Friday, June 8, 2012

Writing that bridges the personal and the political

The split in our language between “political” and“personal” has, I think, been a trap.
Adrienne Rich

In the current edition of the excellent Australian publication Overland I enjoyed this piece by Stephanie Convery. (Stephanie's work appears in other Australian publications and she blogs at Ginger and Honey here.)

The article is thoughtful, insightful and well written. In particular I like the way Stephanie interrogates her own experience and that of other young people within the larger political context. It also skilfully avoids the trap identified by Adrienne Rich.

Stephanie's piece raises important questions about the socio-political views of Australians in their 20's.
I was a teenager in the Howard years. He came to power when I was just finishing primary school, and I can’t think of the era that followed without remembering that pervasive sense of uncertainty and dread that poisoned so much of public life. Even before that, Kennett’s gutting of the public service had meant kitchen-table announcements about the possibility of having to move to the country if my firefighter father should lose his job. To my mind at the time, it felt like I and everyone I loved was just one new law away from a life of obscene poverty, or forced procreation, or persecution for whatever difference was considered the most threatening at the time.

And it didn’t seem to get any better. I remember the bitterness in our classroom arguments in 2001, after the planes hit the World Trade Center and then again after the Tampa arrived. I remember screaming accusations of bigotry and racism at a classmate from the opposite side of the room, and choking on my own anxiety and rage when the teachers tried to calm us down. I remember how so often it felt like we were growing up not into a world full of choices – as we were told – but a world full of already-worn grooves. Trenches dug for us to file through. I remember being haunted by the thought of packing groceries for the rest of my life – that I would forever be nothing but a cog in the machine, essential but replaceable, valued only insofar as I could perform this mindless but repetitive function. I felt trapped, bored because I felt trapped, and confused because that boredom was undercut by the most profound sense of urgency – the kind of fire that comes from knowing there is something fundamentally wrong with the world and if you don’t try to make it right, make it better, make it out, it will eat you alive.

There are people who like to bitch about my generation. Regardless of class or context or individuality, they present us – and dismiss us – as self-satisfied, self-centred, ignorant and profoundly ungrateful. It enrages me. I understand why those stereotypes exist but that is not the same as accepting their implications. Perhaps every generation is doomed to rebel against and be resented by their predecessors, whether for rejecting the previous generation’s values or for embodying them too well. (If my generation is self-centred, is that not the inevitable outcome of growing up under neoliberalism? If my generation is politically apathetic, is that not understandable given a lifetime of public alienation from the concerns of mainstream government? A generation that grows up with an all-encompassing market and limited capacity to organise becomes mired in liberalism and wary of collectivity and community – is it really so hard to understand why?).

It’s easy to dismiss one’s teenage experiences and revelations for being under-theorised, somewhat socially myopic and hormone-driven – even though they often are – but it’s a mistake, in my opinion. If major political change is going to happen in this country it’s going to need my generation and those coming after us, and it’s going to need to understand not only where we came from but how it made us feel.

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