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
- 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.
- 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.
* * * *