I spent this morning at work in my garden. A very, very British thing to do, weekend gardening.
I spent this afternoon listening to Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgon talking about patriotism and national security. How quickly we forget what it was like when the good guys were getting to do all the big political speeches.
Patriotism is looking after the people and the land around you. Community work and environmental work, in other words. Oh and gardening, of course.
National security is about dealing with the threats the people are facing. What threats are our people facing? Climate change, pandemic, global conflict – so build relationships across the globe to address global-scale problems, recognise that you can’t put a fence round one little island in the North Sea to stop viruses, extreme climate events or nuclear missiles at the border.
We need to stop UK companies selling chemicals and weapons to the countries creating the conflicts, causing the disasters, driving the refugee tides. What other threats do our people face? Shortage of housing, of wages, of food – so we need to build council houses, create jobs, pass laws making food a human right, and look at how we produce and price food. What else? Threats to our health service? so we need to re-instate and re-fund the NHS. Where will the money from all that come from? I know, says Jeremy Corbyn – let’s use the billions the current government are planning on putting into creating weapons to feed more wars.
Farewell to Prince Philip
Go on, give him a couple of minutes thought, or however long you generally spend on someone you’ve heard of, who’s died. Patriotism, and national security, depend on us recognising that no one person is more important than the others, but keeping faith with the rule that every single one does matter. Let us hope that the current generation of young royals will put the monarchy idea peacefully to bed now – maybe when their gran passes on.
Meantime, we – all of us – need most urgently to find out how to get control of the rest of the elite who are wrecking the world – the aristocracy, the billionaires, the privileged, public school set who think they own the country. Please put your mind to it, and help with finding the ways. It’ll take all of us – and it’s the most patriotic thing you could be doing with your time.
This seems to be playing in my head, so here it is – you’d better listen to it too.
Socialism A, socialism B, and why everyone who was paralysed by despair on 13th December 2019 should be back in action by now...
The Ministry of Truth
We’ve always been very keen on throwing the term ‘Orwellian’ at anything we consider less than honest but in recent years, the term seems to apply more and more often. Last week (April 2021) a story broke which qualifies 100% – a firm of UK lawyers get the job of doctoring textbooks to suit the Israeli market
And reading that, I remembered that during the compilation of the recent report on racism (that found there wasn’t any) there had been talk of providing ‘the real truth’ to schools. Just trying to imagine what such a scheme would look like under our current government made my toes curl.
The impossibility of agreeing ‘the truth’ with the average citizen you meet in the street was a constant burning problem for Labour activists during the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, not to mention during the nightmare of the Brexit referendum. The enormity, the impossibility, of that task in the face of a government and a mainstream media drifting ever further from reality is beginning to be discussed by relatively mainstream reporters and academics now, two years after That Terrible Day…
But, having had two years to get over the reeling horror of what happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, most socialist activists are probably beginning to see, as my comrades do, that we already knew we’d been beaten by 2019. We’d run the campaign in a state of denial, based on the fact that the media had spent the last two years telling us we’d lost when in fact we hadn’t, and so we completely failed to acknowledge reality when we really had lost.
So what happened to real socialism? Why could we not see the wood for the trees? There’s hardly anyone in the Labour Party who doesn’t claim to be a socialist: from the very best paid and most privileged members of the plap (as we took to calling the Parliamentary Labour Party after some of our more bruising experiences), right on down to the lowliest of activists out on the street between DWP maulings, ‘the grassroots’ helping out with Unite Community campaigns against Sports Direct and other exploiters — all insist that they are socialists. How can so many, so very different people, people absolutely at each other’s throats, think they’re socialists?
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of socialism – or at least, there’s socialism, and a very convincing faux socialism that often takes its place. I found a good, clear definition of the distinction in Snakes and Ladders by Selina Todd. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Great British Social Mobility Myth’. Todd makes extensive use of the personal accounts collected in endeavours such as the Mass Observation Project
She demonstrates a change, over the generations, in the publicly perceived aims of socialism. She looks at early socialist projects, pre-Second World War, which tended to be local subscription schemes, co-ops where communities banded together to solve problems and help each other, thus reducing their reliance on the ‘power people’, the oppressors. Then she looks at later ones which tended to be more individualistic efforts to lift ‘high achievers’ into the middle classes. She follows the developing clash of these two ideas via conflicts in the Workers’ Education Association, over whether their work should centre community education projects for everyone, or whether they should focus on creating scholarships for ‘achievers’.
The problem gradually comes into focus. Clearly, lifting individuals out of the oppressed, working classes into the middle classes isn’t really socialism – you can’t lift everyone into the middle class. If that is your aim, what does ‘the middle’ rest on? Who is going to scrub the floors and wipe the arses? Do we discuss this thorny issue, or do we close our eyes and trumpet ever louder the catch-phrases of socialism B….?
Tony Blair was one of the more notorious proponents of ‘meritocracy’, enthusiastically espousing ‘equality of opportunity’, and mixing meritocracy with the wide-ranging benefits which generally come with a Labour government in a very enticing agenda which, for one-and-a-half terms of office, successfully covered a creeping privatisation that left us with our hospitals deeply in debt, school grounds being sold off and a range of other troubling developments including the over-riding horror of the Iraq War. A loss of socialist vision that more than justified Margaret Thatcher’s statement that New Labour was her greatest achievement.
But Blair was a socialist – and initially a very popular one. What happened?
A good source of detail on how ‘meritocracy’ works is Miseducation, by Diane Reay, which surveys stats and experiences of UK education from the very start of mass education, and discovers an unchanging strategy of using the majority of children as a buffer (collateral damage is the term she uses), the contrast that allows those bright achievers to be ‘top of the pile’. There were only ever so many grammar school places back in the 11-plus days, and middle class parents were always good at making sure their children got them. The few working class people who clawed their way into grammar schools often felt lost and defeated when they got there, cut off from their working class roots, not quite good enough for the alternatives… Comprehensives looked, for a while, like a solution to that but there was, eternally, the private school system sitting on top, limiting their efficacy; and even within those comprehensives, streaming systems recreated that hierarchical ladder for the ‘achievers’ to climb… and the corresponding snakes for others to slide down.
The now-proliferating academy businesses appear to be even more focused on this idea, with their competitive, motivational, aspirational straplines, and their quiet assurances to teachers that no-one will have to handle more than one of those problematic set 3 classes, where the kids all seem to have SEND or mental health issues: the latter translates, in some opinions, to kids who are angry, depressed and/or distressed – the ‘collateral damage’ – the necessary foil of the class system.
Those kids need rescuing – or they need to learn to rescue themselves. Is that a skill they’re going to learn in those schools?
Corbyn – a return to socialism A?
It was extremely hard to sell Corbyn’s version of socialism to everyone – it sold itself to pretty much everyone who actually met him but, strangely enough, it didn’t get an honest airing in the mainstream media, and the high-salaried, high-achievers in the Labour Party didn’t take to it too well. Nevertheless, team Corbyn kept him out on the road, meeting people in their tens of thousands, and good instincts led many, many people to recognise that the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn was something different, something that provided redress – as some analysts noted, Corbyn’s acknowledgement of ‘the left behind’ was key.
Corbyn wasn’t cheering people on to ‘rise above’ the herd, he was constantly calling for them to ‘stick together’, to ‘build the community’ and make socialism happen.
The one big Momentum call-out
Initially, the organisation Momentum became the instrument of the mass movement. When the plap made their first major attempt to nip Socialism A in the bud (an exercise now known as ‘the chicken coup’) they found the House of Commons surrounded by tens of thousands of – well, people – just people – responding to Momentum’s call to hold the line for Corbyn, chanting ‘for the many, not the few’ and ‘no-one left behind’.
It was instinctive, it was right (I think) but, as many lefty commentators said after the Terrible Day (13th December 2019) the majority of the movement lacked background knowledge, it lacked political nous, and was completely un-leadable. It scared the heck out of Jon Lansman who, at that time, considered himself to be in charge of Momentum. It gets very personal here but it seems to me that from that day on, Lansman back-tracked furiously, aiming for his own natural home which was most definitely Socialism B. His methods came from the secret weapon of the right at the time – Identity Politics.
The Politics of Divide and Rule
Where Socialism A always centres the class struggle, aiming to unravel the ‘meritocracy’ view in favour of community and class action, Socialism B will reply with divide and rule – sometimes centring the ‘high achievers’ to create an elite, other times centring a minority competing in ‘the oppression Olympics’ – for example, look at who was getting kicked out of the Labour Party during the struggle to get Corbyn into number ten – top of the list was Jewish Socialists – especially black and female Jewish socialists – accused of anti-semitism.
Were there really hordes of anti-semites in the Labour Party, or was this an attempt to use one section of the Jewish community against another? And then came the leaks, and the signs of racism and sexism running through backroom party bureaucracy.
It was Momentum that scuppered the CLGA left slate system that the new, mass membership relied on to compensate for our lack of political experience and literacy, and it was Momentum in general, Jon Lansman in particular – who did the damage, first by throwing the anti-semitism bomb at Pete Wilsman in the middle of an NEC election, and more recently by making sectarian demands of CLGA candidates that exacerbate the divide between gender-critical feminism and the trans rights movement.
Lots of lobbying or lots of people?
How do you heal those divides? The two styles of socialism can be seen in the choice all political movements make between foregrounding community- and movement-building or foregrounding lobbying. The lack of experience of many of us newcomers to party politics led to an expectation that if only we could get our particular case in front of Corbyn or MacDonnell, all the problems would fall away. Many sections of the movement attempted to build and lobby, but there was always too much belief in the ‘Corbyn will sort it out’ feeling. I suspect that it is, even now, slowing the development of the current Corbyn Project, as too many sign-ups sit at home waiting for Jeremy to work his magic.
It was the failure of that misplaced faith that led us all to slump into despair as the election results came in on 13th December 2019, and Corbyn resigned as party leader. It was the same failure of faith that led so many campaigns to wander off down their separate, and often antagonistic, paths since then. Failure of faith in ourselves as a collective. It’s time to pull those paths back together – we need to recognise truth speakers such as Corbyn, to listen to them and honour them, but not expect them to work the magic. We need to know that we can campaign side-by-side with people of different opinions, but we need to be politically literate enough to know whether they are real socialists. I don’t know if the Labour Party itself is any use to us now, but nor do I expect Mr Magic Corbyn to start a new party.
What we need to do is a lot more homework, then we need to get out there and make sure more people really understand what happened, and what is happening. Keep the conversations going until enough people understand… and as so often happens, I was just trying to work out how to say all that, when I realised someone just had.
I’m not sure how long the share token for ‘The Truth’ will stay live but, if it’s stopped working when you get to this point, try searching for Caitlin Johnstone and the-problem-isnt-human-nature…
Speaking across the generations can be challenging to say the least. At 18, I found most over 40s clueless, condescending and often downright rude. Having just passed 60, I am beginning to notice for the first time that most under 40s are…
Well, let’s not perpetuate the mirage. I saw this meme today you see, about trying to explain to the parents that the under 40s are feeling pretty bad…
Like most of the people I know of my age, I feel deeply worried about what the up-coming generations are going through. Have you noticed how many grey heads there are amongst the socialist and environmentalist activists? You’d have to look on zoom now – marches and camps sadly are… Anyway – we do that because we’re deeply worried about what up-coming generations are going through, and how on earth their children…
Trouble is, many of them seem to be judging us because we haven’t given up and sometimes, we even have the audacity to be cheerful, and make like victory is in sight.
That’s the spirit…
Okay yes, there are some people who have no patience, no staying power – look at the numbers who gave up on the Corbyn thing when we lost the election – but you know, lots didn’t. They’re still looking for a way.
Okay yes, there are some people who don’t realise the gravity of the environmental situation, the austerity situation, or even the virus situation – though I should think the queues of ambulances and hearing of the deaths of actual friends and acquaintances must be catching up with most of them by now – but there are also masses of people – unimaginable numbers of people – who in their own way, know we are hanging by a thread, know the chances of the generation after next are a million to one – but who are still seeking answers, and still have an annoying habit of being cheerful sometimes.
Thank the gods! Thank the extraordinary human spirit and its ever-seeking survival skills!
A million to one chance
The point is, we knew. My generation lived through the Cold War Era. We saw the nuclear attack drills, and we saw what a hopeless, helpless fudge they were. We saw the mad, mad, impossible over-kill of the nuclear weapons build up – we thought it pretty unlikely we’d survive to our 30s, let alone old age.
We’d read the Silent Spring. We knew about leper ships. We engaged. Many of us. Millions of us. And we’re engaged still and we’re sometimes cheerful still because you see, if that million to one chance comes up, it won’t just drop a happy ending in our laps – it’ll be a chink of light. Yes, imagine, you’re 50 metres under and that chink of light is impossibly small, impossibly far-off. If you are going to make anything of it, you’ll need a horde of lively minds, able bodies and yes – cheerful people – to fight your way through.
We knew. We don’t give up. We have cheerful days. Don’t knock it.
It’s just being talked about at the moment but we need to make sure the reasons why curfew is not a good idea are spread far and wide. We know what works. Back in March, we shut down everything we could, got into the habit of checking on the vulnerable and stayed home as long as it was possible to do so.
The R number went down. Infections went down and, most importantly, deaths went down. It wasn’t all good. Many, many people had a hard time because we have a government that does not see looking after people as its job. It didn’t work as well as it would have done if they’d kept a check on airport arrivals, but we did get control of virus spread and prevent overwhelm of our struggling NHS.
What are they expecting?
Other than limits on civil liberties that have set off a whole range of fears and fight-backs and paranoias, what have the government done in the last six months? The main thing I’ve heard is that they’ve increased the capacity of morgues. Is that enough, in their eyes? Prepare for the dead, and leave your corporate friends to make a fortune running warehouse ‘hospitals’?
If so, it would be obvious they didn’t value human life beyond their own, and that looks bad, so they’d also need to do something relatively cheap that *looked* good. Is that why curfew is on the option-cards now?
Curfew is not a good plan
Tory governments have a consistent history of choosing the option that’s cheap in the short term, and creates an illusion of order. I can see why they’d be tempted by the idea of a curfew.
Curfews are dangerous
They’re a gross infringement of civil liberties, so will create more fightback and more paranoia but they are also directly dangerous.
Curfews create empty streets.
Empty streets are dangerous for those who have to go out – remember those key workers we were going to value above all from now on? Those who’d have to go down those empty streets to get to work, and those who’d have the job of trying to police those empty streets?
People who are attacked or get into difficulty on empty streets find no help at hand.
Buildings and infrastructure on empty streets get damaged or broken into.
Cars on empty streets get vandalised or stolen.
Please don’t let them get away with presenting curfew as sensible or necessary.
Curfews are dangerous, and if you’re under curfew in the evenings but going to work and school all day in crowded conditions, curfews will not control virus spread.
(The poems were judged anonymously but we’ve added names here, and a selection of the short listed poems below)
Congratulations to all the entrants for managing, in this terrible year, to write such well-crafted, strong poems. I feel the standard has been exceptionally high and I found it difficult to limit the short list. There were several other poems – many others – that deserved a mention. I have no doubt that the authors’ achievements will be recognized elsewhere.
The winning poems and those on the short list are incredible. Such a richness of theme and craft. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read them.
by Roger Elkin
The opening of the poem is unusual. The poet begins by musing ‘Strange to think that …’ From that moment I was captured and entranced. The title itself begins the clever play on the sounds and meanings of words – terra, terra cotta, finisterre, terra firma.
There is a wealth of imagery. We are in another world, overwhelmed by the names of ancient places – Phoenicia, Sparta, Greece, the Levant, Carthage, Alexandria, Byzantium, Iberia, Gaul, Albion. There are ‘lashings of olive and grape, oil and wine’ and we are left with exotic ‘lapis lazuli seas,/and earth the colour of spilled blood.’
A superb poem and a very well-deserved winner.
Requiem for a Kayaker
by Clifford Liles
The structure of this outstanding poem where we have the juxtaposition of narrative with phrases from the Requiem for the Dead is perfect.
I have been thinking of the best way to describe the piece and have come to the conclusion that it is visionary. Although the theme is tragic, the death of a kayaker, there is no impression of tragedy or grief. Rather there is a sense is of reverence, of redemption, of a surrender that is willing, an acceptance of sacrifice. At the end we are led to ‘a bright encounter’.
The author of this poem has a real feeling and flair for language. Wonderful.
Museum Piece by Pat Childerhouse
This is an excellent dramatic monologue with subtle and sinister implications. I like the naming of characters. A clever, interesting poem.
Bridge by Pat Childerhouse
There is beautiful clarity and simplicity here. The image of the bridge made with old man’s beard and honeysuckle is beautiful and just right.
Pig Succour by Alan Bush
This poem made me shiver with the image of the ‘undressed light’ photographing ‘other-thoughts amongst the hogweed’. It is sinister and nightmarish and brilliantly written.
Unseen by Alan Bush
Another poem with sinister, dark, violent undertones. Deftly written with a perfect choice of words and images to create atmosphere.
You Let the Cat Out by Ion Corcos
This was a strong contender for a winning place. I really like the surrealism of it and the insistent repetition of the title line. An excellent poem.
Supplicating God by John Moody
The way the poet creates a sense of extreme heat is brilliant. I love the sonics of the first line ‘Burning earth beneath our surly struggle.’ Great use of long and short lines.
Dragonfly Thoughts for a Dried-Up Land by Camilla Lambert
Another strong contender. Some effective and imaginative juxtapositions of imagery and a perfect choice of words throughout. An unforgettable poem.
Shadows by Camilla Lambert
A terrific opening line and a shift of tone at the end. Strong images throughout especially the one about Lavender. Lovely poem.
Terra, terra by Roger Elkin
Strange to think that something
as transparently aquamarine and slicked
with turquoise as the Mediterranean
should be named, in part,
after the Latin for earth
but that was when this sea-cradle
was Rome’s lifeblood, its trade-routes
stolen from Phoenicia, Sparta, Greece
and the Levant; and its imperial money-mould
swapped hands in the markets of Carthage,
Alexandria, Byzantium, Iberia and Gaul –
reason enough for this stretch of treachery
at the centre of things to be called
the middle of the earth – that red earth
they fired to amphora, and pan-tile:
Italy’s terra cotta.
And yet, more certain, more contained,
this slippery sea than that terra incognita
where Visigoth and Hun – wolves
circling wolves – grew mean-eyed on envy
and waited patiently for erosions of will.
And not as indefinable, this sea, as that
where Iberia gave way to landless horizons
at the world’s end, so named it finisterre.
Or as divisive as Caesar’s Albion gamble,
that uncertain terra firma made secure
by history’s cliché – veni, vidi, vici –
and lashings of olive and grape, oil and wine
shipped in for centurion and legionnaire
skulking in draughty camps
and getting maudlin-drunk
on memories of warmer shores,
lipped by lapis lazuli seas,
and earth the colour of spilt blood.
Requiem for a Kayaker
by Clifford Liles
Behold, this loud altar, a cataract
all draped in thunder; this throng of hushed ferns
and rushes. In the shallows, a kayak.
Did strength leave him? What left his boat upturned?
This man, who but for neoprene is naked,
Drifts by beeches hewn from time as soaring pillars.
A nave of Nature, still as roots and mud,
where man’s survival turns on strength and skill.
Past timeless trees, flowing ever downwards;
his paddle’s gone, surrendered to the rapids.
Torrents crash. This surge slicks darkly seawards.
It passes empty scrubland, wild and arid.
A clearing opens in the wilderness;
a bright salvation, where he comes to rest.
A selection of the shortlist
by Pat Childerhouse
In which the puppet-master gives a talk about his craft
When I read Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ back in the early ‘90s, I thought she had done me an injury.
I enjoyed it, but the Ending (not the ending of the book, The Ending) was just too dark. Not fair.
I just read it again, here in 2020 and, when I got to the bit about the Ending (which she places in the 21st century, round about now) I just thought yes, fair enough – but she left out the climate crisis.
Sheri S Tepper’s ‘Beauty’ offers hope, inspiration, and a tremendous call to action. It’s rich, it’s complex and – ooh, I don’t often use this word – it’s seminal. Next time I find myself looking at one of the more recent popular fantasies – Terry Pratchett perhaps, or J K Rowling, I’ll enjoy seeing the star-fire flashes of Tepper’s ideas in them.
Read ‘Beauty’, and remember – a fantasy book is as good or as bad as the ideas and the actions it inspires. Read it, then – as Ursula K Le Guin was fond of saying – go do the next thing. It may well be a better thing than the one you would have done if you hadn’t read ‘Beauty’, and you can’t say fairer than that.
In the absence of hard evidence of a divine engineer in the sky, I’d say the patterns in your mind are who you are.
This is my thought for the day because it became necessary to clean and decorate the back room, and to do that, it was necessary to move two wallfuls of books, including the poetry and the political sections.
It isn’t a chore. If you’re one of nature’s librarians (ie, your childhood created bookworm patterns in your mind) – if that’s your story then you’ll know that moving and sorting books is the third best thing in the world, coming after reading them and helping to make new books happen (for me, that’s publishing – for others, it’s writing, or buying, or borrowing, or reviewing, or forming clubs around discussing…) books.
Are books better?
Funny thing is, most people don’t read books. In a recent survey among some schools, kids were asked who reads books. “Old people and people with no friends” was a common answer. How much they are missing! To all those who say ebooks are as good as books, or browsing the internet is as good as any kind of book, I say – look to the patterns in your mind. Does bouncing around on the internet, slipping from link to link and forgetting where you started, really lay down a strong, comprehensible and retrievable pattern in your mind? How much do you remember of the stuff you clicked through yesterday, last week, last month? Can you flip to-and-fro, contemplate and come to know an ebook the same way you can a book on your shelf (not just when you’re reading it – all the time).
How gullible are you, how confusable are you, how well do you know your history, your environment, yourself? I suggest to you, along with David Didau, that people who read books have better lives – and the reason for that is the quality and retrievability of the patterns in their minds.
From Ely to South America and Back
While I was moving the political section (remember, we’re clearing out the back room so we can decorate) a hundred and one worlds opened their doors in my head, and reminded me of the richness of the forest in the mind. Here’s one: When I picked up The Open Veins of Latin America, I remembered a beautiful bookshop in Ely. It was a day of beautiful things – the cathedral, the river, the teashop with the samovar and the gunpowder tea – and this bookshop. And this book which, I confess, I picked up because the colours on the cover caught my eye long enough for me to notice what a startling title they presented.
And then, as I look at the book, more and more doors open in my head as I remember reading this tragic history, and how it led me to watch a film about Hugo Chavez, and how I learned that socialism must, and can only ever be, international socialism (act local, think global) because socialism is about people, not flags.
Socialism relies on ‘class analysis’ and you just can’t do that by the kinds of hats people are wearing, these days. Who is the ‘them’ in ‘them and us’ these days? Isn’t it the international corporations? Is it not the case that the ‘them’ we are up against are the world champion border-jumpers? If they can put the cause and the effect of their actions in different countries. And hoover the profits into their (global) banks while you’re watching the misery and chaos on the national news and wondering what it all means, they have already won. You’ll probably end up losing everything, and all the while looking around the neighbourhood for someone who looks a bit different to you to blame it on.
Narrativium – the drug of the post-truth generation?
And then another set of doors opened, and I remembered the more recent discovery that the author of The Open Veins of Latin America had expressed some regrets in later life, that he’d got caught up in what Terry Pratchett called narrativium, that if he’d had time to write it again, he would have written it differently.
That doesn’t mean the book is wrong, or bad, it means that a story can have the same start and a thousand different endings, depending what lines the author gets a-running along. But sometimes, like the author of that book, you need to retrace your steps, and take a look at some of the things that got lost along the way.
And that opened another, more recent set of doors, about all the things from recent years that are beginning to be forgotten in the daily click-fest – I remembered writing an essay for my CLP, explaining the theory of the ‘Overton Window’, of how the movement that gathered around Corbyn was steadily leading us back to socialism, to caring about others and our environment, caring about the truth – but they really didn’t need my essay – a tide was flowing our way. It isn’t now – and that brings me right back round to today, and reminds me how I need to talk to our local socialist group about the importance of getting that report properly investigated, so the truth will be known properly, and the size of the victory of the anti-austerity movement will be seen, despite the loss of that election, and so that we remember who the enemies were, which brings me to the importance of getting down to some serious political education so that our local socialists don’t forget that socialism is, and always must be, internationalist, analytical, and founded on strong, joined-up ideas – which requires an enormous bookshelf and/or regular, good-quality political education.
And that’s just one book, on one shelf. Going to go move the poetry books now. I wonder what’ll happen to the patterns in the mind then.
Think global, act local
Many of our Circaidy Gregory and Earlyworks Press books are now available to buy online at bookshop.org
There was a time back in the last century, when I gave credence to the idea of ‘colour blindness’ as a way of solving racism. It turned out to be a way of convincing yourself it had been solved – if you happened to be white British, that is. While we were being virtuously, wilfully blind, assuming everything was going to be rosy from now on, Liverpool was in turmoil, and school kids were passing around those “Boot Boys” novels. Many of us had completely blinded ourselves to the renaissance of fascism.
It doesn’t work because we don’t have a level playing field. I can see that you are black and act as though it doesn’t matter, but you can’t see that I’m white and act as though it doesn’t matter. I can pretend we’re the same colour, and the problems disappear – from my view. Not from yours.
But now, we have another form of wilful blindness to deal with. Understandable, and well-intentioned, a horde of would-be progressive academics, activists and politicians – to give a random sample: Dawn Butler, Philip Pullman, Owen Jones – and now Margaret Atwood apparently – are pretending to be sex-blind.
As with race, the problem with pretending to be sex-blind is that women have very real, very practical problems that can’t be catered for and can’t be funded unless our sex is recognised. The police, pretending to be sex-blind, record cases of ‘women’ committing violent and sexual crimes, and every time they do it, the statistics that women’s services depend on for their funding get hazier until they become worse than useless; women’s health and wellbeing groups are trying to get by without using any of the words that clearly denote the female condition, and as a result, the grounds for their funding and the efficiency of their outreach go down and down; and teaching on sex and gender has gone the same way – now so far from reality that we have a generation of young people who really cannot tell sex from gender.
What we need to know
Black people can’t escape the problems of being black unless we sort out our institutions and our racist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we see, and talk about, the realities of colour.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, colour – in fact we need to.
Women can’t escape the problems of being female unless we sort out our institutions and our sexist cultural heritage, and we can’t do that unless we can see, and talk about, the realities of sex.
It is not wrong to talk about, learn about, and formulate rules about, sex – in fact we need to.
Like many people, I’m busy reading up on anti-racism now, because I realise we really, really need to talk about it and sort out the injustices going on around us. I was hoovering up Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and agreeing with every word… but I ground to a halt on page 181. Feminism, she tells us, must work to liberate everyone. Yes, in a sense. I do believe that if we can deal thoroughly with sexism, we will all be living in a better, healthier society – but, to revert to my first example, does that mean we should be yelling “all lives matter” when black people have something to say? I don’t think so.
Eddo-Lodge says that feminists should be thinking about “disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working class people” – well yes, but am I allowed to add “if they’re female”, or is she doing the “all people matter” thing at feminists?
Having included absolutely everyone in the worklist for feminists, Eddo-Lodge then illustrates her statement by saying feminism will have won when we’ve ended poverty, and when women are no longer required to do two jobs by default (meaning the care and the emotional work as well as the money-earning – true, but that’s about female people, isn’t it?). Feminism must combat sexual violence (that is, almost always, males attacking females). Feminism must combat the wage gap (because females earn less). And it must be class conscious (true, absolutely, unequivocally true). And she says feminism must be aware of “the limiting culture of the gender binary”.
And she’s lost it. Feminism is, and has always been, grounded in challenging the social rules and practices based on ‘gender’ – that is, the social constructions that tell us how males and females should behave and should be treated – constructions that are different in different cultures, but that have some commonalities (based on sex). But like many commentators, she’s translated that into telling us we must also disregard sex – wrong. Then she slips from ‘sex’ to ‘sexuality’ and tells us feminism must recognise that sexuality is fluid – well, that’s a whole nother argument and I’m not going to go into that one here but the key point is that reality matters.
Eddo-Lodge tells us that feminism, like anti-racism, has to be “absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now”. And here, at last, we have the key to a clash that’s been causing endless pain and furore in recent years. Yes, we must deconstruct race and racism. But colour won’t go away, because people are different colours. That’s reality. We must deconstruct GENDER and sexism – but we can’t deconstruct sex, because biology won’t go away. That’s reality.
Rejecting reality in order to be wilfully sex- or colour-blind means blinding yourself to problems that need our attention. If you want to help find solutions, please don’t do either.
Reality matters. Sex matters.
Racism, sexism and classism are the errors to be corrected.
Do please read Eddo-Lodge’s book – it’s excellent, except for page 181. We need to think about, and act on, what she’s saying.
And if you haven’t already, do please go to J K Rowling’s website and find out what she actually said about sex. It is exactly what we need to be saying, and exactly what women are being repeatedly punished for saying.
Sir Keir’s recent comment on BLM (which he corrected apparently, after a lot of shouting) demonstrated that he can’t see why Black Lives Matter have made many of us want to change everything. He can’t see why people want to change or educate our institutions, including the police.
He’s a long way from being the worst on racism – just look at those Tories – remember Theresa May, Amber Rudd and their development of that ‘hostile environment?’ Remember the list of revolting, racist comments Boris Johnson has to his name?
I know many of us are busy learning to be anti-racists now. I see the books by and about black people leaping off the shelves in the bookshops. If you haven’t done so yet, please do some reading.
If you’ve started already,
please do this now…
Get a photo of yourself holding up a book you think would help Sir Keir understand. Spread it all over social media with these tags…
And then save the photo somewhere where you can find it again so that every time a politician does or says something that demonstrates they just don’t get it yet, you can post it again, with their name on the tag.