The subtle winds of world opinion

2009-02-05 00:00

Journalists look for words that convey their message in the most succinct way. Or so it seems. One word keeps popping up: “Zeitgeist”. Not often, but it hasn’t gone away. A young German friend confirmed my suspicions. It means “kind of, like, the wind/air/spirit”.

We, in English, have adopted it to describe that tendency for ideas to be inexplicably picked up simultaneously all over the world, as if carried by a spirit in the wind. Well, something like that. But that is an oversimplification because its applications vary.

Take birds and their calls. One summer about 10 years ago, all over the province black-eyed bulbuls made a different sound. They clucked. Like a hen. Here in our southern Drakensberg garden I noticed it and so did my friend in Durban. Now how did it get around that just for one summer there should be a new conversation among bulbuls? And what about the news of food — how does it get around among malachite sunbirds that the leonotis flower has opened? The only thing to entice them to come earlier was our introduction of a sunbird feeder that brought them to the garden within a day. So how did the word get around?

In human terms as well, sometimes zeitgeist seems to prevail. Some people (even before instant communications) have always been able to pre-empt new fashion trends, and science fiction writers are famous for their uncannily prophetic plots.

I am not into science fiction (nor am I much good at remembering the titles of the books I read) but years ago in the eighties I read a book titled The Rise and Fall of the Russian Empire. (Maybe just The Fall of the Russian Empire? Can anyone help, also with the author?) And blow me down, it happened. Zeitgeist was at work among the Soviet States (and the writer of that book). In the next decade their economies, and the wall, collapsed and with it Russia’s empire ambitions and communist ideology.

There is a book called The Next Domino? by General Sir Walter Walker. It was at first fêted, then scorned because the Russian empire didn’t happen after all. But in this book, published in 1980, there is an illustration, a cartoon taken from the Sunday Express, of Lord Carrington unlocking a jack-in-the-box and Robert Mugabe jumping out. A quote from the same page goes like this: “Premier Mugabe will … transform the social structure of his Zimbabwe. It suits his purpose to be conciliatory today. But like a boa constrictor he will slaver his prey before he crushes and devours it.” The spirit of anti-colonialism that still drifts about Africa allowed that to happen.

Has this mysterious Zeitgeist — but this time for good — been at play to propel Barack Obama from a diversity of obscure origins to the very pivot of power? Is there an unseen global fervour turning against corruption, crime and cruelty, and guiding a person unsullied by any of these vices to rise to the top?

The world watched Obama’s inauguration with that kind of fervour, with awe and admiration for the exemplary behaviour of America’s political parties and the exultant crowds — no clownish cavorting, no stampeding of the barricades, no thuggish security. Millions of us wished that Africa could have the same élan.

Since then, unaware of its contents, I picked up a novel called The Race by Richard North Patterson. Central to its theme is the relationship between a white American and his African-American partner and how they balance expedience with an innate decency in their political aspirations. Decency triumphs in the most surprising way.

I have no idea what went on behind the scenes as Obama rose through the ranks, but reading The Race, I can’t help but imagine analogies. The book was started in 2004, before the presidential nominations, and prophetically finished in 2007, in time to reflect the yearnings of a global population longing for a worldwide spirit of decency to prevail.

• Phyl Palframan is a retired farmer’s wife, living on the home farm, a mother, grandmother, gardener and freelance journalist.

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