Be warned. I’m not sure that I’d call this an optimistic diary. `Somewhat bleak’ might be a better weather forecast.

When I was in high school, a good friend introduced me to Crisis. It was the first comic I ever read. I used to wait for him to get his copy every month so that I could shamelessly borrow it before he’d even finished reading. Before I found Crisis, I had no idea that comics could be something other than super-trashy stories about super-macho heroes and super-scantily-clad screaming (though never ever shrill) women. Shows what little I knew – those were the glorious years of the Hernandez Brothers Love and Rockets series, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, not to mention his ethereal and utterly remarkable Black Orchid .

I first encountered Pastor Niemoller’s famous words on the back of one of those Crisis issues. You all know the ones:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

For a long time I found those words very powerful. If you had asked me why I thought politics mattered, I might well have paraphrased Niemoller. If you asked me what I thought solidarity was, the odds are pretty damn good that I would have pointed you to the back of that comic. “Hang together,” I would have said, “Or you will hang separately.”

But then I found that all too often, you will hang separately anyway.

I still greatly admire Niemoller. But I’ve come to harbour some serious doubts about these famous words as a prescription for solidarity. Not recently – my doubts been stewing away quite merrily for some years now. But it would be fair to say that lately they’ve come bubbling up to the surface again.

At their crudest, Niemoller’s words invoke a kind of self-interest. “Defend others,” they proclaim, “if you want to be defended in your turn.” I am not suggesting that such self-interest is malicious: it’s a rare motive that is not mixed. But I think this crude paraphrase offers some clues about why we end up hanging separately.

In our barbed wire world, equality is the rarest of commodities. All of our relations are power relations, predicated on inequality and our efforts to bolster or undermine it. And let me add some bluntness to my earlier crudeness. Those with power often perceive that they can afford to betray those without power, because they don’t believe that they’ll ever actually be so vulnerable as to require the defence of the powerless. The citizen does not in her heart of hearts believe that she will ever need to hide in the basement of an illegal immigrant. The captain of industry does not imagine that a pauper shall keep him from starvation. In the U.S. and the U.K., the Christian woman does not envision a time when a Muslim woman will shield her from religious persecution. The imperialist does not dream that he shall be saved from subjugation by a colonial subject. And frankly, those perceptions is usually accurate. After all, the ability to betray with personal impunity is an integral part of what having power and privilege is all about.

Interpreted as a prescription for solidarity based on enlightened self-interest, I think Niemoller’s words assume an equality that is seldom present. Read more literally, they explain why we too often hang separately.  

But I’m not done with Niemoller’s words just yet. =/

I was at a union stewards’ meeting soon after the U.S. attacked Iraq. By that time, stewards’ meetings had become something I forced myself to attend. Climbing up those stairs to the office/meeting room, I’d feel my mask fall into place. You know the one? The mask you put on because you’re going to a place where you know that you are despised because of who you are and what you believe, and you don’t want to give the bastards the pleasure of your pain. After four years of sitting in that room of mostly white, mostly U.S. faces, I had learned to keep my mask very firmly in place.

One of the items at the meeting involved a resolution condemning the U.S. invasion. Nothing that would make much practical difference, but a kind of belated  `going on record’ to express support for anti-war groups in the area. There was a round robin `discussion.’ “Unions are not political organisations,” one person said. “we should not be endorsing or opposing this sort of thing.” Another volunteered that “This won’t make any practical difference, so we shouldn’t bother talking about it.” But the argument that received the most attention went something like “We shouldn’t condemn the U.S. invasion of Iraq, because that would show a lack of solidarity with union members who support the invasion.”

So where does solidarity end and complicity begin?

And if self-interest, enlightened or not, will not serve as a basis for solidarity, then what can replace it?


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