The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Forty Whacks

Last week I was at the second installment of Stitch and Split: Selves and Territories in Science Fiction, in Seville, sponsored by the Universidad Internacional de Andalucia. On the plane over I had a window seat. Saw the white cliffs of Dover, the Channel Islands, Britanny, the Bay of Biscay and then a long stretch of Spain. You can tell a country's system of inheritance from the air. Big fields <- primogeniture. A book idea: interesting stuff you can see and figure out from the window seat of an airliner. I can imagine a children's book, but also an adult one.

The University had a taxi waiting for me at the airport. The hotel was in an area called Triana, across the river from the older city and close to the Magic Island of buildings from Expo 92, and to the enormous former monastery in which the university has some rooms, and where the event was taking place.

I freshened up and got there in good time. The university's organizer for the event, Isabel Ojeda Cruz, a very attractive and pleasant young woman, took me through hundreds of metres of architectural marvel to meet Stitch and Split event organisers, the two Belgians I'd met at the earlier gig in Barcelona - Laurence Rassell and her partner Nicolas - as well as other participants and the translator, a bouncy muscular guy who has translated a lot of top-level meetings and is fairly sceptical of the top level as a result.

A Spanish SF writer, Juan Miguel Aguilera was also on the first evening, and he talked about space colonies. I missed some of his talk through not having my translation headphones gadget on the right channel, or something. My talk ('We are one people') was a run-through of the Fall Revo future history and an explanation of what political motives it had (basically a re-work of the Nova Express article from way back) - against identity politics and balkanization. A lot of lively discussion followed.

After that we had a break then watched Born in Flames (1983) a film by Lizzie Borden. This film is a cult classic, and deservedly so. Its innovative style and editing stand out and the passion of its creators and actors is evident, and it's a film I intend to see again. As a comment on the earlier discussion it was an inspired piece of programming by Laurence. The premise of this documentary-style film is that ten years after America's peaceful, democratic socialist revolution, women are still oppressed, and a new campaigning movement, the Women's Army, arises to fight this oppression. This would have been a fascinating film if that is what it had been about, but it isn't. It's still fascinating, but in a train-wreck kind of way.

First, we soon find that there has been no socialist revolution. The economy is obviously still capitalist, and not even what a hard-liner might call state capitalist. The new order is called 'social democracy' but it is not even that. Sweden could knock spots off the place. Absolutely no social gains are shown or implied. Not only has nothing changed for women, nothing has changed for anybody, apart from the rhetoric of the rulers. However, this is not a point made strongly in the film. Its whole thrust makes no sense unless it is saying that socialism makes no difference for women, but does for men.

The oppression of women in the future socialist America is in no way subtle. They are forced out of industrial jobs in favour of 'male heads of families'. They are raped in broad daylight in the street. Rape rehabilitation centres are set up to reintegrate rapists into society. Rape victims get nothing. Leave revolutionary or democratic socialism out of it - there is not a Stalinist or Social Democratic bureaucrat in the world who wouldn't jump at the chance to fix women's oppression at that level by pulling women into factories and pushing rapists into labour camps, as formerly existing socialism did. The actual forms of women's oppression in actually or formerly existing socialism didn't get a look-in.

The very best feature of the film was some rap-style singing by a young woman in one of the radical feminist radio stations.

The women's army has a charismatic lesbian black construction-worker leader, who has a charismatic black older feminist mentor behind the scenes. Their first actions are defending women raped in broad daylight in the streets, or hassled by boors on the Metro. Then they escalate to a big demo in New York. This is shown by clips of women's liberation demos of the 1970s, in which unfortunately for the film's thesis the banners and placards of revolutionary socialists are prominent.

The heroine is sacked from her construction job. Women demonstrate in hard hats for union jobs. Nothing happens. The young female editors of Socialist Youth Review, journal of the youth wing of the ruling party, denounce them on television. They, unlike the radical women, wear bouncy styled hair, blouses, and skirts. They mouth absurd lines without conviction. Young white men riot for jobs. Young black men riot for jobs. Secretaries strike for job advancement prospects. After more of this sort of thing, the women's army gets serious, as only macho New Left Americans can get serious: they pick up the gun.

The heroine is arrested on return from the Saharan republic, where she has been getting military training from disaffected/betrayed Polisario women. She dies in prison in an apparent suicide, but actually a murder. The Socialist Youth Review women see the light, denounce this in their journal, and lose their positions on the editorial board.

Women's Army cadres seize television studios at gunpoint and forcibly broadcast their version of events. Repression hammers down. The radical feminist radio station is blown up. The Women's Army then plants a bomb in the transmission mast at the top of ... the World Trade Center. The last frame is of a big explosion at the top of the Twin Towers. Fade to black. Credits roll.

Scattered applause from the audience.

I asked feminist SF critic Catherine Ramirez what she thought of it. She said she found it painful to watch.

The next day I wandered around the centre of Seville, taking in the Cathedral and the Alcazar. For sheer aesthetic overload I've seen nothing like either of them since I stood in front of the wall of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus. I also happened upon the Seville Book Fair, at which I was startled to find a stand of literature from the Fundacion Frederico Engels, associated with the website In Defence of Marxism. I had a brief and friendly conversation with them, mainly about recent events in Spain.

That evening the British academic and political theorist Salman Sayyid gave a carefully reasoned discourse on how SF was an intrinsically anti-political genre, of which more later, and Catherine Ramirez gave a lecture on slavery and freedom in the SF of Octavia Butler.

I have to say that though I disagreed with it Salman's talk was the high point of the two days I was there, and the discussion that followed was intense. The film that evening was Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin, 1991), a hilarious send-up of the maddest UFO conspiracy theories combined with an account of US interventions in Latin America (explained as its struggle against the aliens).

After each evening we all went out and had dinner around midnight, for 10 Euros and 13 euros per head respectively, of some of the best food I've tasted anywhere.
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Saturday, May 15, 2004

Abu Ghraib

Once again, Seymour Hersh has the goods. Read it.
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Stand on Zanzibar

Mike Davis surveys a Planet of Slums
Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed, given the imprecisions of Third World censuses, this epochal transition may already have occurred.
I've just picked up a copy of John Brunner's SF classic Stand on Zanzibar and flicked through it. It's a novel that, once read for the spy-thriller plot, repays flicking. Its structure is experimental, neatly threading multiple viewpoints with numerous infodumps. The crisp tabulation of the Developed, Developing and Underdeveloped worlds has dated in its details, but still resonates: 'Govt by public apathy: Govt by 'revolutionary parties': 'Broken-backed' govt' is one line in the matrix. Judith Miller called it 'the first true SF novel', and she may have been right. It remains one of the best, a piece of sociological hard SF that tries to imagine an entire future Earth. The real hero is a gonzo pop sociologist who I wish had some real-life counterpart. Published in 1968, set in 2010, it fails utterly to predict the world in which we live, but prophesies it uncannily. The title refers to a calculation made near the beginning of the novel that the entire seven billion of the human race could find standing room on Zanzibar; by the end, despite much attrition, 'the human race by tens of thousands would be knee-deep in the waters around Zanzibar'.
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Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Vietnam War Hero Disappoints War Hawks

HANOI, May 1 - Vietnam war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, who sent first the French then the Americans out of his country with their sorry asses in a sling, refused to be drawn on possible parallels with the current war in Iraq. 'Any country that wants to impose its will on another nation will certainly fail and all nations fighting for their own independence will be victorious,' he said enigmatically. 'Everyone in the world should acknowledge that each country has the right to independence and sovereignty. Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.' The obscurity of his views deepened as he blew a smoke-ring from a vintage Marlboro and added: 'I haven't had a chance to go to Iraq and to study the specific tactics there.'

The veteran revolutionary's comments drew immediate fire from left-wing and liberal war-hawks. 'It's disappointing that Comrade Giap should express himself in this cryptic manner,' coughed Cristoforo Hitching. 'We had hoped for a clearer differentiation between the noble struggle of the Vietcong and the dead-end Islamofascist jihad in Iraq. Still, if he won't make the distinction, there are plenty of veteran freedom fighters who will, right here on the front lines in Washington.'

In London, too, Giap's remarks went down like a dud cluster-bomb. 'There are no conceivable parallels between Vietnam and Iraq,' said experienced liberal war promoter John Harry (17), who remembers the time vividly from a previous life. 'It's not like the Vietcong were some kind of violent authoritarian movement, or anything. They never harmed any Vietnamese civilians, or targeted any other Vietnamese socialists or nationalists. It was, like, peace and love, man. Anyway, opinion polls showed a consistent majority of Vietnamese opposed to the US presence. If they hadn't, it would have been perfectly proper to wait until several years of intensive bombing had swung their opinions before taking a stand.'

His older colleague, Dafydd Harrumfovitch (51), was sharper in his condemnation. 'You only have to compare the people opposed to this war with those who opposed the war in Vietnam. Today you see Socialist Worker readers joining hands with pacifists, religious nutters and unreconstructed Stalinists, and people like Noam Chomsky and John Pilger writing hysterical screeds about US imperialism. The contrast with the movement against the war in Vietnam couldn't be more stark.'

A spokesman for the influential website MIAW (Marxism Inflicted by American Warplanes) added crossly: 'Countries want independence, nations want liberation and peoples want revolution, do they? Well, tough shit. The next wave of world revolution will eliminate these small counter-revolutionary peoples down to their very names. Except Albania, Kosova and Bosnia-Hercegovina, heroic vanguards of liberated humanity.'

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Monday, May 10, 2004

Molvania Calls

Molvania is one of those little-known places about which we all have too much information. Even the most casual browser of the international and medical pages of the broadsheet newspapers is aware of its key position as a mutation site for new influenza strains heading west from China. Microsoft users are wearily familiar with the ingenuity of Molvania's computer virus designers. As a staging post in a major smuggling route for heroin, cigarettes, and bonded labourers, Molvania is familiar even to the readers of The Sun. Molvania's political transition has featured in Channel 4 documentaries and long flame-wars on soc.history.what-if.

The country has moved slowly and painfully from a grotesque parody of socialism to a no less offensive caricature of free market capitalism. Its first and so far only free elections have seen a rigid one-party (formally, a two-party) state replaced by a democratic coalition of National Conservative, Progressive Liberal and Religious Obscurantist parties, all of whose leaders are united by their Communist past and divided by business interests and clan feuds. The parliamentary opposition consists of the Social Democrats-Democratic Socialists (Reformed) and the Agrarian Unity Party. The AUP, ironically, is the only party which is not ex-Communist and which was legal - indeed, part of the governing Popular Patriotic Front - throughout the Communist period. Its origins are in the electoral wing of the inter-war nationalist and militarist movement, the Steel Toecaps, which was spared the taint of collaboration with the Axis puppet government by qualms about its 'extreme racism' and 'excessive violence' privately expressed by local units of the SS, and which joined the Anti-Fascist Committee of National Salvation hours before Soviet troops liberated the capital. Extra-parliamentary opposition is confined to small, under-heated cells and to clandestine branches of the Democratic Socialists (Unreformed) who retain a certain base of support among cement workers and (in an older age bracket) the White Lung (Silicosis) Compensation Campaign.

Unemployment remains high, following the loss of major export markets and the collapse of the agro-industrial complex that supplied axle grease and margarine in differently labelled tins to the Soviet Army. Molvania's five brands of cigarette - Patriot, Peasant, Partisan, Proletarian and Partinost - once as popular as they were indistinguishable in all the barracks of the Warsaw Pact, have lost market share to ex-GI Marlboros and Camels illegally imported from Vietnam. The exchange rate of its currency, the khunta, is shown on hourly updated boards of intermittently flashing red lights in the major cities. Visitors should be aware that at other times these figures show the date (in the Gregorian calender, adopted as a concession to the Religious Obscurantist party) or the background radiation in millicuries.

Health services, once spartan but adequate, are now supplied by Christian Aid, Medicins Sans Frontieres, and (for Moldavia's often overlooked Muslim population) the Bin Laden Mercy Fund and Cross-Border Community Bank.

All of the above, of course, is merely what I know off the top of my head, and is perhaps a little impressionistic and dated. More recent and reliable information about Molvania, this forgotten aphid in the rose garden of post-post-capitalism, is available here.
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Saturday, May 08, 2004

Eight Days in Zagreb

Carol and I went to Croatia the week before last. I was a guest of Sferakon, who covered our first four nights in the hotel; my flight was paid for by the British Council, for whom I gave a talk as part of a science festival at Zagreb's Technical Museum.

Vlatko Juric-Kokic met us at the airport, and his friend Goran drove us to the Hotel Dubrovnik. It was a sunny and hot afternoon and after unpacking we went to the nearest pavement cafe, just outside the hotel, and had a couple of beers. The hotel's in a pedestrianised area and it was a good place for people-watching. We then took a walk down Ilica, the longest street in Zagreb, busy with trams. That evening Vlatko took us out for dinner, and then up past the main square to a long street lined with pavement cafes and bars, at one of which we had another couple of beers. The currency is the kuna, of which there are about ten to a British pound. Prices for drinks and eating out are approximately half what you'd pay in Britain.

The centre of Zagreb looks very West European: Austro_Hungarian buildings, red tiled roofs on the houses, and the odd sixties or seventies office block. A few hundred metres in any direction from the centre and it starts to look more like your typical commie downtown, except with brighter neon and better stocked shops. Many of the shops are Western chains, others date back to the Kingdom or the Empire, and some are survivors from the socialist era. Vlatko said it was easy to tell which was which, and I guess a yellow neon sign with black lettering announcing (free translation) Electro-mechanical Devices or Things You Might Wear or Stuff To Eat is something of a clue (by contrast with, say, Miss Selfridge, United Colours of Benneton, or Somebodyic and Sons, Purveyors of Fine Wines and Provisions Since 1789). South of the river is Novi Zagreb, all post WW2 and mostly huge - and not at all identical - apartment blocks many of which seem to have a ground floor of small shops and cafes.

The general feel of the place is pretty laid back. People dress smartly and behave politely and are friendly. You couldn't ask for nicer. Croatia is both Catholic and nationalist, but relaxed about it, in the style of the Irish Republic today rather than in the thirties, or even modern Poland. What Croats primarily disliked about the SRY wasn't the socialism, it was the Serbian dominance.

Vlatko adds:
Which is not surprising, considering that the original kingdom was created in 1918 as The Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. And then the Serbian king (whom they chose as the head of the state) grabbed all the power into his hands in 1921, installing the people whom he knew into positions of power - ie, Serbs from Serbia. That meant people of other nationalities got a very short shrift for quite a while, up to WWII.

Tito tried to spread the power more evenly, but the state institutions were all in Belgrade.
The successes and failures of Yugoslav socialism were all its own. Dismantling it is a complicated process, including at the level of ownership, where the early wholesale theft and graft has given way to a careful legal unpicking of 'social property rights'. One fan told us that sixty to seventy per cent of people are worse off than they were under socialism, and that what the country really needed was someone like Margaret Thatcher. The average wage is between 300 and 400 UK pounds a month. People don't look that badly off, I said, especially young people in in central Zagreb. Hah! They make a drink last two hours and they live with their parents, he insisted.

Looking at old Yugoslav science fiction is intriguing. A stall at the con had stacks. Futura and other magazines, and the old SF paperbacks, had lurid and lively covers like American and British pulps. A very broad range of contemporary Western SF was available in translation - the only major writer poorly served was Heinlein, and that seems to have been down to a personal distaste on the part of the Grand Old Man of Yugoslav SF, Zoran Zivkovic, rather than official disapproval. SF clubs, like other interest groups, used to apply to the local Cultural Centre for facilities, and get sponsorship from enterprises and municipalities. Charmingly, translators transliterated Western names into Serbo-Croat spelling: Pirs Entoni, Dzejms Balard, Dzems Blis, Artur Klark, Dzon Kembel, Filip Hoze Farmer, Robert Hajnlajn, Mijkl Dzon Herison, Dejvid Lengford, Fric Lejber, Djon Verli, Dzil Vern, Djek Vens, Vernor Vinz are among many listed in Zivovik's massive, loving, dated encyclopaedia (enciklopedija) which I picked up second-hand at the con for 18 pounds (and worth every kuna for the illustrations alone).

Vlatko notes that some of these spellings are incorrect, and adds re transliteration:
It is the usual linguistic practice in Serbian. Croatian leaves names in their original form. It's been like that from ... oooh ... at least since after WWI, I think. I do have some old Croatian books from 1890s (The Ghost of Canterville, frex) and they do have the original forms. OTOH, I also have a Hamlet from 1900 and something in Cyrillic and it, of course, has names transliterated.

So I guess it's a remnant of the times when Serbia used only Cyrillic. (They returned to that in 1990s.)

But the practice was present through the Yugoslav era, either the first or Tito's one. One of the differences between Serbian and Croatian.

If the Encyclopaedia was published in Zagreb, and in Croatian, it would have the original names.
The con was held in the ground floor of the Electro-Engineering Faculty of Zagreb University. Hundreds of people attended over the weekend. As usual with this type of con, the average age was younger than you'd expect in Britain, and there was a likewise higher proportion of Trekkies (U.S.S. Croatia), modellers and gamers. Live Action Roleplay (LARP) enthusiasts work-shopped at tables. Making chainmail looks as repetitive and sociable as knitting. The program consisted mostly of talks rather than panels, and film and TV showings. I had four items: being interviewed by Vlatko; a talk about wild AI in global networks, which was followed by an enlightening discussion from the audience about economics and game theory; the launch of the Croatian edition of my YA novella Cydonia; and a talk about interstellar travel and life-extension. Otherwise Carol and I hung out, often in the doorway where the smokers gathered. Among other people, we met Milena Benini, who had translated Cydonia in a month. That's less time than I took to write it.

My lecture at the Technical Museum was on the Monday morning. Vlatko met us at the hotel and we walked there. The Technical Museum looks dilapidated from the outside - it's wooden, and an old Zagreb Fair stand - but inside it's airy and modern, with good exhibits: aircraft engines, a space probe, a robot football game. About a dozen people turned up for the talk. Most of them sat at the back. I gave an adaptation of my Sunday Herald article, then took questions. One guy asked intently about traces of life on Mars. Why were they so strange? I asked him to explain. The Face, he said - why is it so ugly? There were some better questions.

On Tuesday we took a tram to the same area, and explored the Botanic Gardens, which among other things have a pond with turtles. Then Vlatko and his girlfriend showed us around an exhibition of Art Nouveau in Croatia. That was fascinating and included a good deal of early-twentieth-century background material: photographs, advertisements, tableaux of well-displayed dresses, and furniture designed in the New Style. That evening we met up with lots of people from the con committee for a big dinner in a beer hall. The food was meaty in generous portions and the beer was great. Vlatko presented us with a double bottle of local brandy, a gift from the con.

Wednesday we took two tram lines north and west to the mountain that overlooks the city, and then the cable-car to the summit. The cable car holds two people. It zooms up a steep grassy slope to the first pylon, and then the ground drops away beneath you and you are soaring over a small valley, the first of several. Most of the time you're at treetop height. The trees are quite tall. At the top there is a very high television mast, several cafes, and the apparatus of a ski-slope. The air is noticeably thinner and colder. The view is spectacular, though at the time it was hazy.

The following day Goran drove Vlatko and us all the way to the Slovenian border to visit a very impressive castle, simultaneously a fine building and a formidable fortification (never actually attacked). The interior is wonderfully aristocratic, with hidden doors for the servants, massive furniture that smells like honey, libraries full of bound volumes of Sporting Life ... The countryside to the north of Zagreb, once you get off the alluvial plain, is all rolling forested hills and small clusters of houses. Fields are generally tiny, and you sometimes see a man ploughing one with a tractor, or a woman weeding one with a mattock. I remarked that there were a lot of new houses. Just because you can see the bricks, Vlatko explained, doesn't mean they're new. They just haven't got round to plastering them. And looking closer, a lot of the apparently new houses had curtains in the windows and lights inside and gardens up to the raw brick. Goran took us to a summer-house that his grandparents had built in the sixties, an entire vintage wooden farmhouse dismantled from the plains and transported and rebuilt in the mountains. You could see the numbers on the beams.

In between all this, we wandered around the centre of Zagreb, taking in the usual sights that you can read all about in the Lonely Planet Guide. The fruit and flower markets, the Stone Gate, Saint Mark's, the Cathedral of the Assumption, the shortest funicular ride in Europe, and the best ice-cream shop (apart from Nardini's in Largs, Ayrshire).

We left with a very warm appreciation of Croatia, and of its fandom. Croatia used to be a popular holiday destination, and is becoming so again. We certainly intend to come back.
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Tuesday, May 04, 2004

De Te Fabula Naratur

William Madsen documents a high-level debate over sending troops into Afghanistan, showing how the level-headed, lucid and (in the event) wholly vindicated warnings of intelligence chiefs, diplomats and old foreign policy hands were eventually brushed aside by a doctrinally blinkered President and military hard-liners.

So much for the Soviet Politburo in 1979. Madsen goes on to ask:
As the neo-conservatives lead the United States into deeper involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, possible future military forays into Iran, Gaza, Syria, and North Korea, withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations system, and a policy of ruthless assassination of its enemies, how long will it take for future historians to be scanning documents from the CIA, National Security Council, and the Republican Party documenting the in-fighting within the last American presidency ­ a second term of George W. Bush? The Soviet Union collapsed practically overnight. The Roman Empire took a number of years to fall, but it was inevitable. Nazi Germany's fate became known in a matter of a few years. The United States will not last forever, but the Bush administration may be speeding up the process for its ultimate fall. How long will it be before U.S. twenty and fifty dollar bills are sold as cheap souvenirs at street bazaars in the former United States like Soviet ruble notes are sold today on the streets of Moscow? The Soviet leaders were unable to stop their country's march to war in Afghanistan. Recent revelations from Bush administration officials show that several key players were unable to stop Bush and Cheney's determined march to war in Iraq. One world superpower went down in flames in 1990. Will the other last until 2010?
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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.

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