Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jonny Steinberg's "The Number" and the meaning of a constitution of no slogans

Jonny Steinberg's remarkable book The Number illustrates -- in virtuoso style -- the kind of sensibility that that a constitution of no slogans would rest on. His story of Magadien Wentzel, a senior member of the prison gang known as the 28s, confounds almost any expectation.

Oppression causes crime, it's often said, and rightly; but as Steinberg rightly observes, crime is a particularly conservative response to oppression. Criminals leach off of any order, and so they are not necessarily friends of the other victims of the order from which they steal. But the prison gangs had politics, anti-apartheid politics, and their hopes that their own liberation would follow from South Africa's were bitterly disappointed. All this is a useful reminder that "the oppressed" are far from a uniform mass, and that in fact among the oppressed are both victims and oppressors -- and that these two categories may often overlap, as poor people turn to crime against other poor people as their path to some degree of power and wealth.

What is more startling, however, is to learn that the Number -- actually three separate groups, the 26s, 27s and 28s -- had existed as long as South Africa had been a nation, and that their existence rested on ritual and mythology, all generated, it seems, in or near prison. Leaders of the Number had uniforms, weapons and a sacred text written on the hide of a bull -- but all of these implements existed only in their minds. They also had memories, or fantasies, of a golden age of the Number, some decades back from the tarnished present. In short, these oppressed men, who were vigorously engaged in oppressing other prisoners and carrying on a choreographed, violent-but-usually-not-lethal interaction with the guards, were also engaged in social ordering and myth-making. They were dangerous criminals, and creators of a society. And their odd form of order was itself threatened, not so much by the warders or by the end of apartheid as by the rise of drug gangs on the outside that for strategic reasons of their own appropriated the symbolism shaped by the Number.

What could a just society possibly do about the Number? What, especially, could such a society do if it was -- as South Africa was -- terrified by an explosion of crime? It is hard to see the legal framework big enough to speak meaningfully to this world.

But in fact the book is not just about the capacity of a gang society to evolve and persist, like antimatter in a universe of matter. For it is also, and above all, the story of the incompleteness of that gang society, and the life of Magadien Wentzel, who became a leader of the Number and then left it because he wanted to have a life that had meaning. That turned out to be almost as intractable a challenge for him as dealing with the Number might be for South Africa: filled with dreams of helping steer others away from crime, he found himself without money and without employment, living in isolation and dependent on the generous of people whose generosity faded.

And yet he did not, at least in the time that Steinberg's book covers, succumb. This one man, in fact, seems to have found a break -- because in the end Steinberg could not bring himself to profit from Wentzel's story while Wentzel himself was trapped in poverty, and so he signed over 10 % of the book's royalties to Wentzel himself. The book won a prize, and readers, and I hope that means that Wentzel himself has found opportunities -- and not been undercut by them. It is moving to read Wentzel's own Afterword, with which the book ends, and its last words, "May God be the judge of this book." Perhaps every book seeks the moral seriousness that would deserve a standard so profound, but certainly few books end with quite this striking a call for commitment.

And a constitution of no slogans? The judges and lawyers shaping a constitutional order of this sort would resist easy generalizations (from "poverty causes crime" to "criminals are irretrievable"). They would recognize the complexity of even a single life. They would not be blithely idealistic, but they would not give up on hope either. And they would recognize that they themselves are, inescapably, part of the story that they study and tell.

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