Sunday, June 12, 2016


It can be somewhat challenging if not impossible to understand people who do not share the same background. Of course, it is not just about individual/singular experience. Most problems follow class, gender, sexuality, racialization and the not enough discussed power relations of marginal and dominant languages, major and minor cultures.

Hegel inspired Marx by writing about the relationship of the ‘slave’ and the ‘master’. The slave gets insight following his/her twofold position. The master’s discourse and representations of the world are always the dominant ones, but the slave sees both his/her own life and the models presented and portrayed by the master. This has, for a good reason, become one of the central mantras of standpoint feminism.

For a ‘totally privileged person’ (white, male, middle/upper class, heterosexual, English speaking) it can be hard to get this. Marx recycles Hegel to claim that the people who are subordinated (i.e. the workers) become more conscious about socio-economical problems than the ones who rule (i.e. the upper class). One can see more from the shadows.

I myself am privileged as I am ‘white’, male and heterosexual. In these areas of life I need to study what it means to be the Other.

On the other hand I am from a poor family and I grew up as an immigrant, so I have had my share of glass ceilings. I can never know by heart what it means to be sexually marginalized, brown or a woman. I know, though, what it means when there is no money for hobbies, no summer cottage and no travels. And I know what it feels like when someone suddenly quits smiling when s/he hears that you talk 'the wrong' language or when s/he hears that you are from another country. Even more, from childhood I know what it means that you have to fight physically just because someone doesen't like your background.

On a global scale I have not been poor, but one could talk about relative poverty (as Bourdieu puts it). In the Nordic countries, where the middle class totally dominates culture and discourse, I have been left out so many times I cannot even count.

Following this I have a clue what it means to be less privileged in another ways too. And I have tried to listen to people, just listen and learn.

Although it is hard to understand others, one can still learn, and I think especially literature and films are good for this. They can show us essential traits of other people’s lives. For me Antonio Tabucchi's Sostiene Pereira (1994, Pereira Maintains 1996) is a story about a Southern European male who has never had to reflect on his masculinity (we Scandinavians have to). He is also relatively rich.

The book describes the everyday of an old, tired journalist, who is called Pereira. He is responsible of the culture column of a small Lisbon newspaper, Lisboa. It is the summer of 1938, a period of hot weather and political tension.

A young intellectual, Monteiro Rossi, contacts Pereira with an essay on death. Pereira starts buying texts from the man, but they turn out to be politically ‘problematic’, i.e. critical.

Due to the dialogue with the young societal critic, Pereira begins to reflect upon his lonely and apolitical life. He realizes Rossi has problems with the police. In the end of the book the young intellectual is murdered.

Tabucchi portrays the awakening of Pereira, who takes a political stance and writes a critical article about the murder, criticizing the regime. Pereira suddenly knew someone, had someone close to him who suffered.

Tabucchi’s poetical writing reveals its political core slowly. The reader finds himself/herself only suddenly in a situation where the point is not anymore the soft, eloquent description of the city, the lemonade or the weather, but the depressive fascist regime of Salazar. Pereira faces a political challenge. He becomes resistant.

I have lately been obsessed with these moments of life. It is interesting when you decide to take a stance, or when you just suddenly get a glimpse or an understanding of how horrible it is or could be to be someone else.

Pereira has been passive. He has been a driftwood. Rossi disturbs his daydreaming. Pereira becomes responsible.

A literary example of the opposite type is Jonathan Littel’s Les Bienveillantes (2006, The Kindly Ones), where the tragically unhappy protagonist starts working on his career at the advent of a nation ruled by the Nazis, and ends up ‘just working’ as a high ranked officer in Nazi Germany. The reader has to face all the situations where the protagonist could have chosen otherwise. I love the book, but I cried over it.

In true life it is not often that we face as big challenges as the characters of these books. There are, though, many moments in life where you can make choices that have impact. At this age (I am 43) I have seen so many idealists turn to the dark side when being practically challenged, that I believe this might be the key issue in politics.

Pereira’s case is simple. He is an old, sick man without family. He sacrifices himself. He does not have much to live for, and he might gain his last spark of vitality through his political deed.

Finland has lately been relatively depressing. Our right wing and partly even racist government has cut a lot of cultural and educational funding. We have a racist party in the government. People are afraid of refugees.

Many bad-tempered driftwoods have also been making noise. A Finnish journalist made fun of Miss Finland because she had a ‘funny name,’ i.e. she had an immigrant background. While debating the choice of the next film professor of my university, a director, who was on the right track in being against the male dominance of the film world, sadly ended up mocking one applicant by saying that 'oh, is it so that a Latvian guy is the future of Finnish film'. There was also a scandal about two ladies who had been shouting racist comments to two African European women at a cultural joint called Teatteri. And just today a journalist asked, again in our main newspaper, something like 'can you anymore say anything about black people without ending up having a quarrel'. These people are all white and middle class, but there's more to it. They are all educated females. (The educated males who think like this do not have the courage to speak?)

The drunk passenger in the underground who shouts obscenities and the Neo-Nazi who is patrolling on the street are still working class males. But all the aforementioned incidents were caused by educated, (probably) heterosexual, white middle class females of the age 35-50.

What the heck?

I have been taking for granted that racism and more broadly (the cases in question are quite messy) prejudices are male stuff. In the ‘civilized’ territories were these incidents happened, I haven’t heard anything of the like from any male in years. I live in Helsinki, which is by any standards one of the key cities for writing the future history of male feminism, and of course I live quite an avant-garde life, but I haven’t realized until know how well a big proportion of the educated males have been trained.

When I enlisted all the racist incidents in my own educated class and professional territory, I could not come up with any male examples of this type, which would be from this decade. I am sure that these incidents exist somewhere, but it still tells a lot that I ended up with a list of only women.

It took me a while to realize that this was not a backslash. (First I got scared.) It is just that when one part of the society develops enough, we can just see where we have to be working next. We need to realize women are often as bad as males, and we need to get rid of the myth of the humane woman and the inhumane man. We educated one group, now we have to turn our gaze towards another.

Only this summer have I started to think about the too good (read: perfect) brand this group of people have in the Nordic Countries, i.e. white, middle class, heterosexual women. Some of them - no male ever - commented on my ex African and Romanian girlfriends ironically ('oh you have an exotic girlfriend' or 'she looks like whore'), they are sharing more openly their racist fantasies of immigrant (rapist) males more than my male colleagues, and it seems that nobody is stopping them, like everybody would be afraid to talk. Should they be thought of as victims of sex/gender (of course they are that!) to the extent that all poor, colored and/or otherwise less privileged people should just bow and do nothing? We should say something. It is our responsibility.

I should for sure be going to communities which are more traditional to not have a too positive idea of educated males (the arts and the philosophical scene where I am at is different, I know). But anyway, the aforementioned group (middle class females) rarely showed solidarity to my lower class background. Queer scholars, blacktivists, working class women and other poor people always did that, and I am so thankful they did. I needed them.

One of the problems of middle class people - a group I am slowly becoming a part of - are never willing to say they are privileged in any sense.  There are of course many great individuals in this group, don’t take me wrong, but still there is a loud margin which needs to become more educated.

For me, who had been traumatized by poverty and ethnic/language discrimination, the worst thing about the 1990s was that privileged women, who had a shower, who had more than 11 square meters in their apartment, who's families owned their homes and had a summer cottage, who gained networks easily following their class position and who could travel (I had none of these), shouted to me that I was privileged because I was a man. I could see the broader picture, and agreed on the structural point, but...

Now the same group is the last openly racist margin of the educated class to show disrespect for immigrants, foreigners and lower class males, at least where I roam.

It is not that this group would be the worst - males still do all the worst stuff - but the news is that it exists. It is not big, probably, but it is truly active, it seems. Many critical feminists think they need to show solidarity for this group, as they are 'sisters', and so they actually take a stance against the ‘Latvians’, the poor people and many others who are for a reason or another less privileged in our context. No good.

Reading Tabucchi I cannot but think: how can we wake up M(r)s Pereira? If I'd be Tabucchi, I'd write about a white, middle class, heterosexual woman who realizes her relatively strong position, and who then understands she has to support others, and not just keep on victimizing herself. She can criticize the white, middle class male, for sure, but... then the problems start. Who has the most privileges has to be asked every day when you take up the role of the victim.

Intersectionality means for me less identity and more consciousness about how complex the world is. To Finland intersectionality came mostly just as theory, but today, thanks to the movements of the queers (1990s-2000s) and then the brown people (last 2 years), it has increasingly become everyday talk and attitude. I am very happy about it.

Je suis M(r)s Pereira is the next big Facebook slogan I’d like to see.

Well, I used to be angry about another insensitive margin. But it already lost the game. After supporting endless descriptions and anger about the lives of (relative middle classy) working class males for decades, the Nordic left is finally realizing that the world is more complex. There are women, poor educated people and even other groups who don't fit in Marx's old scheme of the white manually working male who needs help from the academic Moses, Marx the philosopher, who descends from the podium to explain how much revolutionary potential working class males have. Sadly many males from this group now form the extreme right.

Damn there's a lot to do, politically speaking. And of course working class males and all females need our support too, like all other groups with problems, it is just that we need to think more  holistically than what we are used to. This era has really opened my eyes. And, well... for me, at least this time, reading Pereira Maintains was somehow good for thinking about this. I cannot but recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment