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December 02, 2011

  • Leaving the Barricades
  • I suppose when it comes down to it, it was going to my first Doctor Who convention that caused me to leave the student left.

    But that’s something of a long story.

    When I was in my early twenties I had what might be termed an amicable break-up with my previous ideology, being a fundamentalist (and latterly an evangelical) Christian. I had read enough George Orwell to see how much the space I was living in resembled Nineteen Eighty-Four, and not the good bits where Winston Smith was getting some with Julia. I had listened to enough Bruce Cockburn to recognize that the world was a broken place and that it needed to change substantially.

    Thus, I found myself struggling to find a place for myself. And one day I stumbled into the office of a student Christian organization at York University that was much more aligned with my politics: an organization with posters on the walls demanding that Nelson Mandela be freed; an organization that had annual student visits to Nicaragua; an organization that was having a conference on sexuality and Christianity that wasn’t flinching from the issues.

    I signed up and joined then and there.

    My first year or so in the student left was incredible, powerful, moving. I remember holding a candle at the memorial service for the first anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and being humbled and touched by the honesty of the people who spoke. I remember my first protest rally for the first Gulf War—I was conflicted in my feelings about the war, but there was something so pure, so honest about being involved in that protest.

    I was also taking probably my two favourite courses in my less-than-illustrious career as a student—a Women’s Studies course, and a Canadian Literature course that were taught by incredible, brilliant instructors. My mind and heart expanded in so many ways that year. I decided there was nothing wrong with being gay—finalizing my break-up with my evangelical past—and so much of what I saw and did formed my understanding even today.

    And if my experience of the student left had just been an extension of that first year, I’d probably still be out there at the barricades. But I was silly. I was young. I wanted to be right in the middle of it all. I wanted to be leading. It’s what I’ve always done. What I always will do.

    If I could travel back in time 20 years I’d slap myself hard.

    My form of leadership was to become editor of the organization’s national magazine. When I took it over it was barely more than a newsletter, with articles typed, cut and pasted for photocopying and distribution. I remember saying to the soon-to-be departing editor, “You know you could save a lot of time by just laying it out on the computer.” It was as though I had shown him the grand unification theory or something. Over the next four years, I dragged that publication into the 1990s, laying it out with desktop publishing software (remember Aldus PageMaker?) and eventually getting the organization to buy a new computer capable of using such software. The magazine finally looked like a magazine; eventually it went to commercial publisher to be printed on newsprint. It finally was a magazine.

    But all these changes came at a massive cost for me. Every single change I made had to be approved by the student organization’s board and national council. And I quickly learned that the my worst idea of hell was dealing with eight politicized university students all with their own ideas on the best way to run a magazine.

    The organization would fund buying a 486 computer to desktop publish the magazine, but they didn’t think much of the opinionated way I spoke about how things should be done. Why should all the power of making the magazine rest with one individual? There should be some form of editorial collective to make decisions. So I was now lumbered with three people with whom I had to have every decision vetted. (In an era before e-mail, too!) Because, you know, power is bad. And I was bad to have all the power.

    Of course, I was the one also doing hundreds of hours of work writing, editing, coordinating artwork, designing and laying out the magazine as well. I was the one working till 4am on the magazine, not working on my university courses. But merit didn’t count for anything. My personal situation didn’t count for anything. It was about the ideas, the ideals, the ideology.

    I would get a real taste of this with someone who I thought was my greatest friend in the organization. I loved this man. I thought he was a genius. I spent the summer of 1992 hanging out with him at every opportunity, tagging along like some kind of admiring kid brother. My friend got the idea that what we should do is produce a newspaper instead of a magazine, to have our version of the International Socialist, I suppose. I told him, bluntly, it was impractical and difficult and I wouldn’t do it. So he went behind my back and got Board approval to investigate it. I’ve probably never felt more betrayed in all my life. And I suspect if my friend were to be asked about it today, he’d say he was in the right because the idea was more important than my views of the matter (even though I was the one actually doing the work) and, ultimately, our friendship.

    But such things became quite common in my experience of the student left, not just in this organization but in broader coalitions I became involved with. It was more important for people to be held to ideological standards than anything else. I remember the letters—yes, letters—I used to get from aggrieved so-called-friends who were angry at me for not living up to some ridiculous standard of gender or ethical politics. The truth is, they were angry at everyone for not living up to what they felt was correct, and their own standards changed with whether they were reading Foucault or Fanon that week.

    What I couldn’t understand was how, in some of these people’s view, ideologies trumped relationships. I remember at one national gathering in BC, the friend I mentioned earlier ripped into me for a laundry list of deficiencies and then told me that I “needed to be more like Che” and have a sense of revolutionary mysticism. I thought to myself “No, I’m hurting right now, you jackass, and I need you to acknowledge that.”

    And yet, that’s not what made me crazy. What made me crazy was the sheer hypocrisy of it. It was bad to have power, unless you were a charming and articulate leftist who said everything in the most correct manner possible. Then you could be a demagogue. I never understood that. There was one Board meeting where I asked for budget to put together a resource and the newest rising star in the organization simply said, “I think this is important” and no one questioned it from that point forward. That’s when the penny dropped for me: the problem wasn’t that my ideas weren’t any good; it was that I was, in the end, an aspergery, opinionated, loutish male with poor social skills. I was in just another version of high school.

    And high school was an apt analogy. The amount of bullies I saw in the student left, who got away with bullying just because they were either ‘correct’ or talked the game well was appalling. I remember one woman, who would wield her gender as a weapon as a means to tell off me and other friends the ways in which we were all insensitive to women. And yet, this same woman once told a room full of people about the intimate details of a fling I had with someone at a recent conference just to humiliate me. And she got away with it because no one would dare hold her to the same standards she held the rest of us.

    I finally got wise and quit the magazine after the second or so round of backstabbing. But I still stuck it out with the organization for another couple of years. Lord knows why, it only got worse. I remember an annual conference in Manitoba where people savagely ripped into each other in ways that frankly scared and scarred me.

    I stuck with it because, at the heart of things, I really wanted to fit in. I really wanted to be liked. When I think of all the really bad poetry I wrote in my early twenties, I want to fold myself into a foetal ball…

    But then I went to my first major Doctor Who convention.

    In the fall of 1995, My good friend Carrie (who was outside the madness of my leftist life) and myself decided to go to Chicago to the Visions convention there. By that point I had become quite involved with internet Doctor Who fandom and I was keen to meet the people I had been chatting with online for the past year or so. I went to Union Station and booked our Amtrak tickets. Shortly after, an Australian fan I had never met before e-mailed me to ask if he could come with us too. I remember exchanging e-mails with Carrie along the lines of, “Do you think he’s all right?” Fifteen years and three books with him later, I’m probably going to go with yes as my answer…

    All three of us spent an 10 hour train ride I’ll never forget, joking, geekily enthusing about Doctor Who books, even playing Monopoly in the club car. By the time we got into Chicago we were exhausted and insensible, laughing ourselves silly when we said things like “Look! Big building things!”

    imageAnd then there was the convention itself. It was the first time I had ever seen any stars from Doctor Who, so it was a big deal. But the bigger deal was spending time with some really great people, drinking in the bar, laughing at each other’s jokes, being massive Doctor Who nerds.

    And I’ll never forget a moment there for the rest of my life. I was sitting in a bar with people, my future co-author Robert was beside me, and to the other side was my friend Carrie. And we were joking and laughing and suddenly I had this thought.

    “Why don’t I ever have fun like this when I’m doing student leftist stuff?”

    It was a moment of clarity. I suddenly realized that for five years, I had struggled and argued, and fought, supposedly for the greater good…and yet, in five years I had never had a moment like this, where I could just talk nonsense and have a good time and have fun. I didn’t have to try to seek acceptance. I was already accepted for the loutish, aspergery, opinionated guy that I was.

    I never felt more comfortable in my skin, I never felt more alive, than in that moment.

    A month later I resigned completely from the organization. Eight months later I left Canada to move to Britain for two years.

    During my two years abroad, I became editor of the magazine British chapter of the organization I once belonged to. I basically did everything I couldn’t do in Canada: commissioned, edited, wrote, designed, art directed a magazine. And people loved it. After years of questioning my confidence and feeling like nothing was ever good enough I suddenly realized that I actually did have a talent at this sort of a thing. That I was good at what I did.

    A couple of weeks ago, I went back to Chicago with my friend Robert to the Doctor Who convention there. As editors (and soon to be authors) of Doctor Who books, we were guests this time around. It was a very different convention, and yet during my time there I sat in on a panel about “How Doctor Who changed my life” where people talked about the community fans found and the confidence they gained all because of their hobby.

    While I sat listening to bright, articulate fans, no older than I was in 1995, I thought back to that moment in the bar at my first Doctor Who convention when I realized something basic, something primal, something true: everything we do in life, every passion we have—if we don’t ultimately become happier as well as better people from it, there’s something fundamentally wrong about what we’re doing.

    I still hold a lot of the same values as I held in my 20s. I still believe in social justice. But while I’ve made my peace with a lot of past times in my life—I even friend people from my Bible college days on Facebook—the one part in my life I still won’t forgive were those crazy years at the barricades, writing bad poetry and generally feeling miserable because it was apparently the correct thing to be.

    Posted by graeme | (5) Comments | Permalink

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    Robert Smith?  on  12/13  at  03:23 PM

    That 1995 convention was so critical for me as well. I was newly arrived in Canada and I remember sitting in the bar with you and Carrie, thinking “I’m actually having fun here”, for the first time since I’d arrived on the continent, three months earlier. Very possibly, we were having the same thought at the same time.

    (I presume Carrie was probably thinking something different, because if the three of us had had the same thought at the same time, the Earth might have exploded then and there…)

    And what an awesome picture…

    Graeme  on  12/13  at  03:32 PM

    We might never know what Carrie thought of it… one day if I see her again I’ll ask!

    I stole that photo from Jack Bevan. It is great. Totally captured that weekend for me.

    Rob Jones  on  12/13  at  04:27 PM

    I fully get the whole student left experience. I think the cherry on top, for me personally, was to see how very similar evangelical Christianity and leftist activism of the sort you and I were involved with actually are. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the ideology was more important than relationships. This fact lies at the heart of all fundamentalist us-and-them thinking. We were both very suceptible to it as young people, just because at the time they seemed so different, yet the core of “I just want to be liked” was the exact same bait on the hook no matter what the ideology happened to be. There is, after all, not much difference between saying “You need to be more like Che” and “You need to be more like Christ”. Really, it’s just the packaging that’s different, ultimately. And who needs packaging? It’s garbage, quite rightly to be thrown away.

    I’m glad you’ve found your niche, my friend. As for myself, I’m resigned to the fact that I don’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member.

    Great post!

    Chris P  on  12/14  at  12:15 AM

    As I read the article I had the same thoughts as Rob. Having been part of the evangelical church I recognised many of the features you described. I don’t even think it’s about ideology, that’s just a tool to control people and make them do what you want.

    If the ideology was the important thing, then the fact that a magazine was getting published would be the important thing, not the finer points of its content.

    Fiona Smith (Stryjak)  on  02/14  at  04:56 PM

    Graeme, you moved to England for 2 years!?!?!?!? Where did you live, specifically? (I don’t know if you remember me, Graeme, but I was from England. I moved to Canada right before I started Grade 9 at Perdue. What most people didn’t know, is that I started Gr. 9 when I was 12).

    I hope Manitoba has shown you its nicer, kinder side since this experience. :D I keep coming back here (glutton for winter punishment??), despite the adventures I’ve had in the world since Perdue.

    And I know this is TOTAL sacrilege, but I have JUST started watching Dr. Who (my daughters are HUGE fans!!!!) I had a most unfortunate run-in with a real Dalek in Shepherd’s Bush Market when I was a kid…and that was the end of Dr. Who for me until recently. In fact, it was a Dr. Who Christmas at our house this year. We may now own every piece of Dr. Who merch. out there. HA HA HA HA!!!!

    Are you still writing? What are you up to?  I’m a Writer too. :D

    Fiona

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