Pride is Political: Jennicet Gutiérrez and UKIP

I said yesterday that had Jennicet Gutiérrez‘s protest at President Obama’s Pride Month address been a work of fiction, it would have been widely viewed as being too on-the-nose in its symbolism. Jennicet, a trans latina woman who turned out to also be an undocumented immigrant, chose the moment Obama started to celebrate his achievements on LGBT civil rights to speak out, asking the President to end deportations of and violence against, LGBTQ immigrants. As the press release from campaign group Not One More Deportation described:

Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted the President during the White House pride celebration shouting “President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations.” As a transgender woman who is undocumented,  Gutiérrez said she could not celebrate while some 75 transgender detainees were still being exposed to assault and abuse in ICE custody at this very moment.

“The White House gets to make the decision whether it keeps us safe, “explains Gutiérrez  “There is no pride in how LGBTQ and transgender immigrants are treated in this country. If the President wants to celebrate with us, he should release the LGBTQ immigrants locked up in detention centers immediately.”

The response was astonishing: the room, seemingly almost entirely made up of men (the vast majority being white) started shushing her; they then started booing her, one voice shouting “this isn’t for you!” Quite an assertion at an event marking Pride Month, 46 years on from the Stonewall riots where trans women of colour played an integral role in standing up to the authorities which oppressed the LGBTQ community. It begs the question as to how this ‘community’ is now framed that someone (a trans woman of colour, at that) highlighting the injustices which continue to fall upon marginalised LGBTQ people is viewed as an unwelcome interloper. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules in favour of ‘equal marriage’ today, Jennicet will be quickly forgotten as those who control the narrative rush to celebrate.  As Jennicet’s own statement put it:

As I reflect on what just happened at the White House, I am outraged at the lack of leadership that Obama demonstrated. He had no concern for the way that LGBTQ detainees are suffering. As a transwoman, the misgendering and the physical and sexual abuse – these are serious crimes that we face in detention centres. How can that be ignored? It’s heartbreaking to see the LGBTQ community I am part of turning their back on me, and the LGBTQ people in detention centres: how can they tolerate that kind of abuse?

Jennicet is an inspiration with a bravery far beyond that which I possess and she succeeded in putting LGBTQ deportations on the agenda – her interview on Fox News Latino is essential viewing. Yet with sad inevitability, the lack of solidarity Jennicet speaks of was reflected in much of the wider media, not least here in the UK where the focus has been on Obama’s sassy ‘shutting down’ of a ‘heckler’:

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‘Owned’. ‘Shamed’. ‘Shut down’. Much of the media seems stuck in the mindset that LGBTQ life is one long episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s beyond embarrassing. This identification with the oppressors over the oppressed is, sadly, typical of modern LGBTQ politics as our own horrendous ‘debate’ over UKIP at Pride has made clear. Since I wrote my piece on it 3 weeks ago there has been a steady stream of men lining up to defend UKIP and take exactly the line I described here:
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The pieces written by these men were grim in being almost entirely interchangeable – they typically presented the issue as one of whether UKIP were homophobic or not, completely ignorant to the fact that it was UKIP’s racism and far-right links which had roused the most anger (and indeed fear) as these rare pieces by non-white writers assert. This failure to even begin to contemplate that the LGBTQ community includes people of colour and other vulnerable groups for whom UKIP’s rhetoric and policies are violence led Twitter user @TheBuddhaSmiled to begin the hashtag #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ. This documented how people of colour found themselves ignored, spoken over, patronised (indeed, many of these writers would engage with me while blocking non-white critics). It documented how the modern LGBTQ movement has largely become a quest for ‘equal access’ to white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, with its leaders happy to throw anyone or any group standing in the way of this under the bus. It sometimes revealed itself in darkly comical ways. The ever terrible Patrick Strudwick, who has previously tweeted of his refusal to go to the Notting Hill Carnival due to feeling unwelcome:
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wrote an awful piece defending UKIP’s ‘right’ to be at Pride which didn’t mention racism a single time and then responded to people of colour raising it like this:

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Benjamin Butterworth, meanwhile, wrote a similarly terrible and ignorant piece and then presented himself as a victim of ‘abuse’ rather than engage with the many people raising UKIP’s racism with him:

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which in turn led to this flat-out expression of #SolidarityisForWhiteLGBTQ:

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Rational and calm ‘debate’ vs outrage, abuse, anger – sound familiar?

This debacle has underlined how far UKIP has been normalised by the wider media, with assertions that UKIP weren’t ‘racist’ or ‘extremist’ being common but never further defended:
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This has been a perfect example of those whose voices dominate the LGBTQ movement thinking they are leading a ‘calm’ and ‘rational’ debate while those seeking to highlight the continued side-lining of minority voices and interests are awful, abusive, angry troublemakers. A low-point was reached yesterday, when Jeremy Vine debated the issue on his Radio 2 show and invited three white men to discuss it with him. As it happened, the segment came immediately after a discussion of the desperate plight of the ‘migrants’ (always ‘migrants’, never ‘people’) at Calais which featured Vine merrily chatting away to callers who were using the language of the far-right. I heard three callers in succession and each took broadly the same line, speaking of the UK as the ‘land of milk and honey’,  of ‘forcing the migrants to live in their own countries’, of how the UK ‘couldn’t take any more’. Vine challenged none of this, not even when a Scottish woman living in France asserted that the UK was a ‘soft touch’. It was terrifying listening.

It was in this context that the discussion moved onto UKIP at Pride, with the sole mention of racism by the four white men being an unchallenged assertion by the UKIP representative that the party ‘has no racist policies’. This absurdity meant that Michael Salter, the Chairman of Pride in London who is a Tory former advisor to David Cameron, felt able to claim that the problem wasn’t UKIP but rather those who opposed UKIP. With a hearty lack of self-awareness, Salter claimed that Pride was a celebration of ‘tolerance and diversity’ and said he wished to include UKIP because it was an ‘inclusive event’. Yet poor Pride had been forced into action by a brutish element:

 What we saw during the general election campaign, unfortunately, was people being very aggressive towards UKIP representatives, throwing eggs, and when UKIP applied to be part of the parade there was quite a lot of antagonism expressed on social media and there were lots of new people commenting and making threats, whether it’s sit-ins, throwing things or even things more unpleasant than that towards UKIP representatives

Vine asked, ‘why don’t you ban the thugs who want to bully them?’ with Salter replying ‘if we could find out who they were, certainly!’ He then, incredibly, invoked Pride’s history as ‘a protest movement’ in defence of UKIP being able to march.

Coming the day after Jennicet Gutiérrez’s actions, this was a perfect storm illustrating the contempt in which ‘radical’ and/or ‘minority’ voices are held by those who lead the LGBTQ movement. The victims here weren’t those affected by UKIP’s disgraceful rhetoric and policies but rather UKIP itself! Once again, we have the calm, rational leaders debating while the irrational. angry outsiders threaten and provoke. We should also note Salter’s careful choice of words – he states that the anger erupted when UKIP applied to be on the march – yet the first anyone beyond the Pride board heard of it was when they were already approved. This is important because in one stroke Salter elides the opposition from within Pride in London itself – Jacq Applebee, the board’s BAME representative, resigned in protest at UKIP’s involvement:

“When I joined London LGBT Pride’s Community Advisory Board, I felt overjoyed that I could make a positive difference to such an important event. However, I felt very isolated on the CAB, with my viewpoints often dismissed by an almost all-white group of representatives.”

She says that no-one on the CAB was shown the list of participants before it went public and that she first heard about UKIP’s involvement through what she calls a “chance tweet”. She also says the role of the board has been “totally ignored with such an incendiary case”. 

It has been, in short, a contemptible shambles which has showed that Pride as it currently stands is unfit for purpose (there is an R.I.P. Pride protest planned tomorrow). Together with the bravery of Jennicet Gutiérrez, it has also revealed the fault-lines of the LGBTQ movement, which mirror those of wider white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. It’s clear many neglect the fact that a legion of LGBTQ siblings before us have had to fight loudly, angrily, for the day when a President invites LGBTQ people to the White House or racist parties and amoral corporations seek to use our community to gain respectability. If we truly wish to honour this struggle, we continue it and we leave no-one behind. We remember that Pride is political or it is nothing and we fight against our own movement ignoring and oppressing LGBTQ people. We can still reclaim it.

‘Collateral Murder’, Brendan Eich and the refusal of elites

It was on this day in 2010 that Wikileaks released the video, obtained via Chelsea Manning, which brought them both to public attention and made Western war crimes in Iraq unavoidable. Or so you would think. It’s entirely anecdotal but while most folk I know have heard of Wikileaks and Manning, the words ‘Collateral Murder video’ still largely draw a blank. Instead, as has happened with the revelations stemming from Snowden, the issues became focused around whistle-blowing and the treatment of the individuals whose bravery had allegedly enlightened the world. Still, if people generally still don’t seem to focus on the more shadowy actions of their governments (much easier to focus on the shadowy actions of the approved baddies) the actions of Manning and Wikileaks undoubtedly contributed to the broad suspicion which has so far stopped an outright ‘intervention’ in Syria (though our governments have continued to provide financial aid and arms to ‘Syrian rebels’). The cold ‘beauty’ of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video was that it pierced through the usual blather about how foreign policy and war are far too complicated for you or I to understand and simply presented an amoral act. The military voices in the video sound sociopathic, completely divorced from any notions of right and wrong. To paraphrase Ballard, it rubbed our face in our own vomit and forced us to look in the mirror. This is the reality of war, of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Yet if it seemed for a brief moment to offer a utilitarian lucidity in our approach to government, that hope has since faded.

There was, of course, a substantial anti-war movement across the Western world regarding Iraq. Perhaps the perceived failure of that movement has something to do with why so much of our political action has become neutered, ensnared in trite petitions and finger-pointing at others. This was an awful act committed by our governments, in our names even as we marched en masse against it. Where does that leave democracy? Sure, Blair has become a pariah in many circles now but none of our leaders or parties have really paid any price for what they did. Alistair Campbell still regularly pops up as a media commentator. Supposed leftists eagerly await the Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who has continually defended her support for the war and repeatedly supported extra-judicial assassination via drone warfare. The Snowden revelations have been met with a collective shrug from the majority of the population. This is politics stripped of all thought, all meaning, all hope. It’s about being seen to support the ‘goodies’ and oppose the ‘baddies’. The brutally simple message of ‘Collateral Murder’ has sank back into the fog of misinformation and ignorance. We once again think that this stuff is just too complicated.

This apathy and aversion to critical thought has, of course, been apparent in the LGBT movement and I’ve written about its abandonment of Chelsea Manning many times (almost entirely prior to her identification as Chelsea, so apologies for the references to Bradley). Our LGBT leaders and media face almost no opprobrium for allying with arms dealers, tax avoiders, the military and companies like Goldman Sachs, PWC or Barclays which have horrendous records on human rights and progressive politics. Yet, in a further example of just how beyond fucked our LGBT politics is, this week the LGBT internet flew into a rage over the fact that the new CEO of some fucking internet browser company had donated in support of Proposition 8. Apparently using Mozilla was fine when he was merely Chief Technical Officer of Mozilla was fine. And there was no question of boycotting Javascript, which he helped to create, cos that would be a bit of a hassle. Let’s also ignore that countless employees of firms like Apple, Google and Microsoft also donated to support Prop 8 or that President Obama was himself opposed to gay marriage in 2008. Hillary Clinton only came out for gay marriage last year. But heck, this is 2014 and YOU WILL LIKE US GODDAMNIT!

Few would defend Eich’s donation but the perversity of a political movement which will happily align itself with companies dealing arms to brutal despots while hounding someone for opposing gay marriage 6 years ago is clear. Do we hound prominent LGBT journalists like Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan or Johann Hari for their vocal support for the Iraq war (amongst many other sins)? Indeed, can you imagine any CEO being faced with a fire storm like this because they oppose trade unions, strong rights for workers, avoid tax and fleece taxpayers via ineffectual monopolies? Of course not – in fact someone like Richard Branson, who does all of these things, is one of the most prominent and admired businessmen in the world. Similarly Steve Jobs, who built Apple on the back of horrendous labour practices and who sent a solitary smiley face in response to news that he’d gotten a lowly Google employee fired, is near canonised.

Why don’t we care about this stuff? I suspect it’s the same infantilisation which so characterises our approach to government: we think this stuff is just too complicated and best left to the serious white folk in suits who know what they’re talking about. Once you’ve abandoned that critical space, you’re wide open to the absurd, trite marketing which assures you that companies DO LIKE YOU! If Brendan Eich had a history of using child labour or campaigning against welfare, dissemination would have ruled the day and he would still be in his post. His views on gay people, though – those we think we can parse.

It’s reductive and insulting. Chelsea Manning is someone who exemplifies for us that we can pay attention to the things that matter. We can educate ourselves about what our governments and corporations do. More than that, we must, because it’s largely being done in our names and with our money. We should be wary of rushing to quick judgements or actions (so typical of the clicktivism movement) but we should also never accept that these issues are too difficult for us and best left to the ‘experts’. That path leads to unchecked power and tyranny.  ’Collateral Murder’ did not distort or misinform – it merely demanded that we pay attention. Doing so honours not only Manning’s bravery and those we see murdered in the video but the countless, nameless others who are harmed in our names on a daily basis.

 

“It is not easy to become sane.”

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“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.” 
 George Orwell, 1984

At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing and continuing to affect me….The last few years have been a learning experience. I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better…I hope that you can give me the opportunity to prove, not through words, but through conduct, that I am a good person and that I can return to productive place in society. Thank you, Your Honor.”
– Chelsea Manning 14-08-2013

Read Manning’s full statement here.

Sure, it’s a trite comparison but I won’t have been the only person to have thought of Winston Smith when reading Bradley Manning’s heart-breaking statement, delivered at the start of her sentencing hearing. I understand entirely that it’s delivered in the hope of contributing towards a lesser sentence and I don’t judge it at all (I’m not fit to judge Manning). Nonetheless, her words do read like the tragic denouement of a dystopian novel, with 1984 being the obvious example. The terrifying thing is that her words are real and our society is actually doing this. A Manning whose spirit is broken is presumably the dream outcome for the US authorities, who want to pathologize idealism and dissent while portraying their opposites as qualities possessed by the ‘good citizen’. It’s a lesson they not only want us to learn – they want it embedded deep within us so that the mass surveillance and show trials aren’t even necessary. We can’t change anything and it’s the mark of a sick, insane person to think that they can. We can trust our leaders and should leave questions of morality, of right and wrong, to them. Instead we should only be concerned with our immediate surroundings – as Manning puts it:

I want to be a better person, to go to college, to get a degree and to have a meaningful relationship with my sister with my sister’s family and my family .

Keep your head down, look after yourself and your family. That’s being ‘better’. Manning’s previous words:

“I can’t separate myself from others, I feel connected to everybody … like they were distant family.”

That is insane, depraved, wrong. Like dull Party apparatchiks, those who fancy themselves as future leaders engage in Realpolitik and coldly rationalise the treatment of people like Manning: “Oh she should have followed proper procedures for this kind of thing! She must be punished!” In a further parallel with 1984, the only healthy and acceptable outlet for criticism and vitriol is when it is aimed at enemies of the West. So we have a revolving door of ‘Two Minute Hates’ directed at Russia, Iran, Venezuela et al. We even have our own “The enemy has always been Eastasia” with figures such as Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin-Laden and Colonel Gaddafi switching practically overnight from being our allies to our sworn nemeses.

The shard of light in this is that people like Snowden show that it’s impossible to fully stamp out the desire and the hope that things can change, that even a single figure can make a difference. Totalitarianism, however soft, cannot eradicate conscience and courage and in demonstrating this we should thank people like Manning and Snowden every day.

21-08-2013 And now, post-sentence, it transpires that Manning isn’t as tragic as Winston Smith at the close of 1984 after all. Taken from here, her statement today:

The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war.  We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country.  It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing.  It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity.  We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture.  We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government.  And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power.  When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism, the Japanese-American internment camps—to name a few.  I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States.  It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people.  When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.  I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

The State of LGBT Politics

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Gays, Marriage and the Military’ is a timely piece on the current state of LGBT politics and Pride. The point about support for marriage/access to the military amongst the LGBT community is an interesting one. London Pride this past Saturday was a sea of placards, banners and t-shirts containing slogans regarding gay marriage. You could have been forgiven for thinking that Stonewall, the utterly useless campaigning group which previously couldn’t care less about the issue, was a one-cause organisation such was its blanket obsession. What’s quite remarkable about this is that the cause was barely present at Pride even 12 months ago – its ascendance to become not only the sole goal of LGBT politics but (apparently) one of the greatest civil rights issues of the age has been swift indeed.

Of course, as this article mentions with regards to HRC in America, Stonewall has almost certainly immersed itself in the campaign because that’s where the money is – as I’ve written before, as an organisation they have absolutely no qualms about lending some liberal respectability to rather egregious companies on the absurdly narrow basis that they’re ‘nice to gays’. Their entire existence rests on cosying up to power, pointedly avoiding radicalism but flattering the perverse blend of exceptionalism, victimisation and self-entitlement of a largely-privileged group of (mostly) metropolitan white gay men. ‘Equality’ is stripped of almost all meaning (discussed in more detail here) and any sense of interrogation of society is entirely absent. This is certainly true of Pride as a wider event, with the now-grimly inevitable stories of people having ‘unofficial’ placards mentioning socialism, general strikes and class being told that they could not display them on the march. As a political event it’s so confused that it’s best just to approach the day as an excuse to have a drink. Only the most rabid of homophobes obsess over homosexuality as the defining (interesting, important) quality of a person as much as many of these gay men do.

I’ve written quite a bit about gay marriage but I don’t particularly have a problem with it. In the UK it’s entirely a symbolic gesture but in the USA I can appreciate that it has very real implications for people’s lives. My issue has been with the rhetoric around it, the sense that it’s the Big Issue of the age and the refusal/inability to consider how and why the privileges afforded by marriage are bestowed and upon who. The very nature of marriage means that ‘equal marriage’ itself is an oxymoron when considered in the context of wider society. A fixation on it hides real issues around poverty, immigration, health care and much more. It also actively serves those in power who have very clearly used the issue for their own ends – it was both grotesque and hilarious that the Supreme Court DOMA decision led to much hyperbole about ‘equality before the law’ and much praise for Barack Obama as a human rights champion at the exact same time as his administration is prosecuting Chelsea Manning and pursuing Edward Snowden (and the same week the Supreme Court was making rather dubious decisions about racial equality). At London Pride I saw quite a few American flags; most bizarrely, I saw a go-go dancer dressed only in pink briefs wearing an Obama mask.

This is where the one-dimensional fixation of LGBT politics leads to – all that is important is what reflects well on those LGBT people who already have a place at the table. You need only look at the gay media to see this facile reality in action. Anything else that happens, anything else that politicians do, is rendered invisible and irrelevant. It’s almost worrying how quickly and easily many in the LGBT community have bought into all this – it causes you to wonder what other causes they could be convinced to champion with abandon. Pride may have started as a riot but these days it’s less about solidarity and more a giant celebration of insularity and ignorance.

Here Chris Hedges offer the kind of angrily coruscating analysis of power which would see you dismissed as a ‘trot’ in mainstream political circles in the UK. In fitting with neoliberalism’s reduction of politicians to a manager class, it has become de rigueur to present yourself as being reasonable and concerned with matters of realpolitik, as if this is not in itself shot through with ideology. I was surrounded by such attitudes at university, prematurely middle-aged youngsters speaking of ‘tough choices’ and viewing power as something to aspire to rather than an almost-endless series of relationships, often hidden from plain sight, which governed the world around them. The past year has, of course, brought a series of scandals which has offered us a small glimpse into many of these relationships – yet many of the politically-engaged keep parroting the same lines, shoving their fingers in their ears and labelling anyone who seeks to expose, understand and even destroy these relationships as an extremist.

The American election which Hedges writes about offered yet another example of how degraded our politics has become. Some would call it ‘post-ideological’, I’m sure. I wrote previously about how in many quarters it became little more than a contest between the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘good guy’ and the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘bad guy’. What was perhaps more shocking than this was how power became reduced to a checklist of utter banalities, separate from any real-life impact. I saw several columns in support of Obama which did acknowledge his use of torture, his complete disregard for the rule of law and civil liberties (to name but two of Hedges’ concerns.) Yet they were presented as marks in a column looking at his good and bad points, counter-balanced by his positive words about gay people, his rhetoric about ‘ordinary Americans’. Of course we all must do this to a degree – but if we have dearly held principles, there would also surely come a time where we drew a line in the sand and said “No more. Not in my name.” We have become so brutalised and desensitised that ‘he kills thousands of people with no explanation, justification or oversight, but I like his tax policies’ is viewed as the argument of reasonable people while those who focus on the former are tarred as puritanical radicals, demanding the world from their well-meaning elected representatives.

I wrote frequently during the Summer about how efforts to discuss the Olympics and, to a lesser extent, the Jubilee celebrations as political events were greatly frowned upon. You were again liable to be viewed as a bitter crank, overly critical for the sake of it. Yet we should always be critical of the narratives which govern our worlds, in the sense of questioning them and how they serve power. Instead, this critical approach so maligned in ‘the political sphere’ (as if anything can possibly be outside of this) is diverted to the sphere of entertainment, where critical thought has become scathing skepticism and knee-jerk cynicism. We consume our entertainment while believing ourselves to be ‘above’ it, from X Factor and 50 Shades of Gray to Twilight and reality tv shows. We believe we understand how these things work, how they seek to manipulate us and play with our expectations. We share endless Youtube clips to engage with our peers in laughing at them, tearing them apart, asserting our dominance over a culture which we instinctively refuse to view with any sincerity.

This form of critical thinking is largely empty and perhaps even damaging. Fundamentally, there are no principles involved here – we don’t ridicule because these things offend our sense of what culture should be, rather they exist solely so that we may ridicule them. So we have an enormously odd arrangement where a critical approach to entertainment (albeit a corrosive, empty one) is celebrated while one which speaks of politics and power is beyond the pale. It’s notable that one of these approaches leads absolutely nowhere while the other threatens to ‘radicalise’ people.

Of course, so-called radicalisation is only part of a path and a critical approach to power which stops at your front door is arguably one which is as much about flattering egos as choosing the ‘good guy’ is. This is another common criticism of ‘trots’ – that they are either inactive, or engage in actions which have little effect, merely in order to feel right rather than engage in often-difficult and laborious reform. To the extent that our politics has increasingly become an extension of our egos rather than our principles, this is probably accurate to some degree. The crucial point however is that it’s accurate to some degree for people of every political hue, with countless people engaged in ‘mainstream’ politics doing/achieving little yet enjoying a smug superiority because they have hooked their wagon to something larger and frequently unchallenged (and the fixation on reformism is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of real politik.)

Personally, I think that the true challenge with your politics is how you live it day to day, not how it manifests itself on marches, protests and so forth. This isn’t for a second to deny the importance of the latter. Yet they offer platforms for political action, opportunities to be part of something bigger. As incredibly important as that is, it’s far more difficult to articulate your principles and attempt to live a life true to them in your office each day, or with your family, or with your peers. Because it is here that you again and again will encounter the dominant sense that any significant deviation from commonly-accepted interpretations (ways of interpreting, even) is bitter, angry, sad, smug, superior and countless other aspersions. It’s here that you are personally challenged. Of course, it’s important to guard against the temptation to fragment the world into those who understand and those who do not. It’s so easy to see yourself as a true believer and this offers only a self-gratifying cul de sac as ultimately pointless as the idea of the ‘trot’. Engaging with people, especially those who challenge your views, is the only way to prevent this.

Hedges’ piece undoubtedly reads as pessimistic and would be portrayed by some as nihilistic. Given its source, it’s debatable whether it will reach anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its argument. This will be enough for many to dismiss it as the self-gratifying ramblings of a bitter man (much like my much less well-written blog!) Yet those who instinctively feel that urge would do well to question why it is so, especially when it is so rarely the approach taken to opinion pieces which parrot more conventional views. It is clear that Hedges has been on an intellectual journey regarding his beliefs, his principles, his identity even, and this rigorous questioning of the things we hold dear can only be healthy.

Death of the liberal class

For the author of the piece, Byron Sheldrick, the Labour Party, as constituted in 1918, has always been marked by a dichotomy between Parliamentarianism and labour, with Parliamentarianism – the centralised ideology of winning elections – undoubtedly in control of the party for the overwhelming majority of its existence…Byron Sheldrick describes an unhappy, atrophied organisation, suffering from a ‘profound lack of confidence and independence’ where one of the most notable characteristics is a ‘pathology to conform.’ 

A compelling, and timely, analysis of the modern Labour Party and its failure to offer any significant opposition or alternative to the neoliberal project. Timely because of this piece by David Miliband and Douglas Alexander and today’s TUC speech by Ed Balls. The former is neatly torn apart here – note also that it continues the “contemptuous put-downs” of Occupy referred to in the New Left Project piece. Miliband and Alexander were, of course, leading figures during the Blair/Brown years and their piece is a disingenuous obfuscation which can be summarised as ‘more of the same, please’. Indeed, the notion that we have anything to learn from American party politics is risible, it being the one developed country where inequality, social mobility, violence, imprisonment and mental illness are at their worst. Yet you will hear neither candidate for President facing this reality. In fact, the ‘left’ candidate pushes the notion of the:

fundamental American promise that, even if you don’t start out with much, if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.

Obama spoke of running for President because he saw this ‘basic bargain slipping away’ – yet social mobility in America has been all but dead for decades rather than being a product of the Bush era. This is the politics offered in America: two parties and two candidates positioning themselves on minutely different areas of a lie. It is ironic that Miliband/Alexander bemoan the fact that “the Republicans are so aggressively wrong on issues of gay rights, women’s rights and minority rights”, as these areas are the real battlegrounds of American politics, masking the truth that both parties offer subtly different takes on the same economic base of society. There are no grand competing visions, no real clash of ideologies – merely middle-managers squabbling over who can best manage the account book.

This is not to say that the United Kingdom has much to boast about with regards to these issues, but our politics can certainly boast more diversity and pluralism (not least because of devolution). Yet at Westminster, certainly, the ideological torpidity is remarkable. What is noticeable, however, is how this is almost entirely to be found on the ‘left’. The Conservative Party, in a coalition with the ostensibly left-leaning (at least in 2010) Liberal Democrats, wasted no time in pursuing an ideologically-driven programme which serves its natural interests. They have attacked the post-war consensus of the welfare state, National Health Service, comprehensive education and employment rights with a ferocity which would make Thatcher blush. Contrast this with Tony Blair in 1997 – despite a poll lead over the Tory government frequently reaching 20% or more in the preceding three years, Labour pledged to match their spending plans for their first 2 years in office. Despite two landslide elections in a row, Labour’s time in office was marked by a dogged conservatism, a fear of rocking the boat too much. From rail privatisation to anti-union legislation, much of the worst excesses of Thatcherism remained; with policies such as tuition fees, they went further than Thatcher had dared. Redistribution was attempted in the most hesitant, apologetic manner imaginable while rhetoric attacking asylum seekers and benefits claimants remained high on the agenda. This is undoubtedly the powerful influence of Parliamentarianism – of a party more interested in winning power than in meaningfully wielding it (and perceiving the path to power through the filter of a right-wing media.)

This brings us to Ed Ball’s speech today. Balls built his campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party around his belief that there was a real alternative to austerity. He argued that spending cuts actively harmed the recovery. He commented that we should:

be wary of any British economic policy-maker or media commentator who tells you that there is no alternative or that something has to be done because the markets demand it. 

Today, he told us that “we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts”. He supported Osborne’s public sector pay freeze and warned against strikes, continuing the government’s own rhetoric blaming public sector recklessness and profligacy for the financial crisis. He also ruled out the hugely popular policy of rail renationalisation on the basis that it would cost ‘billions’ and that spending ‘on that scale’ would not be a priority when faced with a deficit (a claim tackled here). Yet Balls spoke of his desire for a Robin Hood tax – a policy which alone could raise £20 billion. Policies advocated by unions and groups like UK Uncut would pay to restore the cuts, renationalise the railway and more, still leaving many billions to pay towards the deficit. The fact is that these things are choices – always choices. Balls has done a complete 180 on his 2010 speech and now wants us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. 

Predictably, Balls spoke of ‘tough choices’. When a Labour politician uses this phrase, you can be certain they mean ‘policies which punish what should be our natural constituency’ – workers, the poor, the ordinary. There is nothing ‘tough’ about doggedly pursuing neoliberalism when it has undeniably failed around the world. There is nothing ‘tough’ in placing the burden for the financial crisis at the doors of society’s poorest while the rich continue to get richer. The ‘tough’ thing to do would be to break from this failed dogma and pursue a genuinely social democratic path. Indeed, Balls began his speech by praising the Olympics/Paralympics – yet in telling the gathered workers that there was no money left, wouldn’t the ‘tough’ (brave) thing to do have been to note that the £12-£24 billion of public money which went on these mega-events (much of it flowing into the coffers of private companies such as G4S and property developers) didn’t materialise from thin air? It was real money which could have been spent elsewhere. It was a choice to spend it on the Olympics in a time of austerity. It can be a choice to do things differently.

Ed Miliband was not elected as Labour leader because people wanted more of the same. He was always clearly less media-friendly than David Miliband. By continuing the uber-cautious path of being ‘The Tories, but nicer‘ he is inspiring absolutely no-one. It is not for nothing that his personal ratings reached their highest when he took on Murdoch over the phone-hacking scandal – a clear and decisive break from a previously unquestioned consensus. I’d argue that people want to be engaged and inspired by politicians again – they do not want to be patronised with the ‘there is no alternative’ lie. They know that there are always choices and they want to, are ready to, hear them. The chorus of boos for Cameron and Osbourne testify to that. On the strength of Balls’ speech today, however, Labour are far from ready to rise to the challenge – and the Labour Zombie will continue to stagger on ineffectually.

Social Democracy and the Labour Zombie

Crumbs from the Table: Obama and Gay Marriage

“I favour legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriage” – Barack Obama in 1996

“They don’t have any thoughts – they have emotional responses” – Gore Vidal, when discussing gay marriage, on the American people

Yesterday a British friend excitedly told me that she had ‘leapt into the air’ when she heard of President Obama’s comments on gay marriage, believing that “he’s won the next election!” Across social media sites people were falling over themselves to praise the President for his courage, his righteous morality, his decency. I was sent links which implored me to sign a ‘thank you’ card which is to be sent to the White House. The inevitable slew of broadsheet columns were overwhelmingly positive; some wearily observed that it was possible to be cynical about the comments but credited Obama for his skilful politics in cornering Mitt Romney on the issue.

It seems that it’s game, set and match – Obama is a good guy. He’s progressive, he’s liberal and he’s one of us. The disappointments have been washed away, cleansed in the serene waters of ‘saying nice things about gay people’.

Even as I write this, I’m well aware of what the response of many would/will be to it: I’m cynical; a Trot; ungrateful, unrealistic and unfair; I am that worst of all creatures – a negative person. In fact I’ve written before about the totemic elevation of an issue like gay marriage above all other concerns, even other human rights ones. Well, it doesn’t get any more elevated than this.

Taking the comments entirely on their own merit, I agree that it’s a good thing for the President to personally support equal rights. I can appreciate that it in the toxic climate of American politics, it can be viewed as a big deal. However I don’t see what is gained in hysteric gratitude for some crumbs from the table. Some blogs have already noted that Obama’s ‘evolution’ on gay marriage seemed to begin with whole-hearted support (the quote above). The further he edged onto the national stage, the more opaque his views became. Then, when he was preparing to run for President (and indeed when he did so), he was wholeheartedly against gay marriage. In the years since, the profile of the issue has grown tremendously, to the point where it seems to threaten the supremacy of abortion and reproductive rights as totemic ‘liberal’ issues. So, in the midst of fundraising season for an upcoming election, President Obama speaks out. He speaks out after the Vice-President speaks out (which was, depending on who you believe, a ‘gaff’ which bounced Obama into speaking, or a ‘test-run’ for it – I’d go for the latter). He speaks out while his aides brief the media, “It’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation”. He speaks out while simultaneously washing his hands of the issue, pushing responsibility for it to individual states. So yes, I am cynical about the ‘endorsement’ but I can’t fathom how anyone couldn’t be. The President has made some personal comments which serve to shore up his electoral base in an election year, instantly portray his opponent as a reactionary bigot and eclipse many of his administration’s human rights abuses – all without actually intending to do anything! As one tweet put it yesterday

Obama has endorsed gay marriage the same way he endorsed ending torture, closing Guantanamo, and limiting illegal settlements

Yet his words have been greeted as some kind of latter-day Emancipation Proclamation. This is a very deliberate comparison because you can be certain that, very early in any discussion of gay marriage, someone (usually a white gay man) will compare it to slavery and/or racial segregation. There are grand claims about it being the ‘last great civil rights issue’ (which, incidentally, I’m sure many under the ‘T’ of ‘LGBT’ would take issue with). I have watched open-mouthed as these statements have been shared again and again without challenge. Does no-one see the problem in (more often than not) privileged white people describing themselves as victims of something akin to the brutal and systemic oppression of an entire people based on the colour of their skin?! I have at times almost expected someone to compare the legal inability to call your relationship a ‘marriage’ to the holocaust, such has been the grotesque self-pity on display. From where I’m sitting the lack of ‘gay marriage’ is not preventing gay people in the Western world from fully participating in society and indeed rising to positions of power within it. To borrow Marxist terminology, the issue of gay marriage does not prevent you from being part of the ruling class and enjoying all of the privileges inherent to that position.

Class is one of (perhaps the) most fundamental issue which is papered over by the fixation on gay marriage. Arguments in favour of it appeal to healthcare rights, social benefits, taxation and wealth – there is absolutely no acknowledgement or even recognition that gay marriage won’t make the slightest difference to the structural inequalities which mean that a wealthy gay man and a homeless gay man will never experience these rights and benefits in remotely the same way. Just as I’ve argued that a fundamental belief in human rights must apply to everyone and not just privileged liberals, I think that a belief in equality necessarily demands a commitment to radical reform which improves the lot of an entire class, regardless of their sexuality.

Then there is the issue of marriage itself and its privileged position within society. If you are arguing for marriage on the basis that it grants you access to certain privileges, the question must surely be asked of whether state-recognition of your relationship should bring such access? It’s often noted that society is changing – conversely, as the clamour for gay marriage grows and grows, the take-up of heterosexual marriage declines. People are living in a myriad of different ways, an abundant variety of family units. Couples live unmarried for their entire lives; couples have open relationships; people have polygamous relationships, living with two or more ‘partners’ and so on. Marriage is a formal construct which has varied hugely from culture to culture, period to period. If we are to argue that all consenting adults should be able to have their relationships recognised by the state, presenting gay marriage as the final frontier seems entirely arbitrary.

Without this context, demands for gay marriage as most commonly depicted are merely demands for the privileged status enjoyed by the already privileged.

It was with a grim inevitability that yesterday, in amongst the various articles on gay marriage which popped up on my RSS feed, there was one about the resumed ‘military trials’ at Guantanamo Bay. Obama had suspended these when he took office, promising to use open, civilian trials and close Guantanamo. On the day he lifted this suspension he codified in law the practice of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. As the trials resumed last week the American government once again sought to suppress any evidence regarding and discussion of torture, abuse and rendition. In recent discussions regarding Guantanamo I have found myself wondering if the detainees would perhaps get more attention if they made it known that they were gay and wanted to get married. That sounds like an unnecessarily glib comment but I think it raises fundamental points about the nature of human rights and when we sit up and take notice. Indeed, the case of Bradley Manning seems to have been one of the few incidences of shadowy US government activity which has been covered by the ‘gay media’ due to Bradley’s sexuality and/or transgender. Yet even this isn’t linked to Obama or at least, if it was, it’s now swept away by the emotional gratitude towards his ‘personal support’ for gay marriage. Gore Vidal’s quote at the beginning may be vitriolic but the fixation on gay marriage yet simultaneous belief that it’s an issue which exists in a vacuum smacks of gut emotional responses overriding all else.

As a postscript, I’ll declare my personal interest – I’m gay and I’m engaged. Personally I don’t really care if I get a civil partnership or a civil marriage – I don’t see much difference. My boyfriend does care and wants to get married. So I understand this at first hand. However I think that, when we get married, society is still going to be unequal – not just in terms of competing client groups but in fundamental structural ways. When gay marriage becomes a reality, as it surely will, the fight for human rights and for equality will have barely begun.