Stop calling it a false flag

[Content note: discussion of Manchester bombing and responses to it.]

It happened again. It took all of ten minutes after I saw news of the Manchester bombing online for some anti-authoritarian dickhead to start musing whether this was a “false flag” engineered by the UK Conservatives in response to Jeremy Corbyn being up in the polls.

It’s very tempting to just type “fuck off” and finish this there, to be honest. But this was already a trope that annoys me – a bad habit the left really didn’t need to pick up from the alt-right. And having seen it a few more times since, and gotten progressively angrier, and then found people getting self-righteously defensive about being called out as conspiracy theorists as they theorise about a conspiracy and gotten even more angry … well, it was write this post or rant some more at my guinea pigs, and they’re way too cute to deserve that.

What frustrates me about the intellectual chin-stroking about “false flags” – besides the extreme callousness it must take to see news of dozens of young people and parents being killed or injured and decide “now’s a great time to show off how politically cynical I am” – is that it makes, or should make, literally no difference to the way we respond to what happened in Manchester, or its political consequences.

The targeted mass murder of teenage girls at a concert is fucking appalling, whoever did it, for whatever reason.

The exploitation of this crime to push a conservative political agenda, to double down on the stigma and bigotry levelled against Muslims and immigrants, is fucking appalling, whoever’s doing it, for whatever reason.

The increased militarization of the police force and constraining of basic civil liberties in the name of “national security” is cynical garbage and must be opposed – whoever’s doing it, for whatever reason.

Let’s say it’s true, though. Say we live in a bizarro alternate universe where Theresa May* actually decided to orchestrate public mass murder to foment xenophobia and hatred in order to inspire voters to re-elect her party.

Are we – lefties, progressives, liberals, pick a label you like the look of – going to be more opposed to those things? Less opposed to those things?

Don’t we stand against violence and bigotry? Don’t we stand for compassion and community? Don’t we see the role of the state as supportive and social, not controlling and run for private interests?

Do not get me wrong, on the 0.00005% chance this was all an orchestrated political play straight out of Glenn Beck’s ghostwriter’s handbook, anyone even vaguely involved should be arrested, prosecuted, and locked up for the rest of their lives, at which point their ashes should be fired into the sun and their names scrubbed from human memory.

But until then? I’m baffled. What purpose does it serve to pontificate about abstract fringe hypotheses when there are parents in Manchester who still don’t know if their kids are okay? What incredibly weird need does it fulfil to play guessing games about “the real cause” of this, or “the real reason” why a repressive social conservative government is acting like a repressive social conservative government? Is it like when you’re watching a detective show and everyone’s trying to be the first who guesses who the killer is? Are you hoping your smug superiority to keep warm after society collapses?

It’s irrelevant intellectual masturbation, comrades, and no one wants to watch it. Let’s stand in solidarity with the people of Manchester, and hold fast against the forces of oppression, and challenge conservatism and xenophobia wherever it treads. Let’s react with love, not hate, because that is exactly what all those who use terror as a weapon do not want.

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*Someone is going to respond to this saying either sincerely or “ironically”, “LOL as though Theresa May would have ordered it herself! MI6 deep state Snowden bitcoin Project Orion” and whoever you are you can sod off.

Werewolf on leftwing misogyny

Two stonkingly good posts over at Werewolf this week – both superficially about the ongoing tantrums of Martyn Bradbury, but more fundamentally about the direction for the left and the role of women within a leftwing movement.

Anne Russell writes on the misogyny at The Daily Blog:

Meanwhile, we need a Left to take care of the sick and wounded; women, people of colour, disabled people, sex workers, the queer and trans community, all those who know that their battles are at the centre of the fight rather than a distraction on the margins. A brilliant article on weareplanc.org about the emotional conditions of capitalism argued that contemporary leftist resistance needs to correspond to capitalism’s current emotional stage: that of making everyone very anxious and overwhelmed. The article argues that the Left, at least internally, has to be kind to its members, offering a haven from the angry and overstimulating world of neo-liberalism-cum-fascism. As I wrote last year, this approach is not incompatible with outward anger against the state, cops, the prison system, corporations or any other oppressive institutions and forces. Rather, it will help replenish our energy to do that work.

And Gordon Campbell the day before said on Labour’s candidacy troubles:

Bomber’s message is the one that women on the left have been hearing since time eternal ie, that they should keep quiet, remain patient until victory is assured, and – in the meantime – make sure their concerns and modes of expression don’t antagonise the heroes of the proletariat. Besides everything else, this looks like a failure of imagination. Is the Winston Wing of Labour’s support base – those heroic, hand-calloused members of the white working class that Bomber Bradbury and Chris Trotter always bang on about – really so immune to policy arguments pitched any higher than Greg O’Connor’s face on a campaign billboard, or Willie Jackson on the mike?

Martyn, who among his many well-nourished enmities has a strange grudge against Werewolf’s antecedent Scoop, will see these two posts (and this one) as proof of some grand conspiracy against him by the BlueGreenSocialMediaMillennialHipsterIdentityPolitics Stormtroopers. Doesn’t stop them being bang on the money, and doesn’t mean the broader problems they describe aren’t very real obstacles to real progressive change in New Zealand.

[edit: called it. It’s apt that Martyn describes Gordon Campbell as a “purveyor of violent sexual abuse revenge fantasies” even though it was Anne Russell who mentioned the case of Mervyn Thompson. Obviously women can’t have their own opinions in the absence of a man.]

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

On Trump

Similarities to any previous posts are entirely coincidental.

I was discussing Brexit Trump with a group of Wellington lefties last night over a few craft beers* and was dismayed to hear some of them applying the analysis that it was the result of the masses acting out of uneducated racism.

That’s an analysis that’s not just wrong, and a little classist, but – if it is the final analysis social democratic organisations fall back on – extremely dangerous.

With the Brexit referendum Trump the US Government foolishly gave the nation the opportunity to raise a middle finger to a political and financial establishment that they have been systematically estranged from. And the nation took that opportunity.

Much as they took a similar opportunity when they voted Corbyn in as Labour leader, and much as their brethren across the Atlantic did in voting up Trump as a candidate and in getting a septuagenarian socialist within cooee of taking the Democratic candidacy.

In a smaller way there was an element of that reaction against the establishment in the election of the last two Labour leaders here in New Zealand – neither of whom were caucus’ first choice.

These are lessons it’s important for the establishment to learn. Particularly the social democratic establishment. Representative democracy fails to maintain legitimacy when it is no longer representative of the people. And in an interconnected world in which the most successful businesses and movements are those that give voice to their customers and members, the insular paternalistic liberalism of late 20th century social democracy no longer provides enough sense of such voice.

The Brexit failure of David Cameron notwithstanding, the right have generally adapted better to this new electoral environment, perhaps because it reflects an atomised and individualised customer environment they have been dealing with through business for some time, perhaps because they take a more cynical and expedient approach to politics than your average wonky lefty.

The danger is that by not taking this lesson on board, and instead dismissing the electorate as ignorant or racist, social democratic organisations in particular would move further away from their traditional base and cede even more ground to the right. Because people can sense when you don’t like them and they don’t support people who don’t like them.

An even more dangerous situation would be these organisations mistaking the symptoms – anti-immigration and other reactionary positions – for the cause and trying to regain currency by triangulating these positions. That would be a serious error – the electorate is extremely clever, not in a delving-into-debate-about-policy-detail way (really, who has the luxury of time for that kind of thing?), but in their ability to recognise when people are being inauthentic. And there are few things as inauthentic as a triangulating social democrat.

A much better reaction to Brexit Trump and to what is clearly now appears to be a wave of anti-establishment reaction across western democracies, would be for social democratic political parties to look for ways to reengage with the electorate, and particularly the working class, on progressive issues.

That means seeing the parliamentary left not as leaders of the debate but as an equal part of a broader progressive movement. It means giving more authority to rank and file party members (it’s no coincidence that people joined NZ Labour and UK Labour in droves when they had a meaningful opportunity to make a choice of leader), it means working alongside democratic organisations like unions and NGOs as a parliamentary cog of the progressive movement rather than acting as defacto leaders of it.

Ultimately it means acknowledging that representing people in the 21st century means opening the doors to them, not just “looking after” them from within the inner sanctum. That shift was what Corbyn was signalling when he let the people have his parliamentary questions to Cameron, it’s what Sanders was showing with his mass rallies and campaign advertising focused on other people’s stories, and it’s what has worked best for New Zealand Labour when they have done it.

Even in opposition, social democratic parties and non-parliamentary organisations have incredible opportunities to make change. If there’s one thing they should learn from Brexit Trump it’s that they need to work with the electorate as equals to do it. That’s how you re-engage people, and it’s how you build the trust that allows them to feel you are fit to lead on their behalf.

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*there you go, Paddy.