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Chances are you won’t be welcome in the world of online feminism? It depends on which part of the world you’re visiting – and what kind of attitude you bring with you.

 

The world of internet feminism is, according to yesterday’s NS blog by Sadie Smith, patrolled and policed by the "Online Wimmin Mob". A sneering, intimidating (one might be tempted to say "bitchy") group of self-appointed experts, "The Committee" can be counted upon to insult, threaten and drive away any well-meaning newcomer, and likes nothing better than to attack other women over Twitter in an attempt to "win" at being the most oppressed feminists ever. Most likely in the small hours of the morning.

As a longtime feminist and LGBTI activist and blogger, who makes use of online feminist networks on a daily basis for their work, I was somewhat amused by Smith’s diatribe – but mostly tired at hearing, yet again, a hyperbolic generalisation of what constitutes online feminist activism, ignoring the vital, diverse efforts of national and international feminist and womanist movements to concentrate on the bad behaviour of a few unpleasant know-it-alls.

Internet feminism certainly has its share of unsavoury characters. The righteous gatekeepers – as they see themselves - throwing their metaphorical weight around, pedants who care more about appearing right than being right. People who thrive on infighting, using concepts such as understanding different forms of oppression and privilege as a way of humiliating and denigrating those they dislike. I’ve been on the wrong end of it and it’s horrible. But how, in this respect, is feminism different from any other identity, cause or interest? Online and offline, we see the same behaviour in academia, in the arts, in fandom, sport, in the most innocuous of hobbies – and some of the very worst of it in newspaper op-ed pieces and the comments they attract. And yet Sadie Smith wrote an op-ed piece – and here I am, writing a comment – the inevitable actions of a small minority don’t negate the importance of a form, of a movement, of a way of communicating. And their use of certain words and phrases as a cover for their meanness doesn’t erase the value and necessity of those words and phrases.

This is hardly new ground for internal debate within online feminism. Offbeat Empire covered it last year, in a widely disseminated article "Liberal Bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport". I’ve blogged about it, as have many of the writers I know – this area of debate is alive and well. And most people have no trouble understanding the difference between bullies using "politically correct" language to hound others, and the astonishingly simple concept of intersectional oppressions and privileges. The world we live in is riddled with bigotry and discrimination, of many and varied kinds. Some people are discriminated against in more than one way. Some people experience discrimination and yet discriminate against others in turn. Some people are ignorant of the sufferings of others precisely because society has given them a leg up in an area where it gave other people a kicking. And to try to change society, to dismantle oppression, we have to turn around and examine these different forms of discrimination, to understand how they affect the world we live in and our own conception of self – to know our enemy, and to try to learn better ways of being in community with each other. Forgive me if that sound patronising, but that’s all that "understanding/dismantling/checking privilege" means – hardly a difficult concept, and radical only if you find the idea of universal equality radical. Having access to a Twitter account doesn’t protect a person from myriad forms of abuse and oppression – it can’t prevent rape, shield someone from racism, ensure the continuance of DLA payments – to claim that everyone online who talks about the ways in which they’re suffering in an unequal world is “…the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas…” is facetious at best.

As to Smith’s problems with the word "cis", and her claim that "through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations" – I must admit to being somewhat confused. A neutral term simply meaning "not-trans", "cis" is to "trans" as "straight" is to "gay" – a blunt instrument, not perfect, but a way of acknowledging divergent experiences of the world without implying that some people are normal (the "women women", or the "real men") and some people are…not (the trans contingent, of many and varied sexes and genders). It’s a word I’ve used on a regular basis for about five years in my work as a trans activist – educational outreach, public speaking, consultation services, conferences, intercommunity events – and have yet to have a cis person tell me that it upsets them. To describe the use of the word "cis" as offensive because it was supposedly given to cis people without their consent – does Smith imagine the situation is any different for trans people? That we chose the words that have been used to mark us out as abnormal? I, like many of my colleagues, would like a world so equal, so open, that we no longer have to use the words "cis" and "trans" (certainly not in the way we use them now) – but we’re not there yet. Have some trans people on the internet used the word "cis" in anger? Of course. Dealing with constant harassment, abuse and hatred from cis people, a not uncommon experience for out trans people, would make even the saintliest of us lose their tempers and rant. Reacting with condemnation, rather than empathy, just compounds the problem. Finally, Smith’s assertion that the word "cis" is "an insult to the very essence" of who she is? To quote another feminist, Cel West: "saying that the term cis is an insult to 'the very essence' of cis women directly implies that trans women aren’t real women." Now that I find offensive.

To make a broader point – this, to me, is the wonder of online feminism – that the women (and men, and everyone else) who have traditionally been misrepresented, spoken for, spoken over, ignored, vilified by the (usually) white, (usually) cis feminist mainstream have a chance to make their voices heard, on their own terms. Sex workers and trans women, who frequently found themselves demonized and threatened by some prominent second wavers, are now carving out their own feminist spaces, creating discourse that includes and respects their experiences and ideas. It’s not about creating an homogenous space where debate is stifled – but about learning about the limits of our own knowledge, and combining our resources, our strengths, to create a feminism that finds our common purpose through our diversity, instead of by denying it. Turn to the broadsheet coverage of feminist issues and what do you usually find? A rehash of the "can she really have it all?" article, or a variant on the "is it feminist to shave my pubic hair whilst reading Fifty Shades?" puff piece. I checked my social media feeds this morning and read about feminists connecting their queerness with their faith to create the perfect Seder, writing new collections of fairy tales to deconstruct patriarchal myths, organising protests to fight the cuts, plotting ethical porn experiments that would celebrate trans bodies – it’s a wonder that I get any work done, when there are so many fascinating things happening. And there are online feminists making specific use of different social networking functions to get their point across. I can’t be the only person who started following Laurie Penny’s Twitter feed because of her on-the-ground, real-time coverage of protests throughout the world. The enormous success of the Everyday Sexism project is due partly to the ease of connecting with it via Twitter, of sharing story after story of harassment and prejudice via a short tweet. Even something as irreverent as The Hawkeye Initiative has a serious point to make about the misogynistic depiction of women in mass-market entertainment – and connected with its audience via Tumblr’s picture-heavy format. It’s the old concepts of consciousness-raising groups, telephone trees, independent zines and presses – on an enormous scale.

Smith rounds up her arguments with the statement: “Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count.” I couldn’t agree more – which is why I find online feminist spaces so valuable – and why her depiction of those spaces is not one that I recognise. There are just too many of them, too many voices, ideas, philosophies, to be contained in the image of the sour-faced "Wimmin Mob".

Maybe that’s why, in the end, I prefer to talk about online feminisms – the connectivity forged between different groups, different communities, different experts – a shifting, evolving set of alliances, not a closed party with a limited guestlist. We’re no monolith – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not changing the world.

Look around you - who else is in the room?

CN Lester is a classical musician, singer-songwriter, writer and LGBT and feminist activist. They're the author of the popular trans blog "a gentleman and a scholar". www.cnlester.com

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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.