Cruel Summers and Lonely Winters: A Personal Take on Ferrante vs. Knausgaard

This text includes some spoilers for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (all volumes)

Ferrante-Knausgaard-original-language

Some time ago I was talking to my mum on the phone and mentioned that I bought the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend. Her immediate reaction was to suggest I’m a bit out of touch with the literary trends, since both she and my grandma finished reading Ferrante’s cycle more than a year ago. I defended myself, saying I didn’t have time to read half a page of fiction (not too mention four books) last year because of my studies and internship, only to later realise I actually managed to consume quite a lot of another phenomenon of our times: the edgily titled My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

My mother dismissed Knausgaard’s books without reading them, claiming she’s not interested in someone’s traumatised childhood and alcoholic father (actually Ferrante’s books also feature plenty of trauma and addiction). Personally I found the first volume of My Struggle, focused on said trauma and father, a captivating masterpiece. It is in the next messily written volumes, full of clumsy male sexual experiences and (equally alien to me) fatherly dilemmas, where Karl Ove lost me to the obligations of writing my thesis. On the other hand, Elena Ferrante and her heroine, conveniently also named Elena (Greco), forced me to postpone work and socialising to follow their story, also covering topics absent from my everyday life (maternity, organised crime, earthquakes).

I don’t want to rely on my experience with these works just to claim that Ferrante is better: the ending of her cycle disappointed me and killed my hopes of seeing it as something really great, something like Father Goriot by Balzac, which I finish reading and think “wow”. Also I appreciate the somewhat gimmicky novelty of Knausgaard’s “fictional autobiography”, while Ferrante’s novels are pretty conventional (which might be why I liked reading them).

Still, the comparisons write themselves, and while I’m pleasantly surprised that The New Yorker implied Ferrante and Knausgaard are two titans with a “radically opposed” visions of human condition in the vein of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (because I like generalisations swooping across the ages), their analysis doesn’t quite satisfy me. Of course, there is a deeper meaning in Ferrante and Knausgaard’s books, related to violence, growing up and mundane everyday lives. But the more superficial aspects of their work and personas deserve to be presented as the full of contrasts clickbait material which they are. Karl Ove writes about his own life in ruthless detail, Elena writes potentially autobiographical fiction. While we see photos of Karl Ove’s ruggedly handsome face on the covers of his books, we have no idea about Elena’s looks – she might even be a male author using a female pseudonym. Karl Ove lives in Norway and Sweden, the lands of grey skies, cold winters and IKEA, Elena lives in Italy, the land of loud conversations, good food and a lot of sun. These are cliches, but marketing loves them, and while Ferrante’s covers show sunny weddings, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere presented My Struggle as a twisted addition to the hygge trend.

The biggest difference, however, has to do with my favourite topic (other than random cultural consumption): politics. Largely absent from Knausgaard’s novels, politics provide most of the context and much of the plot in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle. Knausgaard writes about his personal relationships and artistic struggles, and at first the life of Ferrante’s supposed alter ego, Elena Greco, seems to be filled with exactly that. She’s a lover, a writer and a mother, more or less in that order. But Elena’s relationships, studies and publications are often just reflections of her biggest desire: to escape the poverty and violence of the place where she comes from, a working class neighbourhood in Naples. For many years she studies, extremely disciplined, at schools which almost no one from her neighbourhood attends, to finally become the only local university graduate. Among the people left behind is her best friend forever, Lila, whose family is slightly poorer than Elena’s. The twelve year old Lila has to help her parents with work and isn’t allowed to attend the middle school, despite her almost supernatural intelligence. The reader has no doubt that she’s the “brilliant friend” from the title – until at some point, when she’s sixteen and about to get married, Lila implores Elena: don’t end up like me, study to do great things: you’re my brilliant friend.

GettyImages-482275665-1024x629

Ferrante’s books are in fact a readable analysis of social classes shaping people’s lives. There’s the obvious layer of this analysis, in which Elena, Lila and their friends represent the working class; rich teachers and professors like the Galianis and Airotos are a sort of bourgeois intelligentsia; the factory owner Soccavo is a textbook capitalist; some people situate themselves on the borders of these distinctions, like the third most important character of the cycle, the womanising arriviste Nino Sarratore. But within these categories individual decisions lead to more complex consequences. After the initial tragedy of stopping with her education, Lila has to deal with a restless mind, symbolising all the potential unrealised because of her various struggles. Elena, who compares herself to the spoiled youth of the higher classes, discovers that she spent most of her life studying only to achieve what others have gotten as if it was their natural right. Even though at some point Lila’s uniqueness manifests itself as striking physical beauty, Elena observes that the girls from the higher classes possess charm and grace which neither she nor Lila will ever have. Nothing can replace Elena and Lila’s childhood dream of getting rich, and while both of them admire characters devoted to some other goal – be it communism or science – by the end of the last book we realise that even these characters have no influence on the violent chaos in their neighbourhood, Naples, Italy and, ultimately, the world.

In Knausgaard’s novels, the chaos is hidden within: deep in people’s minds, but also behind the curtains of their bourgeois homes. Karl Ove barely has any financial problems. Unlike Ferrante’s heroines, who work hard to survive for the majority of their lives, the reckless Norwegian is penniless only once, as a result of a spontaneous and therefore terribly planned hitchhiking trip to Greece. In the later years, he might run out of his student credit money, but he can always borrow cash from his brother or immediately find a well-paid summer job on an oil platform. Despite the unemployment of his wife, he earns enough with his writing to support her and their three small children, while still having time to do his share of the household tasks. From an economic point of view, such welfare is like a dream come true – but naturally Knausgaard progresses to the hell of post-material values.

648

The huge trauma in Karl Ove’s life is caused by his father, a mysterious man who terrorises his young sons with strict rules and punishments, but ultimately succumbs to alcoholism later in his life. Ferrante’s novels are full of characters far more violent than Knausgaard’s father: rapists, terrorists and murderers. Yet the only reaction we really see from her main characters is yet more passion, yet more attempts to escape or remove oneself from the cruel reality. Knausgaard is different: he’s a self-conscious narrator, a man on a mission to describe an intimate, real version of himself. Reading about his childhood, I remembered the uneasy feeling of breaking something in the house, or not studying, and awaiting my parents’ reaction. Heartbreakingly, little Karl Ove remains in that uneasy state most of the time. During his student years, he often gets embarrassingly drunk and exposes his emotions, sometimes in an auto-destructive way. He cuts his face after romantic rejections, which at first seems shocking, but is explained in the last book of the series: Karl Ove looks just like his father. Instead of creating a panorama of the society, or at least a portrait of one social class, Knausgaard follows the remark of Gombrowicz – that one should write about oneself, since that is the only topic one really knows – and takes it to its very extreme. I almost accepted that personal focus halfway through the sixth novel, relaxed by the descriptions of Knausgaard’s summer family life, when suddenly the political subtext turned into a text in long pages of author’s musings about Adolf Hitler.

People discussing the first volumes of My Struggle were quick to dismiss the title as a meaningless provocation, unwilling to assume that an adult, respected writer would stain his life story by evoking Nazism. Yet on the more contemplative pages of these earlier novels Knausgaard already shows himself to be a particular kind of erudite, someone who didn’t stop his literary education on contemporary writers but followed the paths of their historical inspiration. That’s why we get to know his thoughts on Hoelderlin, Hamsun and a couple of less famous, mostly Scandinavian, authors. Through these references and Karl Ove’s conversations with his friends (most of them called Geir), we discover him to be a polar opposite of Ferrante’s classically trained author and mother, Elena. While Elena writes her first book, a fictionalised account of her rape-y first time, in a month before finishing an excellent humanist scholarly thesis, Karl Ove struggles for years with his studies and writing to finally debut with a fictionalised account of his 18 year old teacher self’s affection for a 13 year old pupil. His political consciousness is barely existent unless he ponders on cultural issues: the immigrants in his town, his emasculation as a caring father, the Americanised celebrations at his kids’ school. In other words, he only cares about the political which is very, very personal – to him. And that brings us back to Hitler.

I’ve read Knausgaard’s long essay on Hitler’s youth in the middle of book six with great interest, probably because I went through a period of fascination with Nazi Germany when I was 17 and reading about people like Ernst Hanfstaengl brought a lot of deeply buried knowledge back to the surface of my mind. That could be the difference between me and the numerous reviewers who criticised the essay for its length and lack of connection with the rest of the story. That critique was also voiced in Polish reviews, written by people who, just like me, grew up with the ever present shadow of the 2nd World War and Shoah hanging over our rebuilt cities. I understand that even the Polish education system won’t make everyone a Nazi history expert, but my own interest grew from the stories of terrible crimes I’ve learned at school, and the equally terrible absence of Jews in Poland, Jews who made up 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population. Knausgaard also starts with Nazi crimes, by analysing a poem by Paul Celan, and with his personal Norwegian experience of the past: finding a copy of Mein Kampf in his grandpa’s attic. Beginning with a description of the young Hitler, someone destitute and unhappy, and his times, times when people deeply respected culture and patriotic sacrifice, Knausgaard looks at himself, a relatively miserable youth, young man and a grown-up in times when sublime ideals seem to be forgotten by the general populace. He muses on the feeling of “we”, the national enthusiasm that Nazis were able to evoke, and observes with surprise his own feeling of unity with the Norwegian nation mourning after Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack. What he looks for in the past are not simple parallels between himself, Hitler and their fathers, as many reviewers seem to suggest, but some wisdom about how the yearning for unity with other people, for erasing the “I” with “we”, can lead to monstrosities once the singular “you” disappears and the plural “you” becomes a hated out-group. And that’s important to Knausgaard, since he sees that yearning in himself and suspects many people share it. That’s where the personal turns into the very political in his novels, although it might be a different, more overly emotional kind of politics than the partisan shambles we’re used to.

As a writer, Knausgaard gives up some of his rights as an individual in order to share his relatively ordinary story with the readers. And his books are most fascinating when he focuses on his relationships with other people, most of them driven by his desire to be liked and loved while he believes he isn’t worthy of such affection. He wrote the My Struggle books because he was a writer and couldn’t come up with any good fiction, sure, but sometimes they read like a long cry for attention and a justification for his shortcomings and wrongdoings. Of course, the results are problematic on the personal level, with strangers on planes inquiring about the health of Knausgaard’s children and his wife suffering from manic and depressive episodes after reading his manuscripts. But doesn’t being famous and acclaimed just mean that a whole lot of people like you?

The starkest contrast between Knausgaard and Ferrante would then be Knausgaard making himself a significant character of his novels, while Ferrante hides as an author and her main characters want to hide or escape. It’s the question of the society holding some promise in reaching out to each other and sharing our traumas or being a violent, scary structure, one that brings more and more suffering to individuals doing their best. In this comparison, Ferrante is Dostoevsky, only there’s no God waiting to save the sinners. From the very beginning her novels are a biography, written by the narrator-character Elena about her friend Lila, a brilliant heroine who puts up a fight and then realises the fight can’t be won. In her God-like role of an author, the more fortunate Elena believes she’s right to go against Lila’s deepest wish (even though she knows Lila is the wiser one): the wish to disappear. Both cycles are thus unexpected biographies of “common people” which, instead of dissolving their heroes in the anonymous “we”, form a narrative mirror reflecting the past decades of human struggles.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Apolitical

Sometimes I wish I was an apolitical person. This thought came to my mind once more on a Saturday two weeks ago, when I attended a local Open Day for international students with my usual goal of political agitation. This mission was somewhat complicated, as my fellow activist from a student housing action group has arranged a spot for us at one of the stands, only to get an e-mail shortly before the event from an event manager accusing us of being, I quote, political. The manager, employed by the university, was shocked and disappointed. She discovered via Facebook (typical) that our group aims to politicise the issue of student housing in Utrecht, the scarcity of which forces students to live at hostels for weeks or rent cupboard-sized rooms for €500 a month. The Open Day was supposed to be more of a party for the new students, and therefore reminding them of the harsh reality awaiting outside was uncalled for.

The manager wasn’t bothered by us being too radically left- or right-wing, but by us being political at all. Although I was as upset as my action group comrade, I wasn’t surprised. On the contrary, I was surprised when he first said that our group will have a stand at an official university Open Day, as I knew, more or less, what to expect from such an event.

I knew what to expect and yet it hit me like a brick. I entered one of the newer university buildings, all glass and Scandinavian minimalist light wood, and was immediately offered a bag, a reusable water bottle and a university hoodie for a discounted price. People speaking English with various accents surrounded me, bringing back memories of my “undergrad years” as I felt both alien and at home. There were multiple professional-looking stands of societies, charities and student clubs, with serious Dutch students in t-shirts full of logos communicating through walkie talkies. A DJ played songs from a separate DJ booth.

Suddenly a tall guy with a plastic tray attached to his body emerged in front of me.

“What’s that?” I asked, looking at the snacks on the tray.

“Ha, ha, snacks,” he answered nervously. “Do you want one?”

“Sure,” I took a tiny carrot and dipped it in what turned out to be mustard. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the guy looked around and then quickly approached a couple of Asian students.

Shortly after that, I found the student housing comrade at a stand with information on accommodation, where he explained the situation to me. He could stay there and talk to students about their housing problems, but we weren’t allowed to distribute our flyers or any other material. The flyers at the housing information stand advertised staying at a hostel and renting out your room, rather than renting one in the first place. If I remember correctly, the event manager started questioning the nature of the group after we asked her if we could bring a banner to the stand. I couldn’t blame her. The handmade banner wouldn’t look good next to all the modern and attractive stands, promoting language institutes and bike fixing workshops.

foto 1

* * *

The apolitical life is an easy one. It’s a life motivated by values which are entirely your own, formed through long years of education and self-reflection. In most cases you aren’t even conscious of these values and it isn’t a problem either. The key value is your own happiness, your comfort, both motivated by the unpleasantness of the world pushed somewhere to the periphery of your vision.

Walking across those stands, I thought about my months in LA. They were weirdly relaxing in the sense that I didn’t know almost anyone close enough to have real obligations to them; I had so little to do between classes that I even started going to the gym. I reached peak relaxation during the course “Film and Social Change”, watching non-Hollywood films from the 60s in a cinema-like room (with Americans endlessly complaining about having to read subtitles) and writing about them. (I would be proud to say that I got A+ for that course, if only it wasn’t so absolutely puzzling to me that other people managed to get lower grades.) In any case, save for one exhausting episode of flyering for my feminist friend’s party in the student elections (no election training will ever be intimidating to me after the American “close your eyes and imagine your candidate losing” nonsense), these 6 months on the other end of the world were the most apolitical time in my life since I first read Trotskyist propaganda aged 17.

And I was having a pretty great time. Literally no one knew anything about the place I was from (most local immigrants were from Mexico or Asia), barely anyone knew me as a person, I had a lot of weird and great experiences which I want to list but I will restrain myself, since this post is not really about that. This post is about the vague promise that being apolitical has for many of us: the promise of personal success, enjoyment, the assumed guarantee of a happy ending if only one is decent and hard-working, not bothering herself with frowned upon activities such as getting a burnout, doing unproductive and unhealthy stuff or questioning the liberal consensus.

Some people say that those who are apolitical can only be so thanks to their economically privileged position. I’m a humble person, so in regards to myself I think the opposite is true: I can be political only because I’m relatively privileged, or in any case not afraid of becoming homeless and hungry if I lose my job. I also never had to choose between politics and career, assuming (sometimes wrongly) that I can be politically active and do all my work and studies at the same time. But I imagine that people who fight for their apoliticalness (?) are not only happy about their comfortable lives and unwilling to change them: they’re also afraid of losing what they have now and what they might have in the future.

What explains excluding something better than fear? Of course, that assumption is ridiculous if one considers just our small example: an activist student group being a threat to the atmosphere of an event with dozens other organisations. But the manager’s response to us was a part of more general, slightly paranoid thought patterns which automatically relegate any actually subversive actions to the category of nuisance. Interestingly, there were a couple of environmental organisations at the event – for example De Groente Tas, an initiative set up at the university’s Green Office aiming to sell local, “biological” vegetables to students at a low price. Fighting against climate change and for a sustainable society is, as most people would agree, political. Why was De Groente Tas allowed at the event, then, despite its apolitical nature?

The answer to that question lies in the effectiveness of various sustainable actions. As nice as they are, individual enterprises such as De Groente Tas won’t change much; or more crucially, they won’t change things fast enough. The consequences of the climate change are a real threat not only to humans, but to entire ecosystems, and people should unite in finding effective ways to mitigate these consequences. But it’s more convenient for the liberal parties to put this burden on the individual rather than push for solutions on the state and global levels, which would require antagonising the supporters, if not employers, of many a liberal politician: international corporations. The big polluters. Call them as you wish, apparently they can get massive tax cuts while average citizens are expected to buy more expensive sustainable vegetables, pay higher energy bills and engage themselves in countless initiatives which will never be effective enough.

The individual, facing his or her endless individual problems – finding a job, finding a room, now apparently also fighting the climate change – is overwhelmed and confused. No wonder that in this confusion we try to cope as well as we can, hopefully finding a room through connections and then hiding from the world with Netflix and a blanket, and avoiding any additional difficulties – especially as time-consuming and seemingly futile as political activism in 2018. I was reading an article yesterday written by someone quite far away from me on the political spectrum and even confronting myself with unknown arguments was difficult; I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to form a political opinion for people who have been advised to avoid politics their whole lives. And at this point, who can blame the event manager for rejecting politics? She wanted to organise a party-like event. She probably just wanted to do her job well and then go home, get some rest, maybe run around the park and buy “biological” milk if she’s a bit more socially conscious. I know many people like that, who only study and/or work, and sometimes I envy them.

“You have cheese now,” I remarked, passing the snacks guy on my way out.

“Yes, ha, ha. An upgrade.”

I sunk in a soft white Ikea chair, eating my free piece of cheese. If I can understand why these people are demotivated, I mused, and it leads me to the realisation that my activism is pointless, maybe I should approach being (a)political from a different angle: what motivates me?

Probably anger. Based on values I also don’t understand that consciously, but they are still there. Most of all, the discrepancy: there is some basic minimum of logic and decency the world should adhere to, and even that minimum isn’t reached. Who knows if we will achieve anything – I have to do something, because otherwise I won’t be at piece with myself; because I don’t believe that it’s right that the university invites more and more international students without taking responsibility for the dramatic housing situation, choosing instead to advertise hostels which offer a bed in a shared room for €565.00 a month:

foto 2

I wish I could just chill and enjoy the cheese.

It’s Not You, It’s the System; Or How Competition Brings Us Down

(Sort of a rant today – I tried to edit it, but in the end I decided to leave it as it is)

 

When I was about fourteen, us girls were separated from boys during PE classes since my school only had one proper outdoor field. Our male classmates had biology while we played football outside. After an hour we switched. I’m not entirely aware of all the planning behind it, but one day this separation inspired our biology teacher to conduct a funny experiment.

‘I’m dividing you into groups,’ she said. ‘You need to prepare questions for the other groups, based on the chapters you had to read for today, and your answers will be graded.’

When the teacher left us alone for a moment, we quickly agreed to make the questions as easy as possible without turning the whole thing into a farce. Predictably, all groups answered correctly and got the highest possible grade.

‘Okay, now tell me,’ said the teacher at the end of the class, ‘did you make the questions so easy on purpose?’ We nodded nervously. ‘No, your grades are valid, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just interesting, because each of the boys’ groups assumed they had to be better than other groups. They prepared difficult questions and most of them got low grades.’

That, apparently, was the famous male competitiveness. We were more or less aware of it; at least I was grateful for being female during PE classes, since while sucking at almost all sports was embarrassing for a girl, it could lead to serious bullying and a low social status for a boy. Fortunately, we were entering the age when most of the girls “forgot their sport clothes” or claimed to suffer from 3-weeks-long periods just to avoid physical activity. We also regularly escaped from the swimming pool trips. Many of us were lazy or just not very enthusiastic about the prospect of cold chlorinated water during the freezing Warsaw winters. Some, however, were ashamed of how they looked in a swimming suit: they thought they were fat. Even though, logically, exercise can help with losing weight, the shame outweighted that logic.

Most of the theory I consciously support now is just explaining stuff I experienced semi-consciously in my life. Thus when many years later I read some radical feminist piece about beauty standards acting as a sort of “divide and rule” tool applied by men on women, I didn’t need much convincing. Of course, there’s no secret conspiracy involving all male people; but the feeling of inferiority most women experience looking at their objectively healthy bodies remains very real. Often it’s not a man who makes a woman feel like shit, but another woman – I know a girl who, after hearing someone complimenting another woman’s looks, will inevitably reply with something like “Oh, but she must be very stupid.” We might not be socialised to compete in class or on the field as much as men, but we are not free from always wanting to be better than others according to arbitrary criteria we rarely question.

I was shocked when a friend told me, with a disillusioned tone implying she’d heard too many secrets, that half of the girls in my high school year had bulimia. I was shocked when one after one of my friends told me they felt stupid, that they were never good enough, that they were depressed because of many reasons, many of them relating to their academic performance, precarious careers, failures of their love lives. But the biggest shock came when I realised I was constantly comparing myself to others – and I was doing stuff I hated, applying for jobs I didn’t want and considering partners I couldn’t connect to just because I didn’t want to be worse than them, in this or another frankly absurd way. I was stressed, sleep deprived and irritated, hating the products of my frantic work and ashamed to celebrate any success, be it learning a new language or graduation, because I didn’t see these successes as successful enough: there were always people speaking the language more fluently or graduating with a higher GPA.

As much as I want to get rid of it, I’m still too competitive and ambitious, which invariably leads to harmful perfectionism and procrastination. Many of my problems stem from the fact that while I consider myself an interesting person according to my own criteria, I have this nagging feeling that I’m boring compared to others, in other people’s eyes. I’m not even sure when, where and why I began being anxious about it. Most importantly, I don’t get why that scale of being interesting, or the scales of being beautiful or successful are ingrained so deeply in my head. Surely I should be able to say ‘I’m done’ when I’m actually done, and start a new life on a sustainable goat squat-farm writing poetry. But I can’t, and my ‘drive’, instead of motivating me to write amazing poetry here and now, just brings this anxiety of not doing well enough which I, and probably many of you, try to silence using the drug of trashy culture as well as actual drugs.

Maybe the pervasiveness of toxic competition can be explained by our individualistic economy and its cultural manifestations. There can’t be one national healthcare system when multiple companies will do better, hundreds of people within these companies taking extra hours to get promoted. At the same time, the popular superhero movies (a trashy cultural distraction I often enjoy) rehash the fantasies about a group of special individuals who can save the world. Despite these illusions, it’s precisely the people with most power standing in the way of world-saving: people who will rather keep their bonuses high than stop polluting the earth or feeding the weapon industry. At least you can make yourself feel better by spending a percentage of these ridiculous sums on charity. But the power will stay in your hands, if you succeed. Whether it’s the power to buy a private jet or afford health insurance doesn’t matter that much, since the same rules apply: you need to perform better than others in order to obtain but a tiniest fracture of power.

Young girls know very well that they’re judged on their appearance, and most of us assume that without certain – what? – qualifications an uncertain future of ‘flexible’ jobs and overpriced necessities awaits us. Of course, many mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but our environment and activities trigger difficult episodes. Even though our brains have remained largely unchanged for centuries, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Looking around me, I see many people being happy despite rather than because of their studies or work – the main focus of their lives. That biology class was the only time I remember when I was rewarded not for my individual knowledge or achievements, but rather for collaborating with others for the gain of all. Later, I encountered more and more difficult questions and challenges I had to answer alone, knowing very well that if I can’t face them, the next ones will only become more daunting due to the previous failures.

I’m not surprised that I’m happiest doing voluntary work, be it advising people on plant care or political activism. I know people failing their studies who amass a lot of extra (thus, ’useless’) knowledge in their free time, as well as those who anonymously contribute to impressive online projects. A lot of motivation appears once someone isn’t forced to perform in a certain way, and other people are there as collaborators rather than competitors. But these situations are rare exceptions, cool class projects rather than stressful exams. Without changing the way our work and livelihood are determined, we can’t free ourselves from the stress and anxieties of modern life.

How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety

So you’ve read some stuff and one day you realise that the word must become flesh (or however you say that in English). You become active in a movement or organisation. You’re probably not ~officially diagnosed~ with social anxiety, you just know that you hate meeting new people and picking up the phone. That, of course, is what activists do most of the time, and if you sense a contradiction here, you’re right. As I’ve made many stupid decisions in my life (although most of them, as shitty defence as it is, unaware of the consequences), I will be your helping hand: I will tell you what to expect, and then you can make your decisions as someone close to the rational human being economists would like us to be.

How to be an activist with social anxiety

  • If you’re similar to me, the most difficult part won’t be canvassing or starting a conversation with randoms on the street. The real plague are the many events during which you have to discuss and plan actions with people from your organisation – you’d much rather write comments in an online thread (reminiscent of safe spaces such as Revleft or the mailing list of the failed Occupy protest in your city), but these meetings are held in real life. Before the group decides to do something you totally disagree with and designates you to do something you hate, you should force yourself to speak. Raise your hand, if needed, or wait for a moment of silence. Even if other people begin to talk over you, there’s a chance that the shocking experience of hearing your voice for the first time in ages shuts them up quickly.
  • It’s true that most political activities depend on contacting people and networking *nauseous emoji*, but there are many which need to be done individually. Someone has to design, print and distribute the flyers; someone has to write texts (“copy”), translate them, manage the website and social media, do research etc. You shouldn’t avoid the social activities forever (more on that below), but doing these individual tasks is a good way to be useful in a less challenging way.
  • You have to accept that you’ll see activists less dedicated and competent than you (or, what often hurts more, than your friends) attaining high positions in organisations simply because they are good with people. You can’t deny that this is the key competence, and therefore you’ll ask yourself why the fuck are you even bothering with this. You could be doing something productive instead, for example sweating at raves waiting for a publisher to pick up your yet unwritten novel (something that worked for Zadie Smith, IIRC; I swear that review I promised months ago is in the works).
  • More sadly, you’ll realise you’re not connecting with people that seem likeable and worth your while, because there’s a limit to meaningful relationships you can maintain and social interactions are difficult. That’s quite frustrating as everyone else will appear to be BFFs working on their cool secret projects. But in this regard activism isn’t that different from everything else in your life, so really, you should get used to it by now.
  • Sooner or later, you’ll be valued for your contributions, or just for making an effort, since political groups are the most welcoming environments you’ll ever experience. Of course they are: they depend on your, most likely entirely voluntary, work and one of their main goals is to attract and keep as many activists as possible. If you’re not getting any recognition at the moment, just keep believing in yourself and your assets. (If you can’t, I must refer you to the yet unwritten guide ‘How to Be an Activist with Low Self Esteem and/or Depression”, hopefully produced by one of my comrades in the future.)
  • An even more difficult case is becoming an activist with social anxiety in a country where you barely speak the language, but as I don’t expect most people to reach this level of self sabotage, I won’t go deeper into it. (I would like to meet you, though, to share tips on setting realistic goals and loving oneself.) At least you’re rewarded with learning the language, if you persist.
  • The whole enterprise does have its advantages. As much as I hated the idea for the most of my life, exposure actually helps to deal with your fears, and if you’re presenting a campaign ten times to ten new people within an hour, by the end you may be exhausted, but also less scared than you were in the beginning. One of the biggest surprises is discovering how nice people are. We hear about varieties of the bystander effect and heinous crimes on daily basis, but these are the exceptions: most of us behave decently (while sober). For me, the absolute pinnacle of this experience was hearing Polish conservatives politely refusing to sign our pro-choice petition, and after that I’m afraid my fear levels are dangerously low. Of course, these people probably still write terrible things online, but they are simply not socialised to start screaming expletives in your face. Rare moments of actual rudeness disappear among the hundreds acceptable encounters.

Next to managing your social anxiety better and better thanks to exposure, advantages include feeling like you have a purpose in life, spending a lot of time outside, developing organisational skills and meeting a partner (happened to me and many, many others).

Still, there are moments when you are overwhelmed by work which keeps bringing disappointing results *cough*everyelectioninthelasttwoyears*cough*, when you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious around people you’ve seen a million times, when you hear that only 1.5% of Dutch citizens are members of a political party and you suspect there might be a reason for that. There are moments when you’re frustrated by ineffective organisations and dying out movements; by the media which frame your actions so aggressively they’re essentially lying (or, even worse, ignore them); by your fellow activists who, just like you, often fail at balancing their work, politics and whatever remains of their social lives. There are moments when anxiety and tiredness kill your motivation; in short, moments when your personal ‘How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety” guide could be summarised in a single bullet point:

  • Don’t.

Work for yourself, your future and your own little family. Plan your career carefully, and refrain from any activities that do not contribute to this career in a tangible way. Become a responsible adult.

But why would I want to do a thing like that?

 

Waarom ga ik SP stemmen en waarom jullie dat ook zouden moeten doen

Ik ben nog niet gewend aan de Nederlandse politiek. Toen ik hier in September 2012 voor mijn studie kwam, had ik wel een Nederlands paspoort dankzij bloedrecht, maar ik was nog niet bij de gemeente geregistreerd en daarom kon ik niet stemmen. Ik was sowieso overdonderd – meerdere linkse partijen?! Een Nederlandse versie van de Labour Party, een socialistische partij, een partij die groen (!) en (!!) links (!!!) is – en ik mag kiezen? Wat een contrast met Polen in 2012, waarin de enige een beetje linkse partij corrupt was en vol zat met oude postcommunisten. (Sinds 2015 is er nog een nieuwe partij, Razem – Samen – bijgekomen, deze is werkelijk links en betrouwbaar, misschien omdat zij te klein is om in de Poolse Tweede Kamer te zitten.)

In 2015 mocht ik twee keer stemmen voor de gemeenteverkiezingen en de waterstaten, een keer als mezelf en een keer als een gemachtigde van mijn vader (die zei alleen “stem op iets linkser dan PvdA”). Ik heb consequent 2 keer SP en 2 keer GroenLinks gestemd. Ik ben een socialist, dus het idee van de Socialistische Partij was genoeg om mijn stem te hebben in lokale verkiezingen. Maar ik vond ook het concept van een partij die tegen de klimaatverandering strijdt, maar wel sociaal is, heel aantrekkelijk. (Zoals jullie kunnen zien, mijn politieke analyse ging niet dieper dan het niveau van partijnamen. Ik was geen goedgeïnformeerde kiezer.)

In de tussentijd werd ik actief binnen de studentenbeweging De Nieuwe Universiteit. Daardoor werd ik bewust van de rol die GroenLinks speelde bij de invoering van het leenstelsel, en leerde veel lokale activisten van de SP kennen. De SP was de enige partij erg betrokken bij de Nieuwe Universiteit, binnen en buiten de Tweede Kamer (Kamerlid Jasper van Dijk was bijzonder arbeidzaam). Door deze betrokkenheid heb ik meer standpunten en acties van de partij erkend, en eindelijk besliste ik om de SP actief te steunen.

Nu, voor de verkiezingen, probeer ik met de lokale campagne in Utrecht te helpen als ik tijd heb (en soms ook als ik het niet heb). De campagneactiviteiten zijn echt de moeite waard – natuurlijk ben ik blij dat ik iets kan doen voor mijn idealen, en bovendien is het ook heel interessant om met verschillende mensen te praten over wat ze in de politiek belangrijk vinden. Ik ben geen extravert – eigenlijk heb ik vaak last van angst in sociale situaties – maar ik ben altijd gemotiveerd om politiek actief te zijn door mijn persoonlijke waarden, en ik vind bijna elk gesprek over de maatschappij spannend. (Ik zou blij zijn als ik zo gemotiveerd voor mijn studie was…)

Maar ik kon voor elke partij die ik steun actief zijn, zullen jullie misschien zeggen. Ja en nee. Natuurlijk voeren de meeste partijen campagnes een paar weken voor de verkiezingen. Maar de SP is actief ook in de jaren tussen de verkiezingen. De actievelingen van SP Utrecht hebben sinds vorige lente aan de deur geklopt om over het Nationaal Zorgfonds, een initiatief van de SP, te praten. Zo had ik een paar maanden om mezelf op de campagne voor te bereiden. Ik ben geen “professional socialist”, maar als ik leden van andere partijen zie die bang zijn om te flyeren, weet ik dat ik veel ben gevorderd. Dat is ook het doel van de SP – om uit iedereen, desondanks haar of zijn sociale vaardigheden en achtergrond, een actieve stakeholder van onze politiek te maken. Kleinere zowel als grotere acties zijn bedoeld om mensen te overtuigen dat ze niet machteloos zijn. Deze acties kan heel lokaal zijn, bijvoorbeeld een belangrijke buslijn in een verwaarloosde wijk terugbrengen, maar ook landelijk en ambitieus zoals de Nationaal ZorgFonds campagne. Daardoor kan iedereen zien dat politiek ons heel persoonlijk op verschillende niveaus betreft. Leden van de SP proberen met iedereen in dialoog te komen, elke week van elke maand van elk jaar, niet alleen voor de verkiezingen, zoals de journalisten die met PVVers praten alsof het iets heel bijzonders was. De #PakDeMacht campagneslogan klinkt eerst een beetje populistisch (maar is populisme echt zo’n slecht ding dan?), maar het gaat eigenlijk over geloven in een democratische participatiemaatschappij.

Toevallig volg ik nu een bijvak aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam over de relatie tussen wetenschap en beleidsvormingsprocessen. De theorie begrijpen is een uitdaging voor me, iemand die in de laatste twee jaren alleen eenvoudige kwantitatieve methoden heeft gestudeerd. Een van de belangrijkste conclusies van de bijvak is toch simpel: tot nu toe, cruciale stakeholders zijn vaak buitengesloten tijdens beleidsvorming. Beleidsexperten zoals Guba & Lincoln (in Fourth Generation Evaluation) zeggen dat wat de regering op nationaal en gemeentelijk niveau doet, dus de burgers alleen tijdens de onderzoeksfase consulteren, is niet genoeg voor een effectief en democratisch beleid. Maar tijdens de cursus zeiden veel van mijn medestudenten, die ervaring met beleidsvormingsprocessen hebben, dat het heel moeilijk is om mensen voor zo’n participatie te mobiliseren. Dit is waar. De meeste mensen zijn bezig met hun werk, studie of familie – de uitdagingen van het dagelijkse leven. Ook een flyer op het station aannemen kan al teveel moeite zijn voor een druk bezigge burger. En toch moeten we deze mensen politiek bewust en actief maken, want anders beheerst een klein groepje van machtige stakeholders de hele samenleving.

En dat doet de SP. Natuurlijk, de partij heeft ook veel goede standpunten in het verkiezingsprogramma, bijvoorbeeld over de zorg, het onderwijs, het milieu en ongelijkheid. Ze is de enige partij die openlijk zegt dat het neoliberale, kapitalistische systeem moet vervangen worden. Maar dat kunnen jullie op een flyer of op de website lezen. De SP heeft ook standpunten die ik niet volkomen terecht vind, bijvoorbeeld over de EU (lees mijn vorige post [EN] waarin ik schrijf wat ik van de linkse (gebrek aan) visies over de EU vind). Toch zou ik SP stemmen gebaseerd alleen op haar programma, dat de klassenstrijd in de tijd van vandaag erkent. Wat betreft het klimaat, ik geloof dat klassenstrijd tegen de belangen van grootkapitaal ook hier een oplossing zal brengen, en daarom vind ik partijen zoals GroenLinks te weinig antikapitalistisch om de klimaatverandering effectief te bestrijden.

Maar als een socialist die in het voormalige Oostblok opgegroeid is, vergeet ik nooit dat een sociale samenleving zonder democratie niet kan bestaan. En ook nu, in de tijden van bezuinigingen-beleid en groeiende ongelijkheid, is onze democratie heel zwak en kwetsbaar. Heel veel mensen willen over de politiek helemaal niet praten, omdat ze de hele rotzooi zo onbetrouwbaar vinden. En deze onbetrouwbaarheid zal niet verdwijnen na het verkiezings media-circus, maar alleen na het harde werk van duizenden activisten. Die andere partijen mogen nu praten over de “kloof” tussen de elite en de rest van de samenleving – de SP bestreed deze divisies lang voor de Brexit en Trump. Ik wil niet GroenLinks te veel bekritiseren – uiteindelijk is het een linkse partij – maar denk aan het karakter van hun “Meetups”: ze zijn wezenlijk een one-man show. Een geweldig man kan heel veel bereiken, maar bewegingen zoals het Nationaal ZorgFonds bereiken veel meer: ze geven mensen die geen professionele politici zijn een zeggenschap over hun samenleving. Dat bedoel ik als ik zeg dat democratie en gelijkwaardigheid belangrijk voor me zijn, en daarom stem ik SP op 15 maart.

 

 

PS Ik wil Jeroen hartelijk bedanken voor de correctie van grammaticafouten in mijn post ❤️️ (Als er nog fouten zijn dan is het zijn schuld)

The deceived children of the EU

On the 1st of May 2004 Poland joined the European Union, together with some other countries which we called “Central-Eastern European”, but which for the rest of the world were just Eastern Europe: the former Eastern Bloc. I was 10 years old. At my primary school we performed songs about Europe and had a special “European education” class, during which we prepared presentations about the EU countries, full of food trivia. The classrooms were decorated in yellow and dark blue.

I liked the colours and the starry flag, and when I turned 12 I became obsessed with Ode to Joy. I was fascinated with German culture out of sheer spite, because yes, Polish kids still thought German was a Nazi language – at least until they went on holiday and befriended German kids who weren’t Nazis, or became fans of Tokio Hotel. We could choose between German and French classes, and French annoyed me since everyone thought it was pretty (I was a tween contrarian supporting underdog languages). I chose German and soon I was listening to Beethoven instead of Tokio Hotel, partially because the plays by Friedrich Schiller (the author of the original Ode to Joy poem) were my chosen edgy alternative to the literary escapism of fantasy books, and partially because I found the 9th Symphony simply really, really beautiful. My dad had the 1963 Karajan recording and I was shocked to discover that there was more music after the initial “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” chorus. Once I got used to the operatic singing, I started listening to opera and then reading 19th century novels, and that’s why I had no social life for the next few years. I should’ve chosen French.

Meanwhile, the Polish pope, also known as the Pope among Polish people, died. My family wasn’t that religious – we didn’t even go to church every Sunday – but suddenly I found myself on the streets of Warsaw with thousands of shocked people, on a very warm April day after his death was announced. I was suffering from eczema so severe that I told my aunt and grandma: “It itches so terribly, I want to die”. They immediately told me off – and rightly so, but it’s their argument I remember: “How can you say something like that, when the Pope has just died, and he was very sick. You should be ashamed. He was suffering so much.”

Suffering. The Pope died in 2005 and exactly five years later, in April 2010, the Polish presidential plane crashed in Russia, near Smolensk, killing the president, his wife and many other worthy people on board, including politicians from all kinds of parties, left to right wing. Of course the right, led by the twin brother of the dead president, immediately announced that the crash was in fact a planned Russian attack. Once again, I was on the sunny streets of Warsaw’s Old Town. But this time, the vague sense of community which I felt with people attending the mass after pope’s death evaporated. A huge crowd was gathering at the presidential palace, waiting for the coffins to arrive, forming a queue to the condolence book. It was exciting; I ran into people I knew, including a former classmate who was now a member of a scouts team helping at the event. I brought him a sandwich from a nearby cafe, and he let me in to an emptier area close to the palace, not accessible even to the media. I looked at the crowd from the other side of the barriers, as I stood among exhausted people assisted by the scouts. At that moment, I didn’t know it for sure, but many could predict that this tragedy will divide Poland even further in the upcoming years. Since then, the supporters of the dead president’s party have been gathering in front of that palace for a monthly vigil and “defended” a wooden cross that the municipality wanted to move away. The events were so grotesque that you wanted to laugh at them, unless you saw these people in person: praying, unhappy, almost always old, often poor. Five years after the catastrophe, in 2015, their party won the election in landslide, forming a government by itself, and the cross vigils have been joined by a delegation of soldiers.

In 2010, I still identified as a Catholic, but I didn’t understand the people who thought Russians were behind the plane crash, just like I didn’t see how all Germans could be inherently Nazi. (True to myself, I chose to learn Russian instead of French in high school.) Gone was the sense of belonging that I felt as a 13 year old, writing that emigrants are traitors (I went through a literature-fueled nationalist phase) or reading the news about my city, Warsaw, religiously (I made a layout for my blog using a photo of a Warsaw bus). The entire history, both of the country and of my city, was full of suffering: wars, uprisings, genocide. The politicians were constantly arguing about history, about this or another holy memory of ever suffering heroes – almost exclusively soldiers – which wasn’t sufficiently honoured. Suffering doesn’t make much sense unless you explain it with some convoluted ideology, such as Christianity. And I couldn’t tolerate the hierarchy, patriarchy and homophobia of the Church any more. By 2012, I just wanted to leave, aimless, frustrated and not appreciating my idyllic high school years: I left the entire country behind.

But there was another option. I stopped listening to opera that often, but I still thought that Ode to Joy was more beautiful than any national anthem. My support for the European Union remained unquestioned even as my political views became more and more radically left wing. Here the Western Europeans might need some explanation: in Poland, the EU is unambiguously left wing. It is not only bureaucratic and infringing upon national sovereignty, it is a symbol of a foreign, Marxist world populated by “vegetarians and cyclists” (to borrow the words of the current Polish foreign affairs secretary). The economic nature of the EU as a common market isn’t very relevant here, as most of the Polish political discussion remains on a vague ideological level. (Similarly to this post, which somewhat validates the post-truth approach to politics, as emotions keep shaping the way in which I perceive facts.)

Many have repeated, throughout the years, that the EU needs a common sense of identity; I have been upholding that view, even going beyond the EU, thinking about the entire “Western world” in the context of terrorism and immigration. This identity should be based on values, which I took straight from Ode to Joy (and some other old stuff I’ve read, all related in my mind): equality, solidarity, freedom (but defined in terms of the former two). Democracy, economic well-being, fighting real issues such as the climate change. And, to be effective, fighting against the people and organisations which stood in the way of achieving these idealistic goals and caused suffering: the multinationals, the 1%, you know what I mean. Thanks to the EU, its vague aim of peacekeeping, its many subsidies and international institutions, I had a political body with which I could identify, not only that, for which I planned to work in the future. In the end, it wasn’t only the poor Warsaw or Poland that I supported – it was all the losers of this world.

You might remember that I’m a leftist (a socialist, to be precise) and you’re probably also aware that, at least in Western Europe, many left wing organisations oppose the EU as an undemocratic, neoliberal project – look at Greece, look at Germany, etc. Add the intra-EU migration, right wing populists gaining popularity and the whole thing gets messy. The EU as something very different from a nation state is difficult to address at the level of national politics. It seems distant, and yes, elitist – something that many of my potential friendly readers, internationally educated young people, may find a bit puzzling. For them, and to be fair for me, European institutions can be as accessible as the national ones. Indeed, there is a certain freedom associated with the fact that you can contact them, influence them and work for them unaffected by the salary differences between your country and the richer, post-colonialist ones. Your diploma, CV and language skills are the only limits.

Here I would like to describe a certain memory which started nagging me while I pondered these issues. At some point in middle school or high school, in a Polish literature or history class, one of my teachers drew a figure on the board – as you can see, I really don’t remember the situation, except for the figure itself:

FullSizeRender

(I added the words “Country A”, “Country B”, “The Elite” and “The ~Peopl[e]” myself for clarity.) The figure was an extremely simplified representation of the society before the nation state and industrial evolution: the aristocracy and other elites such as academics or traders could communicate and exchange ideas across the country borders – indeed, they had a status-based sense of community, with various noble families marrying across the continent. The ordinary people, meanwhile, couldn’t read or write and spoke some local dialects, which weren’t respected in the higher spheres. Naturally, there was no sense of community between a nobleman and a peasant.

This changed when the nation states were constructed, more or less according to the following scheme:

FullSizeRender(1)

The common language, tradition, history and whatever else is included in the symbolic mixture of a nation state is supposed to connect us all and make us different from people born in the other countries, so that we can be convinced to fight in wars for the vague ideal of a nation. At the same time, education and social mobility improve greatly, diminishing the divide between the privileged and the rest.

However, already in the 19th century Marxists simplified the society in a different way (this figure wasn’t brought up by the teacher):

FullSizeRender(2)

The people, or the proletarians, have a common interest in fighting the oppression of the elites, the bourgeoisie. The national community these two groups might share with each other doesn’t matter, as the society is divided along the class lines. That’s why Rosa Luxemburg’s party wanted international revolution rather than independence for Poland (something that puzzled me greatly at school).

Of course, the end goal of Marxists (and many others with utopian tendencies) looks more like this:

IMG_7807

But how do these schemes relate to the European Union? We need to keep in mind the competing identities associated with our nationality, social class and the EU itself.

The working title (lol) of this post was “Can the EU be a left-wing project?” – and this is the question which, after this lengthy self-centered story, I would like to investigate. At the heart of the leftist ideology lies the idea of fighting the capitalist exploitation, and, with the capital globalised more than ever, production chains spanning several continents, one would expect internationalism of the left to become more and more crucial. Yet, almost all political parties – a party being the most effective and developed form of political organisation – operate at the national level. Even in the European Parliament, the MPs are elected from the lists of national parties. That makes sense, since most of the legislative power remains at the national level. But the biggest issues – climate, the refugee crisis, global hunger; from the leftist perspective, international exploitation and corporate power – are something far beyond the capacities of a single country. This is why some left wing and progressive movements still hope for a positive role of the EU, especially after demonstrations of its anti-corporate actions such as protecting our privacy from Google and stopping Apple’s tax evasion.

At the same time, the very foundation of the EU, the free movement of capital and people, is creating more and more inequalities across the continent. Read the first part of Marta Tycner’s amazing article for a description of how these huge migration flows (with 25% of Latvia’s population emigrating) influences both the Western, rich and Eastern, poorer countries, not to mention the already unstable South. Tycner is a euroenthusiast, proposing a European minimum wage and political rights for EU migrants in their country of residence as solutions. But how can we agree on such a minimum wage, when it would almost certainly mean lowering the already existing minimum wage in the West? Does it make sense to not only stop the migration, but even encourage it by more political rights, if that will bring down wages in the richer regions and motivate people to leave the poorer ones? The Polish leftists I know are surprised by the euroscepticism of the Western left, but once we realise that these parties operate, de facto, almost exclusively on the national level, we will understand their position. By criticising the free movement, they not only avoid the alienation of their natural electorate – the Western working class – but also remain pragmatic about the nature of the EU.

The EU is neoliberal. I have been blind to it for a long time, and you can read in the first paragraphs of this post why. My idealistic vision of the EU as a noble project was so strong that it took me a year at least to truly realise that the EU as an institution is pushing for TTIP, something I was actively campaigning against. And in the same way as the imagined community of a nation is often used to promote certain interests, the European community can be used – I am one of the children who have fallen for it.

Now, I don’t want to say that every person identifying with a certain nationality is a puppet of the capitalists, and that nothing good has ever come from the EU. The reality is much more nuanced. There are many good people working in effective EU institutions. But it will be of great benefit to the euroenthusiastic left to start approaching the EU pragmatically, and to ask honest questions about the degree of changes we would need to turn it into a leftist project. Sometimes, at a national level, our strategy may include going against the EU. Internationalism is a beautiful ideal, and we should stick to it, but in its current form the EU is contributing to all of the divisions in the figures above: between the nations and between the working class and the elites. Young, higher educated euroentusiasts often miss that, since, despite our precarious jobs and unsure future, in our minds we do belong to this internationally connected, flexible elite – even if one career misstep can remind us that we have a certain passport and very little money, and suddenly our career prospects turn out to be just another neoliberal illusion.

On the other hand, I do wonder where the eurosceptical leftists see their grassroots, working class structures that would be a viable alternative to the EU, or otherwise how do they plan to keep fighting in their crumbling nation states against the globalised capital. The current line of these leftists is to criticise the EU harshly while simultaneously focusing on the interest of the workers in their respective nation states. This is obviously a strategy intended to discourage people from supporting shallow right wing populists, which however doesn’t seem to have a long term goal.

It has always been difficult for the left to navigate the maps of identities, because most of us just respect people regardless of them. In the times of Trump and Brexit, it may seem bold enough to say that people should be able to earn a decent wage regardless of where they were born. But I’m afraid we need to work much harder, to come up, together, with a plan how to get to that point. In this endeavour, it is important to be both very sceptical about the tools we’re working with and enthusiastic about our work itself – to quote Gramsci, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned”.

 

Neither burkinis nor makeup: why we need to stop seeing every choice made by women as “empowering”

I have written the following as a response to the article by Helen Pluckrose, Why I No Longer Identify as a Feminist, in a feminist Facebook group of my former bachelor programme. I was thinking about writing a blog post on the issues mentioned in this comment, but finally decided that the comment itself is long enough to be published, after some editing, as a post 😉

I finally had time to read the whole article and I agree with all of the [critical] comments above, about the diversity within feminism, the nature of being a victim and the importance of smaller, every day struggles as well as intersectionality as a way not to silence the voices of WOC and LGBT people in the movement. So in general I don’t agree with the author – I also don’t identify with her brand of liberal feminism (I believe I’m closer to radfems, mostly because of closely relating patriarchy with the capitalist economy).

Still, I think she makes some very valid points, especially about setting universal rules that we, as feminists, want all people to abide by. This sentence sums it up:

A Western liberal feminist can, on the same day, take part in a slut walk to protest Western women being judged by their clothing and accuse anyone criticizing the niqab of Islamophobia.

Stuff like that happens and IMHO it shouldn’t be accepted. Regarding Islam specifically, I would say Muslims in general are oppressed in the Western world, and I understand the need among progressives to refrain from criticising elements of Muslim culture when even left wing governments pander to racists with pointless, oppressive laws such as the burkini ban. Do I believe that the burkini itself is oppressive, as a symbol of religion claiming that women’s bodies should be covered bc of “modesty”? Yes. But in the same way that the make up industry is oppressive, telling women they need to conceal all “imperfections” before they leave the house (think of rules requiring from women to wear make up at work). That does not mean that I would ban make up (it would be hypocritical, as I often wear it myself 😉), but I will support anyone criticising its role in women’s oppression. In the same way, I think we should be critical of sexist aspects of any religion, including Islam. By avoiding such criticism and claiming that a niqab is a tool of liberation (maybe it can be in a some convoluted way for women protesting islamophobia, but I have yet to see an argument that would convince me something like that makes sense) we are harming the movement. Of course I welcome women covering their hair or faces in the movement, the same way I welcome women after breast enlargement surgeries, wearing high heels etc. But let’s not claim any of these things is “empowering” or feminist. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need them, or, more specifically, treat less harmful stuff like make up or veils as fun accessories, free of any symbolism. But we’re not there yet.

Regardless of these examples (Islam & Western fashion trends), cultural relativism is a concept extremely harmful to activism and fields like foreign politics. I remember for the UCU [University College Utrecht] intro sociology course we had to read the book “Cosmopolitanism”, which aims to be about a more sophisticated approach to communicating between cultures. But for most people, cultural relativism is a kind of a tool to avoid some difficult decisions about defining one’s beliefs. It’s easy to say, while confronted with something that makes us uneasy, “it’s just their culture, we should allow them to do what they want”. And once we establish that we actually don’t agree with something foreign to us, let’s say Female Genital Mutilation practised in some African cultures, thinking how we could stop this practice from our countries brings associations of violently promoting one’s ideology across the world: Christian colonialism, jihad, the expansion of Soviet Union, Afghanistan / Iraq invasions etc. But obviously the kind of value promotion we as feminist could & should do has nothing to do with military “interventions”, but rather with supporting our opinions with arguments/science and solidarity with people fighting oppression within their own cultures. The author of the article points out to silencing people criticising Islam from within, or speeches by oldfashioned “TERFs”. We should be really careful not to do stuff like this: the “strategy” of silencing in itself (often in the name of creating “safe spaces”) is pointless and dangerous, and refraining from criticising something from a feminist standpoint because it’s not from my or yours own culture seems even worse.

(Of course, we can make misguided statements about other cultures because we simply don’t know enough about them, and that’s why priority should be given to the voices of people belonging a certain culture. But we can also not know our “own” culture very well and it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment from which we know “enough” to criticise – which is why we shouldn’t let the idea that “it’s not our culture so we don’t know it” silence our criticism.)

After I published the text above, someone else commented:

Criticizing a Muslim woman living in a “modern” Western “liberal” country for the choices she is allowed to actively & individually make about what she wears, and believing you know better than her in regards to what she SHOULD wear isn’t feminist.

My reply:

I wouldn’t criticise people for being religious and expressing it through their clothing either (even though I’m not a fan of religions themselves). But I don’t think it’s a feminist choice to cover your body or hair because of religious laws (of a religion that is very patriarchal). And what this article very accurately points out is that some people in the feminist movement are against slutshaming women for what they wear in Western societies, which comes mostly from Christian traditions, while silencing people criticising the same slutshaming aspects of Islam. To take an example from the article, I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a dangerous right winger, but the way I’ve seen her described in some feminist spaces is simply vile. People won’t listen to anything she’s saying while using swearwords to describe her. Same with the 2nd wave feminists who say offensive stuff about trans people. This is the way in which modern feminism sometimes silences narratives of the oppressed who don’t fit our idea of a “good oppressed person”, or don’t follow the rules of safe spaces.

And with stuff like the burkini ban, I’m quite conflicted about it because while I think every woman has the right to decide what she’s doing with her body, I personally still see the tradition of covering oneself as something deeply unfeminist (also I’m not sure how closely it relates to the religion itself – I know female Muslims who don’t even cover their hair?).

Also I was raised in a pretty patriarchal religion (Catholicism) myself and have some experience with internalising harmful patriarchal ideology. Of course it wouldn’t help if people were criticising me personally for eg. following the Catholic Church directions regarding contraception, but encountering critiques of Church’s policy as such really helped me to form my own opinions.

11th day at UCLA

“Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You’re a slave to money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places
where all the veins meet yeah…

01/15/14

Did you ever arrive in one of the biggest cities of the leading economy just to realise that, for the first time in your life, you feel like you’re living in a village?

Westwood Village, specifically. With its prettiest buildings being cinemas – sorry, movie theaters – showing only one film – movie – at time in only one vintage interior. With most of its cafés being just a tiny part of huge enterprises. With, supposedly, Hollywood stars using baskets to shop like normal people. A girl from my Dutch university met me for a coffee after I arrived and before she left (back to Europe, back in the lands of proper winter, where “frozen” is more than a title on posters). She thought she saw Ryan Gosling once, but then she wasn’t sure – if that was her star-spotting score after almost four months, what can I expect, if I’m staying here for six? A glimpse of Jennifer Aniston buying kale smoothie at Whole Foods? With my luck, I could go to the famous ice cream-sandwiches place (Digsy’s?… whatever) and have a polite small talk with some sexist white comedian, not aware he is supposed to be a celebrity. Westwood Village. All other parts of Los Angeles can only be reached by bus and I don’t like buses. You never know which road they may take.

I take off my headphones, just to hear a siren noise outside. Is there a fire, or a fucking earthquake? I’m afraid of earthquakes. I’m afraid of unemployment, poverty, death, illness (if I think only about me, not my family or friends or politics or whatever will happen with all the diverse languages people speak around the world if we all start communicating in English or Chinese); just in this order, because unemployment seems so close and unavoidable for my generation and education and economic background (middle class sociology/politics student with a vague dream of pursuing an academic career, but honestly, too lazy for this). Then, I believe I could die every day, so death as a result of illness seems almost too logical – I could, for example, get hit by a car, a collapsing building (the earthquakes), shot by a person casually playing with their lawfully possessed gun, or just stand up right now and jump out of this window. It’s blocked, but I’m thin enough to fit in the narrow space. I wouldn’t really do something like this, but everyone has these stupid thoughts, and after all I’m listening to The Holy Bible by the Manics and I felt alone for the last three hours, which is simply tragic. Damned time zone differences prevent me from spamming all my friends I left far, far away, and I do believe they are happy about this situation.

Just as I finished writing the last paragraph describing my entertaining life (I’m not joking), I received a message, which reminded me I’m probably going to some parties in frat houses tomorrow. Woohoo. Am I excited? Well, I’m tired. Am I happy? Oh yes, I’m 20. And there will be alcohol. You need to be 21 here so they let you in the lousiest bar. Or to a concert featuring Drenge, a young British band promoted by NME. (Forget Drenge, I think. But if Eagulls happen to tour California and their concert is 21+, I know I’ll break the law. Update: they did play in LA in a 21+ club. I didn’t break the law. I saw them later in Utrecht and they were okay.)

Last Thursday I went to a Maoist meeting (sponsored by UCLA, apparently, so leave my visa alone, thank you) and it showed the dominance of capitalism in this country better than anything else. They had a proper marketing strategy. Little questionnaires (how did you hear about this meeting?, etc.). I left angry, but it wasn’t the productive anger I usually feel after political discussions. I see no direction I could follow in modern politics. This sounds melodramatic and funny, but I’m fed up with apolitical, intelligent young people. Being apolitical means you don’t really care about people who aren’t close to you. I’m in great danger of becoming apolitical, because it’s easy, and my life, so far, is very nice, very easy, wonderful. Of course, poor youth will be always accused of having radical views just because they are too lazy or stupid to “achieve something”; rich youth will be just called stupid, because they care. You can call me stupid, I don’t care (about your derogatory opinion; I do care about working conditions in Bangladesh). They told me I’m very good at writing, but I write in Polish, and I’m too lazy to struggle and publish something; that’s why I’m writing this blog. I expect it to die somewhere on the deserts of internet. It’s a great illusion, becoming famous via internet, unless you are Arctic Monkeys or equally good – they would be famous anyway, just through more traditional media. And if I’m discovering new bands today, it’s via the very traditional NME – although in an illegally downloaded pdf version; I would pay for it if it was in my Californian kiosk, seriously. Love or hate NME (I’m usually mildly annoyed/amused by it), at least they do write about new bands that have just few thousand plays on Spotify. I bought Rolling Stone just after I arrived here: not only is it published biweekly – half of it are irrelevant news about film and pop culture, the other half was about Beyonce. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, there was a long article about Arcade Fire. And the Beatles. But they are hardly the emerging stars of 2014.)

This thing is already too long, and it has no structure, although if you read it very carefully, you may notice there are subtle leitmotivs of British rock and my comfortable life making me lazy and apathetic – are these two connected? Maybe. Definitely. Notice I started with a quote from the most popular song by the Verve. The point is, the Verve doesn’t profit from its popularity – who does?

 “Although the song’s lyrics were written by Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft, it has been credited to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger after charges by the original copyright owners that the song was plagiarized from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time”.

Originally, The Verve had negotiated a licence to use a sample from the Oldham recording, but it was successfully argued that the Verve had used “too much” of the sample. Despite having original lyrics, the music of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” contains bongo drums sampled from the Oldham track,[clarification needed] which led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Allen Klein’s company that owns the rights to the Rolling Stones material of the 1960s. The matter was eventually settled, with copyright of the song reverting to Abkco. Songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft, with 100% of royalties going to the Rolling Stones.

“We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing,” says band member Simon Jones. “They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.”

After losing the composer credits to the song, Richard Ashcroft commented, “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years”, noting it was their biggest UK hit since “Brown Sugar”.

On Ashcroft’s return to touring, the song traditionally ended the set list. Ashcroft also reworked the single for VH2 Live for the music channel VH1, stripping the song of its strings. Ashcroft is quoted as saying during the show: “Despite all the legal angles and the bullshit, strip down to the chords and the lyrics and the melody and you realise there is such a good song there.”

In a Cash for Questions interview with Q magazine published in January 1999, Keith Richards was asked (by John Johnson of Enfield) if he thought it was harsh taking all The Verve’s royalties from “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” to which he replied, “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

So now you see. The Rolling Stones. One would think they are already satisfied with all their hits and riches. But, apparently, no matter if God gave you everything you wanted, you still want more.