Who’s Left/Whose Left?

20 Sep

A few years ago I wrote a fairly angry piece about fellow Lefties who celebrated Thatcher’s death.

I find myself drifting back in that direction again. You see, as a ranty, strident Lefty, you would think all of my ire would be saved for those on the other ‘side.’ You’d be wrong. My biggest problems tend to be with the left. Because ‘we’ claim to be on moral high grounds, we claim to be righteous and progressive, but we seem to abandon our principles whenever it suits us.

Let’s forget Left and Right for a moment. These labels are largely theatre. They’re distractions from the real issues, and badges that people can wear to feel like they belong in a group. I see other key divisions as the issues that really matter in modern politics.

-Inclusion VS. Exclusion.

-Honesty VS. Corruption.

-Equality VS. Exploitation.

-Poverty VS. Shared Wealth.

I want to live in a world that tackles each of these issues. And I still believe that it’s a left-leaning world view that gives the best answers. It’s on the left that we have convincing measures for tackling poverty, it’s on the left that we argue for legislation to help spread equality. It’s on the left that we point out corruption, hypocrisy and exclusion…..as long as it’s being done by the other side.

I’ve come to think that the single-most defining division I see in how we approach politics, is over whether the means justify the ends. There are a great many people, of all political persuasions, who feel that all of the means are negotiable on the way to achieving ends. I don’t get frustrated when I see this in people on the right, because they’re pretty honest about their views. I disagree with almost everything they say, but I know where they stand. On the left? Not so much.

People on the left will likely disagree with some of the items on my list. They may draw a different one, or phrase things differently. All of that is fine, of course. I value a version of the left that is an open, ongoing debate, where we don’t have to pretend to be one homogenous unit. But what’s more troubling to me, is the idea that, whatever the list, it’s made up of things for us to fix in future, when we get to the ends that we’re looking for.

The means are everything. The means are where we live. They are how we treat people in the here and now. Sure, we can talk about trying to create equality in future, but we’re full of shit if we allow that to blind us to people being discriminated against along the way. We can talk about how we can fix corruption once we get into power, but that’s blind to the very nature of corruption, and the deals we make along the way.

We pick and choose when to care about things, and that constantly drives me away from my own “side.”

We have a left that still wants to talk about Bill Clinton as progressive, and chooses to ignore the voices of Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Kathleen Willey. We have a left that will step aside and let Tony Blair into office, for the sake of power,  and then years later lay all of the blame elsewhere and pretend none of us were complicit. We have a left that seems to have unanimously agreed that having a genuine lefty in charge of the Labour party is good enough reason to completely ignore his associations with Holocaust deniers and Anti-Semites (look, to even trot out the idea that he didn’t know means we have to go from thinking he’s happy to stand with Anti-Semites to, instead, thinking he’s an idiot.) We have a Scottish left, increasingly again over the past year, who are willing to look past Tommy Sheridan’s record of misogyny, lying and manipulation, because he wants one of the same things as the rest of us.

For the sake of getting one thing that we want, we will collectively sweep aside all of the other issues, because we’re happy to turn blind eyes, and because we value the ends above the  means.

There’s a regular complaint amongst the left that we have a history of fracturing. That we should just be willing to stand together. I was raised with the same view. It’s such a persuasive idea, that it can be very hard to see through it to the rotten core at the heart of the argument.

Firstly, who is to say that we should all be one thing? That’s a very old-school, tribal view, where there are only two groups in politics, and those of us on the left should all agree to unite, no matter our differences, against the other side. There’s something else buried in there, too. When you hear someone say, “the left should learn to stick together,” take a few seconds to imagine it as, “the left would be better if everyone did things the way I want.” The third problem, the darkest one, comes when the sentiment is used to say people should be willing to overlook some of the nasty behaviour of our ‘own’ people, just because they know the words to the red flag or can give a good speech about social justice.

People who criticised Clinton were (and still are, now that there is a different Clinton in the news cycle) accused of splitting the left. People who complained about the earliest signs of Blairism were accused of splitting the left. People who pointed out the truth about Sheridan were accused of splitting the left. Now, those of us who like to point out the problems with Corbyn are….yes…accused of splitting the left.

How about we start to look at how the bad behaviour of those individuals is what splits the left?

Before the Independence Referendum, I had drifted away from politics. I was so disillusioned with my own ‘side’ that I wanted no part of the process. That point was rammed home when, walking home through Glasgow Green on the night Thatcher died, I saw people letting off fireworks and singing celebratory songs. Because, you know, if we stand for anything on the left, it’s celebrating the death of a human being.  I was pulled back into the process by the inclusive heart of the YES camp.

Teenagers were encouraged to get involved and have opinions. Groups like Radical Independence and Generation Yes were reaching out to areas like Easterhouse, to streets and people who hadn’t seen a politician in thirty years. Women for Independence were fighting to be heard, and succeeding. The Greens were, you know, doing that middle class thing that Greens do. For the first time in my life, I was seeing a movement that was genuinely inclusive. They went to lengths to make sure people who weren’t born in Scotland felt at home in the conversation (the only thing needed to qualify for a vote, was to live in Scotland. Regardless of where you came from. As opposed to the upcoming EU referendum, which is being restricted to people with UK nationality, home and abroad. That’s dirty nationalism, surely?) More importantly, it was a group that was willing to argue back against the involvement of bigots. The one stain I could see was Brian Souttar, who had ties to the SNP, but even he was being called out for his behaviour by the very many other groups making up the campaign. Tommy Sheridan was told he was unwelcome in no uncertain terms.

Finally, I felt like I had a home again, politically.

A year later? I’m drifting away again.

I’m accused of undermining the left for not wanting to support a man who shares platforms with holocaust deniers. My position is starting to seem like being a member of some extreme fringe group. And, while most of the people who were actually involved in the YES campaign are going about the business of trying to make people’s lives better -activists, politicians, artists, going out raising money, doing politics, working with the homeless and the vulnerable- Tommy Sheridan is striding in to fill the apparent void that people see, for a referendum campaign in the absence of a referendum, and he’s starting to gain traction and support again. Coincidentally, there’s a Holyrood election coming up, and he wants to increase the profile of his Monster Raving Liar Party.

Over and over again, we overlook abuses and bigotry in the present, in the name of claiming to care about those same issues for the future.

And I’m getting pretty close to being done with it.



On Trigger Warnings, And Your Bullshit

09 Sep

Okay. I’m here to have a rant today.


I’m sick of seeing think-pieces talking about Trigger Warnings as if they’re some kind of modern plague, or the latest crusade of the “politically correct brigade.” (More on PC in a moment.) And even more sick of seeing people who buy into this then use “Trigger Warning” as a byword for “latest stupid thing” on the facebook and twitter.

The latest round of them can be boiled down to the idea that trigger warnings are killing education, because students are being wrapped in cotton wool. Or something. I don’t know. I’m glad we have Jerry Seinfeld to tell us what to think about the state of college debate, because without a rich 60-something’s opinions, how would we know?

Are College and University campuses becoming too restrictive to ideas and debate? Yes.

This isn’t a new development. I was briefly at University around 1999-2002 and even back then things were becoming to tight, too controlled. The move towards hampering freedom of expression isn’t a single-step dance move, it’s a slow march, and it’s been happening for a long time. Incidentally, it started long before ‘trigger warnings’ became a thing, but back them people didn’t have an easy thing to blame in think pieces.

There’s been a cultural war between ideas and commerce and we’ve been empty at our posts as commerce has been winning. We see different symptoms and tackle them each on their own, without stopping to look at the bigger picture. College campuses don’t want debate because we don’t have a culture that values new ideas, rather, we value people who produce easy money. Colleges, schools and workplaces are becoming very restrictive in terms of what can and can’t be said, because they’re scared of getting sued…which is….about money. Our art, music, books, films, is increasingly becoming one large dumbed-down homogenous thing because…..money. All of the institutions are becoming increasingly risk-averse because they want to stick to what works, because that makes money.

We don’t want to have to think about how complicit we all are in the corporate reshuffle that passes for modern life. So we look for other things to blame.

Suddenly, new health and safety laws are not the fault of the industries who have been too lax for generations, or the ambulance-chasing lawyers who’ve made a quick buck out of exploiting people, no, they’re the fault of the “politically correct brigade” who are unreasonably asking that people be safer than they have been before. The plagues of sexual assault and misogyny are not the fault of rapists, or the culture that normalises sexual violence and objectification in the minds of men, no, the fault lies with the people standing up and trying to talk about ‘rape culture.’

Even the very idea of “political correctness” itself. This phrase has become a common ground between bigots on the right and a certain brand of lefty, as well people in the middle who just like to have a thing to latch on to, as shorthand for “pampered nanny state idiots.” Look, I’m proudly politically correct. I’m also one of the most strident, argumentative and occasionally offensive people you could meet. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. We live in a world where people of different cultures and backgrounds are able to come into contact with each other in new ways every day. Being politically correct is an attempt -an often clumsy attempt- to increase your vocabulary, ideas, and tolerance, to be as inclusive as possible to people from all of these different backgrounds. To be part of the salad bowl, rather than part of the melting pot.

But somewhere along the line, we allowed people to start conflating “politically correct” with “censorship.” It was a good scam, really. Because now the very same bigoted zealots who want to be allowed to tell you what you can do or say or think, or who you can marry or fuck, are now getting you on their side, by telling you that the politically correct brigade are trying to tell you what you say or think, or who you can marry or fuck. It was a sleight of hand so good, that nobody noticed it.

And then PC also becomes a code word for many other things we don’t like. Like overly bureaucratic processes at the workplace or in academia.  “I don’t like that I might get sued for this….” “I don’t like that I’m not being allowed to do this…” Most of which actually, once again, tie back to the corporate risk-averse culture that I mentioned before, where all decisions are about money.

“Offence” is an overused term at the moment. People getting sacked for being “offensive” is wrong. Restrictions on freedom of speech are appalling. Censorship needs to be opposed in all it’s forms. However, yet again, we’re being too easily led to blaming the wrong things. Money is the route behind these things. High profile media figures don’t lose their jobs because some mamby pamby idiots on the left have been offended by what they say. No, they lose their jobs because their corporate masters are afraid of losing money. Hollywood studios aren’t starting to take out things that might be offensive to the Chinese because they’re worried about actually offending anyone, they’re doing it because China is about to become the world’s biggest market for films.  (And by-the-by, people lining up to say Superhero movies will soon fade? Well, first we need to find another genre of such kiddy-friendly, toy-producing PG13 films that can be sold to the Chinese market on the scale of the comic book characters.)

And now we’re doing the same thing to ‘Trigger Warning.’

What people seem to want it to mean, is “boo hoo, poor college students and people on the internet don’t want you to offend them.”  People also seem to think maybe it’s just a general disclaimer, something to signify there are going to be some challenging themes in the material you’re about to read/see/hear.

Look, if college students and people on the internet are scared to encounter offensive ideas, or cussin’, or any depictions of the sex, then fuck ‘em, they’re idiots and that’s a symptom of our risk-averse culture. And the fact that people might need a warning before encountering any challenging themes in their art is, of course, missing the point of art.



That’s not what Trigger Warnings are.

In the best of all worlds, dear bored reader, I hope you never truly have reason to understand what these warnings are for. If you’ve been through a trauma, if something truly horrible has happened to you, mentally or physically, and you have any kind of Post-Traumatic Stress, then any number of things might trigger a memory of that event. And with PTS, it’s not simply a case of remembering the event, it’s reliving it. Physically, mentally, you go through it again. You experience the tastes, the smells, the anxiety. For a brief time, you’re back in that room, or alleyway, or car, or hospital.

Let’s put this in a way that angry white “I’m telling truth to power” internet people might get….you remember that episode of West Wing, where Josh started to relive the experience of getting shot, and was triggered by such innocent things as bells and music? You remember briefly, for that moment, thinking, ‘wow, that must be a horrible thing to go through.’ Okay, now, take that idea, and think not of an actor playing a rich white guy in the White House, with access to the best therapists in the world. Think instead of a young woman who was sexually assaulted and left for dead in an alleyway, and now re-lives that every time a film casually uses rape as a plot device, or when someone touches the back of her neck. Think of the black kid who was chased seven blocks by racists, who then caught him and beat him, while shouting racial slurs, who now re-lives that every time he hears a certain word on television. Think of the little boy, whose childhood was taken from him because he didn’t know at that age that grown men aren’t allowed to do what his uncle did, and how a book or a film might make him relive every single moment that his uncle was with him.

And then think, how little it fucking costs us, and how much it might help them, to put a few short words at the start of our art, or the start of a presentation, or the start of a news article, warning that they might be about to triggered.

And if you think that making that effort is somehow a sign of a nanny state, somehow a sign of weakness, or a bad thing, then fuck right off and do it now.

What Are Labour For?

25 Jul

The current rise of Jeremy Corbyn is exposing a split in the Labour party, but not the one we might initially think. We have been told, and will be told with increasing volume over the coming weeks, that it’s a split between the right and left of the party. There will be talk of fundamentalists trying to hijack Labour, of attempts to make the party unelectable.

That sounds good for soundbites, but doesn’t even begin to touch what’s going on.

There’s also talk of it being a generational divide. But commentators seem completely puzzled as to which generation is the one supporting Corbyn. Some are telling us that it’s the old guard, a forgotten era of the British left trying to take the stage one last time. Others are saying this is very much a crusade of the young, of people who haven’t yet learned cynicism. To my mind, this shows that it’s not a generational divide.

This isn’t about left or right, old or new, Labour or Red Tory.

What we have right now is a conversation about what politics -and a political party- is for. A lot has been written about Tony Blair in the last two decades. (There are still, to my mind, too many people in Labour who are willing to overlook the minor fact that he waged an illegal war and is responsible for countless deaths, simply because they look to him making the party electable.) Most analysis talks of Blair moving the party to the centre ground, away from the ‘hard left,’ and this idea haunts the party still.

The truth is, for all of his faults, there is a very simple reason that Blair made New Labour electable. He was selling hope. Who can forget the scenes, the music, the flags, the sheer elation as the party swept the board in 1997.  Even their theme music, Things Can Only Get Better, spoke of newfound optimism. Hope is the single most potent force in politics. Obama bottled that in 2008 and nobody could stand against him.

When people are voting out of hope, it’s hard to sway them with arguments over facts, figures, or stats. At that point, you simply sound like an accountant. Unless you have a large media empire backing you, of course….

I’m reminded of the referendum campaign last summer. The meetings in George Square, and the rallies in Buchanan Street. The campaign lost, ultimately, but even the most hardened No campaigner recognised that the Yes campaign was the one gaining traction. It was polling around 20% at the start of the campaign, and it reached 45% by September 18th. Better Together, on the other hand, chose to play to a hardcore vote they knew they had. Of people who were not going to enter the debate or budge. It got them across the line, but not by much, and it was increasingly difficult to campaign against Yessers who were simply talking about hope and positivity.

The hope that Blair sold to us was a lie. It opened the door to the modern version of Labour. A party who became state arms dealers. A party that encroached our civil liberties. A party who used the Export Credit Guarantee to usher in all kinds of abuses to innocent people abroad, while sinking them further into unpayable debts. A party that introduced university tuition fees and started the creeping privatisation of the NHS.  A party -built on people power- who challenged it’s own citizens right to free assembly and passed a law demanding that we apply for permission to demonstrate at parliament. Let’s never forget that; the ruling party of the land demanded that we ask their permission to hold them to account, on land that we pay for. The party who, when the banking collapse happened, rushed to throw public money at bailing out banks, under the guise of it being to protect the people, rather than simply bailing out those people. Gordon Brown’s government managed the Tory wet dream of nationalising private losses and privatising public profits. Then they rolled over and allowed the tories to blame them for everything.

So it was a false hope, but it was still potent. Look now at the contenders for the leadership. Look wider than that, at the whole front bench. They talk of right, left or centre. They talk very much of what they can’t do. They speak of cuts and deficits. They abstain on votes rather than standing on principles. Not one of them who wishes to lead the party -and then presumably seek to lead the country- is offering any vision of hope or principle.

The only one offering anything different is Jeremy Corbyn.

I don’t particularly see it in Corbyn either, if i’m honest. Of all the candidates, he’s the one I’m closest to politically. But I have reservations about some of his affiliations and he seems too willing to throw public money at homeopathy. His position on the EU has yet to be questioned in any real depth. If I were a member of Labour, I’d be finding it very difficult to vote for him until or unless he clarified certain things. All of that said, I think he’s becoming a figure that other people can build hope around. Young and old, left or right, Labour and ex-Labour, people are using Corbyn as something of a political Rorschach Test, and putting their own optimism onto him. Because he does at least represent a Labour that stands for things. A labour that fights back against things. A Labour that -shock horror- will vote against children being made to starve, and against invading other countries.

There is a version of the Labour party now that defines itself by whether or not it’s electable, regardless of what needs to be said or done to get there.  And here’s where the divide emerges. On the one hand we have people who want a politics of principle, and politics of getting in the good fight, win or lose, simply because it’s the right thing to do. On the other we have people who have become hardened to the idea that winning is the thing. That getting into power is what matters.

More and more, this latter group talk of the rest of us as if our hope and idealism are bad things. And they don’t seem to notice that this very attitude is a large part of why Labour are bleeding votes. The SNP in Scotland picked up thousands of votes in the election from people who don’t support independence. The Yes campaign itself picked up countless votes from people who started the campaign very much as old-school Labour unionists, but saw only one side offering a positive message. Across Europe, we’re seeing this divide grow. And the media constantly paints it as Lefts Vs. Right, when it’s Hope Vs. Fear.

People are crying out for something to believe in.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that Corbyn is that figure. As I said, there are still too many important questions to be answered. But Labour needs to wake up and embrace this conversation, rather than panicking and wheeling in Tony Blair to speak on the issue, because all that’s going to do is drive people further and further away from the party.

The root of the issue right now is a conversation about what the Labour party is for. They’ve been asking this question of themselves for a long time now, and they keep getting it wrong. They’re running out of chances.