When “Quaint Dalliance Among Friends” Goes Radical

Cover art for an old CounterPunch Magazine.

The spring fundraising drive has ended so, in writing about CounterPunch, I’m not trying to persuade readers to donate (though that would be good), and nobody asked me to write a puff piece. It’s not a puff piece anyway. It’s about friendly spaces, trust, and politics.

Sometimes there are a whole lot of things happening at once and it’s difficult to see the woods for the trees. Then something stands out and everything forms a kind of picture around it. Sometimes, there’s a feeling I’m so comfortable with that I more or less take it take for granted, and then it grabs my attention as the organising principle of what I’m trying to make sense of. And one way of trying to make sense of things is putting them into writing and—for me—writing for CounterPunch. Which, to begin with, says a lot about CounterPunch as a place to go to when you’re trying to make sense of things. This time, what shone a brightly rebellious light in a heap of crapperific news by and about the media and their smoodging to filthy rich and powerful owners and controllers was CounterPunch itself, not just as a place to go to but for what it represents.

Last month, Marina Elizabeth Catherine Dudley Williams (aka Marina Hyde) wrote a silly puff piece for the Guardian, making what George Seldes, journalist, once called “the most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism”, when she chirpily announced that, “My absolute favourite thing about writing for the Guardian is not being told what to write”. Maybe she never heard about, or failed to understand, or ignored Chomsky’s 1996 warning to British journalist Andrew Marr: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” She seems not to get it: she and nearly all her mainstream colleagues, as imbibers and profiteers of the do-not-write or only-write media culture, don’t need to be told what to write or not to write. And there’s so much they keep mum about, there’s plenty of space for them to write as much bollocks as they want.

Meanwhile in Australia, one of the country’s best ever journalists, ABC’s Q+A (“a chance to ask questions, challenge power and share your views”) host, Stan Grant was doing his job. Uniquely qualified not only as a veteran journalist but also as a Wiradjuri man, he presented the (grotesquely gilded, bejewelled with stolen loot) coronation of Charles III from the viewpoint of the victims of British colonialism. Not that he made it all about himself or played the victim. Refusing to leave “the core of who I am” (which white journalists aren’t expected to do), he empurpled the visages of monarchist and a good part of conformist White Australia when he pointed out the factually uncontroversial reality that the British crown represents the invasion and theft of Indigenous lands. For him, telling these truths is a question of responsibility or, in Wiradjuri, Yindyamarra: “I am not just responsible for what I do, but for you do.” So, he said that the coronation ceremony wasn’t “something that is distant, that is just ceremonial that doesn’t hold weight. It holds weight for First Nations people, because that crown put a weight on us, and we are still dealing with that.”

Australia’s always barely concealed racism quickly jumped out of its open havens and woke hidey-holes to add to the heap of crapperific news for, after all, the dismantlement of the White Australia Policy in 1973 never magicked away the racism it was based on. Sophie Elsworth (of Sky News and The Australian and, for some, “culture war hack”) described Grant’s broadcast as a “pile-on” and “hate-fest”. Other media hosts Rita Panahi and James Morrow said it was “over the top”, “race-obsessed” and a “woke bin fire of self loathing”. As the target of intensified racist abuse whipped up by twisted media coverage, Grant directly addressed his abusers on Q+A when he announced that he was stepping away from the media for a while but not stepping down. Hiswords have none of the smugness of Marina Hyde’s. “Yindyamarra Winanganha means to live with respect in a world worth living in. And we in the media must ask if we’re truly honouring a world worth living in. Too often we are the poison in the bloodstream of our society. I fear the media does not have the love or the language to speak to the gentle spirits of our land. I’m not walking away for a while because of racism. We get that far too often … I need a break from the media. I feel like I’m part of the problem. And I need to ask myself how or if we can do it better.” He’s talking not so much about the hate mongering per se but about the media which, openly or sneakily-slimily, is one of the most noxious of neoliberalism’s institutions.

Hate versus friendship is just another form of divide and rule. Hate, injected into individual, domestic, and international life, makes the politics of violence look more normal. It breeds mistrust, so friendship can only be instrumental (in which case it’s not friendship but smarming) and, lest you forget about your neoliberal makeover, you can buy a fridge magnet with the oft-quoted words of John D. Rockefeller (whose philanthropic foundation, by the way, funded Nazi-controlled eugenics institutions in Germany and Austria until 1939): “A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship”. Friendship, for its own sake, has become form of radical dissidence. It’s a relationship between equals which, trusting and spontaneous, challenges nonegalitarian, aggressively—and sometimes murderously—distrustful neoliberal “social” life, thus providing a basis for solidarity movements attempting to combat the bleak self- and other-destructive estrangement of self-centredness. Summarising the political ramifications of this in his pulling-no-punches CounterPunch column “Roaming Charges”, Jeffrey St Clair says, “Solidarity is often the greatest crime in the eyes of a corrupt state, especially a police state. It’s certainly what they fear the most. It may be the only thing they really fear.”

Basically, the egalitarian and respect entailed in solidarity and friendship imply human rights, and human rights mean recognising how, at our own peril and with the idiotic and insane notion of human exceptionalism, we’ve distanced ourselves from other species to the point of acceptance of the idea of AI-human “interface” (read: AI invasion of humans). Universal human rights must entail respecting the rights of all living beings. The rights of the planet. If you don’t believe me, read Melanie Challenger’s wonderful How to Be Animal, her “defence of what it means to be animal” (9) but also a grim warning. “There’s every reason to believe that when faced with a threatening reality, we will seek greater separation between us and the rest of nature … One choice might be to do away with other animals or bring them out of a wild state and into submission. An easier course would be to put an even greater accent on human exceptionalism, either by trying to make us superhuman or by shoring up our comforting beliefs” (8). CounterPunch is one of the few publications that gets what Challenger’s writing about. An article about ospreys, bison, orcas, salmon, wolves, or “cats, dogs, cows, sheep, goats, slugs, swallows, oxen, horses, mules, donkeys, pigs, wolves, bears, bees, weevils, and termites” isn’t just about said animals but about all of us, with the consistent underlying message that we must stop punishing our fellow creatures for existing, that being friendly towards them is being friendly to ourselves because it’s a basic principle if we are to stop destroying our own habitat as well.

But the mainstream trend is human exceptionalism. Elon Musk is now getting FDA approval for his Neuralink brain implant (complete with more lithium mining for its battery and the deaths of about 1,500 animals, especially pigs, sheep, and monkeys, since 2018), which even hints at eternal “life” (for some) when it’s eventually “downloaded into replacement bodies” that have accepted that freedom, too, is extinct. This is a continuation of the thoughts of Klaus Schwab, at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos (“Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”), prophesying that the new technologies—developing “intelligence” above and beyond human consciousness (the Internet of things, genetic design, big data, and so on)—will fuse the physical, digital, and biological realms so completely that they’ll challenge the very idea of what it means to be human. Human intelligence will no longer be a free, reflective power, just when we need to be intelligent enough to understand that the Enlightenment promise of Eurocentric emancipation through education and science entailed the organisation of new power relations which, in the name of progress, have been taken to their ecocidal extremes. In trying to dominate all humans and all the planet’s lifeforms using only certain kinds of increasingly controlled and monitored knowledge, some humans have brought everything to the brink of extinction.

Marx, for whom political economy is a “true moral science”, saw it coming when he wrote about alienation, or the lessening of the human being: “The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save—the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour—your capital. The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being.” Thus estranged, people aren’t free. They can’t engage in real politics for real people, which requires trust. And trust goes hand in hand with friendship. The ultimate estranged beings, the billionaires in their strongholds, understand this, and hate friendship and trust, especially because they’re not calculated but spontaneous, and are then harder to control and abort. Sealed up in their humanly impoverished lives, they seem to have grasped and embraced the deep truth that surrendering our present to some future benefit means severance from existential existence, killing the alive on the altar of the unalive, where we’re all supposed to meekly offer up ourselves, sacrifice our humanity.

Needless to say, Elon Musk’s brain implant has no truck with trust, which is a free relationship. The Combahee River Collective Statement from one of most marginalised groups in the USA at the time (1977)—Black, lesbian feminists—was clear about openness, trust, and friendliness. Only by claiming your own identity can you relate with and express solidarity with others. Years later, one of its authors, Barbara Smith, says, “We saw identity politics as a way of connecting with other struggles, not of becoming so self-involved and internal that we didn’t relate to anyone else. We believe in coalitions, and we believe in multi-issue struggle. We certainly didn’t mean that the only people worth dealing with were people identical to ourselves, or at least similar to ourselves.” This requires trust, creating friendly political spaces where issues can be discussed.

The moral philosopher Annette Baier, for whom trust was an essential ethical principle, comes close to this position. Describing her work, the Catalan philosopher Marina Garcés writes that Baier argues for an ethics “that comes from dealing with, and from the interplay of the reciprocities that make up the plural empirical base of any specific social life. In this ethics the main virtue is trust, as a concept bridging congeniality and reflection, love and duty, feeling and reason. It’s an ethics that moves away from the contractual conception of political and social life to its cooperative reality as the true foundation of a community of moral apprenticeship.” Sociologist Allan Silver also wrote about the friendship-trust nexus, describing friendships as, “voluntary, unspecialized, informal and private” and “grounded in open-ended commitments without explicit provision for their termination”. Friendships “are diminished in moral quality if terms of exchange between friends are consciously or scrupulously monitored, for this implies that utilities derived from friendships are constitutive, as in market relations, rather than valued as expressions of personal intentions and commitments”.

All this is a kind of leadup for saying that I think CounterPunch has created a friendly political space that all these thinkers might recognise as being close to their own ethical ideals. As I experience it, CounterPunch isn’t just about having a nice time hanging out with and reading likeminded folks but a radical political project in its friendly space. It’s also one of the few places where you can publish and read about such unacceptably true and thus generally shunned and disesteemed stories as, for example, the genocide and ecocide that’s been happening for decades in West Papua. Rarely are those responsible in Indonesia and among its western allies named, or their motives given, or the global consequences of their greed-fuelled violence enumerated in an overall media situation of craven silence, with the odd exception of, say, panegyrics for Henry Kissinger who made a fortune from his involvement with the Freeport McMoRan mine, one of the main drivers of all the violence against the West Papua people.

CounterPunch isn’t about preaching to the converted but being in a community that shares information, projects, and ideas. This comes through on the personal level too. I’ve never met its business manager, Becky Grant, but she feels like a friend in her warm emails. I don’t know the editor Jeffrey St Clair but he also feels like a friend, not least because he trusted me to meet his son Nathaniel when he came to Barcelona, and he also made contacts with two CounterPunch writers, Tony McKenna and Richard Schulman when they visited. Thanks to him, I have two new friends, people I would probably never have met without the good offices of CounterPunch. The young man Tony, with a wise old head on his shoulders when he writes on matters like Rembrandt, suffering and humanity in The Power and the Glory, and the power of words, continues giving me his power of words and friendship in emails. And Richard Schulman, in his world that’s very different from mine, gazing with his lenses on powerful people and cities, has made me look with new eyes at things I didn’t look at before because he’s created a beginning by making me Renault to his Rick. He said, in an email that if I wrote this piece, it would probably be “a quaint dalliance among friends. Or possibly a razor’s edge with a few nicks that might engage the intellectual desires that most of the contributors keep on a hot plate somewhere inside their brain.”

He also said, “My eyes would grow to be larger than Saturn’s Rings if I saw my name in print attached to Julie W’s CP article.” Richard Schulman has eyes that have seen many marvels and moguls but I’m not sure that any has made them bigger than Saturn’s rings. I’d like it if an article in CounterPunchcould do that. This “quaint dalliance among friends” is what David Graeber called play, “the ultimate expression of freedom for its own sake.” And Graeber knew that this freedom plus friendship plus trust can be radical in political domains, not least as a form of resistance against the Elon Musks of this world. But we need the conditions for it to happen.

The sometimes called “minor”, but in my view major, Brazilian poet of the people, Vinício de Moraes wrote, “A gente não faz amigos. Reconhece-os.” (People don’t make friends. They recognise them.) But this recognition requires friendly ground where you can actually encounter a friend. In these times when the neoliberal order is trying to snuff out any kind of revolutionary fire, some words of Albert Schweitzer may be lost in many online pages of quotable quotes but, carefully considered, they’re even more powerful than they were when he said them decades ago: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” This bursting into incompliant flame means looking and thinking outside your own box or, like the women of the Combahee River Collective, rubbing your mind against others that think differently: thinking freely.

The Old English þencan (conceive or kindle in the mind) and the proto-Germanic thankjan are related with the verb þyncan (to appear) and thunkjan (to think, feel), with the Icelandic þekka (to recognise, as in Vinício Moraes), and with the Indo-European root tong from which þencan and þanc (thanks, goodwill, and gratitude) are derived. Giving to think in CounterPunch isn’t telling you how to think. It’s letting readers think for themselves in a friendly, trusting community, something which, in the age of identity politics, culture wars, and human cancelling, is now rare, on the left too. Even if we can’t change the world, here we have a place to resist what’s wrong with it, from a myriad of perspectives on appearing as, thinking about, and recognising friends. Thanks CounterPunch.