Pic by Sean William Messham
History lecturer Julian Cobbing is a man renowned for his controversial theories on the Mfecane wars and the world’s current socio-economic climate. Leigh Raymond and Kutloano Kunutu sat down with him to talk about government, corporations, religion and the role of students in politics.
Q: What is the essence of the “Contemporary Crisis” you cover in your courses?
A: Well, it’s a total crisis. If you have to put your finger on it, the point of the course is very serious – if we continue doing what we do, we are going to destroy civilisation and possibly destroy ourselves as a species. Our growing population, our growing consumption, our great economic power and growth; the output is destroying the very energy of the environmental basis on which we exist. It’s a situation which a child of three could see. Yet our educational structures here are dedicated to continuing them.
Q: Is there a possibility that this crisis can be resolved if the right people attempt to resolve it?
A: Yes, I wouldn’t be doing this course if I thought things could not be changed. We can choose to survive. We can take the right decision even when things are very far gone. It can be changed, we can always pull back. At the moment, the right people are the wrong people. The people who have the authority, the power, are the worst of the problem. The right people, as it were, don’t have the will to resolve things. The leaders of the corporations, the current political leadership across the planet… the will just isn’t there at all at the moment and you’ve got to be super optimistic to imagine that it’s going to change. But again, Rhodes is where leaders learn, yes? So, it is possible.
Q: So do today’s students have the power to change the face of the current political and economic systems in the world, and specifically South Africa?
A: Of course. I’ve got a quote from Margaret Mead, the great American anthropologist, who says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But in our experiences these days, students tend to be very passive people who don’t have viewpoints and they do as they’re told. Still, in a university like Rhodes there is a minority of students who think autonomously, have a certain courage and energy about them, and it is such students who have the potential capacity to change things. Rhodes University is in business to create corporate leaders, that’s what most of the brighter students at Rhodes will actually go ahead and become. They won’t change things, they’ll intensify things. But some students, we can’t quite predict who they are, do have the potential.
Q: How great a role do you think that religion plays in the development of today’s culture?
A: It’s one of these giant questions that you can’t answer in two little sentences. An increasing number of students at Rhodes are becoming born again Christians, fundamentalist Christians, and so to comment on this takes me into a minefield. So what do I say if you want me to answer the question honestly? Religion always has played a role in culture. Ruling groups throughout history have always sought to distract people with religion, to get them away. That is the concept of Leo Strauss and Chomsky. One of the functions of religion has been to divert people into concerning themselves with the afterlife instead of taking political action in the real world. There’s no doubt at all that the encouragement of the mass fundamentalist religions at the moment is linked to the corporate control of the planet. On the other hand, of course, some of the most influential people who’ve got the capacity to be incredibly influential in the future are almost by definition of religious persuasions. The central message of virtually any religion is not to concern ourselves too much with material things, especially money.
Q: If you have one message that your students will take from your lectures, what is it?
A: Don’t submit to this tyranny of “you’re not allowed to have your own opinion”. Don’t submit, ever. Otherwise you’re dead; you’re dead in your head. Remain alive, even if it means you’re economically disadvantaged. It’s the basis of every religion, the message of every free person: maintain your integrity somehow. That is what every student has to develop: integrity, a sense of responsibility, a sense of being rooted in the order of being. Otherwise no one can trust you.
Q: If you could be president of any country what would it be?
A: Well I wouldn’t want to be president of any country. It seems like a lot of hard work, too many problems. But if I had to be, it would be something small with some decent people. I should think something like Liechtenstein or Luxemburg – not too many problems and what problems there were would be dealt with easily. I wouldn’t like to be president of any African country the problems are too many.
Q: What is your favourite book?
A: That’s an enormous question to ask. It would be a book by a Japanese Zen Bhuddist Shunryu Suzuki called Zen Mind, Beginners Mind and The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
Q: What is your favourite colour?
A: I think blue, turquoise, Mediterranean blue – a warmish but not too warm blue, yes.
Q: Who is your favourite dictator?
A: I don’t like any dictator, they’re all appalling, but if you’re asking literally who is, the least awful would be Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the very early dictators. If you read up on him you see that he is not quite as bad as any of the thugs of the 20th century.
Q: Name the three people you think should have been shot at birth?
A: The entire administration of the United States government, as one person, they are very, very dangerous people. All the people associated with electrical power, the root of most of our accelerating mega problems, and probably the person who invented the clock.
Q: What is your favourite film?
A: Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Hiroshima Mon Amour
Q: What does it feel like to have your own profile on Wikipedia?
A: I didn’t know that I had a profile on Wikipedia, it’s embarrassing; I wouldn’t want to look at it.