The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Midnight Fathers

It's late. Your wife, or husband perhaps, is out or away somewhere or gone to bed before you. The kids are in bed, or out, or away. For now, you're alone. There may be a small glass of whisky on the table. Tobacco, or some stronger leaf, smoulders in the ashtray. Some voice that speaks to your darker or quieter moments plays low on the sound system. The television is off. Definitely off. The newspaper is crumpled, the novel has no savour. You prowl the bookshelves, hunker down, run your finger over the dust of forgotten corners. Your glance alights on a lean volume or skinny pamphlet; your fingertip tugs it out. Blow the dust, sneeze, flick over pages that once seemed cogent.

It could be anything of many, that text. The dry statistical tables of Lenin's Imperialism; the scathing prose of Rosa's Junius Pamphlet: 'German social democracy is a stinking corpse.' Jim Cannon in the dock at Minnesota, as Japan's fleet slipped its harbours: 'Wherever capitalism penetrated, its laws followed it like a shadow.' The glare of Vietnam burning through pages in Imperialism and Revolution, by David Horowitz. (Whatever became of him?) The grim prescriptions of Guevara: 'It is necessary to prevent him from having a moment of peace, a quiet moment outside his barracks or even inside ... Then his moral fiber shall begin to decline. He will become even more beastly, but we shall notice how the signs of decadence begin to appear.' You look away from that page, to the blank television, and your neck hairs prickle as the guerrilla's ghost walks. You reach for something lighter: the Yiddish commonsense of Cliff at his best, the unquenchable optimism of Mandel, who as a lad argued his guards into letting him off that eastbound train ... these men too felt the shadow that paces the laws.

Their words, or those of others like (or unlike) them, shook up your life for a year or three, a decade or three ago. You settle back, sip the whisky, take a reminiscent draw. It did you no harm, that early fervour. The skills of small-group politics transferred easily enough to bigger organizations; experience in sticking your ground was character-forming; a rudimentary grasp of the sales pitch and the public spiel didn't go amiss; and an abiding interest in the bigger picture and the longer view you parlayed into some success that surprised yourself. The room is comfortable, the kit is recent, the job is interesting, the credit cards can be juggled at each month's end.

You never really repudiated these words. Not like some. If the subject ever comes up, and it seldom does, you know the exact shrug, the right ironic half-smile, to distance yourself just enough. Thought we had all the answers. Interesting times. It was the big strike. The dole. The war. The nukes. Everything seemed a bit, you know, urgent. Impatient youth. Went a little too far. Not all regretted, mind. But you know how it is. Matters not so black and white. Bit off more than we could chew. You grow up.

You had a call the other day, out of the blue. Just catching up. No, really? Well done. Or bumped into someone at a conference. Shared a half-indulgent, half-embarrassed reference back, an in-joke. Nobody overhearing would ever get it. And now? A sideways glance at a headline, a shrug of one shoulder, a grimace, a gesture of the hand. You're still on the same wavelength, you and him, or you and her. For a moment it sparks the gap between you, an anger neither of you have felt or shown since ... that other time. But what can you do?

And it strikes you, quite suddenly, what you have been doing. It's not good. You've been doing more for the system than the clamant renegades or blatant sell-outs you despise. You've transmitted a small portion of its weight downward. It's subtle, this ideology and hegemony business that Gramsci used to go on about. You may not be suborned, but you function as one of the subaltern intellectuals. The most conservative and deadening and discouraging response to new impatient youth is yes, that's how it all works, but ... what can you do?

The question ceases to be rhetorical. What can you do? You are certainly not going to get into all that again. (If you've been with me so far, you know just what I mean by all that.) Christ, no. What else? Letters to the editor? To your elected representative? There are liberals enough.

Something within you has become harder and colder this week. You've glimpsed the bestiality and the decadence, in the system's nerves like a venereal disease. It's sick, and there is something sexual in its sickness, something warped beyond therapy. The oiled skin of a gladiator, the lusty roar of the arena. A line from Cornford, whom you haven't read for years, slides beneath the surface of your mind. 'The painted boy in the praetorian's bed.' Camphor and pincers, piss and blood. You're in this rotting system, you're part of it. You pay the soldiers. Civis Romanus sum.

But you know how it all works, how the small actions add up. And you now see how you can start to stack them up differently. The helpful suggestion upward, not made. The confidential memo leaked downward, or out. The book recommended to an inquiring student. No longer on the curriculum, but you might find it interesting - a different angle. The conversational concessions withdrawn. The conventional civility dropped. The hard stare back, the harder line held. The slack not cut. Elsewhere, the warmer smile. The word of encouragement. The grant approved. The link forwarded. The cartoon tacked up. The dues paid. The paper bought, the extra coin passed, the minute spent in friendly chat before you hurry for the train. The firm nod to your own kid's tentative query.

There are more of you than you know. You're in deep in the system, in its fouled blood, in its creaking bones, in its edgy nerves. In its schools and universities, its bureaucracies and businesses, its studios and offices, its factories and homes. You're under its skin. The midnight fathers. The summer of love mothers. Thousands of you, tens of thousands, in Britain alone. You have the numbers. You know the drill.