For Dave and Janet
Act vice-President and inveterate redbaiter Trevor Loudon recently used his blog to reveal the true reason for the existence of socialists. According to Trevor, we are victims of a mental illness which makes us crave power - as 'damaged people' we 'want to change the world to make ourselves fit in'.
Prejudice usually comes wrapped in ignorance. Few Islamophobes have ever chatted with a Muslim, and not many racists have stepped onto a marae. Trevor's words make it clear that he hasn't met many socialists. Far from from grasping at privilege and power, most socialists sacrifice time and money for beliefs that will, in New Zealand especially, do little to help them acquire political power or advance their careers.
I wish Trevor had come to one of the barbeques that the Anti Imperialist Coalition (AIC), the Auckland anti-war outfit I was involved in between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, used to organise on a semi-regular basis. Every society throws up its own distinctive social forms of expression that can be used as the building blocks of a new, socialist order. In 1905 and 1917 Russia had its soviets; the Paris Commune took over the local authority of that ancient city and transformed it; today in Venezuela Communal Councils are being built out of organisations set up to improve life in the country's shantytowns.
Laugh if you like, but I reckon that the barbeque should be one of the building blocks of socialism in New Zealand. AIC barbeques were bastions of comradeship and free discussion. Had Trevor attended one, he would have found representatives of many of the innumerable tribes of the left - Trotskyites, anarchists, Maoists, greenies, Christian socialists, Islamolefties, even one or two social democrats - sharing beer and sausages and discussing everything from the prospects for impeaching George Bush to the dismal performance of the Black Caps (some things never change). Those power-hungry zealots with building plans for that gulag at Waiorou in their pockets must have gone to the Act party in the next suburb.
The reality is that socialists are motivated by things a good deal more mundane than a desire for world domination. We don't like living in a world where thirty thousand kids die of poverty every day, but the number of billionaires grows by a thousand a year. We don't think it's fair that a society lady in Remuera can buy plastic surgery for her poodle when the taxi driver in the next suburb has been waiting two years for a hip op. We don't understand why the workplaces where we spend a good chunk of our waking hours shouldn’t be run democratically, when our government is always telling us how bad this or that dictatorship on the other side of the world is.
Dave and Janet Bedggood make excellent examples of the real-life socialists that Trevor Loudon has so far avoided meeting. For more than thirty years, they have both been mainstays of the union movement and the activist left in Auckland and New Zealand. They have marched against both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and a few in between; they stood with the protesters defending Bastion Point from Muldoon's troops, and joined the seabed and foreshore hikoi in 2004. Their politics have led them to reject both wealth and glittering careers. Had they wanted to, both could have entered local or central government a long time ago, as their old colleagues Bruce Jesson and Matt Robson did after moving carefully to the right. Dave, who has taught in the sociology department of the University of Auckland for three decades, could have joined the Princes St branch of the Labour Party, that traditional conveyor belt from university to parliament, and be sitting in Cabinet now alongside that former sociologist and reformed socialist Steve Maharey.
Both could have climbed a lot higher up the greasy poles of academia, had politics not intervened. In 1980 Dave published Rich and Poor in New Zealand, which scandalised and excited historians and sociologists up and down the country. Today the book is still a part of reading lists at several universities; its only rival as a hostile but scholarly study of capitalism in New Zealand is Bryan Roper's 2005 volume Prosperity for All? Rich and Poor could have been the foundation for a glittering academic career and a stack of thick books. Dave did not neglect his duties at the university - on the contrary, he became a favourite teacher for generations of bright young students eager to learn about Marxist analysis and the real history of their country - but he chose to focus an important part of his energies outside the academy, in the left, the unions, and the international Trotskyist movement.
Dave and Janet's generosity has extended well beyond career choices. Over the years they have given many thousands of dollars to worthy causes, activist organisations, and comrades in need. The beautiful home they built with their own hands in the Titirangi bush has sometimes resembled a drop-in centre for Auckland's activist community. They have never ceased to offer advice and encouragement to activists throughout the left and union movement, even when they disagreed with important parts of these comrades' analysis or strategy.
Trevor Loudon's silly little blog post did manage one accurate observation. Loudon was right when he alleged that the activist left does attract more than its fair share of the 'mentally ill': of people tormented or bewildered by a world that can be a very cruel place indeed. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society gravitate toward the activist left, and not organisations like the Act Party, because they are accepted and understood by us, rather than rejected and ridiculed. Instead of blaming the mentally ill for their plight, we recognise that they are in an important sense the victims of a society that is itself profoundly sick. Instead of marginalising them we treat them as comrades who must play a full part in decision-making and organising. It is hardly surprising that mentally ill people prefer our company to that of the right.
Dave and Janet's third son Bruno was one of those people tormented by the cruelties of the world he was forced to live in. I never met Bruno, who killed himself last Wednesday, but Dave's tribute to him on Indymedia makes me wish I had. Anyone who is eclectic enough to be passionate about Chaucer and Doctor Who gets the thumbs up from me, and Bruno's extraordinary linguistic talents, which contrasted so starkly with the monolingualism of most Kiwis, myself included, could have put smiles on the faces of my publishers at Titus Books, who are always complaining about a lack of good translators.
It is characteristic that Dave and Janet have chosen to make Bruno's suicide public. Many of us would respond to such a tragedy by literally and figuratively lowering our blinds and locking our doors, but by finding the courage to share some of his story with us Bruno's parents have helped others to think and talk about a subject that is too often considered taboo. The greatest tragedy of their lives has been the occasion for yet another display of humanity.
I'm sure I speak for many people when I thank Dave and Janet for all they have given me over the years, and wish them strength in negotiating this terrible time in their lives.
After a Death, by Tomas Transtromer (translation by Robert Bly)
Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet trail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow looks more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.