Values into action: Strange Bedfellows

Let the flame we kindle today be for those who come after us
Let it burn for our children, the children of our children, and generations into the future.
Let the light of this flame remind us always that what we do affects them
Our actions today create their world of tomorrow
Our work for justice secures their equality
Our treatment of the earth creates the environment in which they will live
May the light of the children’s flame be always in our sight as we choose how to live today


Readings

 

Human Family, Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
 
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
 
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
 
I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
 
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.
 
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
 
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
 
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.
 
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
 
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
 
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

 

Wail Qasim, The Independent 4 February 2017 - abridged

Across Britain people have been galvanised to take action over Trump, with protests taking place ever since his 'Muslim ban' came into effect. Last Monday I spoke at a massive rally outside Downing Street…  

Today in Grosvenor Square at the US embassy more folks have come out to continue the movement opposing Trump. It's important the pressure hasn't let up, but if I could attend I wouldn't have because Stand Up To Racism – a group heavily organised by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) – have taken a leading role in calling for this protest. 

In 2013 rape allegations involving a senior figure within the SWP became public knowledge… instead of supporting the woman who came forward much of their party’s leadership stood by their fellow central committee member and fought a brutal battle against all those who questioned their behaviour, according to reports...in the end many members left over the alleged cover up and leadership culture, yet the party itself continues – albeit much smaller than they once were – with a leadership strikingly like the one it had three years ago. [N]othing has been done to address the allegations of a toxic rape culture at the SWP.

Stand Up To Racism is just one of the organisations the SWP holds huge power in and is using to rehabilitate its reputation… 

[I]f we're going to avoid past mistakes it's important to pay attention to who’s allowed in leadership positions at [progressive] protests. I do not want to be led by those accused of [being] behind the alleged SWP rape cover up. 

Misogyny and rape culture cannot become easy compromises in the service of a greater cause. Dealing with women's oppression is not in opposition to dealing with racism. 
 


Message, by Andy Pakula

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, 'Don't do it!' 
He said, 'Nobody loves me.' 
I said, 'God loves you. Do you believe in God?'
He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Are you a Christian or a Jew?' 
He said, 'A Christian.' 
I said, 'Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?' He said, 'Protestant.' 
I said, 'Me, too! What franchise?' 
He said, 'Baptist.' I said, 'Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?' He said, 'Northern Baptist.' 
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist.' I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?' 
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.' I said, 'Me, too!'
Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.' I said, 'Die, heretic!' And I pushed him over.

That joke, written by Emo Philips, works because we recognise the phenomenon it describes. Although we are - as Maya Angelou says - more alike than we are unalike, we humans can be very quick to find and accentuate our differences. 

And we do this in politics and activism too. Monty Python’s Life of Brian do a great take on this when a vendor approaches a group and mistakenly asks them if they are the Judean People's Front. They’re totally outraged to be misidentified, saying 'We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front. Cawk'

And then they proceed to trash the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, and the Popular Front of Judea.

Every one of these groups, of course, is dedicated to essentially the same purpose - freedom from Roman rule. They’ve split again and again into smaller and smaller groups. They become unable to overlook their small difference for the larger shared aim.

I think this is why Star Trek had such a big impact on me as a child. I lived in a world where we had bomb drills in primary school. We would be marched down the corridor to some inner room where we would be told to sit and cover our heads. This was supposed to be our protection against the effects of a Soviet nuclear attack that could come at any moment. And we believed that might just happen.

In Star Trek, there were people of all nations working together against common enemies. It didn’t matter if they were black or white. It didn’t matter if they were from the US, from the USSR, Japan, Scotland…  anywhere. We were together against the Klingons - the real baddies. Of course, later, the Klingons became our friends.

Luckily, they found new enemies to hate and fear. I suppose if they hadn’t, they might have splintered and started fighting amongst themselves.

I remember there being broad agreement between my friends that what we needed was an attack by an alien species - that this would be the best chance for human beings to avoid destroying ourselves.

Whilst Mr Trump is not an alien… The election of Donald Trump along with Brexit has healed more splits on the left than any number of workshops or mediations could. His extremism has united us and energised us. Our common enemy has brought us together.

It is often said that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ This is an ancient proverb dating back to the 4th century BCE. 

We can see this happening often around us. As alliances shift, our governments and we team up with enemies to fight a greater common enemy. Our western governments works with groups previously called terrorists to fight the Syrian government. The insurgents put aside their enmity to work together.

Of course, these alliances can be fragile. To ‘‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ we should add, ‘until the instant our common enemy is gone.’

The question of working with our enemies is what I want to wrestle with today. Our second reading is from an article written by Wail Qasim, a London-based writer and activist who describes why he would not participate in a protest part-organised by Stand up to Racism. Another prominent journalist and activist - Owen Jones - pulled out of this same demonstration. Jones called Stand Up to Racism ‘a front for the Socialist Workers Party.’
The negative perceptions of the SWP are widespread. There seems to be little doubt that accusations of rape and other abuse of women were mishandled and there were clear signs of a misogynistic culture in the organisation.

It is also true that the SWP aggressively recruits at the events it co-leads under such organisations as ‘Unite Against Fascism', 'Unite the Resistance', 'Stand up to UKIP' and 'Stand Up To Racism.'

As we’ve talked about putting our values into action, we’ve discussed a variety of ways to do that and also talked about why we sometimes don’t - why we sometimes stand back and remain passive when our closely held convictions are at risk. The question of who we are willing to work with is one of those challenges to moving into action.

I want to ask you. Would you participate in a demonstration against racism if the SWP had nothing to do with it? If the SWP was one of 10 organising groups? One of five organising group? If it was the sole organising group?

This is a hard question for me. It’s also a very real and immediate question. The tension of who are you willing to work with and under what circumstances arises all the time.

I recently attended an organising meeting for a Stop Trump coalition. A wide variety of groups were represented at that meeting. Outside the entrance, the SWP had set up a table with their literature and dozens of their very recognisable posters.

They were certainly not the only organisers. They were not the main organisers. But they were there and they clearly contributed energy, people, time, and funds to the project. Everyone in that large room was strongly opposed to the Trump administration and what it stands for. All of them were shocked and angry about Trump’s immigration order - which can fairly be called a Muslim ban. We had a common enemy.

And yet, among these people were groups with which I would not want any involvement. And there were individuals there too who I might want to avoid under other circumstances. 

I stayed for the whole meeting - declined to give my name to the SWP people with clipboards - and have not had anything to do what that group since.

As I avoid involvement with them and their action against racism, my values are in conflict. I and we need allies to fight racism and Islamophobia and the war on the poor. And I do not want to compromise other values to do that. 

This is far from the only circumstance where such a tension arises.

In our community organising justice work with Citizens UK, we are working side by side with a wide variety of organisations. There are schools, mosques, unions, charities, churches, synagogues and more.

We see eye-to-eye on resettling Syrian refugees, on securing a living wage, on alleviating fuel poverty, and on making sure that people can get affordable, decent housing. 

We don’t agree on everything. There is a lot we don’t agree on and, as we work together, whether we recognise it or not, we are putting aside issues that would be more troubling.

When I work in those situations, I know that I am working with people who judge me for not believing in God. I know I am working with people who do not think LGBT people deserve equal rights. I know I am working with people who would condemn sex outside of marriage, birth control, drinking, and more. 

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It must have been a difficult decision for Owen Jones to pull out of his agreement to speak at that demonstration on the 4th of February. His words to that large crowd might have strengthened the movement against Trump and racism. And his participation might have helped to cleanse the image of the SWP or alienate other allies. I don’t know what I would have done in his place.

These are no simple issues with clear answers. Always participating is not an option - sometimes participation can do more harm than good. And to never participate in an action that is not absolutely free of people whose values conflict with yours doesn’t work either.

When I think about it, there are no organisations at all whose values are perfectly aligned with mine. In fact, I wouldn’t even work with some of you if complete agreement was my standard for working together.

In every instance, we have to make a calculation: will participation do more good than harm to furthering my values in the world. There are no easy answers and no answers that are right in every circumstance.

But there’s something more - there’s a chance to put our values into action not just in the aims of the work we are doing, but in the process of working side by side. 

The people who think that atheists are evil and selfish may have initially been shocked to meet me and to know my commitments and my values. Their views have had to change as we worked together. 

And those who judge LGBT people are changed, not be arguments, but by relationship - by knowing a living breathing human being and working with them in common cause.

When we meet on that bridge between our differences, let us not look for what divides us. Let us look for our commonalities. Let us look for the places where our values align and the ways in which we can walk forward together toward the change we want to see. And let us know that the journey will change us for the better. 


May we move forward together
Our love holding us
Our shared values guiding us
Our differences testing and helping us grow
And our vision of the world as it could be drawing us forward toward a better tomorrow for all