Saturday, 9 August 2014

For my friend and comrade

I'm not sure how you go about summing up a man's life. How you put down in finite, bounded words all the things that make a person who they were. My friend and comrade, Dave Silcock, died a week ago. I didn't know till this morning and its taken me all day to decide that a good man's life needs a written tribute.
Just a couple of days ago I was trying to explain to someone that us commies don't believe in a great man theory of history; that the death of Rosa Luxemburg was a small ad endum at the end of the German section's Conference report to the Third International. And I don't think I was wrong.
But our class, the working class, we need to give the respect that's due to our lifelong fighters. To the men and women like my friend Dave who never give up knowing that they are on the right side.
Dave spent time talking to people. He'd argue with anyone who'd listen; and who he thought he might be able to shift. He knew exactly what he thought and he didn't mind saying it. A brazen bravery of position I've always respected.
And he was kind.
I think whenever someone dies, we find in ourselves all the little stories; those moments that its only later we know are as close as it comes to having a profound knowledge of someone. Everytime I've seen Dave, he's talked to me about politics. Once it was me who was the active one - with meetings every night and a new campaign every week. Me trying to convince him to join Workers Power again and later PR. But never hard - I always knew he was a man who made up his own mind. Recently, its been him contacting me about union action; about coming to branch meetings; about being active again. But never once had he tried to make me feel bad or guilty. He just kept quietly reminding me that the struggle is still out there and it still needs good people to be making the good fight.
Its that kindness I'll remember.
I'm not sure how you go about summing up a man's life. You can make all sorts of statements about the people they loved and who love them; about the lives and minds they touched and changed; about the actions they took which made the world just that little bit better a place.
I don't know if in the end we are all more than sums of our parts.
And I don't know if this was one of the Grateful Dead lyrics Dave liked...but its one I've always liked and I thank him for making me listen

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

Like Trotsky, I'm an intransigent atheist, I don't believe there's anything after death. I'm not sure, but I think when we say that people live on in our memories; we're really only trying to soothe ourselves in our immediate grief. But I will miss you Dave; I will think about you and remember you and try a little harder to be the good person, the good friend, the good comrade you have been.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Sometimes I just don't know what to think

Sometimes things in your life come together,,,"sorrows in battalions" as a better man than I said. I felt that way this morning when scrolling through facebook I found the post about a young man I used to teach who may (or may not) have recently strapped an explosive belt onto himself  and ended his and the lives of a number of other people far away from Melbourne, in Iraq. What do you say when confronted with something like that? "How odd...he always seemed like rather a nice lad."

I'm under instruction from my employer to in fact say nothing at all...but that doesn't seem like quite the right response in a world that really has gone mad. Over the Ukraine someone deliberately or otherwise has shot down a passenger jet; bodies lie about in the hot sun and locals rummage through the debris looking for, of all things mascara (if the facebook posts of other Ukranians are to be believed). Meanwhile in Gaza Israel kills over 800 civilians and keeps killing them, even as I write. One of these acts is being called terrorism; the other...self-defence. What name you give it depends not on the act it would seem...but on what side you are on.

So what name do I give to the act that may well have been perpetrated in Iraq by a naughty, but really rather sweet young man I used to know? I just don't know anymore. Good people can do horrendous things. Sometimes good people have to do horrendous things. Or believe they have to. Politically, I can choose a side - personally, I'm left a little numb.

Which was how I felt a few days ago when someone I know quite well posted a long explanation of, essentially, why she is now a zionist. It made me shiver. It made me shiver because there are a couple of things for me that define who one is politically - they are about the sides you take in a few central conflicts that defined the 20th Century. That one stands with the Bolsheviks against everyone else I think goes without saying...but for me there are two other conflicts just as defining - I stand with the Irish Republicans against the British State and I stand with the Palestinians against...well...the rest of the world. For me this is so simple, so basic, so unquestionable that when I see it questioned I am, for a moment, completely floored.

I'm not going to rehearse the arguments here for why a one state solution is the only solution in Palestine. I'm not going to go over why the state of Israel has no right to exist. But I'm also not going to broker any suggestions of anti-Semitism. Because that's what frightened me the most about my acquaintances post - she equated any attack on Israel; really any suggestion that a Palestinian cause might be a just one; with hating Jews. So let's be really, really clear - there was no state of Israel till after World War 2 when the rest of the world felt guilt about letting the Holocaust happen.  And when the state of Israel was formed - primarily at the end of a gun; it was with the violent displacement of the people who already lived there - Palestinian people.

Peace, peace, peace - everyone in favour of a two-state solution will try and tell you that they just want peace. There can be no peace without justice. And there can be no peace unless the current situation is replaced with a secular, inclusive state of Palestine.

But that's not what I'm writing about here. Because as chilled as I was by this persons arguments; her readiness to now accept the propaganda not just of the liberal two-staters but of what even she termed liberal was her reasons for doing so that made me stop and think. She's in love with a Jewish girl - the daughter of these self-same liberal zionists. They sound like nice people - they are warm, welcoming, loving and tolerant. But being a nice person doesn't make you right.

And having empathy with someone because you can see they genuinely believe what they are saying, doesn't make their arguments any better. Loving someone, doesn't mean they see the world more rationally than you have till then. Being a goofy kid doesn't stop you becoming a suicide bomber.

In the face of horror and death and conflicts so out of control that the resistance and the protests and the appeals we make can seem as if they are hopeless; falling on ears that will not, cannot, hear. There was something a little human for me this week. The posts I saw about the young man in Iraq didn't attack him, he wasn't being villifed even by those who could not possibly agree with his actions; they said they were thinking of his family. A friend of his I met by accident just said "How tragic." I think I agree.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Surplus to requirements

You know how whenever you go on a long overseas trip; there's always some well-meaning friend or relation who turns up at the airport to say goodbye. And inevitably they have brought along a "little" gift for you. Never mind that you have spent the last three months weighting everything from your knickers to your toothbrush to keep your luggage under whatever requisite amount your ensuing travel plans permit - no, here's Aunty Whatshername with just a little thing she really thought you couldn't do without.
So you take it. Because what else are you supposed to do? And you carry it around with you for the next three months. Its almost certainly something utterly useless. A clothes drying line. A vanity case. An extra pair of fast-dry knickers. Whatever it is, you have it stowed away with you...just in case... It survives the overland haul from Thailand to Cambodia. It doesn't get nicked when most of the rest of your stuff does in Rome. It makes it back from the weekend in Paris you don't remember.
The whole time you feel slightly resentful of it. Its sitting there in the corner of your pack taking up room that could be used for a few extra pilfered hotel toiletries. Its definitely what made carrying the pack back from the station at 1am all the more arduous. Its annoying crinkly wrapper, well, is annoying. But you can't throw it out. You feel beholden to it. You don't own the damn thing; its begun to own you.
And you arrive back home with it, still safely packed away; probably still in its original wrapper. And when Aunty asks you exclaim "Oh, yes, so very useful. Thanks."
And that friends is how I feel about a whole lot of the equipment that I've been handed. That's how I feel most of all about all those organs of reproduction that I got courtesy of being female.
Don't get me wrong...I've got no problem with actually being a woman. Alright; sexism, oppression, systematic violence and inequality aren't a lot of fun...but all things being equal I would have been beaten up a lot more times in a lot more bar fights if I wasn't 5ft2 and female.
No, the problem I have is with all this equipment I have, and like Aunty's spare knickers, I'm never going to use. A perfectly (as far as we know, not that its ever been road-tested) functional uterus, all the attendant bits, doing what they should. And me with absolutely no use for them. Because I have never, ever, even for a moment wanted to produce babies.
The nasty cosmic joke of it just gets worse as I get older. Because now all that nicely functioning equipment is meeting its use-by date. The hormones are changing and the headaches, stomach aches, mood swings and general menopausal bullshit is beginning. So having never used the bloody extra equipment I got stuck with; now I'm having to deal with the maintenance of it.
Its at the level of unfair that makes an atheist want to wave her fist at heaven.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


I am so angry currently that its difficult to tease out the various strands of anger from the almost overwhelming dreads of rage in which I am entangled. I'm angry because people I teach with don't know what the word philanthropic means. You'd think the anthro in the middle of it would kind of give it away - suggest it had something to do with people...but apparently I'm some special extra-smart person who knows the roots of words and what they mean and other lesser mortals - who spend all day teaching children - don't. In fact one of these teacher people - who has been working all year on designing a philanthropic project - spent an hour patronising me today about just how clever I must be to know the meaning of a word that she didn't understand; despite being in charge of the project about it. But she didn't need to wait for me to send my numerous, initially witty, but increasingly irritated emails - to realise her error - she could have just googled it; or asked someone - but no, instead, several people, all of whom let us remember, are in charge of the education of the young, just brazenly went on organising a project they didn't understand and didn't know the meaning of. So my school has a philanthropic project which is to help out an animal shelter. Do you see the obvious problem here? Because the people who educate the children don't... I've been asked what I have against animals - the answer is nothing - I like my cat very much - but its a cat, not a person. I've been asked if I don't see what an important cause raising awareness about battery hens is - the answer is no, I don't think its that important - not while there are refugees being turned away from our shores; people locked up in detention centres; people starving and lacking health care and adequate shelter in our supposedly first world nation - need I go on? There are a number of problems here and they are related. The first is that somehow the meanings of things don't matter - that close enough is good enough - that sure it might say philanthropic but what it really means is some sort of charity. So aside from the fact that I think charity of all kinds is deeply problematic both because of its patronising and neo-colonial nature but also because it takes away from the state the responsibility it has to look after all members of society - I also think words matter. Call things by their right names is one of the most basic ideas of marxism - I want things called by their right names and if I am supposed to do a philanthropic project; then it damn well better be about people. The second is about the relationship between humans and animals. Anthropomorphism - and just in case any of my educator colleagues are reading this and having a little trouble with the definitions of big words that are hard to pronounce - that means seeing and treating animals as if they have human characteristics - is a deeply problematic way of viewing the world. By their very nature animals do not have rights - they can't possibly as they have no obligations in our society. Does that mean people should treat them cruelly? - No - the way we treat lesser, vulnerable creatures is a sign of the extent of our own humanity. But that's our perogitive as humans. Today's prosletysing 'launch' of the philanthropomorphic project included the deeply enlightening information that through selective breeding humans have transformed wild animals into the domesticated species we see on farms today. I was left wondering what the point of this lesson was - would the people who run the shelter our philanthropomorphic project is helping prefer it if we hadn't domesticated dogs, sheep, cattle, chickens, goats, or pigs? Should we perhaps let these animals return to their "natural" (and what is that anyway?) state; while we see a massive drop in food yields, protein becomes impossible to buy except for the most wealthy (its already out of the diet of a huge part of the world's population because of the in-built inequalities these animal activists haven't even begun to notice) and we all revert to some sort of hunter gather existence. And what about the poor, oppressed and modified by humans grains? Should we perhaps get rid of those too - after all 10,000 years of human "interference" has made the grain we eat unrecognisable compared to the wild grains that started it all. Because that's where the argument that somehow humans were morally wrong to domesticate and selectively breed animals ends - it ends with a rejection of 10,000 years of development. Domestication meant that people settled in one place; that towns and cities were possible; that writing developed; that humans ourselves changed to be what we are. There's no turning that clock back. The third problen is less concrete and less to do with the silly project. Its the idea that principle's don't matter as much as doing what everyone else is doing. I got what amounts to peer pressure today to support the stupid project. I was told I wasn't being collegial - that in effect I was a bad workmate because I happen to have a different opinion. In the end its the thing that makes me the most angry. People who are too stupid to know the meaning of words or bother to look them up when they realise they don't know - make me angry. People who think animals are more important or as important as humans make me angry. People who want to live in some kind of idealised natural past or who see humans as some sort of blight on the planet make me angry - its the ultimate in self-hate really and I think we should discourage self-hate in young people. But what makes me angriest is people assuming that they can talk me out of my principles. If I say I am not going to do something because I disagree - this means that I have thought about it, considered the options, weighed the consequences and made a decision. It means this because I am a responsible adult and if I make a public pronouncement - its because I am absolutely sure of what I am saying. When other adults then question me - all it makes me think is that they clearly don't go through this process of thinking before they make a public pronouncement - to assume I can be convinced otherwise is to assume I have not fully considered my action. That's insulting. But it also suggests that they don't interrogate their own decisions before announcing them - and that's worrying. This whole process also makes me realise that lots of the people that I teach with - people who look after young people and guide them in the world - don't understand what it means to have a principle. My understanding of the world - my principles - are central to who I am - in a socratic sense - I am my principles. To deny them is to deny myself. Hardly a week goes by when I don't think about Bolt's Thomas Moore in a Man for All Seasons - the extraordinary image of him opening his fingers so that like water, his soul - his principles - drip through. Like Moore, I'm not prepared to allow my principles to dribble away between my fingers. It doesn't just make me angry - it makes me frightened - that other people think that's alright.