I have been in the Hellenic Navy for two months. One month in boot-camp on Poros island, and now on Kos island right at the border with Turkey.
During training I caught COVID-19. Not a huge surprise if I’m honest. Only a few of us were allowed into the mess hall at a time. We had to wear two masks, carried and used hand-sanitiser at all times and kept distances during drills and chores. But at the end of the day we always returned to the same 20-people sleeping quarters.
COVID-19 itself was not that bad for most of us, only one guy had to be sent to the military hospital in Athens. The rest of us spent it at the barracks, locked in a concrete block from the 60s, not allowed outside and brought food in disposable Tupperware. No smartphones, no radios or TVs and forced to clean our communal spaces and restrooms ourselves, all while being sick. But we also had a lot of time to just speak with each other, for hours on end.
The people I met come from across the spectrum of society, many of whom I would never have met had I not been conscripted. In a way, that first month of training (before people’s contacts secured them comfortable transfers to cosy units in Athens or wherever is closest to home) was a major equaliser. We were all at the bottom of the food-chain, but we are there together.
The underlying principles of patriarchy which permeate the armed forces, and which attribute to all of us an inherent value simply for being men and doing our duty, bring people together. If only we could extend this sense of empowerment and belonging to everyone. I guess that’s what feminism is all about.
I made friends and shared many laughs with people who I later found out were fascists. One guy’s dad was the head of Golden Dawn for southern Athens. Another chap got me a coffee when I had run out of cash; after we had spent a whole evening chatting and laughing. Later he referred to immigrants as “disgusting illegals”.
The terms used to describe people who are not liked (Turks are Mongols, refugees are illegals, anarchists are unwashed murderers etc.) are disturbing. There is definitely a lot of hatred — and hence fear — among people. Sometimes it came from life experience: I met one chap whose house had been broken into three times by Roma people. And his sister had been sexually assaulted by two boys from the Roma community. He is from a rough part of Athens – I have never even visited it. You can imagine what his stance is on “gypsies”.
This fear experienced by millions, regardless of whether it’s justified or not, is consistently belittled by the Left when minorities are sanctified. The proper response to the demonisation of minorities should be our deep and honest engagement with the matter, not to respond to one extreme (demonisation) with another (sanctification). When they hear us speak about LGBTQI+ rights, the environment, or a number of other issues that they don’t consider pressing, they think: “is that really the Left’s priority right now?”
The stance that “everything is a priority” does not work for people who feel like they are in a fight for their survival. They want to know that their survival is our priority, and when they think it is not, they turn to other representatives for whom it is.
Often what we communicate sounds to them like we are debating universal suffrage before we have even abolished slavery. It’s not that they simply feel alienated by our priorities, but that they perceive them as offensive. We appear out of touch with their reality: a bunch of snobbish middle-class intellectuals who know what’s best based on a book we once read, rather than lived experience.
If we are serious about wanting to re-connect with the working class that the Left has unquestionably lost touch with, we need to start discussing these particularly difficult points.
Many of the people I met were racist. They are sexists and nationalists. But before I realised these things about them I considered them nice people. They were pleasant, funny, and kind.
This juxtaposition — this apparent ethical clash — has made me question what it means for someone to be bad. I still strongly disagree with their views, but I am coming around to thinking that that disagreement cannot be the basis for condemnation.
No one considers themselves the bad guy. Often they don’t even truly like their own stances but consider them an ugly reality of life – one that they have experienced, not read about. And the fact that we, the Left, are in denial about these realities, infuriates them.
Speaking with them was not easy. But the worst thing that could have happened to me while in debate with fellow sailors was for another Leftist to have come along in my support: the arrogant holier-than-thou attitude, the intellectual way of speaking with the readiness to condemn. The conversation would have been over immediately, replaced by fruitless conflict. The reality is that I met many more people in the navy who were ready to listen and have their minds changed about things, than I ever did while volunteering in the Left.
The fact that we are detached from the reality of the working class is not bridged simply by progressive policies which aim to help the working class. If people feel denigrated and misunderstood, they will never listen to you, let alone trust you.
For the time being there are parties on the other end of the political spectrum that feel like a much better fit for those “left behind”. How we decide to move forward will determine whether we are truly interested in re-engaging with the working class or if it’s simply a mantra we keep repeating to feel closer to Marx.
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