Identity, The Left, and Never “Woke” At All

Identity

I think I can quite honestly say that I have never had a political awakening.

As far back as October, 1960, when Richard Nixon was still leading John Kennedy in the polls, I could cite chapter and verse of my dad’s trade union socialist credo when called upon to do so.

At a large Thanksgiving gathering in our tiny house in the poorest neighborhood of Canada’s biggest, grimiest, most heavily-polluted industrial town, my father pushed my 9-year-old self to explain to our guests what was at stake in the upcoming US election.

I launched into a tirade that held that the Republicans were the rich man’s party and that the rich men of this world wanted to take back everything that my father and his union forebears had won for the “working man”. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the “working man” and would defend us and the “negroes”, our natural brothers in the struggle, against the efforts of the rich Republicans to keep us in our places.

That is what I remember most clearly about that somewhat embarrassing display.

My father went on to ask me questions about the characters of Nixon and Kennedy– neither one was a good man, and Kennedy was the spoiled son of a wealthy mafia-connected millionaire thief. So I  was also asked to explain that socialism was the best system, in theory, but since it had never been, and likely never would be, given the opportunity to work out in the real world we had to settle for people like Kennedy and the Democratic party.

When one of the men asked me about Canadian politics, I told him that the Progressive-Conservatives and the Liberals were more or less the same as the Republicans and that the New Democratic Party was the party of the unions and the “working man”.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I understood just how deeply alienated my father was from his family and from most of the people who’d politely listened to my harangue.

I also understood how much my mother hated my father’s politics and his “unrealistic” attachment to his union, first and foremost due to his having turned down the offer of a foreman’s job because it would have meant becoming a “company man”. (To my mother it would have meant more money and getting out of debt.) But there was also how angry everyone became when my father started going on about “the working man” after a bottle (or a dozen bottles) of beer.

Where we spent many weekends, and sometimes even weeks, during summers was on the banks of the Grand River, some 30 miles outside Hamilton, where my father’s mother had a one-room cottage built next to her older sister’s “house”. On “our” stretch of the river there were five small cottages, four like my nan’s that were occupied only from spring till autumn, and my great-aunt’s permanent home which it always frightened me to enter. Our nan’s place was in the middle of the five.

On the far side of Aunt Nell’s house was a cottage that was often rented to a black couple from Buffalo, New York. On the far side of my uncle’s cottage was a cottage owned by a family from Welland, Ontario, who were often joined by a family from Buffalo, New York, especially on American holiday weekends.

Two things have stayed in my mind about the people from Welland and Buffalo in that cottage: first, Susie, a girl my own age from Buffalo, was my first serious and seriously painful “crush”; secondly, they all, Canadians and Americans alike,  hated the black couple in the cottage at the other end of our strip and resented my father for constantly wandering over to have a chat with the man and for sending my brother and I over with gifts of freshly caught catfish. My father told me that black people ate catfish even though we didn’t and we shouldn’t let them go to waste.

My father eventually lost his steward’s position in his local and became disillusioned with  the refusal of his generation to commit to the union movement, but not before he went up against the leadership by using union funds to charter a bus and take a load of Canadian machinists to Washington, DC to attend the March on Washington in 1963. I don’t think my mother had any idea where he had gone and we all only heard about it when he got back.

In those years, I loved to sit with my father while we watched the news and pepper him with questions. In memory, the early 60s was a time of heightened possibilities all round: Tommy Douglas leading the federal NDP, the Kennedy administration, the Civil Rights movement, my beloved Tiger Cats constantly in the Grey Cup and, of course, Cassius Clay. I have a distinct recollection of my father actually getting me out of bed to watch news clips of him winning gold as a light-heavyweight in Rome, but that might not be quite right.

Nevertheless, by 1966 my father and I had drifted so far apart that we hardly ever spoke at all, and the only thing we held in common was a respect verging on reverence for Muhammad Ali, so even though the longer my hair got the more I disliked boxing as a sport, I would sit silently in the living room with my equally silent dad and watch Ali fight. Maybe that’s why the boxing matches I remember best are those Ali fought against Canadian George Chuvalo and England’s Henry Cooper.

When Ali refused to go to Vietnam and either did or did not say the famous lines about the Viet Cong, my father and I had our last shared moment of political solidarity. And when I whooped and praised the American runners for making the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics a silence descended between us that would not be broached for a decade.

The grandmother, my nan, whose cottage on the Grand was the site of so many treasured and not-so memories from my earliest days, came to Canada on an “assisted passage” in 1910 at the age of 12 and went to work immediately in a cotton mill to begin to pay off the half of her ticket cost that her older sisters had not been able (or willing?) to afford. When the government inspectors came into the mill looking for evidence of child labour, my nan was hidden along with the other children somewhere in the machinery.

Her husband died on the loading dock at Eatons in Hamilton when my father was sixteen years old and dreaming of becoming an engineer. He quit high school to work in a factory to support his mother and older brother and sister, neither of whom was prepared to do so.

My mother worked in a cotton mill until I was five and my brother two. Her mother had died of cancer when she was 16 and her father was in England wooing the woman who would come home to Canada with him as my mother’s step-mother. This made her so angry that she left home and  I never really knew I had a grandfather until I was twelve years old.

I grew up across the street from another cotton mill, falling asleep every night for the first 6 years of my life to the humming of the spinning machines and often wondering how it was that my mother worked in a spinning mill but not the one behind the Frost fence across the street from our house.

The point of all this is to suggest that whether or not it seems either likely or possible to contemporary “identitarians”, I was raised anti-racist and have remained anti-racist to this day.

I don’t suffer from “white liberal guilt”, as is often charged by racists (usually attempting to deflect an accusation of racism by me), and neither do I feel the need to temper either my thought processes or my way of expressing myself, as is often demanded by the avatars of the “political correctness” that I myself helped formulate in the early  80s as a campus “activist” involved in various aspects of “left politics” as they manifested at that time.

I come from a solidly (and unusually consciously) working-class background, have been one kind or another of socialist-lefty-radical since I was too young for that to mean anything and I have never had a moment’s regret or doubt about either element of what I suppose I would have to say is my identity. There are many other aspects of that identity but those are what you might call foundational.

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Brasilia on the Chao Phraya: Same Same but Different

As has become apparent to all but the most dedicated right-wing neoliberals, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil is in all essentials a coup.

In a nation whose political system is rife with corruption from bottom to top, there is something almost amusing about a po-faced left-wing bureaucrat like Rousseff, who is quite possibly one of the few incorrupt actors in the farce, being removed from office for corruption by the votes of corrupt senators and deputies on the recommendation of corrupt judges.

Anyone who pays attention to Thai politics will be familiar with the notion of the corrupt removing the corrupt from office on charges of corruption. Also familiar will be an opposition which has proved itself utterly incapable of winning at the polls stirring up street protests with the assistance of a mendacious media in order to create the appearance of a popular uprising against a sitting government. And then there is the willing involvement of elements of the judiciary in support of the coup.

Rousseff, like Yingluck Shinawatra, was the first woman to hold her country’s highest office and both women have undergone impeachment by their respective parliaments.

But at that point, the differences become more significant than the similarities.

The women themselves could hardly be more different. Whereas Rousseff entered office at 64 after a lifetime of political involvement, which included 3 years spent in prison on charges related to her activities as a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla, Yingluck was elected at age 44 as her brother’s stand-in after 20 years working as an executive in companies connected to her brother’s communications empire.

While it could be argued that the flatly uncharismatic Rousseff could not have been elected without the support of Ignacio Lula, whose chief of staff she was for 5 years, her political bona fides are all her own. She was a founding member of the Democratic Labor party, a left-wing social democratic party. And while she has clearly migrated rightward over the years, which is one of the reasons she has lost popularity with her party’s voters, she has been involved for decades in ideological politics.

The inexperienced Yingluck proved surprisingly adequate as a Prime Minister and her obvious beauty and apparent kindness inspired devotion in a good many Thais. Like the party she represented, however, she has no ideology to speak of. “Populist” is a label that gets thrown around in relation to all the Thaksinite parties that have dominated electoral politics in Thailand for the past 15 years, but an electoral technique is not an ideology.

And for all intents and purposes, that is why ultimately there is very little significance in the superficial similarities between the recent series of military and judicial coups in Thailand and the quasi-constitutional “coup” in Brazil.

Brazil, in spite of the weaknesses of its democratic institutions, has a political system wherein parties of the left contest with parties of the center and parties of the right for control of the presidency and the houses of congress. Since the military was forced out of power in 1985, Brazilian politics have been chaotic and deeply corrupt but what you see is what you get.

As in all contemporary democracies, money talks, and the Brazilian media is far more concentrated and biased than its Thai equivalent, but there is no “deep state” in Brazil. To the extent that it is possible anywhere in these neoliberal, “globalized” times, the Brazilian government actually governs.

The Thai system is not at all similar to this. In many ways, electoral politics is little more than an intra-elite competition over control of great chunks of the national budget and the graft generated as that budget is dispensed. Vast bureaucracies, none vaster than the military, operate as independent fiefdoms, sometimes cooperating and often opposing whatever party or coalition is “in power” at any given time.

Whenever a parliamentary force rises up to challenge the elements of this state within a state, there is a coup. In recent years, judicial approaches to coups have been experimented with but ultimately it is the “Thai way” to have the generals move to the foreground when an elected government threatens to become powerful enough to threaten the real power in the land.

When the dust clears in Brazil, there will still be labor unions and associations of the poor standing behind a left-wing party that will stand for elections, no matter how many individuals are tainted by the corruption scandals presently unfolding.

In Thailand, if the military government succeeds in its bid to remove significant portions of the Shinawatra family’s extended phuak from politics, there will be the usual jumble of political parties built around one man’s wealth or a small cadre of ex-generals or a regional godfather to contest for the chimera of government that is the elected parliament.

Ordinary Thais have yet to find real political representation in their genuine desire for democratic governance. NGOs and “civil society” tend to lean right and support anti-democratic forces that would keep the populace in a constant state of dependency. Unions, when they do not also support the right, are almost completely powerless. There is no political representation on the left. More importantly, there is apparently no one who actually supports even the basics of liberal democracy.

And that is very different from the situation in Brazil.