Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: November, 2016

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CULTURAL RELEVANCE

As the aftershocks of the Alt-Right quake continue to rock the Western World, there’s been much browbeating about who to blame for it. Quick out of the finger-pointing blocks has been the assertion that ‘identity politics’ is the culprit here.

Apparently, all of us who believe that encouraging tolerance of difference, rather than always pressing for sameness, are the reason why the poor and desperate are revolting. Ahem. Nothing to do with economic insecurity caused by corporate greed and the demonisation of any collective action or social policy that doesn’t make money for the rich. Duh.

How could we have been so blind! Oh well.

Identity is inescapable. From the time we each get up in the morning and look at our faces in the mirror, we’re aware of who we are in the scheme. We carry the physical and genetic markers of who we are around with us all day: fair, dark, ginger, injured, young, old, indifferent, tall, short, skinny, fat, fabulous and ugh.

What I see personally is a woman who, apart from a need for spectacles, has pretty much won life’s lottery in terms of privilege, status, the ability to do whatever I want. On the surface of things, I’m so in the middle of the pocket of acceptable norms, among my major complaints is that I never get the bumper specials on frocks and shoes because my size is always gone first. Boo hoo.

But more powerful than the obvious is the invisible: the histories each of us carry behind our eyes. Generational racism and dispossession, intimate struggles with sexuality, memories that flicker with violence and fear. These things can’t always be seen, but they can hold a person back from giving all they have to give and getting the best from life.

How can it be wrong to say at the highest levels: your difference is respected and acknowledged as important to the fabric of humanity? Of course it’s not wrong. Blaming ‘identity politics’ for the scary place we find ourselves in right now is just run-of-the-mill, look-over-there scapegoating – a familiar and distinctive feature of the fascist, authoritarian brand. Bajeepers, ‘Alt-Right’? That’s just another euphemism for opportunistic arseholes who exploit the despair of others.

We’ve been here before – loads – and most notably in the late 1930s when the world lurched into another mega war. Part of my personal identity is a wonder about one German politician, Georg Schwebel, member of the Social Democratic Party, who spent that war in a concentration camp care of the Nazis. He represented the home town of my Schwebel forebears – Wald Michelbach in Hesse, in central Germany – and he makes me curious as to whether the rich vein of social democracy that runs through this part of my family is some quirk of heredity, like the name Georg.

For me, there are also the whispers of my Jewish forebears, the Miers and the Woolfs, one slim thread of which ended up in Australia. Why? Who knows? But they make me related to the guy who co-wrote the lyrics for the Wizard of Oz – Edgar Allan Woolf, a New Yorker and purportedly quite a wild thing. Some quirk of heredity there, too, perhaps, for the similarly rich vein of performers and storytellers and storylovers who live in my family tree.

But the strongest strain of all, of course, is my Irish heritage – and its chin-up, show-em-what-you’re-made-of grit. Courage, decency, loyalty, faith, I can still feel the warm hands of the one who gave me these precious things: my grandmother, Nin. As well as a soft spot for sentimentality and an inclination for kitsch.

So, when I found this little carving of a kangaroo and her joey a couple of weeks ago at a local op shop, my heart did a triple somersault of joy. Nin had one just like it all the years of my growing up. I don’t know what became of it except that it’s here with me again now.

A small but significant representation of where I’ve come from.

A reminder of how heartbroken I would be if some Alt-Right jackboot told me I could no longer identify as me, could no longer cherish these bits and pieces that make me. That’s never going to happen of course – I’m too much a Joe Norm. But if you’re black or gay or Muslim, it might just become an unpleasant reality if we let bullies rule.

I look into the fake emerald eyes of my little roo and she tells me to reject absolutely those who attack others for their own gain. Reject all nastiness of spirit. She tells me that there is nobility and honour in caring for others – that everyone really does deserve a fair go.

This is my culture. This is who I am. A fiercely proud Australian.

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TRUMPET

People do crazy things when they’re hurt – like voting to install a flagrantly manipulative narcissist as leader of the free world, or leaving the European Union, or imprisoning refugees indefinitely in concentration camps on remote equatorial islands.

When hope and opportunity are ripped away piece by piece over time, it wears down resilience, and blows away empathy with it.

The woman who serves me at the supermarket checkout or the young man who wipes my windscreen at the carwash don’t care about me or how shocked and disapproving I might be at recent radical political shifts which threaten the peace of my pleasant, middle-class life. Nor should they care.

Because we – the privileged – have let them down.

Regardless of which way we vote, or whatever hackneyed, hypocritical rubbish we spout about equality, every time we indulge in such perks as tax minimisation and negative gearing and the moral superiority that makes it all possible, we hurt the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash. We shrink their world to keep ours comfortable.

When the darling of Australia’s left, Paul Keating, began the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and brought in superannuation tied to the stock market, I thought this wouldn’t end well. When I expressed this worry, I was scoffed at by my uni mates who knew so much better.

They didn’t, but I didn’t know better than to doubt myself. I’d dropped out of uni for a spell and was working at the Commonwealth Bank at the time, in the late 80s; before that, I worked at Coles variety store in Redfern. I watched workplace agreements and their attendant secrecy divide colleagues, destroying not only solidarity but camaraderie.

Later, I watched Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ result in mass sackings and pave the way for more and more corporate gobbling – the mergers and takeovers that would result in more and more economic rationalisation, aka more sackings and lower wages.

We walk the same streets today as those who never recovered their dreams, their promised lives, from those strokes of bad luck that had nothing to do with them.

And yet we blame them – the unlucky. Or perhaps choose not to see them. We smile perfunctorily at the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash, unseeing smiles that judge them for their losses and their lackings to stave off our guilt at having all that we have at their expense.

Because this is the way it works – and we know it. We know the economic pie is finite. We know the disparities inherent in the way we value labour are a disgrace – because we all learnt that at university.

A note to those traumatised today at Trump’s ascendancy: stop the bullshit right now.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle dreamed us – the middle class – into existence. He called us the ‘mean between extremes’ – those who would be so fearful of falling into servitude but so constantly, graspingly aspirational that we’d be the tiller, the steadying force of democracy, keeping revolution at bay, keeping all bastards honest.

We have failed. We are a waste of our education – which most of my vintage largely got for free, before we started chipping away at that, too, to pay for our chardonnay, our turmeric shakes and quinoa salads.

We sigh at the enormity of the problem. Globalisation and mechanisation have smashed the unlucky further down in recent times but how can we possibly help? All our investments are tied up in the corporations that are keeping them in relentless poverty. It’s becoming positively Dickensian.

But really, what can we do?

Deny all responsibility. Shrug our shoulders as history repeats and repeats. Be horrified at what checkout woman and carwash boy have done.

Pretend sometime in the far away future that we were the good Germans because we bought free-range eggs.