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twittersectionalists and the commodification of dissent

5 Apr

I have hesitated for a while before writing this post, partly because I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to put and how I could put this without offending people, partly – to be honest – because I was quite nervous about what would the response be given the way that I have seen people react to criticisms of this topic in the past. Partly because I am quite wary of focusing so much attention on a clique for whom ‘starting a hashtag’ (ie writing something on Twitter) is a pinnacle of political achievement rather than the other more important work that organizations such as Boycott Workfare and Disabled People Against Cuts are doing.

But I was finally prompted to write this by a few things. If you are sad enough to spend lots of time on Twitter you may have noticed a campaign called CancelColbert about a comedian who had taken the piss out of Daniel Snyder, the proprietor of a sports team in the USA called ‘redskins’ (which has been accepted to be a racist term for quite some time) trying to claim that he wasn’t racist, setting up a charitable foundation for Native Americans and likening this to someone saying ‘the Chingchong Dingdong foundation for sensitivity to orientals’ wasn’t racist towards Chinese people.

‘CancelColbert’ claimed that he was racist even though his intentions had been satirical – although Suey Park, the person who started the campaign later backtracked and claimed her campaign had been satirical.

It may have been insensitive but in any case it was the way that Suey Park went about it that I found most revealing – as well as the things that she didn’t mention and did not criticize, some more aspects of which I will get to later.

Shortly after this campaign started she gave an interview to the Huffington Post which I have linked to below. I suggest that you watch the whole thing. Towards the end the interviewer came across as a bit of a dick – talking over her and calling her stupid which to my mind just helped her argument that her critics were just privileged white liberals. But it is what she said at the start that was quite revealing – expressing outrage that someone could compare this type of racism against native Americans to orientalism.

I don’t see a problem with comparing the two because they both clearly need to be opposed. What exactly is the problem with saying that the two types of racism are both wrong and if someone says that so and so isn’t racist it’s like someone saying that something really obviously racist is racist? An example – last year a couple of mates of mine were turned away from a bar because ‘they looked like pikeys’. What is the problem with turning round and saying ‘that’s like refusing to serve someone at a pub because they look like a Jew’ or ‘that’s like not serving someone because they’re black’. There is clearly no problem with it at all, even if the person saying it is a privileged white man.

As a class we are facing huge attacks on our living standards which threaten gains won a century ago in the social wage and in working conditions. We have people in work going to food banks. We have people being forced to choose between eating and heating their homes, we have vulnerable people starving to death because of the collapse of what little ‘safety net’ still existed because of the actions of Tory and Labour governments. In the USA 80% of adults are close to the poverty line. There are attacks on education and proposals to lengthen the school day so that parents are forced to work longer.

Inevitably in such situations the extreme right is capitalizing on the desperate situation, especially in mainland Europe and the mainstream parties while preaching tolerance and hysteria against parties like ukip are carrying out racist and anti immigrant policies like keeping kids in detention centers run by G4S and deporting students about to do exams. Sexism and racism of all kinds are making a comeback and attacks on disabled people are up, not helped by the increasing stigmatization and social isolation created by government policies – Tory and lib dems despite how they now try to distance themselves from each other.

In such situations it has never been more essential to resist any sort of attack and any attempt to create divisions.

In any case it is notable that Park who is quite happy to go on about ‘creating a hashtag’ and helping stuff trend (ie retweeting/posting stuff on Twitter, big fucking deal, plainly the next Che Guevara) is friendly with the vile openly racist and islamophobic Michelle Malkin.


Malkin was quite happy to put her name to oppose a memorial to the flight 93 highjacking because it would feature a crescent shaped row of trees and OMFG A CRESCENT IS A SYMBOL OF ISLAM SO THIS MEMORIAL IS SECRETLY A MEMORIAL TO THE TERRORISTS BECAUSE LIKE ALL MUSLIMS ARE TERRORISTS. In several posts on twitter Park praises Malkin describing her as ‘reasonable’ (I wonder what many Muslim people, or Japanese people whose internment during world war 2 she regards as justified, would reckon about that?) And they frequently retweet each others posts attacking ‘liberals’ and so on.

Suey Park is from Lake Zurich, a suburb of Chicago where the median household income is $110k, compared to $57k for Chicago and $51k for the US as a whole – makes you think doesn’t it?

Inevitably a theme these people return to again and again is to go on about how class based politics is outdated, and relegate the social relations of capitalism to simply being ‘classism’ ie prejudice based on accent, clothing and other characteristics associated with the ‘working class’. Rather than the conflict between classes being essential to capitalism and wage labour, exploitation and the profits and inherited wealth of the ruling class being intrinsic to the entire system, now its just sidestepped and rather than forming the basis of economic relations in the world it would be fine if there were some more people with northern accents in boardrooms.

It’s a perspective on class struggle which by their own terms is always relegated to a lesser status anyway, resulting in a situation where Michelle Obama can be regarded as more ‘oppressed’ than say an unemployed steelworker who happens to be white.


New Statesman
contributing editor Laurie Penny, described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left’ for example has recently been attacking the left about how bitter they are about successful women who are too focused on their careers.

This is someone who like many of the so-called ‘dissent entrepreneurs‘ has taken advantage of the growing trend towards the professionalisation of politics and the opportunities presented in the wake of various protest movements – occupy Wall street being one of them – to build a personal brand, to make money out of a veneer of radicalism.

She was quite happy to address the horny handed toilers at the Oxford Union and describe herself as a ‘revolutionary socialist’ but who nonetheless by her own admission was part of the ‘top 10% of society’ – Laurie having gone to the prestigious Brighton College and then to Oxford University, this is depressingly accurate. The fact that she has nothing but good things to say about privatization advocate, New Labour shill and former head of Wellington College Anthony Seldon makes it very clear where her class interests lie.

These people are not part of the left in any sense. In this context it is not surprising that any idea of fighting the ultimate discrimination and the entire system of social relations based on exploitation of the working class becomes relegated to merely being ‘classism’ which presumably someone like Alan Sugar could still experience today for not having been to Eton. It is quite easy to imagine HR departments adopting this sort of stuff in large companies in a way that seems politically correct but doesn’t actually change anything to do with the way the company operates, except to make the devisers of the policy feel good about themselves.

Take her mate Molly Crabapple, one of the fellow members of the so-called ‘commentariat’ and illustrator of her books, sneering at the suggestion that Venezuelan opposition is in any way backed by the USA and selling her paintings of revolutions she wasn’t involved in for $10000, telling everyone we need to ‘monetize our hotness’ and if we didnt know how we were ‘dumb’, while claiming we don’t live under real capitalism!

image

According to Molly (trigger warning: capitalism)

    I am an entrepreneur. I fucking love entrepreneurship. But society as it is now cannot function if most people are entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs need employees.  They need infrastructure.  They need people to assemble their iphones. To condemn people, as I sometimes see done, to severe financial fuckery, for being the average working stiffs who make the world run, is privileged bullshit I can’t stomach. We ALL have a common cause in fighting the corrupt, anti-competitive oligarchy in power.

This isn’t about whether you wear designer shoes or hate the smell of weed or can’t stand fucking hippies and their drum circles.  Its about whether you support an anti-capitalist fuedal-lord grifter class that privatizes their profits but socializes their losses

How about ‘anarcho-parliamentarians‘ selling ‘e-revolution’?

There’s another aspect to this though – the whole idea of ‘cultural appropriation’. As I have written about in previous posts by attempting to establish a hierarchy of oppression privilege theory ends up doing the opposite of what was intended – undermining solidarity by encouraging ‘activists’ who are from the world of academia and understand the terminology being used, which is so often used as a way to exclude people – to compete with each other over who is more oppressed, ‘call out’ people for being privileged etc – without a thought to what happens outside their bubble like someone writing on Twitter is the most important thing in the world.

One of the ways in which this theory has taken a more unpleasant direction is that of ‘cultural appropriation’. Anything from belly dancing to wearing dreadlocks to having a beard to English people celebrating St Patrick’s Day could be viewed as an example of ‘cultural appropriation’ and therefore an example of colonialism and racism.

The rationale for not doing things is that it is ‘taking someone else’s culture without permission’. The worrying thing about this is that it promotes an essentialist view of culture as something that ‘belongs’ to a particular people that is fixed and that other people who are not from that culture need to ask permission (from who?) Before adopting it. People have been accused of ‘stealing’ styles of art, literature, food etc from other cultures – a view of the nature of culture that you would expect to see from a different side of the political spectrum.

In this piece called ‘why I still can’t stand white belly dancers‘ the author essentially accuses anyone who goes belly dancing for fun without her permission of racism and of taking something that is not theirs. But belly dancing spread across Europe via Turkey and the Balkans and the Arab world hundreds of years ago and it is no surprise that people should have adopted it. People go belly dancing for the same reason they go to salsa or any other type of dancing – to have fun. Expecting the culture not to change and declaring that only certain races of people can take part in certain things displays a disturbing view.

Taken to its extreme it leads to the view that white people ‘don’t have an excuse‘ to be homeless, because they’re all so fucking privileged.

Here’s a video of an English woman teaching Irish dancing to Indian people. Who’s appropriating who here and how do we stop it?

And don’t even get me started on the mohican hairdo debate.

The majority of people on the extreme right declare that they only want to preserve their culture and race. They have another term for people who ‘appropriate’ other cultures – they call them race traitors. In fact, during the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis accused the Jews of ‘plagiarizing‘ their culture from the Germans and simply copying their traditions from other cultures, and for example, forbade Jews from performing works by German composers and from having German flags outside their houses.

More recently groups like Bloc Identitaire in France have taken a similar line saying that white people are oppressed and their culture is appropriated. Far right websites are full of comments decrying black people’s involvement in classical and heavy metal music – wrong skin color so they shouldn’t even be doing it. They’re not going belly dancing or wearing beards or eating all that multi culti food. Presumably they’re fine because they’re not trying to ‘appropriate’ anything.

You might ask why would you even care about such irrelevances – the majority of this ‘debate’ involves people firmly ensconced in their bubble with no interest in, or connection to, working class concerns – Laurie Penny the so called revolutionary socialist won’t even have the NUJ recognized at her own workplace – and thinking that reposting stuff on Twitter and ‘calling people out’ is ‘activism’ but to be honest it is what many people who are getting involved in left politics for the first time will encounter and it can end up doing one of two things – put you off the left for life or turn you into a complete dick, or both.

In addition the professionalisation of politics exemplified by the ‘dissent entrepreneurs’ is an extremely dangerous trend and one that ultimately ends up benefiting very privileged people who are familiar with identity politics theory and the language and culture of ‘activism’ – already in the states there are internship programmes for which having been an ‘activist’ is required – the ultimate cooption of dissent.

Saying that this is a problem and saying that the ultimate discrimination is economic, that fighting for day to day improvements in people’s lives and the possibility of something better is not like being some sort of dinosaur who claims that ‘homosexuality is a bourgeois deviation’ and it’s just fine for people to be sexist and racist until after the revolution. All these things are class issues and at a time when we are facing huge attacks on our living standards throughout the world why don’t we focus on collective solidarity and what unites rather than divides us. And kick out opportunists who see our struggles as a business opportunity.