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On Comradeship and Copping On

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(Guest post by Izzy Kamikaze)

This is part of a longer (maybe much longer) work in progress about #coponcomrades – a recent social media kerfuffle here in Ireland, that seems quite instructive and worth spending more time on. I was writing Part One and Part Two at the same time, but Part Two finished itself first and so they are being published out of sequence.

The story so far is basically that a young-to-me (35ish) very effective working class male activist has published a piece in a national newspaper, decrying “identity politics” and the notion that “a straight, white male” can carry any privilege if he is also working class. Amongst other responses, a group of feminist women have signed up to a joint statement, acknowledging the disadvantage of working class men, but otherwise disagreeing.

The usual social media handbags at dawn has ensued. Two days ago, a male left wing poet has weighed in with a poem depicting 350 crazed neoliberal harpies and Part Two is my response to that poem. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it here (and this contribution may not make much sense without it,) but if you’ve already seen it, meh…why give it any more clicks…

Emma

Part 2: Plutonium Pants Suit

Dear Kevin,

I was pretty surprised yesterday to find myself a target of your satire. I’m Capitalism’s Handmaiden now, part of a chorus of “350 identical voices.” As feminist voices are indistinguishable to your ear and presumed to be the voices of privilege and neoliberalism, I thought I’d write, in a spirit of comradeship, to help you distinguish one voice from what you apparently see as a fem-bot army, raining death and destruction on the world from the weaponised genitals inside our “plutonium pants suits.” An appealing image, perhaps Kevin, but a false one. I’m writing to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.

You don’t know me, but you usually tag me when you share your poems and I like that. Well-aimed political satire is one of the most subversive things we can do. I’ve often shared your poems and commented kindly on them – one about the Jobstown protest is a particular favourite and another about Clare Daly. Thank you for those. The words we handmaidens of capitalism sent out into the world were all about privilege, so that’s what I thought I’d write to you about now.

My granny didn’t have a piano, stolen from a refugee or otherwise, but if she had one, she’d have been able to tune it. Her father tuned pianos for a living and she had learned from him. He also played the organ in the local cathedral, which came with a little social standing, but no cash. My Granny lived in poverty most of her lifetime, but was better educated than her neighbours in the council estate and was acutely aware of this privilege. There was a book on her few shelves called “Law for the Millions” and from this she dispensed legal advice to neighbours who couldn’t afford a solicitor. The “Button A, Button B” payphone in her front room was the only one in the estate and that’s where the neighbours came to keep in touch with their emigrant children, or to call a doctor when somebody had an accident.

My Granny never had money in her whole lifetime. She scraped by on a widow’s pension for 30-odd years. I remember going to the coal merchant with my Granny just before Christmas. She paid for her own delivery, then handed him a few bob to bring coal to somebody who couldn’t afford it. My Granny’s voice is one of 350 voices, entirely distinguishable from each other, that pop into my head on any average day.  My Granny was no intersectional feminist, but she wanted us to remember “there is always somebody worse off than yourself.”

There is no plutonium pants suit in my wardrobe, Kevin. Just my leather jackets, faded jeans and the shirts and ties that still sometimes get me mocked in the streets by people you presumably feel have no privilege worth speaking about. When I was 24, I found myself living in Fatima Mansions. If you haven’t heard of it, it was a notoriously deprived council estate in Dublin’s South Inner City. I stayed more than 15 years and for most of that time, homophobic abuse was a daily part of my life. For a few months in the early 90s, I cared for a friend and former lover who was terminally ill. She died in the front room there, Kevin. She was tired of the hospitals and clinics, so she chose to die at home, but she had to go to the methadone clinic daily, so I used to scrub the piss and shit off the stairs so we could get down to the waiting taxi. I was afraid she might fall there.

We had no money, so our lives were pretty limited, but one night she went out for a drink with a friend. She hadn’t been out for a long time and was very excited and I was pleased too, because I really needed a rest. When she came back that night, I opened the door and she was stood there on the doorstep, with spit running down her face onto her leather jacket. Her voice is another of the entirely distinguishable voices in my head. She left me all her papers to “write the true story of women living with HIV” and I hear that voice quite often because I haven’t kept that promise, but I got out of that place by getting a job and a mortgage that I’m still paying. So time is short and I only manage it in snatches like this one to you.

The young men who did this were amongst the least privileged in our society and I stand squarely by their side whenever justice demands it. But did they enjoy straight white male privilege when they broke all my windows, wrote graffiti on my door or shoved shit through my letterbox? I say they did. And they had privilege too when they spat in the face of a dying woman, 32 years old, on her way home from her last ever night in the pub? I say they did, Kevin.  And did I enjoy white privilege when they eventually bored with me and moved on to harass the black people who had started to move into our neighbourhood? It didn’t feel like much of a privilege, but yes I did.

It was eight years before I had the money to bring her ashes to India as she’d asked me to. I went for six weeks and it’s still the only time I’ve been outside Europe. It’s interesting you should mention Union Carbide in your depiction of us, because I spent one of those six weeks volunteering at a centre for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. That week was a small thing, Kevin and I’m looking for no medals for it. It was a drop in the ocean, but still, an act of comradeship rather than the unthinking rampage of one of capitalism’s handmaidens, in my entirely discountable opinion.

The left has always had an issue with what it calls “identity politics” but I’m old enough and around both struggles long enough to remember that it used to have another name. When I was young and desperate to be accepted on the left, the term used was bourgeois individualism. The fight for individual human rights as basic as choosing who to live and love with was a manifestation of greed, not need, they told us. Depending on who you talked to, either all our problems would be solved after the revolution, or else we ourselves would cease to exist as our sexuality was nothing more than a symptom of bourgeois decadence. We were an unsightly pimple on capitalism’s arse. Either way, we needed to subsume our struggle to that of the huddled masses, until the glorious revolution came to grant us luxuries like not having to perpetually wipe spit from our faces (or else until it imprisoned us in the gulags, whichever turned out to be the case.)

Identity politics needed to happen, Kevin, and still needs to happen. I was a teenager then and I have a grandchild now. The magical revolution that wipes all problems away is no more assured in her lifetime than it was in mine.  I hope as a comrade you see why we couldn’t just wait. Sure, there were people who were assimilationist, who didn’t care at all if others remained without privilege, as long as they got some themselves. But that was never me, Kevin, and there were plenty more like me. I do try to live in solidarity with others. I know it’s never enough, but I know I try. I don’t know all the other voices you characterise as “identical,” but I do know they’re not identical and I’m pretty sure that they try too.

In your poem, even my poor innocent genitals are reimagined as weapons of war, raining down horror on the Middle East. I feel as helpless as most comrades in the times we live in, but I’ve always been against war and struggled for peace. My enthusiasm for your poem about Jobstown isn’t just to do with that case. I’ve fought for the right to protest all my life. I’ve been arrested twice in my life, both times for anti-war protest – nothing compared to what homeless young working class men now face when they get treated like criminals for just trying to find someplace to sleep or rest or to use the drugs they can’t get through a day without, but still a mark that I’ve not lived my life entirely as a handmaiden to the military industrial complex.

One of those arrests was as specious in its way as the arrest of the Jobstown defendants, as we never did find out under what law it was made. That protest was against American foreign policy, as obnoxious 33 years ago as it is today. The other sought the release of a pregnant woman activist, arrested in the USSR on false charges of assaulting a KGB officer. She was a target because of her involvement in the disarmament movement and her husband was frantic because he couldn’t find out where she was.

Their plight would have meant little to one of the warmongering fem-bots of your imagination, but not being one of those, I did the little bit I could. Myself and four friends left the party celebrating my 21st birthday and we chained ourselves to the gates of the ambassador’s residence. We were there for a number of hours before we were cut off the gate and nobody could get in or out, during that time. No doubt we’d be charged with “false imprisonment” today, but luckily we weren’t and we made the papers. We helped to secure the release of that woman and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I happened again to be one of the first people to hear news of an unjust incarceration.

I understand your instinct in writing the poem, Kevin. Word reached you of something you thought an injustice and you sat down to write in the same spirit as I chained myself to that gate. I know you heard our voices as a hate-filled chorus, but I also know you didn’t hear what we actually said. My feminism has nothing to do with Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, nor the Hillary Clinton implied in the line about plutonium pants suits that must have seemed so very clever at the time. I’m rooting for Jeremy Corbyn, not for Teresa May. I’m no friend of power, but while it exists, may compassionate people hold it regardless of gender, not the clowns and tyrants that give me so many sleepless nights.

I’m rooting for Corbyn, though the slogan “For the Many” gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes the few-in-number are not the oppressors, but the tide turns against them anyway and they end up in the camps. Even the kindest ideology contains within it the seeds of oppression. We have to be watchful of ourselves all the time. There are intolerant versions of feminism and I’m happy to stand against them, but so far there’ve been no feminist gulags, where people are imprisoned for minor irregularities of thought or for having a little more than their neighbour has. Within a year of the much needed revolution in Russia, once the bright hope of working people around the world, the first forced labour camp opened. The dreams of freedom often end up dashed on the rocks below.

The seeds of oppression are in everything that once stood for justice, but as yet no feminist bombs have rained on children in their beds. There are no piles of corpses to shame our talk of equality. It was somebody else’s dream of equality that went very bad. I promise to keep an eye out for injustice, Kevin. I promise to speak out where I see it and I hope you keep doing the same – will you join me in being as willing to listen as to speak out? Will we listen to each other’s voices first, before rushing to condemn?

The focus on the assumed privilege of our 350 voices is something that puzzles me. It might make more sense if we’d claimed we didn’t have any privilege, but we didn’t say that. It definitely would make sense if we’d said “even the most underprivileged working class man on the street has more privilege than we have” but we didn’t say that either. What we tried to say was “everyone has privilege sometimes. That’s OK, it’s what you do with it that counts.” I hope you might hear this more distinctly when it’s one voice saying it, but I’m sure each of the others is on her own journey with the privilege she was born with and the privilege she was born without.

I don’t know the circumstances of all the others. I’m sure some are middle class, but what of it? Eva Gore-Booth, born into the splendour of Lissadell House in Sligo, did more for the female mill workers of Lancashire than most male trade union leaders of less exalted origins. Her better known sister, Constance Markievicz, was the victim of many a sneer about her origins, but was so loved by the slum-dwellers of Dublin that they queued the full length of O’Connell St to file past her coffin. The Rebel Countess’s voice is often in my ear. In her youth, you might recall, she felt so strongly for the poor she “put [her] jewels in the bank and [bought] a revolver.” By the time she died at 59, she had nothing left to give away.

Emma Goldman’s voice is another one that sometimes visits me. Nobody was more committed to class struggle than she was, but if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of your revolution. Nobody thinks of her as an intersectional feminist, but she said this: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”

The right to speak freely on matters of conscience is of vital importance and is not extended equally to everyone. We all have to grab whatever opportunity we can find. I’m glad we live in a country where, all of us in this story have been able to speak up as we see fit, even if we don’t all get the same platform and even if we find the criticism of others hard to take. I’m glad a working class man is free to say he can’t possibly enjoy any privilege, even though he’s saying it in the pages of a national newspaper whilst taking a PhD in Trinity College. I’m glad a bunch of feminists can disagree, singly or together, and share their feelings through a humble Facebook post that nevertheless gets a lot of exposure. I’m glad that people who disagree with us can have conniptions on social media about “search and destroy” missions, as if feminazis were training binoculars on their house prior to dragging them off to break rocks in the re-education camp of their paranoid fantasies.

I’m glad that you are free to write a spectacularly ill-conceived poem about the whole affair and to publish it in an outlet that only a few weeks ago was equally free to share for clicks the footage of the shamefully heavy-handed arrest of a naked woman, the late Dara Quigley, another writer and activist, just like you and me. They ignored for hours the pleas of their contributors and readers to take it down, but I’m still glad there were no official censors kicking their door down (and I’m glad they eventually listened and took it down.)  I see they’ve changed the picture above your poem and I’m betting they made less of a big deal about doing so, but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect any kind of privilege at work…

I’m glad that I can respond to you as I’ve done here, even though my platform’s smaller and I’m glad you’re at liberty to pen further speculation about my alleged neoliberal sympathies and the fantasised misdeeds of my blameless grandparents. None of us is going to be dragged from our beds in the middle of the night for what we’ve said and I’m grateful. The worst that will happen to any of us is that other people might disagree with us and might say so, singly or in groups and I know from sweet experience (I try not to be bitter) that is totally survivable.

It isn’t always that way in the world we live in. There are writers and activists in the world whose heads rest uneasy on their pillows tonight and it befits us all to recall that when we meet with some pretty civilised resistance to what we say. Let’s keep them in mind before accusing each other of censorship and war crimes. Let’s turn our attention together to real threats to our own speech. They are out there, Kevin and it’s not you or me. It would be good also to remember that feminism has always emphasised the importance of the individual’s voice – “the personal is political” – while socialism all too often demanded that the individual’s welfare and small voice be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good.

Everybody has some privilege sometimes, Kevin. I would say that, even if they did come now to kick down my door. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we can be excused the necessity of listening to other people’s voices. None of us.

The voices I’ve shared with you so far have all been women’s voices. I’m concerned that you might find them hard to tell apart. James Connolly is not usually thought of as an intersectional feminist, but perhaps his voice will land more easily on your ear than mine does. He put it this way: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” I’m with Connolly on that one, Kevin. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we have not at some time benefitted from somebody else’s lack of privilege.

Keep sending me your poems, please Kevin. Mostly I enjoy them.

Yours in Comradeship, Izzy.

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