Why march?

march

Dot writes: yesterday I went on the Dublin version of the Women’s March on Washington. Current estimates are that 5000 men, women and children turned out on a very cold day to protest against the newly installed President of the USA and all that he stands for. We were marching in spirit with people in many cities in the US but also around the world -London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Nairobi, Sydney and even Antarctica.

Why protest against a president I wasn’t able to vote for, in a country I don’t live in? Here are some arguments not to:

  • I don’t have a personal grievance against Trump and am not going to be directly affected by his policies.
  • I’m a comfortably-off straight white woman. What business do I have protesting at all, against anything? Aren’t I just getting an emotional kick out of other people’s troubles and manufacturing a fake sense of grievance?
  • I should focus on problems close to home. I have no business going on this march when there are homeless people on the streets of Dublin.
  • With respect to the issues central to the Women’s March – equality for women, black people, Muslims, and LGBTQ – this is all just identity politics, and identity politics is tribalism and a scourge.
  • Protest marches achieve nothing. However big they are, they are always a minority of the people. Governments routinely ignore them.
  • Protest marches might even detract from more effective forms of political action, since they make people feel they’ve made a stand when all they’ve done is vent some spleen. The energy goes into the march, and then we all return to doing nothing.
  • The USA captures a disproportionate amount of attention in the world. Participating in events like this reinforces the sense that US politics are central and US problems are the most important, ignoring the billions of people who live in other, often grossly under-reported countries, and may be experiencing far more extreme crises (e.g. Burundi – 327,000 of the population of 11 million have fled the country in the last two years).

I have more time for some of these arguments than for others. The problem of the dominance of the US in our news media is a real one. We need to seek out news from other places and learn to care for other people, including being aware of the power of American cultural products (movies, books, films etc – many of them wonderful, humane and insightful) to set American people and American issues at the heart of the stories we use to interpret our world. We need to make sure that we feed the energy we get from marching into other forms of political action. But here are some rejoinders to the arguments above:

  • It is worth being part of international political and social movements. We are all connected, like it or not. If abuse of minorities, narrow nationalism and rejection of science come to power in one country, especially if that country is extremely economically, politically and culturally  influential, they are empowered elsewhere. We have to fight back. We have to fight while we can. It’s not true that what Trump does in the US can have no effect on me.
  • Those of us who are comfortable, who are in a position of privilege, must use that privilege to speak out for others.
  • I love the concept of marching in solidarity. We lend strength to each other. It’s like the Irish practice with funerals – you go to the funeral even if you didn’t know the dead person, because you want to support the family.
  • The ‘why are you talking about x when you should be focusing on y’ argument is very dangerous, especially in the ‘close to home’ variety. It’s a classic way of getting people to stop caring. Yes, as individuals we can’t fling ourselves into all the possible good causes – there are far too many. But if there is something we can do, we should do it, and not worry if it’s the ‘wrong’ issue. That way paralysis lies.
  • Identity politics is not something invented by the disgruntled to get one over on everyone else. It’s how politics actually works, unfortunately. It is simply the case that power and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few white men, and pretending to rise above that merely assents to the status quo. But finding your tribe doesn’t have to be about hatred. All of the arguments I’m advancing here are about how we need each other and how we’re connected. Arguing for equality is just that – white men still get to be equal.
  • Protest marches are rituals. They have symbolic weight. They are not directly effective actions, but they are ways in which we can tell ourselves who we are and what we believe and feel ourselves to be part of something much bigger. They explore a potential reality – they make the space, for a little time, in which we (a ‘we’ that can be imagined in the march) are powerful, are together, can change something. The task then is to go out and live that possible world into existence.

Rescue

[Remember I’m writing my Braille Face pieces a day behind the album releases? Rescue came out on the 8th and Braille Face commented it was appropriate because it was the most political of the albums he wrote in 2015. Coming up with this story, I fixated on a line from the first track, ‘Lever’: ‘I can’t believe what you see’.]

is

Once there was a village that was taken over by a band of trolls, cruel-eyed monsters with rock-hard muscles and a lust for gold. One half of the village watched aghast as the trolls smashed down the beautiful new chapel to dig a rough cave in the rubble, ate up the whole harvest and amused themselves by throwing some of the villagers into the river to drown. “How can you do nothing while these trolls destroy our village and kill our neighbours? If we banded together we could drive them out!” But the other half of the village cheered the trolls on. “Protectors at last!” they cried. “They’ll set this place to rights!”

As the sad villagers stood wringing their hands a strange old man approached them. “Come with me,” he said. He took them into a hidden room in the hollow of the hill where there was nothing but a great lever. “Pull this lever,” he said, “and you will see what your friends see.”

They pulled the lever and went outside. The trolls looked just as ugly as they had before, though perhaps their muscles seemed even larger, and there was a sort of frightful magnificence about them. But now there was a shadowy host of enemies looming at the crest of the hill. Each of them was marked with a sinister curved sign. The stones from the ruined chapel had that sign on too – even though the villagers remembered building it with their own hands and decorating it with paintings and designs of their own making. And there seemed to be far fewer people being thrown into the river. The few that were had the sign branded on their forehead. 

“Is this the truth?” the watchers asked.

“One of the versions you have seen is the truth,” said the old man.

“We know what we saw first was true,” said the watchers. “It is wrong to drown people, and the dead had always been our good friends and neighbours. We will pull the lever again.”

So they pulled the lever again and went back to watching the horrible things the trolls were doing.

“Can we bring the other villagers and pull the lever so they see what we see?”

“You could try,” said the old man. “But they’ll pull the lever again, just as you did.”

“What can we do?”

“The only thing you can do is to tell stories. Showing them is no good. Arguing is no good. But stories are the most powerful thing: tell them love stories, give them characters, give them emotional arcs. Avoid allegory, however – it’s annoying.”

“Stories about what? We don’t know how to start.”

“You have to start. Start with – “ but the old man blurred, shifted, broke up like the tuning on a radio and was gone.

So the sad villagers stood talking and trying to think of the right stories. But they knew there were other stories too. There were stories you could weave like a bower and crawl into for the winter; stories that were doors into a sweet past that never was. The leaves were falling, red and gold, and they would make a rich soft mantle for one lying down to sleep.

The woe of Brexit

Dot writes: it’s been a whole month since I last posted. In that time I’ve written and given a conference paper, the boys have finished school for the year, Frank has learned to ride a bike (go Frank!), Ken has made a huge amount of beer, the UK has voted to leave the EU, and I’ve listened to some more records. I started to write a post partly about Brexit and partly about the records. It’s getting so long I’ve decided to publish it in two parts – so here’s the miserable political part.

I’ve chewed over the Brexit vote so relentlessly and extensively on social media and in conversation – it’s been a big topic both at work and at the conference I attended – I feel exhausted. I can’t go back over it all again here. But I will say that I started, when the referendum was announced, as a mild Remainer – generally thinking the European project was, on balance, a force for good, a force against insularity, and the only way small European countries could have a voice loud enough to shout against super-powers like the US and China. I was very unhappy with the brutal economic policies enforced against Ireland and Greece in the wake of the global financial crisis, but I still felt that it was better to be part of the EU than not.

As the campaign progressed my views sharpened. I registered for a postal vote, which I hadn’t done for UK general elections. I wanted my voice to be heard on this: it was about not just economic welfare and international power, but values of inclusiveness and co-operation, and indeed my own identity as a British person living in an EU country. I also became more acutely aware that Brexit could have grave consequences for Ireland. The Irish economy is closely linked to the British one; more seriously, the open border between the North and the Republic, and heavy EU investment in the North, are two of the lynchpins of the Northern Irish peace process. Northern Ireland has receded from British consciousness, I think, but there are still bomb scares, there are still marches: this is a place with an incredibly painful history in recent memory. I can imagine people saying that Ireland shouldn’t be able to blackmail Britain with its history of violence. Well, Britain bears a heavy responsibility for that history and will have to continue to deal with its consequences.

When I saw the news on the morning after the referendum, it was with a sinking feeling of inevitability, the same depressed, believing disbelief I felt on the day after the general election that returned the Conservative Party to government. Of course. Of bloody course. I should have known that this would happen. I should have known that the majority of people in Britain would not be like me; that I don’t share their assumptions, their approach, their prejudices (I have my own prejudices); that I just don’t get it; that I don’t belong, or rather that I belong to a minority – leftwing educated people with an international outlook. I had thought carefully, read up extensively, and voted in accordance with my convictions and my understanding of the issues. Other people had – well, they’d come to a conclusion that just seemed wrong. I knew many of them had thought about it at length and were not simply racist or casting a frivolous protest vote, but to me their conclusions were, clearly, wrong. Then I felt increasingly angry. Because now we all have to try to clean up the mess. And it is a mess, a dreary stupid mess. It is the fault of the politicians who should never have submitted such an insanely complex issue to a brute plebiscite; they have been atrociously irresponsible.

No, the sky hasn’t fallen. The pound has fallen a long way, the major UK political parties have fallen to ugly squabbling, Britain has fallen in reputation in the eyes of the world, but the world turns on (getting rapidly hotter, of course, and that’s another thing everyone is going to ignore again while they try to work out the endless legal, political and economic ramifications of this idiotic event). Nonetheless everything has got that bit meaner, that bit more depressing. Ugly fissures of hostility are exposed. And I feel decreasing hope that we will tackle any of the truly huge and urgent issues we face – global warming above all, but also inequality both within countries and internationally. It is ironic that what was surely in large part a gesture of anger from the poor within Britain will probably result in further austerity visited on the poor.

 

 

Two tribes

Dot writes: the recent UK election made me think about how the media deceive us. By this I mean not that newspapers lie but that social media coupled to the way we get information create an illusion of what public opinion is. Who were all these people who voted conservative? I didn’t seem to know any. All the comments I read, by people known to me and unknown, talking directly or linked through the Guardian, the LRB, Avaaz, the blogosphere (which still exists – there are still plenty of people who can read something longer than a tweet) seemed quite convinced of the following:
Continue reading “Two tribes”