Charlottesville: Privilege, Identity, and Why We Fight
I’m on holiday. In Europe. I spent the past weekend drunk, swinging on a swing, and playing with dogs, carefree. Someone took a funny picture of me on the swing and my first instinct, as is depressingly often the case these days, was to post it on Facebook. This was on Sunday night. Sunday 13th, 2017. I was gonna post the picture, but something stopped me. Maybe it was because I realised how tone deaf it would have felt on a day like that, after Nazis had marched through an American city in broad daylight, unafraid and unashamed, trailing hate and death in their wake.
But then I did post it, and I did so with an explanatory note intending to highlight why. I posted it to show how I could afford to be tone deaf. This stupid image, of a straight, white, cisgendered dude, all drunk and carefree, on a weekend like that seemed, in some ways, the embodiment of a word that is used a lot these days: ‘Privilege’. Now, I’m what some people would call a Marxist, so this thing called ‘identity politics’ can sometimes elicit ambivalence from me. Nevertheless, though most days I would champion the cause of class struggle above all else—as inextricably linked as it is to all other sociological factors—on a day like that it became clear how important it was to reiterate: Identity counts. It counts because there are people marching in the streets of our cities, calling for the extinction of people with certain identities. It counts because I’m privileged enough that if I and others like me wanted to ignore it, because of my identity I could. There are extremists out there, walking with heads held high, calling for the violent enforcement of rigid gender norms, of the eradication of ‘alternative’ sexualities and gender orientations, of the subjugation of entire swaths of humanity, based only on the colour of their skin. These fascists have always been there. It’s just now, as the tides of history shift around us, they feel brave.
Class matters. Identity matters. The two are intertwined. As priorities shift, we, as activists, modify our vocabulary. Today, as we reflect on fascists marching emboldened through public spaces, we have to speak the language of identity. We have to speak it because even in our circles of activism we might’ve grown lax. And people of other identities would have warned us about this. Black people, Jewish people, trans people would have told us: ‘Don’t rest, you might be safe, and we might be safer than we have been in the past, but the threat is still out there.’
And we haven’t always listened.
Complacency kills. Nazism is nothing without the enabling function of white liberalism. When your rights have never been under threat, it’s easy to treat other peoples’ rights as a trivial matter. The United States is a ridiculous country in many ways. To treat it as the centre of the universe is foolhardy. Nevertheless, it can be a useful litmus test, a barometer, and what happened in Charlottesville cannot be allowed to become the future. The US is bad enough when it is playing the imperial policeman, bombing poor countries into the dust when they don’t bow to its will. It’s even worse when significant portions of its own population wish to see the eradication of the parts of it that don’t resemble themselves.
So to the progressives out there the message is simple: Meet fascism head on wherever you may see it. Meet it with force, with the boot and with the bat. Give no quarter because none will be given. Don’t be complacent, listen, look past your privilege. Then remember this feeling the next time your country, under whatever leadership, decides to wage unjustifiable war elsewhere around the world. Blood spills the same everywhere. Human rights don’t vary across borders.
Fight fascism at home, fight it abroad, fight it always.
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