Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Say You Want An Evolution

Apathy Jack writes:

Alright, just because I've been discussing this issue with a surprising number of people in the last week:

Activism.

Back in The Day I was a student activist - I organised marches, painted banners and blanketed lecture theatres with pamphlets extolling the virtues of whatever the issue du jour was. I yelled through megaphones, charged police lines and broke into buildings I didn't have any particular business being in.

In terms of what it was like belonging to a group passionately fighting for the betterment of society, I'll defer to Alexei Sayle, who writes about this in his short story Big Headed Cartoon Animals, and puts it far better than I could:

His job was deputy director of a London-based charity called Libertaid which concerned itself with the care and resettlement of victims of torture and imprisonment from all over Latin America. It was a very good cause and like all organisations whose sole purpose was trying to do undiluted good Libertaid was torn with the most violent internal feuds, bitter, poisonous rivalries and corrosive, internecine hatred. Pete sometimes wondered if in organisations devoted solely to the spread of terrible evil: the Waffen SS say, or the Ukrainian Mafia or the Bosch Domestic Appliances Repairs Department, if there wasn't within these groups an atmosphere of mutual loving support within the boundaries of a caring, sharing environment. There was probably nothing one Serb sniper wouldn't do for another Serb sniper, they probably spent a lot of time in the trenches donating sperm and kidneys to each other and letting their wives use their wombs for surrogate children.

There was none of that in Libertaid: it was more than your cojones were worth to ask somebody to pass you a pencil. In Libertaid, amongst others there was the feud between the volunteers and the full time staff and there was the feud between the lesbians with the full cavalry moustaches and the lesbians with lipstick, high heels and the leather micro skirts.

The Left (capitalised because it is used here as nomenclature for a specific group) saw long friendships ended over the difference between Marxism and Leninism. Many of my friends came along to meetings of the activist group I belonged to, wanting to make a difference and help fight for the common student, and left after one meeting when all they saw was us arguing about things they saw as being entirely pointless (which, of course, seemed earth-shatteringly important to us, as anyone who has been involved in politics will understand).

The Right, on the other hand, could be found sitting at the same table in the student bar most nights getting along like a state house on fire. Certainly, most of them hated each other as well, but when it came to the important things, like political campaigns or drinking, they were all on the same page.

And if anyone has noticed that I find it easier to take potshots at the Left than The Right, well, this is because the above-mentioned factionalism spilled over into how a great many of the activists treated me.

Some of my family were members of the Act Party, and I hung out in the aforementioned student bar. This meant that my loyalty to the campaigns of The Left was constantly questioned and I was seen as being untrustworthy by a lot of the people I was volunteering to help.


full-time occupation
Originally uploaded by Brain Stab.

I remember once being part of a commando raid that broke into the Registry building ten minutes before a Left-sanctioned group was scheduled to do so. Our lot got in by removing screws from doors sneaking around and surprising the officer at a relatively unguarded entrance. After this, one of the main Lefties du jour tore strips of me (as a supposed representative of the commando group) for compromising the Left's plan, which had been a month in the making.

To whit: We had spent a month saying to each other "Okay, if we run towards the police line in front of the locked front door, some of us might get through."

Exactly how we ruined that piece of genius was never clearly explained to me. Hell, to this day I remember the cheer that went up when the Left-led march came into sight and the proles saw us leaning out the windows. Given that our objective was to whip up fervor in our favour, it didn't sound like failure to me.

(I've recently been told that such reminiscences make me sound angry at these memories. Honestly, I was angry while it was happening, but that was many years ago. I'm just pointing out that it was what it was.)

However, The Right never questioned my association with The Left. They knew that I disagreed with them on a lot of things, but they also knew that I should be judged on the standard of company I provided, not who my other friends (or even worse, my family) were.

It was this sort of thing that led to the downfall of The Left during my time. When I left Uni, The Right was firmly in charge. (I know that these things go in cycles - or should I say; revolutions. No, you're right, I probably shouldn't...) The Right controlled the Students' Association, and Voluntary Unionism had just been passed (if you don't know what that is, then you're lucky because it's very boring and pointless, but it was a sign of a weak left wing presence).

All of this has led to a lot of good memories - raids, hijackings, midnight television in the Quad, the Army of Darkness in general (and if you have to ask, you'll never know...). But it has also resulted in a lot of bad - being called a traitor because of how my brother voted, watching people lie cheat and steal in the name of fairness, having a large chunks of my idealism beaten out of me when all I wanted to do was help people.

Meh.

Anyhoo, I haven't been an activist of any stripe for many a year - partly but not entirely because of my efforts and experiences at University.

However, in town last Sunday, I saw a pack of filthy punks of my acquaintance wandering down the road, and I remembered that the May Day march was on. Because activism has been on my mind of late, I went to check it out.

There were about a hundred people gathered, but if I remember my own time in marches, the organisers would clam five times that number to the press.

I didn't recognise many people there - A QPEC bloke that has come and rabble-roused for my school's hideously corrupt chapter of the ppta; one of the Oostermans (I occasionally have difficulty telling them apart, but I imagine it was Simon - recently making court appearances/political statements in red Abu Ghraib-esque prison robes and stark bollock naked respectively); a smattering of tiny little punks that I recognised as frequenters of the punk place down the road from my flat; the granddaughter of the million-year old Worker's Party guy who was around Auckland Uni until he died (if you were there, you know who I mean). The only representation from an actual political party came from the smattering of people somewhat desperately shoveling armloads of Alliance pamphlets into the arms of passersby.

I arrived halfway through a speech by the anti-Metrowater group Water Pressure. This march had been advertised as being about workers' rights, with a sub-theme of defending the right to protest after an anti-war march was violently broken up a while back. I don't remember water being mentioned on the posters, but I do remember the last protest I went to: An anti-GE rally where the speakers passionately argued for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestine, a raise in the minimum wage, and, yes, for people to fight against Metrowater - anything except the issue of genetically engineered crops which had actually gotten ten thousand people mobilised down Queen Street.

Their representative was telling the sad story of a man who couldn't pay his water bill. When he told Metrowater this, they suggested that he, y'know, use less water. What his response to this was seemed a little unclear, but the police had to be called, so now Water Pressure are boycotting the New Zealand justice system.

Maybe it's the capitalist in me, or maybe I'm just more tired of fighting than I realised, but the water company's suggestion seemed pretty logical to me. Sure, I agree that rates are too expensive, but when the pipes rust and need maintenance, I don't envision this pack of megaphone jockeys digging up the roads and fixing them free of charge...

As they set off, I considered marching along with them for old time's sake. But frankly, they were slightly embarrassing. There just weren't that many of them, and most of them were pointedly ignoring any speaker other than the representatives from their own groups - I'm pretty sure less than half of the people gathered even knew that it was International Workers' Day, and fewer than that looked like they had ever actually had jobs. So I decided to carry on my way and indulge in some good, honest capitalism.

Several purchases later, while walking homeward through Meyers Park I saw a few dozen unwashed types sitting on the slope conversing loudly. The presence of a few folded banners and a lounging Oosterman announced this as the remnants of the march.

As I passed, I heard them planning a protest at the local McDonalds. The young woman advocating a detailed plan of action was shouted down by proponents of "Let's just go there and see what happens!"

As I walked away, I heard someone demand that they do something to disrupt the free concert Shihad were playing in a few hours in Aotea Square to kick off New Zealand Music Month.

"Are Shihad a multinational?" Came one dissenting voice.

"Doesn't matter!" Was the curt reply.

Exactly why this doesn't matter will remain a mystery, as I passed out of earshot, the words of Warren Ellis running through my head...

"There's one hole in every revolution, large or small. And it's one word long - People. No matter how big the idea they stand under, people are small and weak and cheap and frightened. It's people that kill every revolution."

5 comments:

Josh said...

Which is weird, because online it always seems like the people who are most abusive and condescending in political blogs are more often right-wingers. Possibly a comment on how bloggers aren't like real people.

HORansome said...

I was thinking that an overly broad claim would be that Left-wingers, by and large, are into community building whilst Right-wingers are individualists, which would account for at least some of the phenomenon...

Then I thought that such a statement would probably collapse under its own weight...

Still, in defense of the statement I might have made, it could be further explicated by the generally accepted fact that student politicians are not quite like real people.

Dribblor said...

Faced something similar myself, but I think that may have had something to do with my tendency to have what one long time righty labelled as an "inconsistent political perspective". I just called each issue as I saw it but in the microcosm world that is student politics that doesnt make one particularly popular. Or was I just wishy washy? I forget.
Gotta say Jack, the AOD remains my highlight, particularly a certain (unbelievably unpopular) coup attempt. Ahhh memories. Still could be worse, I could have to live the life of Sisyphus and be stuck in an endless loop watching people making our mistakes over and and over until I claw my eyes out.

Wow that would suck ;)

Simon Pound said...

Fantastic writing.

Simon Pound said...

'Thanks' is what I was trying to say.