Sunday reads

A few pieces that caught my eye this week.

Mark Brown: If you’re asking ‘What real poor person could be at Glastonbury?’ you’ve never been poor

Culture makes your world bigger. Beauty makes your world bigger. A night out, a cream cake, a trip to the cinema, a something that is yours and yours alone. Having things you love now makes it easier to live in a world that tells you it doesn’t love you. They make the days differ from each other. They make you feel alive. Being poor is a struggle to feel alive, to feel part of the world and all of the things it has to offer.

When you are poor you feel you are continually trying to steal and get ownership of culture that you can’t quite afford, knowing that eventually you’ll have to go back to where you came from and to the struggles you face. You have to blag and graft and save and sneak into culture when you’re poor. It takes years to feel like you have any right. You can never quite afford it but you do it anyway because otherwise is a kind of death. You scrimp, you save you blow your money because if you don’t you are only what they say you are: an animal that just eats and shits and wants only a place to sleep.

Katelyn Burns: The Strange, Sad Case Of Laci Green — Feminist Hero Turned Anti-Feminist Defender

[Content note: discussion of online harassment, trolling, misogyny, transmisogyny]

… that someone so influential in the progressive online space could make such a complete 180 has shaken the social justice community to its core. How could a defender of equality change so much, so quickly? And what does it mean for those who had come to trust Green’s safe space online?

The answers to these questions are chillingly incomplete — and raise questions anew about the safety of online spaces for those who routinely face harassment.

Katelyn is also well worth a follow on Twitter.

 

Stop letting the side down with your fat hate

This post has been knocking around in my head for a while but it’s timely after another round of The Great Liberal Fat-Hating Sugar Tax “Debate” has played out on the leftwing blogosphere.

There’s always an outcry when the phrase “fat hatred” gets used. “How dare you imply I hate fat people!” they say. “I’m just talking about the public health issues caused by obesity.”

You don’t hate fat people. And homophobic cake bakers in the US don’t hate gay people, they just want them to stop being gay in public (or anywhere else). And the boss who won’t hire women doesn’t hate women, he’s just making a rational financial choice because women just go off to have babies. The Tories don’t hate people on benefits, they’re just cynically appealing to their base by putting vulnerable people through a meatgrinder.

If you are a liberal, a left winger, or anyone who claims to oppose social injustice, you know damn well that oppression isn’t as black-and-white as someone literally nailing a “No Fatties” sign on the wall. If you’ve read so much as a Wikipedia summary of any historic human rights struggle, you know damn well “it’s science” is a well-trodden path to justifying systemic abuse and violence.

So stop clutching your pearls when people point out – in far more reasonable language than I will manage – that the demeaning, arrogant way you talk about fat people and your smarmy, paternalistic “solutions” to the problem of fat people existing is 100% hateful, oppressive, and contemptible.

Not because what you’re doing literally harms people by contributing to stigma which denies them access to jobs, homes, food or freedom. Not because you should recognise that fat people, including Those Awful Fat People Who Deliberately Make Bad Choices, are human beings with minds and autonomy.

Do it because when you hate on fat people, and when you pontificate about the virtue of denying them access to “bad” food, you are harming the movement. Put perfectly by Anna Mollow at Food, Fatness and Fitness:

The key to success, we are told, is to make “healthy choices.” Eat more kale! Cut back on carbs! These imperatives uphold two closely related ideologies: neoliberalism and fatphobia. Most of us on the Left know that rhetoric about individual choice is frequently used to support neoliberalism; by claiming that individuals have the power to shape their own destinies, defenders of the current social and economic order foreclose critiques of systemic injustice. Since false claims about the power of individual choice animate both neoliberal and anti-fat ideologies, one might expect the Left to have mounted a strenuous critique of fatphobia. But unfortunately, this has not been the case.

These are facts. A person’s weight is significantly controlled by genetics. Having a fat body is linked to but does not cause some health conditions the exact way sex, height and ethnicity are “linked” to different health conditions and risk factors. Diet and exercise do not explain why people get fat, and do not make naturally fat people thin. The diet industry is worth billions, and the companies who make money selling weight-loss plans and drugs which don’t work are doing exactly the kind of dodgy studies we get up in arms about when Coke commissions them.

There are serious health problems in our country. Actual diseases caused by substandard housing, actual illnesses made worse by a lack of varied food (where added sugar is a concern, but here’s the amazing irony: that’s because we decided too much fat made people fat so we got rid of all the fat in foods which made them taste awful!) We have actual epidemics of preventable diseases and we have too many families in our community who cannot afford a full load of groceries, or even the time to Just Grow Their Own Vegetables in the garden they don’t have because they’re living in their goddamned car.

Imposing a sugar tax fixes none of these. I hear your objection – “we want to do other stuff too!” – but you need to understand that none of that other stuff is happening. And it will never happen as long as you, the well-meaning liberals who just want to help the stupid poor people make better choices, continue to buy, believe, repeat and promote a fundamentally neoliberal ideology about fat people, food, and health.

Stop using rightwing memes to justify hatred. Stop saying “we must punish the fat people in order to save them”. Do something to actually make a difference in people’s lives: challenging the judgemental status quo, promoting real progressive ideas, building true solidarity against our capitalist oppressors and changing the damn world.

Make the bludgers pay their fair share

Few things in this world make me eyeroll as strongly as the quibblers who jump up whenever you point out the discrepancy between the amount of money lost to benefit fraud – which our government pursues like a greyhound hopped up on E – and the amount lost to tax evasion – which isn’t nearly such a big deal, unless you’re a tradie, in which case you get doomsday language like “HIDDEN ECONOMY” slapped on you.

“But it’s different!” the quibblers cry. “Tax evasion is legal!”

As though “legal” is the same as “ethical”.

As though this doesn’t just prove how strongly the system is rigged – as though the loopholes aren’t there for a reason. As though the grey areas just evolved naturally.

As though all those just-legal-enough mechanisms are coincidentally only accessible to the people who are already wealthy.

As though the way we talk about tax and welfare aren’t designed to make this all seem okay.

That’s why I got a bit cheeky in the title of this post. When you saw it, who did you think I was talking about? Who do we usually frame as “bludgers”, and who do we usually assume isn’t paying their “fair share”? When politicians talk about people “taking responsibility”, do they mean the people with money? Or the people without?

Here’s the radical idea. Tax isn’t a burden. It’s one of the contributions we all make (yes, including people on state benefits) towards maintaining our society. Towards having strong infrastructure and free healthcare and education and a social safety net for people who need it.

The right like to scream and moan about the wealthiest 15% paying 75% of taxes – but it’s rubbish. What they love to avoid mentioning is that 1% of people in this country own 16% of everything while 50% of people own 5% – and they’d die before acknowledging that the 50% are the ones doing the actual work, while the 1% drain off the profits like leeches.

When it comes to lamenting the poor little rich boy who has to pay tax, there’s plenty of numbers and statistics to justify the status quo. When you ask the government how many kids they are letting go hungry because there aren’t enough jobs for their parents, and the jobs that do exist are paid poverty wages – oh no, that’s too difficult to measure, they say, we can’t do anything about that.

The truth is this. The rich aren’t paying their fair share to keep our country running. And even if they stopped using their wealth and power to dodge the spirit of tax law, if not the letter, they still wouldn’t be paying their fair share, because the tax system has been set up to benefit them.

This is a conversation the left desperately need to stop running away from, especially if we keep letting the first question for any progressive policy be “but what will it cost?”

Let’s just stand up and say it. Yes. It will cost a hell of a lot to institute a universal basic income, or raise benefits to a survivable level, or rebuild our health system. But we won’t be paying for it – those dickheads over there, who have been bludging off other people’s hard work and living the high life through fancy accounting tricks will. Because for too long they’ve dodged paying their fair share and it’s time they took some responsibility.

Let’s stop the bludging. The filthy rich have spent decades stockpiling the wealth other people worked to create, exploiting our country’s social support systems to enrich themselves. It’s their turn to pay the price for a strong, healthy democratic society. They won’t be impoverished by having to sell off one of their yachts or settling for just two investment properties. And they’ll benefit, as they always have done, from being able to do business in a country of healthy, educated, happy, productive people.

It’s really that easy. We just have to change the conversation.

Building a mass movement

[Content note: mentions of transphobia, sexual violence and violence against people of colour]

This was a line of thought which fell out of yesterday’s post, but that was getting quite long enough.

The article I quoted from, with its laundry list of stupid, trivial, oversensitive, left-destroying complaints, went on to lament that we’re not building a “mass movement” on the left. It’s a common question: post the glory days of compulsory unionism, how do we get thousands of people to march on Parliament and demand social change?

I have a question in response, though. How on earth do you folks expect to build a mass movement when you insist on ignoring – or not just ignoring, deliberately rejecting – issues faced by the majority of people in society?

“But we’re not!” they protest. “We just want to focus on things that really matter, material issues!”

As I’ve blogged about a lot previously, there are two problems with this “analysis”.

In no particular order, the first is that many of these “symbolic or linguistic” issues do really matter. It does really matter to trans people that they can be outed by airport security scanners, and that their bodies are publicly described as “anomalies” when it happens. The choice is: Travel, and be outed. Travel at the expense of being physically assaulted by strangers. Or refuse to travel, and lose your job or never see your family or go to Disneyland or do a hundred other things which cis people would consider “living a normal life”.

It does really matter to people of colour that ingrained, unconscious attitudes affect whether or not they get shot walking through their own neighbourhoods or arrested entering their own house.

It does really matter to women that society reduces us to sexual objects and promotes attitudes which allow our rapists or abusers to walk free – and to have those attitudes reinforced in a hundred different ways every day.

The second problem is that identity is a material issue. The labour of women and people of colour is undervalued – deliberately. Queer and trans people are marginalized in order to reinforce capitalist norms about heterosexuality and child-rearing.

Karl Marx and Friedrich bloody Engels had this stuff figured out.

And to get personal for an instant? When high-profile leftwing men call me crazy or irrational, or stroke their chins musing whether I’m a liability to the organisation I work for, damn straight sexism is a material issue for me.

Class is an identity. Identity is inextricable from class. The working class in New Zealand isn’t just a row of white dudes in cloth caps any more. It’s Pasifika women cleaning office buildings on the graveyard shift and Maori men and women in the meatworks and young people on zero-hour contracts at fast-food restaurants.

We have to treat them – and everyone else – as people. People with lives and families and interests and needs. Not just “workers” whose existence begins and ends at the shop door.

It’s not easy. But what should be easy, for people who are committed to fairness and justice and who can see that the imbalances of power in our society have to be overturned, is to be aware of the fact that life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t a one-dimensional foe. And if we’re open-minded to change and willing to acknowledge we’re not perfect and have plenty to learn, maybe people will start to see the left as a relevant political project again.

If that isn’t step one in building a mass movement, I don’t know what is.

 

I’ll drop identity politics when you present a solution

Life isn’t simple. Capitalism isn’t simple. And the ways we talk about oppression aren’t simple. Yet several times this week (this month, this year, this lifetime) I’ve seen concepts about identity and sexism and racism boiled down to practically nothing, by people who should know better.

Like trying to shut down a conversation about people of colour Anglicizing their names to succeed in white society – by co-opting trans activists’ arguments about name and identity. Forget the very real threat of violence or trauma which is posed by deadnaming trans people – it all boiled down to “it’s impolite”.

We don’t call trans people by their names because Miss Manners advised that it wasn’t proper. We do it because people’s lives are literally at stake.

Then there was this list presented as an exemplar of claims made by those of us on the left who stand for social justice issues.

Claims that doing yoga is impermissible cultural appropriation, arguments that we should drop phrases like “I see what you mean” because they’re ableist, the assumption that linking to Tweets constitutes violence but harassing and degrading people to the point of suicide is noble activism, filing Title IX claims against people for writing essays in major magazines, allowing your position to become synonymous with attacks on the right to free expression, claiming that you can fight capitalism and the state with hashtags — this is the behavior of a movement that cannot win. We cannot win that way.

Do some people say “all yoga is racist” or “all Twitter replies are abuse”? Probably. There are extremists, opportunists and downright silly people in every movement. And there are always people who don’t want to or can’t discuss these issues in a nuanced way.

But you know who else doesn’t get nuance? You on the left, who keep misrepresenting complex discussions about imperialism, commodification and global capitalism – when it applies to women or people of colour, at least – into “you’re ruining the left with your stupid over-sensitive demands.”

It’s bizarre to see otherwise intelligent/thoughtful/analytical people suddenly forgetting how to think. It’s like the spectre of “no white man can EVER criticise a black woman!” which gets raised every single time a white man is asked not to be horribly racist. There’s an absolute refusal to read past the headline and consider another perspective.

But let’s play that game. Let’s drop those trifling ~identity~ concerns like “is my labour undervalued because of my gender” or “am I at higher risk of physical violence because of how I look”. There’s a bigger failure here. Every time this “the left has lost its way because someone asked me not to be casually sexist at them” argument is raised, the lament is the same: we can’t win that way! We need to win!

And what’s missing, every time, is how you think we can win.

We hear a lot about finding out what people are comfortable with – meeting them where they are – but not what that actually entails in terms of strategy or tactics.

We hear that this approach won’t involve sacrificing our core principles – but never which principles you actually think are core.

I’m happy to talk about possible solutions, new strategies, different ways of doing things. I blog about Big Serious Sexy Material Politics all the time. But I don’t see new ideas coming from the complainers. I see a bunch of people in privileged positions whining that less-privileged people would like us to stop trampling them underfoot while we pursue The Great Leftwing Project.

I’m not stupid. I’m well aware that a lot of (but not all) political progress can only be made through electoral success. (Everyone is. Stop being a patronizing douche about it.) But the only suggestion I ever see from the centrists, from the white dudes, from the hand-wringing old guard, is: “shut up, you don’t understand that we just need to win, okay?” And then we keep chasing the centre and losing elections.

The way we’ve always done things isn’t working, chaps. So besides complaining about the fact it’s 2016 and the world has moved on from your comfort zone, what exactly do you propose doing?

You might want to talk about rebuilding the mass movement of the left. Let’s have a chat about that in tomorrow’s post.