Paragons of Truth

It is beyond difficult to be a paragon of virtue, one free of sin and avarice, a human being to be admired and emulated, a soul who rises far above the rest of poor mortals who can only watch in awe and wonder.

Or so I imagine it must be, for (as my friends will readily attest) that description does not fit me.

There are many who have been thus esteemed, however.  A partial list from my own lifetime might include Leyhma Gbowee, Mahatmas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, and Malala Yousafzai.  All but one of these worthies were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their character and accomplishments.

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There are others who could be added, as well—people who, for reasons varying by nationality, culture, religion, or political necessity, had bestowed upon them (even if only for a time) an aura of goodness and purity to which we might all have aspired.  They include Churchill (but not Chamberlain), Chang Kai-Shek (but not Mao Zedong), Ben-Gurion (but not Netanyahu), de Gaulle (but not Pétain), Graham (but not Bakker), Kennedy (but not Nixon), and Mulroney (but not Turner).

In truth, however, were all those so proclaimed really paragons of righteousness?  Or were they mere mortals like the rest of us—caught up in events largely beyond their control—but whose endeavours as they grappled with those events were in sync with our western-world point of view?

A close reading today of the historical record of those who have passed away, and of the contemporaneous reporting about those still with us, tells us that, in fact, all these heroes and heroines fall short of the near-mythical status granted them.

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The key to understanding history is knowing it was written by the victors.  But it is pretty much accepted that not everyone who reads that official history will agree with it.  We tend, as human beings, to see truth in accounts that reflect our pre-conceived opinions, and to disagree with reports that run counter to those.

One’s assessment of such historical figures as Columbus, Napoleon, Bismarck, Rhodes, Cochise, Lenin, Roosevelt, Castro, or Thatcher clearly depends upon one’s viewpoint with respect to their accomplishments.  Who among them was good?  Who was bad?

The history of our times that will one day be written will depend to a large extent upon contemporary reporting—by the press, the broadcast media, the social media, and the special interest groups—of the events now occurring in the world around us.  And many of the people who will read that history will have no first-hand knowledge of where the truth really lies—if there even is one truth.

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As a boy, I became an avid reader of the two daily newspapers that came into our home, especially the comics, the sports, and the weather forecasts.  Then, marking the example of my parents, I soon branched out into current events, and became able to identify the important people of the day, those gracing the pages I devoured.  I thought they were above us, those newsmakers, guiding the fate of the world on our behalf.  And I believed what I read about them.

Only later did I come to learn that many of my friends’ homes subscribed to other papers, and that their editorial biases were different from those we favoured.  I was shocked, truly, to realize that not everyone revered the same newsmakers I did—that, in fact, some people actually reviled them.  In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies, I began to explore those other perspectives with a view to discerning what was true and what was misinformation.  With the advent of television newscasts, the sheer volume soon made that impossible.

But I did discover one thing, at least.  No one—not the most famous person found in the newspaper, nor the lowly paperboy delivering it (my status at the time)—was an unblemished paragon of purity.  All of us, no matter our station in life, had warts, even if those were not always readily seen.

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My mother used to encourage us to look for good in everyone—on the theory, I suppose, that if we didn’t at least look, we’d never find it.  She would remind us of the biblical admonition to mind the mote in our own eyes (I didn’t know for a long time what a mote was, but I dutifully tried to oblige), and the other about not casting stones, literally or figuratively, given our own shortcomings.  Good advice, if not always easy to follow.

So here I am, at the age of three-score-and-fifteen now, no longer believing there are any paragons of virtue in the world, but desperately wanting to believe there could be.  Here I am, not knowing what the real truth is, but desperately hoping there is one, still believing it will set us free.

As Abhijit Naskar has written, “It is a tragedy of modern life that the light of truth scares the society much more than the darkness of ignorance.”

So here I am, still reading, still listening, still exploring—still trying to figure it all out before my own time runs out.

The Big Five

On our odyssey through the southeastern territories of South Africa, we’ve heard a lot about the big five.  In many cases, those making such references assumed we knew who, or what, they are.

So as not to appear uninformed, I tried to figure the answer out for myself.  In Capetown, we had visited a public square populated by four statues, one each for three Nobel Peace Prize winners—Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela—and a Nobel Literature Prize winner, John Coetzee.   Much is known about these men, and I thought they would be worthy members of such a group.

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Drawing on my distant study of history, I supposed the fifth member of the big five might be Jan Smuts, a Boer commando who fought the British before becoming prime minister of the country in 1919, and a staunch defender of the Commonwealth, serving in Churchill’s Imperial War Cabinet during WWII.

But I was wrong, not only about Smuts, but all of them.  Despite the reverence and admiration in which they are held, none is part of the big five.

Perhaps, then, I wondered if the reference might be to cities—Pretoria, the administrative capital; Capetown, the legislative capital, home to the nation’s parliament; and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital.  To that august list, I figured I could add Johannesburg and Durban, for example, to round out the group.

Wrong again.  Cities are not referred to as the big five, either.

Still determined to demonstrate my knowledge of the country, but somewhat anxious now about my misfires, I seized upon what I should have known from the start.  The country’s top tourist destinations must surely constitute the list.  There is no question about the plenitude of such attractions; the dilemma would be narrowing them down to only five from a list that includes, among others:

  • Table Mountain, looming high over Capetown;
  • the Cango Caves, stretching beneath the mountains near Oudtshoorn;
  • the Cape Point Nature Preserve, almost the southernmost tip of the country;
  • the Addo Elephant National Park;
  • the wild animal safaris of Kwandwe Nature Preserve;
  • Robben Island, a former penal colony where none other than Mandela was imprisoned, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site;
  • the Kwa-Zulu Natal battlefields, including Roarke’s Drift, a magnet for history buffs such as I;
  • Boulders Beach, with its colony of African penguins; or
  • the highest bungee jump in Africa, off the Bloukrans Bridge.

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Once again, however, I was mistaken.  None of South Africa’s geographical or historical wonders are part of the big five.

Finally, I swallowed my pride and asked someone who would know, a friend and fellow-traveller who has visited the country on several occasions.  She was only too happy to solve the puzzle.

The phrase originally referred to wild animals native to Africa that are considered by big-game hunters the most difficult to hunt…on foot.  The term has been co-opted by tour operators who conduct wildlife safaris for eager tourists, although the danger is much less for us than for hunters.

In no particular order, the big five includes:  the African elephant, the Black rhinoceros, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, and the African lion—none of which I would like to come upon while on foot.

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In a safari truck, however?  Well, that’s a different matter, and it’s exactly what we’ll be doing as we enter the fourth week of our travels in this marvellous country.  And I’m hoping to shoot every one of them during our early-morning and early-evening game-drives over three days.  But I’ll be shooting with a camera, of course, not a gun.

I could never fathom the fascination for taxidermied heads, mounted on a hunter’s wall, as if to trumpet the bravery of a man or woman with a gun, up against an unarmed animal—even if one of the big five.

But I’ll be happy to show off any photographs I might get right here in this blog!