There is, as I recall, a monster in the Moomin books. Just one. She’s called the Groke in English (it was Buka in Polish — a nonsense word, but vaguely spooky, like a ghost going “boo”). She is a sad, unsightly, tremendously lonely thing, a sort of spirit of winter. Wherever she walks, she leaves a trail of hoarfrost; whatever she touches freezes and dies. She wanders around in December, when the nights are long and the woods seem to creep closer to the home. She lingers on doorsteps and looks through the windows.
The Groke is not an avenging daemon, or a malevolent deity. She’s not an allegorical representation of evil. She’s just very, very cold and alone. All she wants is to get closer to the light and the fire inside. She can’t, of course — she’d just put it out.
Ever since I’ve read those books as a kid, this has been, I think, my basic idea of a monster.
A monster is someone we’ve left out in the dark and the cold.
Should I bring up the gendering of monsters? Medusa, Tiamat, Shelob, Erzsebet Bathory? This has been done; I would not like to present the idea as my own. But monster-men are always pitiable, redeemable, tragic; monster-women are utterly alien. The Black Goat of the Woods with her Ten Thousand Young. Living it up on welfare, no doubt.
I can’t help thinking of Lovecraftian horror as boring, and in an odd way, self-undermining. You can try making the connection between his virulent racism and his vast, fearsome, incomprehensible alien intelligences from Outside; it might be tenuous, but not wholly unjustified. Mostly, though, it’s that they are simultaneously mad gods of the starless void beyond human ken and huge ripped dudes with an octopus for a head. You can’t have both.
The most productive horror, for anyone who doesn’t live in a little rainbow-hued soap bubble, is not that of the alien, but of the familiar. And the most useful horror, I feel, is the horror of the commodity.
There is something that lives in your house; no — dozens of somethings. Their origin is unclear. Many forgotten, yellowed tomes speak fearfully of their histories, drenched in blood and suffering, of the horrific rituals of human sacrifice performed to bring them into this world. Serious, reasonable people pay such stories no mind. The things just sort of appear, and aren’t they useful? Aren’t they pretty? Aren’t they meaningful? Aren’t they necessary?
Sometimes, just before you fall asleep, you think you can hear them whisper to each other.
Comrade Osbourne elaborates upon the paranoid mode
There is an article I’d like you to familiarize yourself with before we start, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. I believe that Hofstadter correctly identifies a phenomenon, but being a huge blundering liberal who couldn’t recognize the development of historical forces if it jumped out of a roadside ditch and kicked his ass, his analysis remains somewhat lacking. Still, I believe we should take a close look at conspiratorial and “paranoid” modes of speech and action.
The mode of thought that I’m going to call “paranoid” consists of a particular relation to power and meaning. These two things aren’t interchangeable, exactly, but they’re closely related: social and economic power always goes hand in hand with power over meaning, the ability to dictate the significance and “actual” content of words and events. As I’ve written before, those who fully accept the meanings given by Power are said to be “realistic” or “serious”.
Most generally, the paranoid mode is a misapprehension of power. To read a text, event or situation in a paranoid way is to fail to grasp its political dimension, but not by depoliticizing it, but the exact opposite — imbuing it with an excess of meaning. I’m sure you’ve seen and laughed at this or something similar before; it’s a prime example of the paranoid mode.
Fundamental to a paranoid reading is the assumption that the words, actions, signs and portents being read stand for something else, and that it is a direct, one-to-one correspondence — allegory, in literary terms. Gaga’s song has a “surface”, false meaning, and a “deep”, true meaning, which is mind control, and only that. While I would maintain that texts can usually be read in multiple, often contradictory ways, the paranoid reader denies this — there is the true meaning, all else is misdirection. That meaning is hidden from the casual eye, but accessible to those who have been initiated into the shady workings of Power, and taught to interpret the symbols in the correct way.
The True Meaning, according to the paranoid reader, is there because there is likewise a true meaning to the entirety of the world, obscured beneath the spectacle of appearances and illusions that we experience as reality. The hidden, unconscious content of the world is conspiracy — whether a single overarching one, or an intricate network of interlocking and interdependent malicious plots, or a little of both — it matters little.
Where there is a conspiracy, there are conspirators: the Masons, Catholics, Jews, Communists, Jesuits, Russians, “the gays”, “the transsexual empire”, the bankers, the Templars, lizard people from outer space, make your pick. They are mysterious, secretive, inscrutable, disturbingly sensuous or seductive, devoted to an incomprehensible and evil cause. They wield unbelievable power over matters both momentous and mundane. They aid each other covertly in innumerable ways, circumventing the normal workings of society.
By now you might be thinking, okay, so this leads directly to the postmodernist argument against grand narratives, right? There is no single Truth of the World, just an endless free interplay of signifiers? Well, yes and no. The paranoid mode is “correct” insofar as we can say that society at every level is infused with relations of power, which work in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious. These relations, however, are not hidden or secret — they are palpable and obvious to those whom Power works upon. They may not have the language or theoretical apparatus to express it, or be able or permitted to speak about it, or they may be more or less wrong in expressing how all this works exactly, but the naked, shameless, direct, brutal facts of oppression are perfectly clear to them — and visible to everyone else, even if they are usually conceptualized as “just the way things are”.
The paranoid mode is also wrong about the Conspiracy. There isn’t one. Oh, sure, conspiracies of various kinds happen all the time, but the logic of history and society is not conspiratorial. This is purely a matter of Occam’s razor — entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. It’s just not necessary to posit a Shadow Council of International Bankers that meets in secret to keep the Third World poor and subjugated, when imperialism, material interests and ideology — all of which are in plain view — suffice as an explanation. The secret dealings of the powerful, like some of the provisions of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, may be obscured for some time from most people, or from certain populations, but history shows that they do not tend to stay secret for long.
(In more abstract terms, I disagree that there is a “truth of the world”; there is a material, objective reality and there are better or worse theories and conceptual frameworks that we use to make sense of it. Meaning, however, is not a property of matter or its relations, but a product of society.)
The paranoid mode is by no means uniquely or specifically American, but it achieves its fullness in the political discourse of the United States. This may just be because of the world hegemony of the US, and the fact that whatever occurs there is so extensively documented, disseminated and visible to everyone. It may be a characteristic of empires, or capitalist societies under some conditions, or just a consequence of very typical cognitive biases; most likely all of these factors play a part and are mutually reinforcing.
Birtherism, McCarthyism, shitty jokes about how “Bush did 9/11″ and countless other manifestations of conspiratorial thought proliferate in US discourses. The jokes themselves are interesting — on their face they are dismissals, but the obsessive and insistent manner of their repetition is surely meaningful. Without speculating too much, I’d hazard a guess that they often fuction as a way for the joker to reassure themselves, which means that the idea of conspiracy — this, that, or the other one — remains an ever-present possibility.
It’s also worth noting that whether or not a belief is paranoid can be dependent on context. Trutherism is a specifically American conspiracy theory, but certain elements of it are also widely believed all around the world. In places where the US has used covert operations and intelligence agencies to advance its interests, this is hardly surprising. The belief itself may be mistaken, but it arises from different conditions and should be treated differently; it may have aspects of the paranoid mode, sometimes expressed in age-old antisemitic tropes, but not in the same way as it does in the US.
The most famous writer of American paranoia is probably Pynchon, especially in The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. If you’re interested in a detailed, literary examination of all things paranoid, I really can’t recommend Lot 49 highly enough. Rainbow is, frankly, fucking unreadable, but in its constant multiplication of possible meanings, false meanings, connections, hidden truths, half-baked theories and outright bullshit, it carries the paranoid mode to its extremes; arguably, it’s a text that deliberately sets out to frustrate and infuriate the paranoid reader in all of us.
Time and again I’ve seen Americans, or people operating in a broadly American cultural context, instinctually leap to the paranoid mode as their basic concept of society. Disagreement, especially vocal disagreement about fundamental and unexamined values or questions of privilege, becomes a “concerted campaign” carried out by a “clique”, “coordinating” their “attacks” in secret, using “underhanded tactics” and so on. Some of these criticisms may have merit, others may come from a sense of wounded pride or entitlement, or from prior personal grudges, others still can be complete horseshit, because when a malicious conspiracy is perceived, it must be excised by any means, lest it corrupt the heart of the body politic and drain its vital fluids. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, because people can express their legitimate hurt and grievances in the paranoid mode, and it becomes difficult to disentangle the two.
What I’m arguing is simply this: the paranoid mode of discourse exists, and it insinuates itself into our political thinking. Fascinating as it may be, it is harmful and distorting. Please remain mindful of it.
Yeah, suicide. If this stuff triggers you, please stop reading! Seriously!
I really don’t think I’m an existentialist by any metric. I owe a lot to a high school teacher who either was one or had a really passsionate disagreement with the entire philosophy, I’m not sure. I picked up Kierkegaard and Camus on my own just because she seemed to think it was really important, and I wanted to know what was going on. Nietzsche, too, come to think of it, though it’s debatable if he counts.
For the existentialists, suicide was the ultimate ethical engagement with the world. The human condition, to them, was “absurd”: in the absence of divinely ordained meaning, our freedom is absolute, but every choice we make is rendered laughable by the grim inevitability of death. Thus, choice-of-death becomes the one that actually matters, a means to face the final truth of existence head on.
I think that’s garbage. Death is heavy stuff, but it generates no more or less meaning than love, or hate, or friendship, or the pursuit of knowledge. It is unique to the degree that any class of experience is; that it’s the final one is incidental. To say that Death’s scythe levels all other deeds like so much dry grass seems to me a tremendous offense to the living, a contemptuous rejection of the striving and strife that make up our lives. Note that I’m not out to “disprove” existentialism, or to distinguish very carefully between the existentialism of Sartre and that of Łukasz from second class, who spits upon the pointlessness of middle-school life. In this, as in most other things, I’m hopelessly reliant on gut feelings. My gut feeling: this is garbage.
(As a sidenote, it’s really sad and disappointing when people slightly familiar with existentialism — “I read the wiki article” familiar — act like they’re in on the stupid, tedious, pointless joke of existence. I can’t help but feel that your philosophy is somewhat invalidated if the only good it does you is make you feel smart and cool, rather than force you into intimate interaction with the ethical and epistemic texture of everyday life.)
I bring this up because I want to talk about suicide, and the first misstep would be to fetishize it as beautiful or righteous — something I feel existentialists fail to do — or to demonize it as hideous and repugnant. There are numerous cultural trends that aestheticize taking one’s own life, and they are all abhorrent. I’m also uninterested in how it relates to “courage”, even though every other novelist I can think of has a strong opinion on whether it “takes guts” or “is the coward’s way out”. I don’t give a fuck about a dispute so pointless and ill-founded.
What I want to consider is (some aspects of) the political content of suicide — the relations of suicide and power. This also means I’ll have to touch upon mental illness, and you have no idea of the kind of willpower it took not to put that in scare quotes. The conversation, after all, will revolve around behaviours that are positioned as “healthy” or “ill” — how this happens, and for what reasons.
I think it’s safe to say that “power” and “control” is a good framework to discuss this. Not the best one, or the only one, but one that illuminates several key aspects of suicide: how often people consider it when they’ve been deprived of meaningful choices, how it functions as an assertion of control over one’s life, a final “fuck you” to the disempowering realities of imprisonment, debt, destitution, loneliness, sickness, old age. I really doubt that there are very many people out there who, when faced with a desperate situation, haven’t thought, “hey, why not death?”
It’s a seductive thought, and brings a strange feeling of elation. I do have a choice! I can die! Even more exhilarating is to bring it up in conversation, perhaps awkwardly or half-jokingly at first. It’s a breach of taboo, and almost always sure to elicit strong reactions: the stock “there’s so much to live for”, the reverse-psychological “fine, see if I care”, the baffled silence, the anger, the nervous laughter. Many Catholics would still insist on not burying people who’ve killed themselves on consecrated ground — ostensibly because they died as sinners, but I can’t help but wonder: is it unease at this final assertion of control? Or perhaps a perverse way of honouring the choice to exclude oneself from the community of the living?
The mere suggestion of suicide can be wielded as a weapon, of course — an assertion of control not over yourself, but over those who care about you. It is difficult to separate the two, sometimes. Despair has a way of making you act in solipsistic ways; it draws you inward in a tight, suffocating spiral. You might find yourself thinking that your friends’ kind words and attempts to help are misguided, or mockery: surely everyone would hate you if they could see you as you see yourself, surely they’d want you gone. The hurt and terror they are expressing must be a cruel joke. It is difficult to assign blame, here.
I sometimes feel uncomfortable with traditional narratives of abuse because, being flawed in some essential way that I can’t help but think of as “Christian”, they don’t account for this kind of situation. Is it right to call the person threatening suicide “an abuser”? Is it right to call them “a victim”? Both and neither; there are several interlocking abusive dynamics in play, but seeking to place responsibility, as if in a court of law, is doomed to fail. Certainly “mental illness” is to blame — but how, really? Is mental illness some sort of contagion of amorality, similar to original sin? That is unacceptable drivel. And yet it definitely clouds our judgment and restricts our vision.
Personally, I believe in setting the highest possible standard for myself, but I also believe in mutual care. I don’t really get suicidal anymore, though there was a period in my life when I did; if I decided not to follow through, or not to offload those feelings onto others, it was mostly because I considered that cruel to them. (Also because I didn’t have any sort of rope sturdy enough to hang myself with.) But these feelings only went away when I started learning how to seek out and build something resembling positive, supportive communities — which may sound like big words for “Internet friends I’ve never met”, but these supposedly unreal people quite literally saved my life when nobody else would, so fuck you.
I was gonna put another section here, about martyrdom and its position in politics, but I feel like it needs a separate post. So I’m gonna leave you with this pointless and inconclusive ending for now.
In my Father’s house there are many mansions,
all haunted. All mortgaged straight to hell
with debts of incoherent wails. The First Bank
of Blood and Bone and Sinew will accept payments
of chain-rattling, sobs, silences, knives flying
across the perfect kitchen along a thirsty arc.
The curtains flutter on a wind of idle whispers.
Doors creak. Sinks clogged with sticky ectoplasm;
you stick your hand in. It comes up gooey with memory.
Asbestos in the walls, shedding shards year after
year after year. Breathe in. Hold.
There is time, a surfeit of temporality, mingling
with the smell of cigarettes and boiled potatoes,
clinging to your clothes, eyelashes, pubic hair.
Pigeons have taken to perching on the rim
of the roof. Their eyes are red and mad.
The acrid smell of birdshit. The bedrooms have walls
but no windows. The walls have eyes. Warnings
scrawled across them in ketchup and raspberry jam,
dripping red to the spotless floor. “Not yours.”
“I remember.” “Run.” “I had no choice.” You learn
to walk past them, scrub them clean, repaint.
These are the skills of the living.
I go now, to prepare a place. Let me note, though,
that the current fad in heavenly architecture
is cloth and paper, and wood here and there. It falls to you
to prepare the spark.
Prawo, w majestatycznej swej równości (stwierdził dawno temu Anatole France) zabrania zarówno biednym, jak i bogatym spać na ulicy, żebrać i kraść chleb. Mylił się o tyle, że spanie spaniu nierówne: niektórych wystarczy zgarnąć do izby wytrzeźwień, przypiąć pasami i spuścić wpierdol; na innych trzeba nasłać chmarę policji po zmroku, z dala od kamer, ale na widoku przechodniów, i odseparować od zdrowej tkanki społecznej.
Trzy szybkie myśli, które mnie naszły.
Raz: fajnie byłoby myśleć, że władze miasta Warszawy czują się egzystencjalnie zagrożone przez kilkanaście osób z antykapitalistycznymi hasłami. Interwencja była tak absurdalna — dziesiątki policjantów, trzynaście spokojnych i nieuzbrojonych osób na chodniku — że przechodzień, którego na miejscu spotkałem, pytał mnie, czy tu kogoś zabili. Niestety, nie widzę tu panicznego miotania się konającego systemu, ani głupiej decyzji, która źle wygląda w mediach (na punkcie mediów, “społecznościowych” i zwykłych, jestem potwornie cyniczny, za co obwiniam Guya Deborda). Dla mnie to całkiem racjonalna strategia reagowania nieproporcjonalnie wielkimi siłami na nawet drobne zaburzenia “porządku społecznego”, szczególnie w samym centrum stolicy i tuż przed tymi zasranymi mistrzostwami.
Media i tak powiedzą akurat tyle, żeby wpasować się w oficjalny dyskurs — że może interwencja przesadzona, ale wina jest po obu stronach, bo przecież jeśli miasto odmawia zgody na zgromadzenie i protest, to musi mieć dobry powód, prawda? Nie wiem, czy możliwe jest jakieś “przebicie się” w tych mediach z przekazem, że przestrzeń publiczna należy do wszystkich po równo. Każdy głos, który chce być dopuszczony do mainstreamowych środków przekazu, musi zakłądać z góry, że jedyną mającą prawo istnieć ideologią jest liberalizm — inaczej zostanie zagłuszony lub obśmiany. Liberalizm uważa przestrzeń publiczną za irytujące zło konieczne i myśli przede wszystkim w kategoriach przestrzeni prywatnych, dlatego też bez trudu przychodzi mu uznanie całej Warszawy za coś w rodzaju prywatnego folwarczku prezydent Gronkiewicz-Waltz, do spółki z różnymi agencjami nieruchomości.
Więc interwencja policji nie była wiadomością dla mediów, tylko dla okupantów i innych elementów wywrotowych. Chodzi o zwyczajne zastraszenie.
Dwa: bardzo boję się przeszczepiania na nasz grunt amerykańskich haseł o 99% społeczeństwa. Bardzo, bardzo się tego boję. “99% społeczeństwa” to chwytliwy slogan, ale fatalna analiza i każdy, kto przygląda się losom Occupy Wall Street, widzi, że niezdolność wielu Amerykanów do przekroczenia tego hasła ma fatalne skutki. Bo — nie wgłębiając się nawet za bardzo w analizę klasową — według liberalnych sympatyków Occupy pod 99% podpada przecież też, dajmy na to, policja. A to już jest wymaganie od bitego solidarności z bijącym.
Trzy: powyższą krytykę oferuję w duchu wsparcia, a nie żeby nabić sobie jakieś ideologiczne punkty. Dobrze, że okupacja jest, i ważne, żeby była jak najdłużej. Najlepiej tak długo, aż nie będzie potrzebna.
Dzisiaj po polsku, bo się wściekłem.
Dwa lata temu policjanci przyszli sobie na Stadion Dziesięciolecia i zastrzelili Maxwella Itoyę. “Czemu, ach, czemu”, pytają spłakane dzienniki tudzież gazety, “czemuż musieli dopuścić się nadużycia władzy, czemu, laboga”, a odpowiedź jest przecież taka prosta. Bo mogli.
Po dwóch latach prokuratura potwierdza, że mogli, umarzając śledztwo, a gazeta.pl dodatkowo uspokaja wątpliwości, bo przecież “padł strzał”, a kula “pechowo” poszła w tętnicę. Policjanci to przecież nieledwie niemowlęta, których obchodzić się z bronią nigdy nie uczono, a strzał padł sam przez się, zły traf i wola Boża tak chciały, rozejść się.
Warto powtórzyć, że Stadionu Dziesięciolecia już nie ma. W jego miejscu stoi ogromniasty nocnik, i to nie byle jaki nocnik, bo narodowy. Żeby ten nocnik postawić, stary stadion trzeba było wyburzyć, a ludzi, którzy tam trudnili się drobnym handlem — w dużej części imigrantów — wykurzyć. Ciekawe, że tak się z woli Bożej złożyło, że policjant jednego z tych imigrantów zastrzelił, bo inaczej nie jest jasne, czy imigranci zrozumieliby, że w imię narodowego nocnika muszą wynieść się gdzieś, gdzie nie będą kłuli w oczy. A że poniosą na tym konkretne materialne straty? Cóż, dla narodu trzeba się poświęcać.
Ktoś mi pewnie zarzuci szukanie spisku. Ale chodzi właśnie o to, że spisku nie było i Itoya nie musiał zginąć. Skoro już jednak jakiś zbir go zabił, to się świetnie dla władzy składa, bo można na tym zbić niezły symboliczny kapitał. Na pokaz załamujemy ręce, biadolimy, szukamy winnych, a w podtekście: nie fikaj, nie stawiaj się i nie utyskuj na narodowe nocniki, kloaki, wychodki i sracze, bo patrz, jak to się kończy. Groźba? Nie, nie, skąd, my nikomu nie grozimy, po prostu czasem się tak nieszczęśliwie zdarza.
Nie szokuje mnie specjalnie, że gazeta kropka pl tego nie widzi, bo dziennikarz jest od tego, żeby pisać rzeczy, które się sprzedają, czyli innymi słowy rzeczy sprzedajne. “Sprawa zasługiwała na wyjaśnienie”, pisze dziennikarz, pióro w nocniku umoczywszy, i czeka, aż ktoś mu to wyjaśnienie pod nos podetknie: oto niezłomny poszukiwacz prawdy. Ale mimo że nic nie wiadomo, to jednak wiadomo (najwyraźniej), że “to oczywista bzdura”, że była to rasistowska zbrodnia.
Tu jednak trzeba pogratulować dedukcji, bo “rasistowska zbrodnia” może istnieć tylko wtedy, gdy rasizm uważa się za zbrodniczy. Kiedy jest na porządku dziennym, wpisany w funkcjonowanie telewizji, policji, literatury, prawa, mowy codziennej, państwa i Unii Europejskiej, jak można w ogóle mówić o zbrodni? Gdyby Europa wierzyła w zbrodniczość rasizmu, nie stawałaby na głowie, żeby Andersa Breivika uznać za niepoczytalnego wariata, zamiast wyznawcę bardzo spójnej, bardzo konsekwentnej i bardzo zbrodniczej ideologii.
Nikogo w Polsce specjalnie dziś nie obchodzi, jak wyglądał kolonializm w Nigerii, przecież my nie kolonizowaliśmy, my jesteśmy naród przez historię uciśniony, mamy czyste ręce, itd, itp, więc w kategoriach rasizmu myśleć nie lubimy i nie umiemy. Ale kiedy przyjeżdża do nas z Nigerii Maxwell Itoya, i kiedy jakiś oprych strzela do niego, to o rasistowskim lub nie charakterze tej zbrodni nie decyduje to, co oprych sobie myślał, kiedy strzelał — bo kto do tego dojdzie — tylko to, w jaki kontekst ten strzał się wpisuje, i to, jak na to reagujemy. Bo jeśli reagujemy poważnym kiwaniem głową, kiedy mówi, że on tylko wykonywał swoją opryszą pracę, bo kazali trochę przycisnąć imigrantów na bazarze, to godzimy się na to, że ktoś taką pracę musi wykonywać, i że może jest nieprzyjemna, ale konieczna.
Ciekawe, kto z nas powie to samo o Robercie Dziekańskim. Jeśli wierzymy, że rasizm jest zbrodniczy, to obie te śmierci traktujemy może nie identycznie, ale z identyczną powagą. Nie chce mi się teraz grzebać w archiwach i szukać, co o Dziekańskim pisał Piotr Machajski, jeśli cokolwiek. Ale wszyscy pamiętamy, co i w jaki sposób pisały wtedy umiarkowane, rozsądne, obiektywne, liberalne, centrowe, mainstreamowe media, pod które gazeta kropka pl z pewnością podpada.
Rożnica między tamtą sprawą a morderstwem Itoyi pokazuje wyraźnie, że centrowy “obiektywizm” jest w Polsce (i gdzie indziej też) rasistowski. Nie dlatego, że po kryjomu przybija piątkę Dmowskiemu z Hitlerem, ale poprzez selekcję informacji i sposób ich przedstawienia. Rasizm naprawdę groźny to ten, którego na pierwszy rzut oka nie widać, i o którym mówić nie wypada.
I have a proposal. It’s not particularly modest, and I don’t think it’s satirical. Let’s get rid of the word “ally” in left politics.
Okay, that might be jumping to conclusions. First, let’s look at the word and its users first, and figure some things out. I’m wondering: who or what is “an ally”? What does the word convey, and what is the position of “allies”? Are these two at odds, and if so, how?
(My primary perspective here, as you know, is one of a man with feminist convictions, and the particulars of this argument may or may not apply to “allies” in other emancipatory struggles, so, grain of salt recommended if I start generalizing. Grain of salt recommended in general, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t know that.)
An ally, my trusty OED tells me, is “a state formally cooperating with another for a military or other purpose; a person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity”, originally from the Latin alligare, “bind together”. What I like about the term is the martial connotation: if there are allies, it means there’s probably a fight going on. This is important not because I’m a fan of militarism, but because mainstream liberal-democratic discourse insists on the denial of struggle, and on pretending that structural injustice and subjugation are the result of ignorance and unreason. And this well over a hundred years after this was written:
[T]he world had hitherto allowed itself to be led solely by prejudices; everything in the past deserved only pity and contempt. Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression, were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man.
We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; that bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau, came into being, and only could come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic.
–Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
So, I like that. Bourgeois reason maintains that “we”, the human creatures, are all on the same side against the dark and irrational forces of prejudice and oppression. To bring the war metaphor into the discussion is to demolish that view, exposing how prejudice and oppression arise not from the dark corners of the human spirit (and therefore metaphysics), but out of concrete social relations and material realities. Hopefully we’re all well past thinking of patriarchy as being only about women’s unpaid labour, but that labour remains an absolutely uneradicable aspect of it, and to be “against sexism” as a man in some abstract way, without recognizing how you have and are benefitting from that labour, is utter folly.
But while the implication of class struggle seems to be embedded in the concept of an “ally”, experience shows that this doesn’t mean shit. “Allies” who have “seen the light” are perfectly willing to unsee it and appeal to their privilege, which they’ve supposedly renounced, as soon as someone draws attention to an objectionable thing they did. They’re “on your side” as long as the repercussions are fairly minimal and the praise is forthcoming; when the time comes to own their mistakes and their abusive behaviour, bam, huge meltdown about their poor hurt feelings. Examples abound, I’m sure we’ve all seen it. Hell, I’ve done it myself, though most of you wouldn’t have seen it.
I’m seriously not out to gloat here. That’s the worst thing I could possibly do: point and laugh at how some folks are Bad Allies and I’m better than them. I’m not, of course, and either way it’s not some competition to see how long we can go pretending that we’ve freed ourselves from our upbringing and cultural norms and ideology. But the fact remains that some folks who are “allies” are really bad at it, and that it seems to be a pervasive problem.
I’d like to try and figure out why this is the case, and what structural forces are at work. I’m not interested in moral failings, but when these “failings” start to occur in recognizable and predictable patterns, it becomes obvious that there’s something more going on.
The first thing that strikes me about “ally” and “alliance” is that — if we’re talking about international politics — alliances are, in practice, temporary and opportunistic. They’re rooted in common interests, but as soon as they stop being mutually advantageous, they are dissolved or broken. This is important because in the context of social justice, in the short view, an “alliance” is never advantageous to the “ally”. A man opposing patriarchy is acting against his own material interests in the short term. Long-term, an argument can be made that a future egalitarian society is better for everyone, not just those currently oppressed, for countless reasons — my favourite is that this society would not have assigned me, by accidents of birth and neurology, to a class and an identity predicated on violence and emotional incompetence. (It’s perfectly enough to say that patriarchy is unjust and leave it at that, of course. But the personal is political, and this is my personal stake.)
Being an “ally” is shooting yourself in the foot in the name of either ethical principles, or some benefits in the indeterminate future, most likely not in your lifetime. Let’s not lionize people who make this choice, or sing the praises of their supposed sacrifices: it’s a really fucking stupid choice! It’s counter-intuitive and dubiously rational. In all your interactions with me, please remember that I am a horrible idiot who doesn’t know what’s best for him.
Now, some of us know a lot about self-hate, but it’s absurd to seek a transformative politics based solely on your own self-hate. It cannot be done. In order to reach out to others respectfully and build meaningful relationships — without which we cannot even dream of transforming a society built on alienation — you must also respect yourself. And principles are important, but they won’t carry you all the way, all the time.
My own short-term gain in being an “ally” is the everyday practice of relating to others with kindness, trust and honest criticism, and hoping for them to respond in kind. I really cannot overstate how important this is to me. There came a certain point in my life when I realized that I interacted with everyone around me in a way that was not only egotistic, but frequently coercive, and that these were people I liked or admired or loved, and I didn’t want to do this anymore. I’ve come a long way since then — nowhere near long enough, of course. And you know what? You bet it’s been nothing but beneficial to me. It’s helped me cope with my fucked up brain problems, for one, and encouraged me to try and fix them. It taught me a lot about how to build happy and healthy intimate relationships. I have a continuing incentive to try and act in a feminist manner as much as possible, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s positively impacted my life.
But that’s just me. And really, should anyone besides me even care?
There really isn’t much reason to special-case “allies” and maintain that passionate conviction will overtake structural forces, because that’s just how magical we are. To be consistent in my analysis, I can’t escape the conclusion: that there is absolutely no reason for any woman/member of another oppressed group to trust an “ally”, ever. Every one of us is a walking liability, and there’s no telling when we might wake up one day and decide that ethical principles and a better world for our grandchildren aren’t worth giving up concrete privileges in the here-and-now.
As leftists, of course, we would probably like to think we’re better than this, and not driven by cost-benefit calculations in our relations with friends and comrades. But the thing we have to understand is that this can be a matter of life and death. How many people do you know who self-harm, or have PTSD, or get severe panic attacks? Nobody is fucking born with PTSD. They’ve been hurt before, and they can’t afford to take any risks. Your hurt feelings because someone doesn’t trust you are going to have to take a back seat to their survival.
I’ll get back to this grim stuff in a bit, but first, let’s knock some easy points out of the way. One: creating the special category of “ally” has, I believe, an effect opposite to the intended one. The whole point of asking “can men be feminists” and answering in the negative is to ensure that “feminism”, as a movement and an ideology, remains under the control of women, and works in the best interest of women. Hence the “ally”, to signify that you are helping, but that it’s not about you.
In practice, however, it just seems to make the “allies” more visible as a distinct group, supposedly deserving of special consideration. The term also contains a preemptive disawoval: sure, I’m “allied” with you, but as soon as things start going poorly, I’m gonna be looking out for number one.
Two: “alliance” seems strangely at odds with the radical leftist notion of solidarity. The latter is just a much stronger claim, with much different historical and political connotations; in particular, breaking an alliance might be strategically advisable, but breaking solidarity is always contemptible.
Three: can we talk for a while about the relation of “feminist allies” to other men? Because there’s a word for that relation, and I never see it used: it’s “treason”. You’re breaking ranks with your supposed peer group, and actively working against its interests (male supremacy); surely that’s not too strong a term? But it rarely, if ever, comes up — and is it really a coincidence that when push comes to shove, “allies” are very reluctant to stand against other men?
I’m not interested in moral failings, like I said. The structural pressure here is enormous. But if you didn’t know that when you were signing up for treason, and are finding that out right now and not liking all this structural pressure, what good are you to anyone?
Four: a vaguely related anecdote. In real life, I lean towards calling myself “a feminist” rather than “an ally”, especially since I have to gender that noun anyway in Polish, so it’s a distinct word from a woman calling herself a feminist. But also because I believe that it’s strategically sound: feminism doesn’t really function in Polish culture the way it does in the US or UK, or rather, it’s marginalized much in the same way, but to a far greater extent, so a lot of people will only have heard of it through some crude caricatures or stupid TV shows. And perhaps as importantly, because I shudder at the thought of putting a degree of separation between myself and a set of beliefs that has been, no lie, one of the most important influences in my life.
But! All that said, some two or three years ago, a bunch of Polish “feminist men” signed some sort of open letter declaring that, well, I’m not sure what they were declaring? That it’s very important to congratulate them on being feminist, I guess? Anyway, one of the points, I forget the exact phrasing, went like “We believe that more women in politics will lead to more compassionate and nurturing policies”.
I was like, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Even if you do believe that having more women in the ruling class will somehow improve the living conditions of working class women (spoiler: it won’t, it never does), what a fucking sexist way to phrase it, right? And this from a bunch of journalists and professors and other self-important liberal and “leftist” bigwigs! So that’s why I’m not so sure about calling myself a “feminist man” in public: I’m worried that someone will associate me with that letter and the shitheads who signed it.
So, with all of the above in mind, let’s go back to the worrying part. Is there any use for “allies”?
Well, as people who support a cause contrary to their material interests because they think it’s the right thing to do, probably, yeah. As long as we’re brutally honest with ourselves about what that means, and don’t expect anyone to hold our hands or “support” us. We’re the one doing the supporting, in this instance. As long as we master the art of knowing when to shut up, too, and a bunch of other tricks about not taking up all available physical, emotional and discursive space. You’ve heard it all before; the trick is to put it into practice, and then keep doing it all the time. Especially when you don’t feel like it. And so on, and so forth.
But that’s a lot of ifs and as-longs and oh fuck it let me just say it again: we’re not necessary. The oppressed can free themselves just fine — in fact, only the oppressed can emancipate themselves; history bears this out. So if we’re not necessary, and we still want to help out, we’d best be making double-fucking-sure we’re actually welcome and actually helping.
“Allies” as a concept, and a distinct group, though? Based on experience alone, I’m unconvinced.
Bottom line, though, dudes, whatever you call yourself, just do your thing, don’t turn it into a goddamn personal brand. That way lies Tim Wise. Nobody likes Tim Wise.