted ones, who have jettisoned the impediments of religion and nationalism, are faced with is this: we live in a world with finite resources but we continue to proliferate and consume as if there was an unlimited chain of Earths waiting to be colonised, one by one, as we trash this one and the next and the next. Crazy. We acknowledge that there is only one planet for us, and we can’t continue in this reckless fashion. If we had a fair dispensation for all the citizens of planet Earth, and we all wanted to live like Americans, we’d need five more planets to sustain us. So it’s obvious that, for a start, there are too many of us. One of our priorities then, is to drastically reduce world population in an intelligent and humane way. And not let religion get in the way of this goal, remember.”
“Then,” Henry went on, “having accepted the need to reduce population, we must also devise ways of cleaning up the filth we’ve been dumping in the environment, and learn to consume resources in a sustainable or recyclable way. This would mean consuming less, not more, and would require a major paradigm shift in economic theory. The challenge would be to find new ways of defining and measuring value.”
“I’m just thinking,” said Sedrick slowly, “about the cost of implementing these ideas. For a start, if there was an egalitarian world government, where would they get the funds to even up the disparity between rich and poor?”
“Sedrick, just consider the enormous waste of resources taking place right now. And don’t forget that huge amounts of money would be freed up once we dispense with the military. What do we need the military for, if we know that the human race has no enemies?”
Even though his glass was nearly empty, Sedrick hastily picked it up, fearing another table-thumping episode.
“No,” said Henry. “There’d be no shortage of money. On the contrary. If we were to run our affairs sensibly, as one nation, the human race without enemies, we’d be awash with wealth. But for this to happen there would need to be another important change of mindset.”
“Oh yes?” said Sedrick, waiting for him to go on. Henry was staring at something so distant that an ordinary mortal could only have picked it out with the aid of an astronomical telescope. Could the brandy be having an anaesthetic effect on his thought processes? The man with the ballpoint and notepad looked up expectantly. He even had time to take a small sip and exchange a smile with his partner.
“Yes?” Henry was back from his galactic vacation. “What was that? Ah yes, as I was saying…. Jesus, what was I saying? Oh, right. We were talking about how to fund the new world order. No problem. You see, once we accept that we have no enemies, it’ll be relatively easy to make another paradigm shift. We’ll see that competition, economically and biologically, no longer serves much of a purpose. In fact, it’s not only hugely destructive, it’s largely an artificial construct. Competition is another one of those virus-like memes that are replicated and reinforced by cultural influences like advertising, sports, games, and other forms of popular entertainment. We’ve been led to believe that competition is necessary for fitness and improvement, in the evolutionary sense. But what if we were to concentrate our energy on co-operation instead? Surely the results would be far more beneficial. We could redevelop our social conscience and move away from the amassing of personal wealth as the ultimate goal. Rather strive for personal excellence than personal wealth. And it would soon become apparent that co-operation and reward are far more productive than competition and coercion.”
“You know,” said Sedrick, “you might be onto something, Henry. There’s something most unusual happening on the Internet. Something unexpected, that would correspond to the notion of co-operation superseding competition. You’ve heard about Web 2.0?” Henry nodded. “Well, just in the last year or so there’s been a phenomenal growth in social networking, collaboration, and free dissemination of information and software. Sharing your resources with the global community has become wildly popular. It gives people the sense that they’re participating in a genuinely democratic project where everybody has a voice.”
“I’m glad you’ve mentioned this,” said Henry. “The Foundation plans to spread the concepts I’ve been outlining by posting them on the Web and calling for discussion and the contribution of related ideas. Yes, Sedrick, I think you’re right about the importance of the Internet in bringing about change. I can’t see a global revolution taking place without it.”
“So long as the conversation doesn’t become too diffuse and…Damn it! Sorry.”
Sedrick had forgotten to turn his phone off, and now it was beeping and vibrating in his pocket. He extracted it and was about to hit the FUCK OFF button, but his eye picked up the caller’s ID before he could do it.
“Sorry, Henry,” he said. “I’d better take this.”
Unfortunately, this is where the conversation ended, because Sedrick had to rush off to attend to some urgent business.