Bus seats, spiders and boiling kettles

12 Sep

It’s a great story. Mild mannered, law-abiding lady in her forties – black lady in her forties – is too tired, after yet another hard shift as seamstress, to do as she’d done a hundred times before and give up her bus seat to the white man who’d lawfully demanded it. The rest is history. The world knows of that day and the quiet heroism of Rosa Parks. I knew, or thought I did, till a friend told me the truth.

Rosa was groomed for that confrontation by a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People aware of the tide of history, not least America’s Cold War need to rein in its excesses. Looking for a shoe-in to make headlines in the right ways, NAACP had rejected other candidates as having too much form. Your proverb­ial little lady was needed and Rosa – intelligent, politically savvy, but low profile – could be spun for the role. Nothing is taken away from her by this. But it’s one thing for NAACP to make, for sound tactical reasons, the choice it did. And it’s another altogether when myth makers, who include you and me, indulge decades later in oversimplifications tantamount to fabrications which, by elevating the one, add to an ongoing reactionary narrative that diminishes the many.

Nelson Mandela was one of thirty defendants in the Rivonia treason trial. Can you name the others? Any of them? No; me neither. Nor is this cause for breast beating: why clutter your head with such stuff? What is important, however, is that at the start of the trial Mandela was no better known than his co-defendants, who took the shrewd decision that he had the right qualities – photogenic, articulate (but less so than some of them) and a man who enjoyed the limelight – to become the face, the globally and instantly recognisable face, of the struggle against an evil regime whose support by the money men of Wall and Threadneadle Streets had also to be played down in the interests of a simple, Right v Wrong narrative along the lines of Robin Hood or Willam Tell.

Individualism and reductionism aren’t confined to good’n evil tales. By the age of nine every British school­child of my generation knew that the antics of a spider led to Scotland’s victory at Bannockburn, and that a canny Scot watching a kettle boil triggered the industrial revolution. Last week I was at an excellent conference, on Shared Solidarities. An astute professor made the incontestable but depressing point, citing that picture of a dead boy on a beach, that compelling narratives do trump strong arguments.

People like me try to get a conversation going about surplus value and the insanities of a world run for profit. People like Rothermere and Murdoch tell rather larger audiences that people like me want to take their hard earned and give it away, and in the process convert this green and pleasant land to a version of North Korea without the charm.

So how do we respond: people like me and, perhaps, you?

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