The Revolution Will Involve Mostly Retired People

Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day.  So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).

It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism.  Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side.  In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power.  After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right?  Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).

The protest, though, was a disaster.  The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers.  While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by.  We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left.  Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.

I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change.  At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting.  But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are.  Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered.  Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards.  18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.

The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain.  Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite.  The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform.  My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”

They are, of course, half-right.  The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia.  Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution.  I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse.  Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away?  Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent?  And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.

Who knows if I’m right?  Maybe protesting really is a waste of time.  I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.

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Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There

(N)ever Again

This post comes a week late.  On January 27th, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by allied forces.  Tonight, Oxford’s Chabad House held a commemorative event for the 65th anniversary.  Before I can return to my (now much less important-seeming) work, there are some thoughts I simply have to put to paper (but, if you want to read something actually worthwhile, I recommend this piece )

I, like others, am apprehensive about the passing of the generation that experienced Auschwitz.  There is something deeply disturbing to me about the idea that to Holocaust will turn into another sad tale for the history books, rather than the sort of immediate and visceral evil that left me sobbing in the back of a crowded lecture hall tonight.  The speaker was Denis Avey, a British POW who smuggled himself into Auschwitz because he wanted to see it himself, for fear that none of the inmates inside would live to tell the world about what happened there (you can—and probably should—read about him here).  At 91, his fury at what he saw is clearly undiminished, and he was refreshing in his unwillingness to offer any feel-good stories for the crowd.

I do sometimes wonder why I put myself through this, why I force myself to hear it all, to sit through lectures and films and seminars that only make me realize my own insignificance in the face of humanity’s crushing capacity for evil.  I suppose it’s to remind myself that the BNP, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are not individuals espousing legitimate viewpoints but vile movements to be stopped; that to draw a Hitler mustache on a poster of Obama (or Bush) is to show a willful and dangerous ignorance of true evil; and that to blame the Jew, the gay, the black, the Arab, “the other” is to align ourselves with the absolute worst tendencies of human nature.

Why Lefties Can’t Even Make Holocaust Deniers Look Bad

As a general rule, political developments in other countries that don’t directly involve the U.S.. have to be a pretty big deal to get coverage. The recent elections in Germany, or the passage of the new Lisbon Treaty in the E.U., passed by as a blip. The flip side is that, when stuff does get covered, I can be pretty sure it’s big news. When the riots in Uganda made papers in the states, I knew that, whatever it was that was happening, it was major. While the bar is not nearly as high for news from Great Britain, the fact that the appearance of Nick Griffin—leader of the U.K.’s hard-right British National Party—on the BBC’s Question Time made the New York Times speaks volumes about what a significant event it was.

Nick Griffin: wanker extraordinaire
You know he's bad because he has a Hitler mustache.

By way of background, the BNP is a neo-Nazi, white supremacist party that has, recently, rebranded itself. In the recent European elections, the BNP won two seats in the European parliament largely by tapping into concerns about immigration and the economic displacement it (supposedly) entails. While the xenophobic rhetoric and appeals to jingoism might make the BNP sound like your average Republican congressman or Lou Dobbs, make no mistake: these guys are scary(er). Nick Griffin is, to borrow a favorite (but probably not harsh enough) Britishism, a total wanker: see him denying the holocaust here or appearing alongside KKK leaders here. Obviously, no one from the BNP should be elected to serve as dog-catcher. Nonetheless, the rules of the BBC are such that any party that has ministers in parliament merits an invitation to Question Time, a political talk-show of sorts. Still, when the BBC invited Griffin, a lot of groups were (understandably) quite irate. And, despite thousands of protesters outside, last week Griffin managed to appear and even got to answer a question or two.

I was hoping to watch the program with some real live British people, but since getting a bunch of college students in the U.K. to watch Question Time is roughly as cool as inviting your friends over to listen to NPR, I wound up watching it alone the next morning. The inevitable apathy of twenty-somethings aside, the appearance is still the talk of Britain: I heard the Development staff discussing it over tea, Provost Smethers brought it up over dinner, and Nick Griffin was a major sub-topic of Saturday’s demonstration. I don’t have much to say about the actual show. Griffin’s performance combined truly inane blathering (he claimed that he couldn’t explain his views on the Holocaust because he might be arrested… in France) and insane xenophobia (he called Islam “vicious and wicked”) with some nonetheless appealing rhetoric about “British jobs for British people” and the senselessness of Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, everyone watching will see what they want to see: either a slimy bigot being exposed for the monster he is, or a political maverick being unfairly silenced by the left-wing media. You can watch a highlight’s reel here, and decide for yourself.

From my perspective, the “questions” from the audience were more telling than the answers, which were fairly predictable. The most memorable ones were when one gentleman called Griffin “disgusting” and another informed him that he would like to fund-raise to buy him and his BNP supporters a ticket to the (very white) South Pole.  Neither really asked a question, and so Griffin didn’t get to respond.  Both polemics were met with triumphant applause, but, frankly, I find this kind of approach to “taking down” people with abhorrent beliefs to be very frustrating.

My junior year, the campus Republicans hosted the “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” which brought in David Horowitz, an extreme neo-conservative. The auditorium was packed—but mostly with left-wing students, eager to assail Horowitz’s ill-informed and prejudiced views on Palestine, the “oppression” of white straight men in America, and the evils of Islam. When the speaker called for questions, we lined up, and student after student tried either to lecture Horowitz on Israeli history, scream at him that he is a bigot, or ask a vague quasi-question (i.e. “why are you so racist?!?!?!”) In every case, Horowitz “won,” either because suddenly he looked like a victim, because an open question left him a chance to recite one of his generic lines, or because, having the microphone, he always got to have the last word.

It’s possible that the detachment from racial issues I get from being a white male was what let me bite my tongue (both of the gentlemen I referred to in the previous paragraph as delivering tirades were non-white). When it came my turn, I asked Horowitz how I and my fellow white male upper-middle class Princetonians were specifically being oppressed, as he had claimed. He sputtered for a few seconds, and finally offered the example of the Duke Lacrosse team prosecution (yes, really). That was it. A year-and-a-half later, I met the former head of the Muslim Student’s Association, and she still remembered me as the guy who made Horowitz look bad. It wasn’t exactly a stunning victory for truth and justice, but it worked better than the alternatives.

The rants directed at Nick Griffin were probably very cathartic, and maybe that was the purpose. But as a political tactic, they were misguided. Far better would have been to ask him pointed, specific questions. So, Nick, how many Jews do you think died in the Holocaust? How exactly do you plan to deport 10% of Britain’s population? What exactly leads you to believe the KKK is a “non-violent” organization? If your party isn’t racist, how come your constitution explicitly precludes membership for blacks? I can’t help but compare the ambivalently reviewed performance of Nick Griffin to the unambiguous destruction of Sarah Palin by Katie Couric, who did nothing more than politely ask for details. Right wing ideas—ranging from the (much more benign) tragically uniformed beliefs of Palin to the virulence of Griffin—are compelling in the abstract, but break down under scrutiny.

As a somewhat related aside, there is an argument I’ve heard in the last few days that challenging and debating the ideas of groups like the BNP does no good. As someone pointed out to me, the BNP has gained 3,000 members in the last week, confirming that when you give these people a legitimate platform, it helps them. This is true. But I think we have to confront the underlying reasons why groups like BNP are gaining support—namely, economic disenfranchisement and the poverty of ideas on the left to deal with it—rather than hope that by silencing them they will go away.  We can only smash the BNP head on.

(And yes, I realize that posting this after my previous post – which was a rant – is a bit hypocritical.  Our emotions get the best of all of us sometimes, and I certainly undertand why a black or Asian person would rather just rant at someone, for the same reason that occassionally a vegan would rather smear him or herself in fake blood and yell at people than engage in a real debate.)

The Feel-Good Witch Hunt

With all the talk in the last few days about British neo-Nazis it was—in a weird sense—fulfilling to actually meet one.

Mid-way through today’s anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, someone in the back of the crowd began shouting “rubbish” in response to a speaker assailing the War in Afghanistan as an imperialist and racist ploy. I turned around to see a fat, beefy middle-aged skinhead wearing all black waving the backwards peace sign—the British equivalent of flipping someone off—towards the crowd. A few participants in the protest were clustering around him. I sensed that something was brewing, and, obeying my interests both as an activist and a social scientist, I weaved towards them through the crowd.

By the time I got there, there was already a small mob forming around the skinhead. All of them were young, radical looking-folk, wearing black hoodies and keffiyehs; the demographics made me think I was back at a freegan event or a critical mass bike ride in New York. Someone starting shouting “Nazi scum, off our streets!” and we all joined in. Sensing that his time was up—but definitely not appearing scared—the skinhead started casually walking off, joined by another nearly-identical compatriot. Even though they quickly left the square, about fifty of us followed, reciting a litany of reasonably clever anti-Nazi chants. The fact that everyone seemed to know the words made me think that these kinds of confrontations are not particularly uncommon here.

Things started to get a little bit tenser. A few in our group started throwing bottles and rubbish at the skinheads. A handful of police started surrounding the two men, which of course only led the anti-fascists to escalate, which in turn summoned more police. By the time we had gone a few blocks, there were probably twenty police encircling the skinheads, who were now backed up against a wall. The skinheads were silent, but looked smug, while we were screaming our heads off. I’m not entirely sure what precipitated it (as if they needed a reason), but a few police pulled out their truncheons and started whacking the protesters nearby.

A police van pulled up. The officers formed a cordon around the two men and shuttled them through the crowd. They got in the van and drove off. We paraded back to the rally, cheering “Who beat the Nazis? We beat the Nazis!” and “Smash the BNP [British National Party]!”

A few things occur to me as I reflect on what is, I think, my first ever encounter with a Nazi. The first is that I have no idea whether or not the two men were actually Nazis (or BNP members, or fascists, for that matter). And I doubt anyone in our crowd did either. Perhaps someone in our ad hoc posse had seen this guy before, or heard him say something that indicated his true colors. But as far as I—and I assume most of us—knew, he was just someone who happened to disagree with the speaker’s claim that the Afghanistan War is “pointless” and responsible for the deaths of “thousands of innocent Afghanis” (which are, to be fair, quite contentious claims). And yet, despite our ignorance, when someone started chanting “Nazi,” we joined in.

Secondly, our confrontation likely only strengthened the worldviews of both parties. In the eyes of us lefty radicals, we confirmed that there are Nazis everywhere and as such we have to be both vigilant and militant. Moreover, we witnessed with our very own eyes the true sympathies of the police, as they protected a fascist from getting his rightful comeuppance. As for the putative Nazis, I’m sure that the experience only confirmed that they—patriotic white males—are now a persecuted minority in their own country.

My final observation is that, at least at the time, chasing Nazis felt great. For five minutes, we had a scapegoat. Deep down, we all knew that the problems of the war—and the world—have many causes and many dimensions. But right then, we could point and chant “Nazis fuck off” and tell ourselves that this one random bloke was responsible for all the combined ills of the world. He was the embodiment of racism and fascism, homophobia and xenophobia. And so, when we “beat” him, we won a glorious metaphorical victory for peace, justice, and tolerance. It was cathartic.

Witch hunting is fun. So is having someone to blame. But I can’t help but think that’s the exact mentality that led the Nazis to kill six million innocent people.