For Alex Sellen.
It must have been past noon. The tough Dutch sunlight encroaching through the gauze curtains, only there for décor or propriety. I am reading a friend’s obituary. Everyone else in the house, an old friend and his lover who are hosting me, are still asleep. I take a moment to try and produce from the scene a revelation, an importance lesson of sorts to carry me, “a lullaby of closure” I think to myself. I like the way those words sound. Hemingway would impart a few strong words to himself, have a whiskey, and move on. Hemingway, I am not.
No fraudulent life lesson will alter this. No scene that appeals to my sense of the aesthetic will alter this. My god, it is fact. The finality of it. I draw myself to my inbox. And above all other messages is a long circulating thread about Egypt. ‘A coup by any other name’ it is titled, surely whoever began it fancied themself clever when he composed those words. The content is familiar. As I shift through it, I have to remind myself from time to time what is even about. It is a weariness I’ve felt more and more as I continue to delve into the gutter underworld of radical politics, whatever that term even means. Perhaps it was his death that pronounced that dread more than ever. I write the first sentence of my reply and gaze at it. Is this even important work?
It is a dread I suspect puts a lot of people off these kinds of politics. It isn’t often acknowledged, the toll it takes to engage in politics and discourses that have no wide venue, and then to find within them the disappointing allocation and wasting of time on decidedly unnecessary ideological disputes. It seems with ever news cycle more fractures are formed until one becomes acutely aware of what it really means to be a political independent.
And we lament or joke in amusement at just how few we really our. Sometimes it is easy to forget it when we eventually find we are surrounded by a circle that shares our passion for these kinds of work; though make no mistake about it those circles are minuscule, at times even resembling a noose. It is difficult. And at such a young age, I can’t even conceive the strain it must take on the veterans. Those who have dedicate year after, decade after decade, only to find the discourse continues to take on an almost caricature-like form, to find they are increasingly alone.
The problem then, as I see it, is two-fold. The fatigue that comes with exhausting our resources on quarrels that’s resolution bears no tangible importance or relevance. And the taxing nature of engaging in politics that are often marginal. The conclusion I arrive to is that both of these ills can be ameliorated by separating political causes from each other and, more crucially, any overarching ideological imperative. There should not be preconditions about whom one can work with on any given issue if they happen to see eye to eye on that particular issue. By that I mean, for example, if one has political grievances with another group’s stance on Libya, it should not prevent the individual from working with said group on environmental issues if both parties find themselves on the same side. I myself have said that I would not, as a Palestinian, be opposed to working with a staunch Zionist on issues unrelated to Israel-Palestine. The same framework can be extended to any number of issues. The profit gained from untangling issues and addressing them individually would mean larger solidarity movements, less internal quarrelling, and, ultimately, more action being taken.
It would also have therapeutic significance. It would drain the instinct to focus on perceived political betrayals and redirect our efforts to what drew most of us to politics in the first place: the perhaps misguided notion that something must be done, that the status quo just isn’t acceptable.
I am always reminded of a joke told to me by a former leftist who became a devoted conservative, as they do:
A young student is on his way to a protest to try to stop the demolition of a park. He runs into a Leninist, on his way to the same demonstration, who immediately asks what political group he holds membership to. The student says none and the Leninist begins to try selling his party to the student. They run into a Trotskyite, also en route to the protest, who asks the same question to the student and begins to argue with the Leninist. The group grows and grows until it is composed of persons of all leftist political stripes, all arguing with each other about ideology and history and the masses and the elites and the media and Middle-East and intervention and freedom. Eventually, the student notices that the group, now a mob, has stop moving towards the demonstration and is at a standstill quarrelling amongst each other. The student looks at his watch and hesitantly points out that they are going to miss the demonstration. “Silence!” the mob retorts in unison, “we are trying to save the park!”
And I think that might be the point we often neglect, that while there can be room for disagreement and critique, it cannot be all there is. What worth can there really be in politics composed solely of disagreement; one also has to stand for something and work towards it. And that work cannot always be burdened by the petty ideological and rhetorical quarrels that often consume so much of our time. As I sit here contemplating whether what I am saying is coherent or a byproduct of grief, I have to believe that there can exist a world where “the left” put aside their self-destructiveness and marches to the hypothetical park to demonstrate. Not that we must always agree, surely that tends to be a sign of miscalculation, but that we must ensure that when we do disagree it is done constructively. And that we not alienate people from our midst with our strange affinity for casting would-be political partners out, that we not embrace the superficial aspects of our fringe because after all that will only ensure we remain there. There may be no glory to radical politics; perhaps only the impulse towards those who suffer. But that may very well be enough. If only we could forfeit our fetish with “us and them” politics amongst each other.
Talal Alyan is a Palestinian-American freelance writer based in New York.