Who do you ‘sock’? From Alice Springs to the ‘Foolish Old Man who moved the Mountains’ – and back

Tom Griffiths

 

This post is about two seemingly unrelated situations separated by both time and distance. The first situation is local, Alice Springs to be specific, and emerges from a men’s family violence program I helped establish in Alice Springs some five years ago and some of the things I have learned over this time. The other concerns an American steel worker called Mike who was interviewed in one of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, “Working…” published in 1974.  Originally reviewed by Marshall Berman in the same year, I first came across it in Berman’s Adventures in Marxism that came out in 1999. For reasons best known to the book gods I reread Berman’s book earlier this year  and the connection between Mike and Alice jumped out at me. I will pick this up below but first let me introduce Mike the steel worker.

 

“Here is “Mike Lefevre” … a 37 year old steelworker. First he abuses intellectuals, complains that they denigrate workers. A moment later, however, he stereotypically denigrates himself: “A mule, an old mule, that’s the way I feel.” He is hurt and angry that his teenage son “lacks respect.” And yet “I want my kid to be an effete snob. …I want him to tell me that he’s not gonna be like me.” He talks about the anger and violence inside him: he goes to a bar, insults someone randomly, starts a brawl. “He’s punching me and I’m punching him, because we really both want to punch somebody else.” But who? Forty years ago in Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, a worker punched out his boss, and the audience stood up and cheered. But Terkel’s worker has the brains to see how things have changed: the structure of work is far more abstract and depersonalised today, and cathartic moments don’t come easy. “Who you gonna sock? [asks Mike] You can’t sock General Motors, you can’t sock anyone in Washington. You can’t sock a system.””

 

What sets Mike apart from many is that he knows, as he’s punching somebody out, that he really wants to direct his fire elsewhere, but feels trapped. He has a sense of what the target might be, but as a solo steelworker, can’t fix the target in his sights, can’t get close enough to ‘sock it’. He has insight, but is hamstrung by despair and self loathing, compounded, it would seem, by isolation. Hope is there too – he reads, looking for answers and direction, but so far these have eluded him.

 

We don’t know what happened to Mike, whether he was able to shake off his despair and self hatred, find kindred spirits and together work out ways of socking systems rather than each other, but Mike, and so many like him, has soul mates in places like Alice and across the Top End.

 

Up here where hopelessness, self loathing and despair could be stamped on nearly everyone’s birth certificate, people quickly come to ‘get’, on some instinctive level at least, that you can’t ‘sock the system’, be that the white fella system or the broken aspects of the traditional tribal system, where humbugging, jealousing and payback are spinning out of control, but where you can sure as hell sock one another. And they do, especially the men who target women, usually their wives partners or girlfriends, as well as one another. And when that doesn’t solve anything they take it out on themselves. The family violence rate, often alcohol fueled, the jail numbers, the hospital admissions associated with violent assault and self harm, the suicide rate and the churning out of corrugated road kids who so quickly grow into corrugated road adults … all this and more screams of the pain and rage that springs from despair, the self loathing that often accompanies this and of feeling trapped. Just like Mike.

 

“Two way learning”

 

This phrase was used by a close colleague and camp resident whose activism was involved in two of the examples I give below. It describes a means of broadening one’s scope in seeking solutions, of learning from and supporting one another and is in direct contrast to the narrowing and, dare I say it, ‘exclusivizing’ pull of identity politics.

 

So what do we learn from Mike and how can this learning be used to help people stop abusing one another, especially their family members, and instead to find targets, political, institutional or community ones that are, or have become, part of the problem and not part of the solution? The first thing is to acknowledge that there are sufficient parallels that exist between Mike, his equivalents elsewhere in the world and indigenous populations in Alice and up the top end for similarities to be sought and lessons to be drawn, be these lessons positive ones or negative ones. Without this we turn our backs on one another or look upon one another as curiosities. And Mike gives us both positive and negative. He knows himself that he is hitting the wrong target and hates himself for doing it, for repeatedly getting sucked in. That’s why he drinks himself to sleep, to escape.

 

Knowing this however, knowing you’re hitting the wrong target, is not a bad place to start. But as Mike would be the first to admit, it’s also not a good place to stay. So how do people get unstuck and find a way forward? They can take another lesson from Mike, a positive one, and look for solutions. Mike’s not just unhappy with himself, he’s unhappy with the situation; it’s why he wants his son to be better than him and good on him for that; it’s why he reads, it’s why he wants to connect somehow with the outside world and to look for ways that will help him find some direction and purpose, to get out from under.

 

What Mike had not yet learnt (and I hope that he ended up learning this) is that you can, in fact, take on a system but you can’t do it on your own. You need to find friends, people in similar situations who are also pissed off and frustrated, and you need to take this to a higher level (to synthesize it) and figure out which targets are real, accessible and ‘sockable’. This doesn’t happen by magic and it doesn’t come from a bottle; it needs determination, organisation, mutual support and a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. And if you need to stick your hand up, looking for that support, you do that too.

 

Invariably this process starts small. Remember the song “From little things big things grow”? It’s telling us something important. Remember Mike’s frustration “you can’t sock Washington”? Wherever Mike was in the States he was nowhere near Washington, nowhere near the government or the bureaucrats he felt screwed by and he was flying solo. Starting too big can be overwhelming and self defeating. More than enough to hate yourself and seek escape in grog.

 

So what does starting small mean? Let me place this within an Territorian context and give some examples. The first is well known – the struggle for land rights at Wave Hill – the other two, like so many significant struggles engaged in by those who are notionally powerless, virtually unknown and flying under the radar.

 

The well known. 

Vincent Lingiari, land rights and Lord Vestey 

 

This is a very well known story and one that won’t be forgotten. Washington may have been a long way off from Mike, but nowhere near as far as Britain, where Lord Vestey was, or Canberra where the politicians and bureaucrats were and where there was no understanding or support for land rights. As we know, Lingiari and those with him at Wave Hill weren’t budging for anyone and over several years gained widespread support across the nation. Be the politicians sympathetic or be they dragging their heels, they were forced to listen and to give ground, forcing open a door that enabled new struggles and new targets to be identified and targeted.

 

The less well known

  1. Grog, humbugging and mayhem at a town camp.

 

Most readers will have no difficulty understanding the connection between lots of grog and the potential for mayhem. Humbugging may need explaining. As used up north humbugging describes a perversion of the traditional system of mutual obligation where individuals connected by ties of kin are obliged to assist one another in times of need. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jared Diamond have written of similar systems in Somalia (Infidel) and New Guinea (The World Until Yesterday) respectively. When the natural world held the whip hand mutual obligation within family or clan systems was essential to survival. While any system is capable of being abused the fine line that existed between survival and disaster acted as a powerful constraint and the system worked, performing its function as intended. Modernity, in whatever form it has taken, has loosened the grip of the natural world significantly and the constraint it exercised no longer applies. The effect of this development has been to undermine the place of mutual obligation and allow its perversion, often distorting it beyond recognition. Under these circumstances it has become parasitic and exploitative rather than supportive.  A parody of family humbugging was made in this skit from the ABC’s Black Comedy team. It is one of the funniest and most astute pieces of comedy I have seen in a long time.

 

With this in mind let me get back to the grog, humbugging and mayhem with a story told to me by one of its principal architects and actors.

 

Following yet another grog fuelled and mayhem inducing ‘visit’ by some out of town family tearaways to a family in one of Alice’s town camps another of the families decided that enough was enough and began to look for allies and solutions. Consultations with others indicated that they were not alone, everyone knowing the pattern of behaviour and its impacts – humbugging the family to get lots of grog, wild partying, no respect for others, alcohol fuelled violence and a lousy, often dangerous time for others. This pattern had become not only familiar and predictable, but disturbingly so.

 

With sufficient support garnered within the camp, support was sought externally. This brought on board the Night Patrol, auspiced by Tangentyere Council, the indigenous organization responsible for most of the town camps and the police. Relations between the indigenous population and the police has a very mixed history, but unity here was essential for a viable plan of action to be formulated and enacted. This enabled the identification of two interrelated targets – the visiting tearaways and the distorted obligation system they were riding on, a system that had been turned into its opposite. The plan formulated was simple but required commitment, cooperation and organization. Its success rested upon it being driven from the bottom  up. When the tearaways turned up and humbugged the locals to get the grog the police would be informed, would turn up and the grog would end up down the sink. This didn’t need to happen too often before the pennies dropped and the wayward behaviour was curtailed. Mike was shown to be wrong here. You can sock a system, but it needs to be within reach and something that others can agree on.

 

  1. The Women’s Safety Committee and the Men’s Safety Committee

 

When Tangentyere Council began to provide  men’s family violence groups  in 2014 a few eyebrows in the camps were raised followed by a ‘let’s wait and see how fair dinkum this is’ kind of attitude. Five years down the track the program has shown itself to be fair dinkum, that it understood that you can’t respect people without listening to them and that change that didn’t put most of its energy in a bottom up approach was patronizing and a waste of time. People took notice. Firstly a number of women camp leaders, followed later by male camp leaders, let it be known that they were very unhappy about the violence, often grog fuelled, that was tearing families and communities apart. They requested training and support. Over several months in 2015 the women, who has initiated the contact and the request and then the men, along with the workers from the program that provided the training, learnt a lot from one another. Posters opposing male violence in particular started to appear in the camps, negotiations with various authorities aimed at making the camps safer, word being spread encouraging people to speak out and no longer accept violence, these and more all bear witness to identifying clear targets and working to ensure that blows are aimed at these targets rather than at one another. They also bear witness to the wisdom contained in a traditional Chinese folk tale, The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountains, promoted anew last century in a speech given in 1945 by Mao Zedong, telling of a man who ignored community derision and literally chipped away at his task until God (the people in Mao’s telling), impressed by his determination granted him success. And for those unfamiliar it did involve moving mountains. In Alice we can call this The Foolish Old Women Who Are Moving Mountains. And moving it they are, uniting with others in the process. They will eventually succeed, and while derisive comments can still be heard from naysayers, be they whitefella or blackfella, these are now mutterings, uttered more under the breathe than in the open. A tide has turned. It has a  way to come in but its direction and growing momentum is unambiguous.

 

I think if Mike and the various Mike’s around the world knew about all this he and they would get a real lift, there would be, as my camp colleague put it, “two way learning” and the growth of solidarity on that basis. That’s the good thing about seeking connection with people all over, be they locals or from far away; we get to learn from one another and support one another, we get to identify the right targets and to work out strategies to take them on, we get to sock systems.

 

* * * *

 

Brexit – And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards November to be aborted

For background, see previous articles in this series:

https://c21stleft.com/category/brexit/

David Gauke, one of the leaders of the Tory MPs opposing a No Deal Brexit has written an article at “Conservative Home” explaining why “Parliament must stop a No Deal Brexit this week”. My response is below:

David Gauke: Why I believe that Parliament must stop a No Deal Brexit this week

Fine, Parliament steps in. On Tuesday 3 September it takes control of the agenda. By Monday 9 September legislation to make leaving only with a deal the default will have passed both Houses, with much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Then what? There are still several days before prorogation by Thursday 12 September. Those days could be far more interesting. If Bojo is really determined on a “People v Parliament” election, assent will be refused. That would be more difficult if he had already been made a caretaker PM by an ordinary Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) not under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FtPA). The legislation is a matter of confidence, whether declared to be or not. The proper response of the government would be to propose an election. Since Bojo has openly threatened to pre-empt any decision by the people by setting the date in November and refusing to apply for an exension he won’t get the 2/3 majority of all MPs.

But a VoNC could still be moved under the FtPA, perhaps by Bojo himself. The Libdems have the same interest in a general election with Brexit still unresolved and could support it. It could succeed. No problem. It is still not too late to replace the PM.

But prorogation can occur at any time in those four days, for example immediately after a VoNC and before any Humble Address to HM to dismiss Bojo and appoint some named MP as PM. So the election proceeds.

If the House majority is serious it needs to replace Bojo as PM first. That is how the Constitution is supposed to work. The House replaces governments it has no confidence in. It does not legislate to block their core policies.”

Here’s a confusing and incomplete list of possible outcomes, also at “ConservativeHome”:

What will happen in the Commons this week? Here are 15 possibilites. They are not exhaustive…

This week the UK Parliament should actually be interesting instead of the usual rituals in which a government majority routinely proceeds with business while an opposition minority remonstrates ineffectually. A minority government faces a split opposition majority determined to block core government policy. A likely result is legislation that changes the default from leaving the EU without a deal on October 31 unless there is a deal to not leaving unless there is a deal. That reverses everything about Brexit and inevitably leads to either No Brexit or a BRINO. The legislation may or may not be accompanied by replacement of the PM, a date for a general election before or after October 31 and various court orders, none of which matters as much as the fact that No Deal will be blocked. The rest can be dealt with later.

The Tory whip has declared such legislation a matter of confidence and threatens expulsion of any Tory MPs that fail to support the government. But there are enough retiring anyway to defeat the government and others could become extremely unwell and unable to attend the House. The threat implies that Bojo is actively demanding to be replaced as PM. Other measures to that end have included:

1. threatening to respond to a VoNC by pre-empting a subsequent general election on Brexit by setting the date after a No Deal Brexit has already happened on October 31

2. inciting hysterics about proroging the House

It is plain that Bojo knows he never had the confidence of the House and will be blocked by it. But why is he so desperate to be replaced as PM? Well, given that he cannot actually deliver Brexit and he was chosen to sideline the Brexit party he desperately needs credibility as heroic leader of nearly all Brexiteers fighting to the end, so that Farage has less success in splitting the Tory vote at the eventual general election. Tnat should save some Tory seats from the debacle.

Corbyn has offered to support the 2/3 majority needed for a general election under the FtPA, but since Bojo sets the date and said he would pre-empt the decision on Brexit by holding the election afterwards, that would presumably depend on the legislation blocking a No Deal Brexit having been assented to. I cannot think of any reason why the government would actually want to face a general election having failed to resolve Brexit and still stuck with no plan. Only the Libdems and the Brexit party benefit from that. What both government and opposition really want is for Brexit to be resolved by a “Final Say” referendum before any general election, but they cannot admit it.

My guess is that the week will end with Bojo still left roasting in that special place in Hell for Brexiteers without a plan, despite his best efforts. Corbyn and Hammond are both a lot less tactically inept than Blair assumes.

The middle of October could be more dramatic, but that’s a whole six weeks away so I’ll write about it after this week is over.

The process will be far more interesting than usual because with the Tory party split there are more than two parties and a non-deterministic outcome. There are many possible variations and the sound and fury could include expelling disruptive government MPs and contemptuous Ministers from the session with background noise from the Courts. Unfortunately it seems unlikely that anyone will be locked up in the Tower pending trial and the crowds outside will probably not engage in unlawful drilling in the use of arms to defend democracy.

The last time such parliamentary politics was not entirely pre-determined in Australia was when there were three factions at the convention called to propose a model for a Republican constitution. The Monarchists, who wanted an Australian “Head of State” to confer dignity on the local poliltical class were out maneuvered by the Traditionalists who preferred to keep such symbols entirely out of politics, safely on the opposite side of the globe, and the Republicans who wanted some relevant change rather than pretense.

Actual political conflicts debated through public institutions could be normal in both the UK and Australia as well as the U.S.A. and others stuck with a two party system inherited from medieval England if they managed to overcome resistance from the two parties that benefit and establish a fair electoral system with Proportional Representation (PR). That could even lead to serious public debate over actual policies between a full spectrum of viewpoints if mainstream politics was not completely bankrupt. But even in the current state of mainstream politics it would slightly open up opportunities for other views to get a hearing, as in most of Europe where PR is the norm.

In the current political crisis over Brexit there could be real public debate about sovereignty, national identity, globalization and ever deeper union, free trade, looming trade wars, stagnation and economic crisis etc.

Instead the entire time available will be spent on not discussing Brexit at all, but devoted to procedural sound and fury signifying nothing. But this too is worth analysing as it reflects a profound shift towards populist mobilization to resolve splits in the establishment under constitutional mechanisms that were supposed to ensure a conservative and a reformist party would rotate in government, each delivering their supporters to accept compromise policies in order to win over the voters in the middle and thus win a majority of single member seats to be able to govern, That arrangement has facilitated periods of relatively rapid change led by reformists, followed by consolidation and digestion of the changes so that they become the status quo defended by conservatives. Its breakdown opens up potential involvement of much wider layers than the “political class”.

Usually reformists focus on Parliament rather than street protests. Now that Parliament is briefly interesting, of course they are doing the opposite. If there was an organized left, it would be using the street protests to mobilize the participants to actually reach out to others and canvas every home and workplace in every region to win over those still not convinced. Instead they are talking to themselves, or rather shouting to themselves, rather hysterically, and just sneering at the large numbers still taken by Brexiteer fantasies. The pseudo-left populism united with “the establishment” and “our Parliament” is no more progressive than the right wing nationalist populism united against “the establishment” and “their Parliament. Both are led by different factions of the establishment and being set against each other to divide potential mobilization that could actually challenge the establishment.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” but neither can the rough Beast be born.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)

Still, things are happening, which enables more people to start thinking for themselves.