Sunday, August 11, 2013

Politics is life.

Tarqua Bay, Lagos Nigeria
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have been accused of many things as we all have. Some are constructive, some not.  Some are honest appraisals, some dishonest attempts to simply obscure an argument and introduce the personal. The worst, possibly most harmful and quite hurtful criticism I face is when people, not most people but some people, not necessarily cruel people and often quite well meaning people accuse me of being too long winded, too wordy. The gall!

I find great pleasure in writing about things, a sort of catharsis really. I have only begun to write extensively in the past 10 years or so as I never considered myself a writer and, surely, one has to be an “accredited”, writer to write,  and a university recognized economist to write or even comment on economics..

This is not so as people have written their thoughts about the world around them long before universities and other institutions of the ruling classes emerged. The cave paintings in France and the ancient scrolls are examples of it.  People made clothes long before society recognized the profession we know as Tailors.

Anyway, getting too wordy here.  I am one of those people who will talk to anyone anywhere, my close friends can attest to that. After I got back from Baghdad in 1971 my mates asked me how it went, me not speaking Arabic and all.  No worries; humans get by real easy in these situations if you enter their community in friendship and want to learn from them, socialize with them; I bought Arab clothes, it was no problem. The Iraqi’s were kind and generous to me, despite the dirty role British capitalism played in their history. All people differentiate between those that rule and those ruled. I am sickened by what the war criminals Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and others including their British colleague Blair have done to the Iraqi people.

Last week a couple at the pub told me that they “hate politics”.

“But politics is life.” I told them. It can be frustrating and stressful at times but it is also inspiring, “What you hate is bourgeois politics which is what we have here, the politics of the 1%.”  Who votes Democratic and who votes Republican.

Politics determines whether we eat or not. Where our children go to school, where we live, whether we can get medical attention etc. As Marx once said, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

When I’m in airports or any place where as a consumer I get to talk to someone working, I always bring this relationship of work in to the conversation, or at least open the door as the worker won’t shut up when you start on that subject. In my years active in the labor movement I would hear repeatedly from full time staff and high-level officials (the experts on worker attitudes) how workers move in “baby steps” and how we have to “educate” them etc. This was always their excuse for not fighting for concrete needs, for not raising demands that raise expectations because the leadership didn’t believe them realizable.

Mention to one of those workers at the stands in airports that sell anything from papers to candy that you support unions and that they need a union.  My conversation has many times gone like this:

“You’d think the damn bosses would get you a stool to sit on when you need to rest your legs, you need a union.”

I’ve never heard a negative response to this.  I’ve heard, “Can you get me a union?” and, “get me a stool and I’ll join your union.”

Now I’m not saying workers don’t need to be exposed to new or more complex ideas, I have many people to thank for exposing me to new ideas.  But if we consider that the heads of organized labor, and the left, have failed miserably when it comes to increasing our numbers, and while this is partially due to laws that make it difficult, in the main it’s also because of their approach.  We have been in much worse conditions that these. The example of the stool is clear, fight for the basic things that improve our lives, wages, work conditions health care housing etc. and workers will be drawn to that. If we can help put more food on the table, the recipient will be more open to our ideas about society and the world around us.

Malcom X was in the UAW for I while if my memory serves me right.  Had the Union officials fought racism aggressively he would have been attracted to that.  As it was, it was the Black Muslim movement that gave him a theoretical grounding, an explanation for the racism and horror he experienced in his life.

We are encouraged not talk to each other at all except about mundane things like sports. Who came up with the idea that we should never talk about politics or religion?  The intellectuals of the bourgeois talk about these issues. What they don’t want is workers talking about it from our perspective. Prior to the English Revolution, King Charles was adamant about keeping the sports on Sundays (jousting etc.) if not, the people would be gathering among themselves and talking about all sorts of pernicious ideas. Is the king really god’s man on earth?  Do we have to pay tithes? Why must there be an intermediary between god and me?  Why must we work to feed the feudal lords?  Oh yes, and how come the king gets to sleep with my new bride before I do? Or me before my husband does?

I think one of the reasons some workers (blue collar workers like me in particular) are reluctant to write or engage in conversation about more complex things is that we lack the confidence, a missed comma here, incorrect grammar there.  And our society teaches in so many ways that if you see a weakness in someone, exploit it, it’s the way to win and “winning is everything.”

At Costco yesterday I walked to one of the stands as I always do for a free food treat.  The woman was maybe in her 60’s and naturally, there was no stool for her to sit on and she could have easily accomplished her task sitting. It would be nice if she at least had the option. I asked her about the product and she replied in an African dialect. My hearing’s not what it was but I could tell it was an African dialect plus she looked like she was from the west.

“What part of Africa are you from?” I asked her. I’m always a little cautious about this, especially being a white male as it can make someone like this a little nervous, not sure of my intentions.

“West Africa” she replied without looking at me directly.

“Nigeria” I responded

Her demeanor changed somewhat and she responded in the affirmative.

“I used to live in Yaba” I told her.

She was really excited now and told me she was from Lagos.  I mentioned Tarqua Bay where my parents used to take me swimming and another place called Vicky Beach. We used to go by canoe to one place sometimes and I remember the guy telling me not to put my hands in the water, “Cuda Cuda” he said meaning there were Barracuda in there.

We talked a little more and she asked what I was doing there and I told her that my dad was in the British Army, he was stationed there.  He rented from this Nigerian and they were the best of friends for 50 years until Sam’s death.  Sam Fawehinmi was from Ondo State, a Yoruba and she knew of the family. Sam had a furniture factory. She laughed as I told her I used to play with Sam’s daughter Tunde when we were small. Sam became a wealthy man and I know him and my dad had some dealings because my dad was a quartermaster in the army and a bit of a, creative character when it came to making a buck.  But him and Sam remained close friends till they died. Sam would always stay with my folks in London although he had the money to say in more fancy accommodation. He was an imposing figure with a Fez. I never really got to know him although I know my dad told me to keep my politics to myself  if I was visiting at the same time as Sam.

I reminded the woman of the Ju Ju man and how my mum used to give me money to give to him. I was only 8 and the Ju Ju man was something else, I was quite astonished and afraid at the same time.  The lovely man who looked after me when my folks were out and used to take me out in to what in my child’s mind was the jungle but probably local forest, would point to little trinkets, small pouches and bones hanging form tree branches.  “Ju Ju” he warned me and I must not touch them. Ju Ju still has influence as I found out fairly recently when I jokingly told a Kenyan friend I was sick of western religions and was starting a Ju Ju branch here in San Leandro. She wouldn’t sit next to me at the bar last time I saw her.

This man died in the Biafran war, a horrible conflict that many Nigerians died from. The Biafran War was a colonial world conflict the flames of which were fanned by the major powers in the struggle for natural resources and Nigeria has oil; the Stalinists on one side, the western imperialist countries on the other.

My exchange with this Nigerian woman was fairly brief but it made my visit to Costco worthwhile.  I told her Odabo as I left and she responded likewise. We both parted with broad smiles on our faces, it made my day more pleasant and I think it did hers too.

See politics is good stuff.


permarev said...

Richard, as a socialist and one with a reputation for being long winded, I enjoyed your post. Your interaction with the Nigerian woman reminded me of my childhood in England, when out and about with my Mum. Whenever, she came across someone speaking with an Irish accent, she would always start up a conversation, to my embarrassment at he time, with "And what part of Ireland are you from?"

Richard Mellor said...

I'm English of Irish background on both sides although I never paid much attention to it until later in life. i went to Catholic school in Banbury. I was born in Burma.

The thing is people are collective and social creatures. I once mentioned to someone I was at a party with something about another person there, that she was from the same area in NYC and was having some issues with her health. "How did you know that?" he said. "I asked her" I answered.