Thoughts about punching Nazis

CN: discusses racism, genocide, violence, hate speech, literal Nazism, also the Holocaust. 

With thanks to my excellent friends for the discussions which prompted this. 

Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware that a protestor punched Nazi Richard Spencer in the face as he gave an interview to a news outlet at Trump’s inaugration. Spencer, who was responsible for ‘Heil Trump!’, for advocating genocide and for armed Neo-Nazis marching on the Jewish community in his hometown with ‘high-powered rifles’, is as close to a cartoon Nazi as one can get without actually being Hitler. We are not talking about political disagreement, or even casual racism, we are talking about someone whose website published an article by his cofounder calling for ‘black genocide‘, and expressed the desire to make America an all-white country at all ‘horribly bloody and terrible’ cost. I’m Jewish, although I pass for goy – I’m pretty sure Spencer wants me dead.

Anyway, no sooner had this happened than some people started celebrating it, and other people started criticising them for celebrating it. And I wanted to unpack it all a bit, because I think it’s a bit more complicated than either side (particularly the progressive, lefty, how-dare-you-glorify-violence side) is suggesting.

Firstly, as one friend memorably posted on Facebook, equating punching Spencer with punching anyone you politically disagree with is a straw man argument, and neither of us are here for it. That said, I completely appreciate the school of thought that says to be compatible with liberal politics you need to not punch anybody in the face, ever, because you respect personhood and bodily autonomy. It doesn’t matter whether or not Nazis agonise about the rightness or wrongness of punching people they politically disagree with in the face (i suspect they probably don’t, and violence against minorities is practically as well as ideologically endorsed) because the whole point of being lefty and progressive is to be Better Than That. Which I subscribe to, pretty much.

However. I also remember vividly a conversation I had when I was eight or nine with my Holocaust survivor grandmother. I’d been reading about pacifism (my parents never edited my reading, with the result that you see before you), and announced that I was a pacifist, because violence was always wrong and wars were terrible. She looked at me with her head on one side and said ‘I think some wars are worth fighting, and some things are worth fighting about.’ I was pretty abashed – by that stage I was pretty up on what had happened during the Second World War, including to her – and apologised and said she was right, and I still think she is. (NB. I don’t think most of the wars we are currently fighting come into that category, but I think it’s a category that exists.)

If anyone is going to be punched in the face for their political beliefs, people who advocate the genocide of an entire race (see above), in fact all non-white races, are pretty high on my personal hitlist. I can’t help thinking that if expressing those views socially resulted in more face-punching and fewer interviews with major news outlets, the world as a whole and minority groups in particular might be safer. I can’t help thinking that disrupting that transmission – making it clear that the repeated expression of fascist views is sufficiently unacceptable to deserve a punch in the face – is actually an important social shift. I don’t think most Nazis are particularly susceptible to reasoned arguments or appeals to empathy, but I do think at least some of them might shut the fuck up, or at least think more carefully about spreading their poison, if doing so publicly resulted in widespread social opprobium and the odd punch in the face.

Spencer himself has spoken about how awful he finds the thought of his humiliation being replicated indefinitely online, so it’s clear that physical resistance has made an impact (hah) that reasoned debate has failed to so far. He occupies a position of wealth and social privilege – how else could you form and maintain such absurd ideas – and face-punching challenges that privilege in a way that opens up space to consider the possibility of one’s vulnerability. The visceral challenge of being punched in the face, and the resultant shock, is an intense and invasive personal experience of the sort that often results in instinctive avoidance, which I will frankly take in this instance. Moreover, in Spencer’s case, the very public nature of that particular act undermines both his right to a platform and his privilege, assumption of authority and thus also the authority of the message in a way that challenges its acceptability also. By giving him a platform, the news outlet interviewing him was implicitly constructing his position as acceptable, worth hearing and politically credible. By punching him in the face, the protestor denied, undermined and destroyed that in a way that the peaceful protestors waving socialist signs behind him didn’t manage to do.

There are a few crucial things simmering away beneath the surface here.

  1. Sometimes violence is necessary. Sometimes it is the only available method of resistance. Cf., obviously, the Second World War. Some views are so dangerous and destructive – Spencer’s among them – that their propagation risks, and costs, people’s lives. Maybe that punch in the face saved a life.
  2. Violent resistance works. Cf., the Battle of Cable Street (so memorably referenced by Pterry in Night Watch). Sometimes physical resistance is the only thing that will do. We’ve been arguing reasonably that racism is bad and genocide is bad and Hitler was bad and the Holocaust was bad Spencer’s entire.fucking.life. It doesn’t appear to have slowed him down much.
  3. People who’ve lived through fascist regimes have spoken movingly and convincingly of the need to resist early, resist hard, and resist physically. Spencer is in the forefront of a movement that has already made people physically unsafe, and he has made it quite clear that he’s not interested in reasoned debate of his views. Quoting yet another friend, because my friends are awesome: Nazis never come in peace. You can’t have a peaceful divergence of views with someone who is advocating genocide and whose views are inherently violent. You can’t have a reasoned exchange of views with someone who advocates marching on Jewish communities with machine guns. Maybe now is the time to resist.
  4. Violence is already present and happening. People are already dying. There is an absolute swamp here of structural and systemic violence, and its victims are almost exclusively people from marginalised communities or minority groups with far less wealth, privilege and platform than Spencer. If we are talking about wars, and defining them as ‘people are dying’, or more specifically ‘people are dying because of the deliberate actions or inaction of factions in power’ (thank you Marcus) then wars are already being waged against people of colour in America, against LGBT* people worldwide, against sick and disabled people in America, and denying the left any right to physical resistance against anyone under any circumstances is implicitly colluding with and enabling this structural and systemic violence.
  5. A lot of the violence present is a) prompted by fascism and b) directed at people with much less social cache, privilege and platform than Spencer. Upending those systems in the act of face-punching is always-already an act of resistance, and a far-reaching one at that. I imagine it’s nice to watch someone’s invulnerability being shattered if that person has been advocating the mass murder of you and your friends and family.

I think that anonymous punch has energised the left, because watching people who won’t listen to reason being rewarded for spreading hate gets despair-inducing after a while, especially when you feel that reason is the only weapon at your disposal. I gather from yet another excellent friend that the assumption that progressive politics essentially meaning non-violent at all costs is a fairly recent one, and I think it’s essentially flawed. In an imperfect and inherently violent world, facing adversaries that advocate violence, there is more space for nuanced arguments that regard some kinds of violence under some circumstances  (like the creeping advent of fascism and the need to resist it) as necessary than for blanket advocacy of non-violence at all costs. I don’t think people pushing for genocide deserve a fair hearing, or a platform, or peace. I think there comes a point where violent resistance becomes necessary. I think they deserve a punch in the face, and if they get it on camera, that is an important and powerful tool with far-reaching implications for all kinds of opposition.

Vive la resistance.

Some wars are worth fighting, and some things are worth fighting about.

 

 

 

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Goblin’s Patented Earnest Theories of Social Media Occasioned by Strangers on the Internet

Sooooo I had a slightly weird conversation with someone I hardly know on Facebook this morning, prompted by this article about Oxford Union using gender-neutral rather than gendered pronouns (as it happens, this is untrue anyway).  Details unimportant, but can be found below.* Anyway, the person concerned eventually responded in a mildly bizarre series of assertions which I found interesting enough to write a blogpost about, because they ran so counter to my own concepts and experiences of social media. These were, namely, a) Facebook wasn’t the place to discuss things b) they respected other people’s opinions c) they could say what they liked on their own Facebook because d) I had no right to argue. And it started me thinking about the ways in which we use social media, particularly in the current political climate, and because clearly the ON FIRE TO DO LIST was somehow less important, I wrote this list of social media functions in terms of post-cultural social and political discourse:

1) Social media matters. Many people form their political opinions via their social media newsfeeds. The place for discussion of socio-political ideas absolutely is Facebook, because for better or worse it is where many people explore, discuss and shape their political views. Or, y’know, thoughtlessly propagate them without exploration, discussion or consideration, but we’re aiming high here.

2) Social media, like any social space, is by definition a) social and b) full of disparate individuals who may or may not agree with you about any particular topic. It’s not actually reasonable to expect no dissension whatsoever regardless of the nature of your posts. Although I actively maintain a respectful, progressive social media bubble, that doesn’t mean I expect everyone to agree with me about everything all the time. Just that we share certain fundamental values – universal human rights, genocide being bad, that sort of thing. Everyone gets boundaries, and you’re certainly entitled to request that your newsfeed remains free of hate speech, insults and trolling, but expecting that nobody ever thinks differently to you – or expresses it if they do – is a pretty problematic way of interacting with the world. I even have the odd token Tory friend! Imagine. (We mostly agree on stuff like human rights though, because baselines.)

3) Sometimes discussion changes minds, and is important. To pick a non-political example: I posted excitedly about a bunny café a year or so ago, and a friend with rabbits pointed out that such an environment would be really stressful and potentially fatal for the rabbits. She knew much more about rabbit psychology than I did, and I …recognised this, and changed my opinion! I changed the post to reflect this, and thanked her! And this happens a fair bit. Often my friends know more about particular topics than me, and I welcome the opportunity to learn from them. It seems only sensible to do so. I know much more about the situation in Syria and Aleppo because of Ella’s posts about it, for example. Sharing knowledge isn’t the only thing Facebook does, but it’s a pretty positive one amid the general awfulness.

4) The ‘I respect other people’s opinions (as long as they don’t express them) thing is problematic. Partly because actions vs words – posting specifically to denigrate the apparent opinion of a university union from a university you never attended for events you will never attend seems like a fair extreme example of *not* respecting Oxford Union’s opinion – but mostly because, actually, I don’t respect some opinions. I think some opinions, mostly the bigoted ones, aren’t worthy of respect, and this is rarely more obvious than it is on social media. Whilst I respect everyone’s right to form and hold their own opinions, not all opinions are created equal (see discussion here), and some of them are just plain wrong. Holocaust deniers. The KKK. People who believe in gay cure therapy. Racists and bigots are ‘entitled to their opinions’ and all, right up until the point their opinion starts to belittle, invade and damage other people’s human rights or freedoms, whereupon they are still entitled to hold said opinion but the rest of us don’t have to respect, listen to, appreciate or value it, and may in fact argue with it and refuse to act on it. ‘I respect others’ opinions’ (especially whilst silencing dissent) seems an uncomfortable position to take, compared to ‘I respect everyone’s right to form an opinion but some opinions hurt people and I don’t have to respect that’ or even ‘I respect everyone’s right to form their own opinion but I will challenge said opinions when they’re bigoted and question them if they disrespect others’, both of which lead to public discussion (and potentially education) rather than pockets of internal consistency. Dialogue is healthy, if it avoids hate speech, insults and microaggressions (and doesn’t involve asking oppressed people to do the emotional labour of demonstrating their own oppression.)

5) If a topic is sensitive and you want to avoid triggers, don’t welcome disagreement for personal reasons, or don’t want to fall down a particular argumentative rabbit hole, you can say so in the initial post. But to expect the silent unspoken caveat of NEVER VOICE DISAGREEMENT to attach itself to everything you say ever is fucked up. I expect a fair bit of discussion and dissension to arise from this post, which is healthy. Anyone insulting me or being unwarrantedly unpleasant or aggressive will be shut down, but if you think I’m wrong, then I am interested in hearing why. Because:

6) Most things I post  I have thought through enough that I can counter most of the obvious objections to them. There’s the occasional exception, but if I get called out for not having considered something my response isn’t to silence the person doing the calling out, it’s to apologise and reconsider. My views are sufficiently thoughtful and coherent that they can bear mild dissension without leaping for the impulse to silence. Yes, I tend to shut down misogyny, transphobia, homophobia etc, but see 2) – hate speech and dissension are not the same thing. Polite disagreement =/ denying someone’s human rights.

7) Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from accountability. Yes, you can say what you like on your Facebook page, but that doesn’t mean that nobody has the right to suggest you might have got things wrong/be being an asshole. That’s how social interaction of all kinds works, on or offline.

8) There are inappropriate things to say in particular social contexts, online and off. Speaking ill of the dead to their loved ones. Mocking people without consent. Shaming. But that’s dependent on context. I don’t think discussions of any kind are inappropriate on social media simply because they’re taking place on social media. Our lives are sufficiently integrated these days that social interaction online has (or should have, if you’re not a troll) basically the same appropriateness etiquette as meatspace. Am I missing anything here?

9) Freedom of speech certainly doesn’t mean anybody has to listen to you – god knows I’ve hidden enough people’s Facebook feeds for body shaming/racism/transphobia/rightwingery – but it also doesn’t mean that nobody’s allowed to argue. I usually make some attempt at discussing the issue before unfollowing somebody, although that’s not universal. Because see 1), social media is an important arena for both political discussion and social experience, and public discussion reaches more people than the one person you’re disagreeing with. Not everyone has the spoons to do this, certainly not all the time, but if you do, it’s worth trying.

10) Actions need to match words. Claiming you respect the opinions of others whilst insulting them and silencing dissent is perilously akin to the kind of doublethink that assumes prefacing racist bullshit with ‘I’m not racist, but….’ excuses the racism that follows. It’s the white middle-class version, but it’s still pretty fucked up.

11) Social media is especially important in the current political climate. It’s where we build solidarity and resistance, share stories, change minds. It’s where we go for courage and encouragement and reassurance. To suggest social media should of necessity either be homogenous or silenced is both dysfunctional and a betrayal of the social contract. Because the social contract, in these troubled times, covers the internet as well as meatspace.

 

 

* I commented that given the person in question was neither at Oxford, an alumnus or a member of the Union, it seemed a fairly strange thing to get worked up about. Using gender neutral pronouns reduces microaggressions for genderqueer, non-binary or otherwise identified students, applies equally to male and female students whether trans or cis, and…really doesn’t seem that big of a deal? I’m a cis woman, but it doesn’t insult my femininity if Oxford Union publications use ‘ze’ instead of ‘she’ to be inclusive.
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An Incomplete List of Concerns I Have About the Promised Miss Fisher Action Film Trilogy [contains S3 SPOILERS]

This article came out today. I Have Concerns.

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1) BUT PHRACK. I am massively, massively invested in Phryne and Jack, and I would wager literally all the money I have (which is admittedly not very much, possibly enough for one of Miss Fisher’s lesser hats at 1920s prices) that the same is true of a vast majority of the devoted audience on which the producers are counting. If there is no Phrack, we will turn off in our droves. AND WE WILL BE BITTER. If there is Phrack for the first ten minutes before Jack is conveniently disposed of for an alternative love interest, WE WILL RIOT. (Possible exception if we get Queer Miss Fisher temporarily, but she’s been demonstrably quite heterosexually orientated thus far in the series.)

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1b) Relatedly: with the possible exception of my beloved husband, Nathan Page is blatantly the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth, and despite the obvious gloriousness         of Essie Davis (lovelovelove) it will Not Be The Same without him. HIS FACE IS AN OCTOGON OF CHEEKBONES AND SORROW. If another actor is positioned as Miss Fisher’s ‘sexy sassy sidekick’ (thank you Anna!) or love interest or whatever, he will both i) inevitably fail to live up to Page’s standards and also ii) cause MASSIVE                         RESENTMENT. (See 1).

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2)  What about Dot and Hugh? It stretches credulity somewhat (shut up) to have the pitching up in exotic locations continually, and Hugh wouldn’t even be a policeman Neither would Jack, of course, but see previous re. sexy sassy sidekick. The Miss Fisher/Dot relationship is delicate and beautiful and touching and has gathered a lot of depth over 3 series, and whilst Miss F is clearly heading to England without her at the end of S3, it would be very sad to see it dissolve entirely for sustained periods of time (although that does sound terribly like the kind of thing producers regard as an unavoidable casualty of moving from TV to film).

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3) And Mr Butler! Bert and Cec? Same issues. *suspicious glare* It sounds a lot like the things that made      the series so joyful and glorious could be sacrificed in the generic transition from drama      series to ‘action movie’, and that would be SAD.

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4) What if it is massively racefaily? The Lin Chung’s Chinese family episode was pretty               heavy on cliché and problematic racist troping, and whilst I am basically unmoved by          ‘but it’s not like the books!’ as significant criticism in this particular case, if this                    problematic and othering attitude is repeated with films set in ‘Arabia’ ‘India’ and other      ‘fun…destinations’ it would be a terrible letdown (not least for non-white fans of the          show).

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4b) I am not qualified to comment – read, shamefully ignorant – about the show’s                         representation of Aborigine people, but I gather there were also issues here that                     increase the likelihood of 4).

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5) What is with this ‘young Miss Fisher’ bullshit? There are a not insignificant number of           representations of beautiful young women kicking ass in popular culture, albeit not              enough compared to representations of men kicking ass, and one reason for the series’        appeal (and success) is its aspirational and three-dimensional representation of a                  woman who ISN’T in her teens or twenties, and has a bit of age and depth. Essie Davis,        heroine of all of our hearts, is 46 and looks at least two thirds of that, and her Phryne’s        self-assurance and self-knowledge are both commensurate with her age and                            immensely attractive because of it. I don’t want to see a hot 18-year-old being                        implausibly brilliant in all the ways. I want to see an older woman who has been                      through life and learnt *how* to be implausibly brilliant in *some* of the ways being          just-about-plausibly brilliant with a little help from her friends. I suspect I am not                alone.

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6) BUT PHRACK (See 1).

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7) This is a side note, but ‘focusing on a younger, 18-year-old Fisher, the spin-off would   follow the aristocrat character as she migrates from the UK to Melbourne and stumbles       into her detective work’ is a massively inaccurate representation of Miss Fisher’s                   history as we’ve been shown it so far. She wasn’t born aristocratic, she grew up in                 poverty in a rough Melbourne suburb, and we’ve already seen her childhood in flashback in some detail as well as hearing it discussed because of her sister. The implication here is that a poverty-stricken teenager somehow migrated to the UK and then…migrated back to Melbourne at 18? I mean what? Unless this is bad journalism and/or they’ve got the locations muddled – which is WORRYING IN ITSELF – that just isn’t going to work. We are already swallowing that a poverty-stricken child inherited money from distant relatives who died in the war (fine). But that’s one leap, it’s not the 700 leaps necessitated by ‘and then she managed to migrate to the other side of the world and back again before turning 18.’

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8) BUT PHRACK (See 1).

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9) “I reckon we could do three Miss Fisher movies, absolutely,” Eagger said. “The fan base      is so passionate. If you’ve got a successful franchise, why not (make more than one                movie)?”

Okay, let’s see, shall we?

a) Because unless you do it well and with careful attention to the elements of the show said fan base is passionate about, you will lose that audience.

b) Miss Fisher is a franchise based on a particular formula – ensemble cast, slow-build narrative arcs behind episodic storylines, attention to character as well as action, three-dimensional and emotionally charged central relationships, etc etc etc. By shifting the medium of that franchise you are already shifting the nature of your product. I want to see brilliant 3-dimensional Essie Davis-led Miss Fisher films (with Jack as loyal, combative, sexually charged and hopefully satisfied sidekick) as much as the next Miss Fisher fan. But I need more assurance than I am currently being given that the aspects of Miss Fisher I value and respond to will be maintained in *shudder* action movies.

c) Film franchises tend to get worse as they go along (with a few honourable exceptions). We would all like to assume this wouldn’t happen to Miss Fisher, but on this evidence, we are hardly assured.

d) You run the risk of destroying said fan base and diluting the best aspects of the show by bending it to new medium/generic conventions. This is bad.

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10) “We want it to be like the Indiana Jones movies,” Eagger added. “We might not have            Steven Spielberg’s budget but that is what she (Phryne Fisher) is – an action hero. She          got to be able to fly the world.”

Yay Phryne, but she isn’t just an action hero though, is she? See 9. I like Indiana Jones and all, but that franchise hardly has the same emotional depth as Miss Fisher does. (Unless, apparently, you are an archaeologist/paleoanthropologist, which I am not.)

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11) “It could be ‘Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears’ so she has to go to Arabia. We’d love to       go to India. We have fun thinking about the destinations.”

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See 4).

12) BUT SERIOUSLY, PHRACK? (See 1).

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13) Forget all this nonsense. What about Dr Mac? Is Dr Mac going to travel with Phryne?             Because Dr Mac is the absolute best thing ever and she is funny and sharp and dry and         also a great representation of queer, and I would be SAD if this got jettisoned for the             sake of compulsory action movie heterosexuality.

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14) I MEAN IT. WHAT ABOUT PHRACK?

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This is an incomplete list. I look forward to the resolution of said concerns by any means necessary, preferably the addressing of all these points by the producers….

 

Nb. I usually use my other blog Ballad of Dissatisfaction for cultural stuff but I am beginning to feel like having 2 is annoying and unhelpful, so at some point I will migrate all the content there over here. I just haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
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Everybody Knows: a few unnecessary thoughts about Leonard Cohen

There’s a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in

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I am not sad Leonard Cohen is dead, exactly, apart from the immense, existential human sadness at the ephemerality of life he wrote about better than anyone else. He’s spoken a lot about feeling tired and ready to die, his body breaking and exhaustion setting in, and I respect that. I wouldn’t keep him here against his will, particularly given the current state of pretty much everything. He has given us enough. I mourn his loss, that unbearable weight of articulacy and passion lost to the world, but we are (or can be) so much better and braver for his words and his work and his existence, and it would be unfair – not least to him – to wish for more.

Above all, Cohen told the truth – dirty, messy, delicate, uncomfortable, unforgivable, human truths about relationships and belonging and change and aging and dying and despair and grace in the face of defeat – and there’s never been anyone to touch him for understanding or perception or nuance. Difficult honesty, with himself as much as with us, was etched into his work at the root. “It was something to do with the truth, that if you told the story, that’s what the song was about.” There’s beauty there, always, but there’s also determination and strength – you cannot break down barriers without empathy, after all, and Cohen tended to hardwire empathy through ears and hindbrain without passing through ego on the way.

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen iThis and this  are probably my favourite obituaries; they’re beautiful, and talks about his music as a search for light or ‘a manual for living with defeat’ (pace Going Home), and thus the human condition. I have  Leonard Cohen stories, of listening to Songs Of Love and Hate with my first sort-of boyfriend, of trading familiarity as currency with friends and lovers, the ache of Dance Me to the End of Love or Suzanne,the haunting thrill of Bird on a Wire and its lonely resignation, the surrender of Famous Blue Raincoat, Anthem as credo and I’m Your Man as desire and thrill and the squirming inner twist of longing prompted by So Long, Marianne or That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, the cynical, charismatic abandon of The Future and Everybody Knows. These songs carried me through triumph and tragedy, heartbreaks I knew I’d never survive and traumas I didn’t think I could. They were there when the world turned black and empty. They still are. You want it darker. We kill the flame. 

Everyone has Leonard Cohen stories. He has been a light in the darkness for countless millions of people, particularly the mentally interesting or thoughtful or oversensitive people, for longer than I’ve been alive. He has taught me things about love and suffering and grace and survival I am still learning and will be for many years. He taught me that art and love both mean more than pain, in the end, and you can’t get to the one except through the other. For all that so much talent and torment probably didn’t make for easy or even happy relationships, the spiritual generosity of his last message to Marianne is shattering precisely because of the love that glows there like a banked flame. There’s joy and resignation and passion and abandon of all kinds in his work, and a wisdom few of us can ever reach for. His loss is devastating but his work is still here, in this mess we’ve created, and this isn’t his fight, for all he soundtracked it years ago.

Despite his bleak familiarity with darkness and despair, there was a warmth and courage and wry amusement to Cohen that Liel Lebowitz summed up:

“To see Cohen play was to gawk at an aging Jew telling you that life was hard and laced with sorrow but that if we love each other and fuck one another and have the mad courage to laugh even when the sun is clearly setting, we’ll be just all right.”

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 He’s right. There is courage and connection if we reach for it and at least the possibility of redemption. 

Forget your perfect offering. Ring the bells that can still ring. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. 

Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for everything.

Nb. One of these days I will get around to writing about my heroes before they actually die. Honest.

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A long, self-indulgent and rambly post about having friends in your 30s, including the horrors of wedding planning, shifts from poly to mono and London to oop norf, and lots of pictures of animal cuddles

This is a post about friendship and what it means and how it’s been changing in my mid-thirties and ways in which that is currently weirding me out. I currently feel quite fragile about my friendships, almost all of them, and my place in other people’s worlds: this article and this friends-only discussion (you’ll only be able to see it if we’re facebook friends and you’re on that particular filter) outline some of the contexts for this particular ramble.

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So. Right now I should be either a) planning a wedding; b) applying for jobs for after my current post ends; c) filling in my German citizenship form; or d) cleaning the flat. But actually, it looks like I will be writing this blogpost, which is a bit tricky because I haven’t written anything non-academic (or academic, come to that) for ages and have forgotten how it works. A lot of this stuff has been simmering around at the bottom of my brain for a while, and the current round of wedding planning (six weeks, fucking hell) has thrown it into sharp relief. Most weddings, and certainly ours (although more power to you if you chose differently) are social events, with things like guest lists and playlists and bridal parties and best men and ushers and needing to rely on people to do things for you out of the good of their hearts and/or the strength of your friendship. All this becomes an extra layer of, well, stressful and mildly upsetting if you’re also well aware of ways in which your social world has destabilised over the last couple of years.

Now, the ‘last couple of years’ includes the period where I moved from London to Sheffield and all the physical and emotional dislocation that resulted. So at least some of what I’m experiencing is simply the aftershock of uprooting myself from the city that’d been home for my entire adult life and the centre of all my social networks and trying to maintain connections over much greater distance and much less opportunity for shared space. In some cases this has worked fine, or at least well enough – the internet is a godsend, may all those articles about how it’s ruining our ability to bond socially burn in the glare of a thousand smartphone screens – but it’s certainly made a lot of things more difficult, in particular the sense of shared understanding and situation that’s underscored many of my friendships in some sense. I’ve lamented the impact of moving before, and it’s certainly been getting easier as it goes along – I have a whole ten or so friends up here now, and despite being basically terrible at organising social things or even answering messages and still feeling a bit unsure where to socialise in Sheffield , I seem to be managing to See People and sometimes even Go Out. But that said, I can’t begin to pretend I don’t miss London, either its familiar geography or the sense of social interconnectedness and possibility that descends whenever I’m within its bounds.

owl and kitten cuddlesPart of this is that I had, in London, both a not-insignificant number of really close friends I saw semi-regularly *and* an occasionally-overlapping-but-frequently-distinct wider group of geeky age-diverse friends who still socialise frequently in groups rather than having sort of separated out into couples with children. Now I’m up here – and no longer able to get to very many social events even when I’m invited, and usually even less able to follow up on tentative new friendships with actual quality time – maintaining any sense of involvement has been difficult, and a source of more anxiety than succour. (This is in no way a criticism of anyone – it’s just the impact of my geographical situation, not the – usually welcoming and supportive – behaviour of those down south.)

Thing is, I mostly if not exclusively build connections on a one-to-one basis, with communities or wider social groups growing out of that if I’m lucky. Maybe many people do.  There’s usually a lot of in-depth emotional and sociocultural discussion (because I totally know how to have a good time…) before the silly jokes kick in, and a) this isn’t a mode of functioning that works with more than 3 people present and b) it isn’t really transferrable. It means that I do develop what feels like fairly strong bonds with some people fairly quickly, but I don’t really have (and never have had, I don’t think) a single, multiply interconnected, core group of close friends ( although I sort of belong to several groups); and I’m usually profoundly uncomfortable with large groups of people I don’t know unless there are at least two good friends around.

piglet bunny cuddlesWhich creates two issues when planning social events like a wedding (which I hate doing at the best of times).  A) how does that work? I want to invite ‘everyone’, but without putting pressure on people who aren’t really friend-friends; b) there are people I think of (or used to think of) as good friends who I haven’t really spoken to much recently, or in some extreme cases who haven’t actually initiated contact for actual years. My inclination is to assume they don’t want to be friends anymore – borne out in a couple of cases where I messaged and heard nothing back, which was a massively uncomfortable experience (and possibly the downside of Facebook, giving the false impression of people still being in your life), but undermined by a couple of instances where person A was surprised person B wasn’t coming because ‘I thought you guys were really tight’. So you have on the one hand highlighting of ongoing social circle disintegration and on the other hand immense amounts of awkwardness/anxiety trying to mitigate/navigate that. Fun!

That said, I think what’s actually disquieting me is a perfect storm of several different/interconnecting factors. There are changes in many of my existing friendships because of distance, weathered better in some cases than others. There are changes in existing friendships due to life stage, most notably the fact that several of my close friends have acquired children and that changes things on a practical and emotional level, magnified in some cases by the distance between us. There’s the actual physical difficulty in maintaining friendships in terms of time and attention at the same time as partnership and multiple jobs, in being there for people in a different city (I missed the goodbye party of a friend who’s emigrating recently, which seems to epitomise both the difficulty factor and the life change factor). There’s the cultural shift in being up north, where it seems people in my age group are more likely to be parents and living slightly different lives and priorities. There’s the difficulty in making more friends due to life stage – I’m not a student anymore, not even slightly, and it all works differently now. (No accident that many of my new friends – with the exception of recent work colleagues – are or have been academics, either students or ECRs).orang cuddles 2

Is all this general? Is it just a 30s thing? I don’t know. Certainly many of my wider friendship circle in London are older than 30s and still seeing their friends regularly/ having that friends-as-chosen-family thing in a way I haven’t personally witnessed or experienced up here. I’m not sure how much difference it makes that those friends are often in relationships but rarely monogamous, so that sense of peeling off into couples (which I am perhaps contributing to by, y’know, the whole moving-up-north-to-be-with-partner, getting married thing) and only socialising on that basis. I don’t want to play that game (apart from anything else, I am marrying a hermit, someone with very different social needs; if we only socialised as a couple, I would have no friends at all, or at least maybe 3 or 4 whom I saw twice a year) but I recognise that by having a ready source of succour and love and company and entertainment at home I have fundamentally changed the pattern of my life I’d maintained throughout my 20s where I saw a friend most nights and every weekend day (and/or lived with some). Also very few of those friends have children, so there isn’t the need to redraw the social boundaries to accommodate the needs of people with bedtime/bathtime/mealtime/early rising requirements.

faun cuddles(Side note: as a step-parent, I often feel caught between these stools. I lose count of the number of parties I have left early, or had a meltdown in the middle of, because we’ve had stepdaughter so I’ve been up since very early and can’t keep my eyes open past midnight, whilst I’m with friends who got out of bed at 1pm – or had a disco nap whilst I drove for 5 hours – because they knew they’d be going out. It’s a bugger.)

So. Some of it is simply not having access to my network of excellent people who’ve made similar life choices because of the shift in location (and my current city has fewer members of that demographic, and I wouldn’t know how to meet them). Some of it is changes to existing friendships because of the divergence in our life choices (I always hesitate before asking friends with children to do things, because I don’t want to put pressure on them and I know it’s all more difficult, and this makes the problem worse.) Some of it is a sense of loss because I miss that sense of community, that feeling of being young and urban and busy together, like we were all in the same boat, hustling our hustles, struggling with the same kinds of financial misadventure/relationship drama/cultural preoccupations/life choice malarkey and figuring out who we are/what we wanted for ourselves. I like having figured that stuff out, but also, if I can’t offer endless detailed emotional analyses, what CAN I offer my friends? (This is a serious question. I am a pony with limited tricks). It doesn’t help that the vast majority of my contemporaries are well launched on proper careers while I’m still a struggling ECR (with all the financial constraints that brings). Which is a choice I own, and don’t regret in the slightest, but does have an impact on the kinds of social engagement I can suggest. (My one burlesque class a week sort of wipes me out for paying to do stuff.)

kitty cuddlesI also recognise that coupling up changes the dynamic, and I’ve done it, so I don’t really get to complain. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing: I socialise with close friends in couples a lot more, with and without my partner, and that’s often really nice. But there’s also a sense in which I recognise that being in a monogamous couple often means you have less to give to friends, mostly in terms of time but also in terms of emotional energy and flexibility. I can’t just drop everything and rush to a friend in trouble all the time anymore. I wouldn’t expect my friends to do that for me in the same way they have in the past. And I am genuinely anxious about what I have to give to friends these days, when my standard contribution of long overthinky emotional conversations about Stuff (often relationshippy stuff) and/or Being There is much less needed and therefore a lot of emotional change (like that of parenthood) remains mostly inaccessible.

(Poly people – it is my impression that all this happens a lot less if you’re poly, that it’s ear cuddlesmuch easier to maintain a shifting network of friends and alliances and intimacies into your thirties and forties if you remove monogamy from the equation. This may be just me. But I have so much time and respect for the relationship anarchy thing of not necessarily prioritising your sexual and romantic relationships – friendships are good and amazing and deep and an entirely valid source of love and sustenance – but with one notable exception (and that’s a group of friends in their late twenties, so not yet at the same point) I haven’t really encountered it up here much among monogamous people, certainly not in an examined way. I guess also if you have kids between three or four people there is much more opportunity for one or two people to do childcare while the others see friends.)

There is a personal dimension to this, too. Having been various kinds of poly for a while, I’m well aware that the withdrawal of any sexual dimension, be it in terms of potential or sexual tension or understanding or history, from most of my friendships has changed the way I connect with people and express myself. (I feel pretty bad about the impact this has had on some individual friendships, but that’s another story for another time). Not so much the withdrawal of permission but the withdrawal of desire and awareness – for years, even after I stopped acting on it, I navigated by it to some extent. I was aware of levels of tension and desire  and attraction that just aren’t there for me now at all, and that’s changed both how I bond with new people and the tone (hah) of existing connections. At first just not having sexual awareness in most interactions was weird in terms of my sense of myself, and then it was weird in terms of my social relationships, and then it just became…normal. This is an old shift – years, probably, with aftershocks – but it’s another reason why my networks have shifted and why I’m not sure where, if anywhere, I fit in anymore.

puppy cuddlesTo be clear, I’m not anguished about all this, exactly. I love my friends and many of them are amazing and very loyal and supportive and I spent the morning talking to people, so I must have actual friends, right? I’m just aware that the bedrock of my life and my emotional support system is changing, and at my advanced age – having just, in the last decade if not half-decade, felt like I’d got it sorted* – that is somewhat destabilising. It has occurred to me that this whole insanely long post could potentially be summed up in ‘I’m not living like I’m 25 anymore, wah’, but actually, maybe, that in itself is a change worth discussing?

 

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*I slit my wrists in August 2012, went through a shitty breakup in September that also involved moving house, and I was pretty much fine by December. Like, finished a PhD type fine. That is basically down to the fact that my friends were loving and supportive beyond any reasonable measure. I think at that point I realised that my friends were legitimately the best.

 

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Yeah, I really did eat that, and it changed the world a bit

So I read You’re right, I didn’t eat that this morning, Alana Massey’s stark and utterly brilliant exploration of the psychosocial and cultural costs of staying thin. Unless you’re easily triggered by ED or body shaming stuff, go and read it, seriously. I’ll wait. It blew me away, partly for its sheer blistering honesty but also because the place she describes is very much where I used to live.

I’m not going to argue over whether the routine she describes is disordered or not. Obviously so, in that food and body size are clearly preoccupying an unhealthy proportion of her headspace, but I also think that in the context of normative c20th Western women’s food behaviour it’s an effectively meaningless question. Besides, there’s a slash in dis/order. By which I mean: Massey is artificially and problematically creating an order, but one that works for a whole bunch of cultural reasons, and arguing about its dysfunctionality or otherwise is to displace the serious biznes of arguing about demands and constructs imposed upon women and the extremely limited ways in which we’re allowed to inhabit bodies in culture. Why have we created a world in which ‘everything is handed to you on a silver platter’ if you’re (white, cis, able-bodied and) carefully, painfully thin? Why is it okay that women can even feel thus? In this environment, assuming the kind of objectivity to make that judgement – constructing Massey’s behaviour as disordered and thus dismissable – pretty much guarantees you’re being an asshole.

My therapist’s touchstone, and therefore my inheritance, is always ‘is it functional?’ and you know, for Massey, in some ways it seems to be. She has the work that she wants and apparently the relationships that she wants (maybe?) and definitely a body that she wants and feels confident with, so who are we to tell her she’s wrong? It’s culture that’s broken, not the accommodations she makes with it. She feels that ‘the world is handed to me on a silver platter’ precisely because of the thinness she works so hard for. She feels that making the world okay is within her control. That’s a good feeling. She gets to choose it.

But.

Her experience is not my experience. At all. I’ve been that thin, much thinner in fact, and I certainly don’t feel the world was ‘handed to me on a silver platter’ more at a size 00 than I do now (at approximately a US4 or UK8). I might not be representative, because my eating-pretty-much-whatever-I-want-and-exercising-most-days-even-if-it’s-just-a-long-walk figure is still slim by most people’s standards, and I’m quite short as well, so all the ‘tiny’ and ‘small’ stuff she talks about still happens to me.* Maybe the addition of breasts compensates in cultural attention terms for no longer being the thinnest person in any given room? I don’t know.

Thing is, whilst I’m certainly no longer proper thin in the sense that Massey is,  I’m notoriously unable to objectively assess my own body. There’s definite flesh on me now, and I quite like it. I feel…capable, and (on a good day) lithe. My partner is both appreciative and unfeasibly good at coming out unprompted with helpful and reassuring things at regular intervals, like ‘you somehow manage to be both tiny and curvy at the same time!’ or ‘you’re so hot.’ It helps. I feel like a ‘normal’ person, albeit a bit smaller in all directions. Would I feel the same about this body if I shrank again?  Or if I put on a bunch of weight? I suspect not. So I might be (objectively? Is this a concept with any validity here?) wrong, but I can’t see myself as thin anymore. Small, maybe. While I still have a prominent clavicle, I also have 32E breasts and thighs that almost touch at the top. (Nb. It’s possible to configure large chunks of this blog as essentially attempts to realise or understand my actual body. I can only apologise, and point out that you don’t have to read it.)

It also matters that I am so much saner – by which I mean more relaxed, less uptight, less neurotic – than when I was balancing on the edge Massey describes. For years I was strung out, uptight and frantic about almost anything, much less inclined to proportion or reason. Living on the borderlands between function and desperation – carefully maintaining that with constant calculation and calibration as Massey evokes so powerfully – is not only exhausting, but takes its toll on your mental health, especially if you’re kinda anxious to start with. Everything assumes undue importance. Everything is a life-or-death decision, especially anything to do with food. I still get flashes of this when I’m really hungry and there’s no food available, and it’s not a fun place to be. I may sometimes miss the senses of exhilaration, or control, or power, but I don’t miss that sense of barely controlled panic at all.

Thing is, I got bored. I got bored, and I stopped needing thinness more than I needed love or hugs or friends or food or sleep. It started as a defence against the lack of those things, and then they showed up and the thinness effort got in the way. It took me literally years to let go, and it partly helped that I was recalibrating in the aftermath of huge loss so I didn’t feel – painful as it was – that I had anything left to lose except thinness itself, which turned out not be worth very much in the end. Not all on its own. Thinness is like money, it’s only useful for the things it can do, and it turned out that without other people and fulfilling work it couldn’t do very much at all. If it stops being the answer in your personal perspective, it’s not going to solve anything else that’s real.

That clearly isn’t Massey’s experience, and props to her. We all do what we have to to survive. Besides, I think she and I slightly different, because I don’t think it ever felt to me like I was making a choice to maintain that kind of thinness. I didn’t feel I was choosing to get up and run instead of staying in bed, or eating egg whites instead of eggs, or refusing carbs, or swimming two kilometres every day even when I was exhausted. It was just what I had to do. It’s who I was. It’s an astonishingly self-sufficient way of being in some ways, because you do these things and as long as you do them they give you reasons to be okay.

It turns out, though, that the things I really need to be okay are just as achievable with a BMI of 19 as they were at 14. I am in a really good relationship, and feel loved and supported. I have an amazing network of friends. I have at least 3 jobs I find interesting and fulfilling. And I also…relax and enjoy food. I sleep more. I stress less. I’m still me, so I’m never going to be Little Miss Zen on the Prairie, but I am more relaxed about things in general. I was discussing this with an awesome ex-ED friend of mine, who said, ‘It’s not the big stuff really, but the little things. When there’s cookies on the table at work, I take one.’ She was right, and I wouldn’t exchange the ability to just let go and eat things without worrying and let my body sort it out to have my smaller body – and the infinite terror that goes with it – back again.

I’m very lucky, though, in a contemporary cultural context. Possibly like Massey, definitely unlike many many people who are unhappy with their bodies, I seem for whatever genetic metabolic reason to stay reasonably – culturally prescriptively – slender. I’m well aware that for many women maintaining the size I apparently gravitate towards and settle at would involve Massey’s level of focus and obsession, and I feel quite guilty and very lucky about that. It’s a gift, having this body that I sometimes feel fine about, an odd and unaccustomed and priceless one. I am profoundly grateful for it. I just also want to change the world so it could be like this for everyone.

 

 

*For context, at my functional thinnest post-anorexia I was probably slightly smaller than Massey, a 00 when I was in the States, and now I’m probably a couple of sizes bigger than she is, a US4 or UK8. In fact, I’ve just been fitted for a wedding dress, and as far as I can remember (now it’s not life and death, I am comically bad at registering these things) I’m roughly 35”-25”-33”.
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Oh no, don’t say it’s true: on the loss of David Bowie

‘I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.’

bowie 6

I cannot comprehend or imagine a world without David Bowie, which is pretty shit, as it appears I am now living in one.

He’s always been there, an icon in every sense, a phoenix and a mage, a powerful, perpetual, proud fusion of image and art and music and identity. I cannot yet quite believe he’s not immortal, although as one wise friend pointed out, pace the much-missed Pterry, ‘nobody is truly dead until the ripples they left in the world die away.’ And right now, it is hard to imagine the many musical and magical marks Bowie left fading for many, many lifetimes. How much of my life has he soundtracked? How much of my musical and cultural environment  has he influenced? How much of my world has he changed? I don’t even know. A lot. [1]

bowie 1

It’s a miracle and maybe (still and for always) a message, the universal appeal of a genius who stood so flamboyantly  outside the boundaries of ‘normal’, who (as the amazing pianist James Rhodes said next to his breaking heart on Twitter this morning) ‘made feeling like a freak okay’. He gave us all hope, the freaks and the weirdos and the brave and the dreamers, and maybe everyone’s at least a tiny bit of a freak or a weirdo on the inside.

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And yet he was so cool, by any tyrannical definition of the world.

His androgyny, his bisexuality, his glamour, his unashamed adoption of whichever cultural semiotics or tools would serve his artistic ends with complete disregard for convention or collusion, his constant reinvention, his willingness to challenge and to change – he was a shaft of light in a dark and occasionally darkening world, an inspiration for artists and musicians but also for anyone trying to live with creativity and conviction and meaning. I’ve read a lot about whether he was ‘really’ queer or not and I’m unconvinced it matters – the point was, he made space for others to be. He fucked with gender semiotics and we’re all a little bit richer for it.

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But I don’t think I need to make an argument for how David Bowie changed culture, because everyone will be doing that, and besides, it’s obvious. He changed the world I grew up in, he created cultural space,  but more than that, he changed me. Not just because I have a thing for androgyny (and tall thin people, go figure) but because Changes gave me courage and Life on Mars gave me imagination and Heroes gave me determination and hope. Boy and I spent the whole of recent holiday listening to Earthling, and it glittered and glowed like a jewel.

David Bowie was, and is, so, so much more than human. He was an icon. He is a legend. He is one of the stories we tell ourselves in order to become who we are. He gave so many of us the courage to be more fully and unconventionally ourselves.

We can be heroes.

bowie swinton

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Since I wrote this, a good friend has pointed out he did some really shitty stuff, like fucking a 13 or possibly 15-year-old in the 1970s. An interview with the girl concerned, Lori Maddox, is here (which gives her age as 15, and explicitly discusses the age and power disparities). I knew nothing of this, and will let this post stand as it sums up my feelings about his art. Nevertheless, I have pretty complex feelings I may discuss at some future point, mostly hinging on Lori Maddox’s autonomy and right to define her own sexual experiences, and the importance of cultural context in any understanding. Was the LA groupie culture of the 70s problematic and entitled? Undoubtedly. Should Bowie have acted differently? Yes. Did he harm anyone? Lori says not, and I don’t think it’s anyone else’s place to tell her otherwise, and by extension deny her ownership of her sexuality. Yes, teenage girls are problematically sexually objectified by patriarchy. They’re also denied the right to their own sexuality and desires by patriarchy, and the adult Lori’s interview makes it clear she consented enthusiastically to sex and looks back with joy and fondness on the incidents concerned. Nobody has the right to tell her otherwise, for all that a horrifying majority of older men’s relationships with teenage girls are abusive. It’s a minefield. This is probably the best take on it I’ve come across, although as stated I balk at unilaterally defining Lori Maddox’s sexual experiences as abuse without reference to her perspective. Having been a teenage girl doesn’t mean her perspective is invalid, particularly a) when it’s about her bodily autonomy and b) we’re now some 40 years on, and she might reasonably be expected to have re-evaluated her experiences with the insight of maturity. Who knows, maybe – hopefully –  Bowie had some sort of Damascene conversion and adopted modern ideas about consent. He was ahead of his time, it’s not impossible. But clearly, whilst his context and his decisions were problematic, my personal feeling is that they don’t undermine all the good that he did in the world. YMMV.

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