December 04, 2004

Fortunes of agents

Anybody who stays in leftwing politics for long enough is liable to disillusion. So often you achieve so little, at so much cost to yourself, that you are, quite probably for years and years, a disaffection waiting to happen.

You lack enthusiasm. You lack optimism. And as these are necessities for any difficult and lengthy struggle against the odds, you lose the ability to play any role, other than as a peripheral participant in movements organised by other people. You find yourself an unhappy presence at the side of the room, with the air and countenance of somebody who has been disappointed too often, let down too many times by other people. Somebody hoping for everything but expecting nothing. Yet somebody anticipating the despair that comes from hoping for everything, rather than the serenity that expecting nothing brings.

Somebody unhappy. Somebody irritable. Somebody lacking patience with all the stupidity, all the faction fighting, all the denunciations, all the rhetoric, all the inability to let the small things go in order to concentrate on the big ones. Somebody lacking patience with people too young to understand that they do not know everything. Somebody lacking patience with oneself, for one's own impatience.

Yet, while the same gut feelings remain, it matters not so much. And mine still remain where they have been for a quarter of a century. I am still where I was. Though more constrained, though more truncated, I am still where I was. They also serve, who only stand and wait. But sometimes, it is hard to stand and wait, and not to walk away. Sometimes, one's patience is worn thin.

After the Hutton Report was published, the anti-war movement in London announced that they would hold a rally in Whitehall one Saturday afternoon in which they would burn a copy of his miserable and obsequious Report. As I was working that morning, I went along. I left the library at noon, and on the District Line on the way to Westminster, I suddenly realised that I had no business allowing this to happen without complaint. I was a librarian. A report is a book. A librarian cannot be present where books are burned. Cannot be present and say nothing.

So I realised that I was going to have to attend the rally - and object to what they were going to do. Even if I were the only one to do so - which would almost certainly be the case. It was a matter of conscience, conscience driven by the implicit vow I took when I became a librarian. But it was also a matter of the left not doing so many stupid and thoughtless things.

I know now, and knew then, that this wasn't some Nazi book-burning. One of the leading lights of the Stop The War Coalition, in a friendly enough fashion, told me so, after I had raised my voice against the burning. But I knew already. Of course it wasn't. But it was, nevertheless, a stupid thing to do. Stupid, because entirely unnecessary. Stupid, because it is not clever to associate the left, or the peace movement, with the sight of printed papers burning because we disagree with what they say. Stupid. And stupid things are better left undone.

Anyway, they went ahead and did it all the same, and I was pissed off at them but couldn't do anything about it, either about the act itself or the stupidity behind it. Nor could I do anything about the idiot youth in front of me, with whom I had the following exchange:
ejh: I can't stand aside while somebody burns a book.
him: It's not a book!
ejh: What is it then, if not a book?
him: It's not a book, it's lies!
The idiot youth was, I think, a little drunk, or at least I hope he was, because after that, when the burning began, he threw his arms in the air as if saluting a warlike god and shouted burn! burn! burn! in a way that made me shiver. I do not want to see a sight like that too often. I do not want to see my side looking like that too often. If I do, then sooner or later they will cease to be my side.

In between the discussion with the gentleman from Stop The War, and the confrontation with the idiot youth, I was the subject of a limited yet troubling verbal attack from another leading light in the Coalition. He wasn't pleased with me at all. He was sure that my intentions were not innocent. "I know what your game is", he verbally lunged at me. "I know what you're up to."

It was clear that he thought I was some sort of agent provocateur. And that, of course, is the swiftest way to drive somebody out of a movement, to label them a traitor, an agent of the other side. Not because most other people will necessarily believe them, but because, unless you are wholly committed, it is simply something you are not going to stick around and listen to. Why turn up and support a cause, why work for its success, if the price of doing so is to be told that you are working for the enemy? Why bother? Why care, if the price of caring is denunication?

Some people leave movements because they are expelled. Far more will take their leave because they are angry, disillusioned, worn out, worn down. The swiftest way to drive somebody out of a movement, is to label them a traitor, an agent of the other side. And that was just about the last day of my twenty-five years' worth of active political involvement.

The individual who accused me was none other than George Galloway. I wonder if he knows, now, how he made me feel?


At December 06, 2004 2:08 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

It is sadly true that the least appealing thing about activism is, by and large, the activists.

Amongst the relatively small number of pleasant people there do seem to be a whole bunch of twats.

It's strange the same should be true of chess players.

The trick, I think, is to only spend your time with those who are pleasant and leave the bigger picture to look after itself.

As a by-the-by, I am convinced it is not possible for anybody to 'make' us feel anything. We have to agree (emotionally) in some way. Even if it's only at the level of agreeing to take on somebody else's opinion and accept it as our own.

fascinating blog as ever. keep it coming

At July 07, 2006 11:47 pm, Anonymous Chris said...

You're absolutely correct, Justin. (I realise how old this entry is but I hope you read this comment all the same). The book burning is not objectionable because it's a book burning and books are lovely. The book burning is objectionable because it's right wing in itself. The act of burning a book and the emotions that go with it are right wing. The cheering crowd watching the lies burn are watching a burning, they are not watching contempt for Lord Hutton. I think the "idiot youth" in front of you typified perfectly the emotions about the burning. Once the book becomes lies, and it can be burned, we don't care what the lies are. Your friend could just as easily have been cheering the burning of a bible, a Koran, a Veda, a Tao Te Ching. He hasn't read the Hutton report. He never will. He just wants to watch it burn, and why?
Why does he want it to burn, when he's never read it? Why, because the crowd do. Because his friends do. His heroes do. So he cheers it, like a small boy at a football match. Like a small boy watching the Hitler-Jugend muscle down on the weird Jewish kid in his class.
That's right wing. When we follow a leader, and operate on the crowd. We do what feels right at the time, not what we know is right. This is how bricks get thrown and buildings burnt down. We might as well be cheering Nick Griffin making up lies about immigrants. We might as well be laughing at French accents. Because a crowd mentality is a dangerous one, and it's not one that cares what it's cheering about.

This is why I'm an anarcho-primitivist. Because in a society as large as our own, we can't escape it. And this is why I'm depressed about it. Because anarcho-primitivism will never come about.


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