An old friend, Steve Garrard, has invited me to speak in his seminar at Williams College in October, in my new-found role as a "public intellectual." [I am not exactly sure what a private intellectual would be -- presumably someone who never open acknowledges an obsessive interest in ideas.] Since I will be speaking to undergraduates, who began to take notice of the larger world of politics some time during George W. Bush's second term, I plan to draw on my vast experience as an old person to give them advice about how to remain politically engaged not just for a season or for a Congressional term but for an entire life.
As I was turning over in my mind just which stories to tell [I am, as readers of this blog will have learned, a compulsive story teller], Enver Motala's tribute to Neville Alexander popped up in my email in-box. It is posted on my blog, just after this entry. Although I never had the good fortune to meet Neville Alexander, save perhaps for a fleeting moment, if my memory serves me correctly, I was of course well aware of him during the entire quarter century of my deep involvement with South Africa, an involvement that I have described in detail in the second volume of my Memoir. South Africa has produced an extraordinary number of truly admirable men and women who fought for freedom and socialism during the long night of Apartheid. It is why I fell in love with the country when I first visited it in 1986, and have remained committed to its people ever since.
There have been countless men and women over much of the past two centuries who have devoted their lives to the struggle for freedom and socialism -- some of them truly admirable, some very much less so. What strikes me most powerfully about the South Africans I have known is how many of them are genuinely honorable men and women. I have in mind not just such world figures as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu [and Mohandas Gandhi, whose career started, one sometimes forgets, in Natal Province in South Africa], but other less well-known people, including my friend Enver Motala.
It is a great economic strength of capitalism that it has no time for, indeed no conception of, honor. Relationships in the public world are regulated solely by calculations of profitability. To refuse to do business with a man simply because he is a scoundrel is economically disadvantageous. To turn down a deal offered by a woman who previously betrayed her business associates risks losing profit. That is why it is simply impossible in contemporary society for someone permanently to disgrace himself or herself and henceforward to by excluded from the society of decent people. With the death of honor goes the disappearance of shame as an emotion capable of stifling ambition.
It is in such a world that men and women like Neville Alexander stand out as exemplars of the honorable life. I shall not talk about this at Williams. I fear the students listening to me would be unable to make any sense of such observations. But it is very much on my mind as I approach the end of my life and look back, wondering whether I have managed to live in a way that I can, in retrospect, respect.