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Take back the power: Naomi Klein

The rock-star activist and author on how the rise of Donald Trump could startle the global left into finally getting its act together.

“Care is such a radical idea,” says Naomi Klein. “I find it interesting that we struggle with the word. I’m not ready to let go of it. I feel like we need to grow into it.” Klein is as close to being a rock star as you can get on the radical left. She has been a public thinker since her first book, No Logo, achieved cult status in the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s, but she eschews her celebrity status as much as possible. We meet in early June at the People’s Summit, an enormous convention of American progressives in Chicago, a couple of days before her latest book, No Is Not Enough, comes out – but she is not on a promotional tour. She’s here, like everyone else, because she cares.

“Trump is creating this appetite, fuelling this appetite for systemic change. He is a signal of system failure and, yes, it turns out that that’s more powerful than climate change. I’m deeply excited about the potential for transformation.”

Klein really does talk like this, inexhaustibly and without stopping, and you believe that she means it. Born in Canada in 1970 to Vietnam War resisters, she has never apologised for being an activist as well as an author and journalist. No Is Not Enough is her most urgent and instructive political work to date – and her most personal. She segues from discussing strategies for resisting the sexist, racist, kamikaze corporate agenda of the Trump administration to des­cribing her experience of motherhood (she has a four-year-old son) and the way that her understanding of human responsibility changed after her mother had a stroke while Klein was still in her teens. What links them all is the architecture of care – and care, as Klein tells me, is “anything but soft”.

“Care” gets a bad rap on the left. It sounds like something that cartoon bears or teenage girls who have lots of feelings about dolphins do. The Leap, the Canadian ­climate and social justice movement that Klein oversees, has the tagline “Caring for the Earth and One Another”. That, as she acknowledges, could be from an advert for organic granola. It’s also a neat summary of what human beings have failed to do over the past several centuries and what we must now learn to do, or face disaster.

The work of caring for one another and for our communities is not so much a feminist agenda as a feminine and feminised agenda – which is why it has remained absent from mainstream politics for so long. So, it is fitting that the driving force behind the People’s Summit is National Nurses United (NNU), America’s largest nursing union, many of whose 150,000-plus members are women of colour. “I would follow nurses anywhere,” Klein said at the opening rally, and she repeats the sentiment when we meet behind a small row of bookstalls on the third day of the summit. Four thousand people have spent 36 hours in this cavernous convention complex, in talks and breakout sessions, the swirling artificial lights and freezing air-conditioning adding to the sense that this is a space out of time, a space where anything is possible, even – especially – in Donald Trump’s America.

Klein has a knack for producing the right book at the right time. No Is Not Enough was written in a four-month sprint while she was running an activist group and raising a child, and it is brilliant. It is a guide to resistance in the age of Trump, grounded in the idea that simply resisting oppression is insufficient. We must decide as a society, Klein argues, not merely what atrocities we will not tolerate, but what we are prepared to build instead. The book manages to be that rare thing in political writing: both rousing and profoundly sensible. Reading it – and attending the People’s Summit – I found myself nodding along to demands for significant changes in the way we organise economic policy, climate action, racial justice and much, much more, in the same way you might nod along as a doctor explains your treatment plan for a serious illness. It’s a frightening proposition. It is also the only thing that makes sense. The urgency of this period of human history ­demands no less.

“As our ideas are becoming more popular, so are the most toxic and dangerous ideas on the planet,” says Klein. “They’re surging and manifesting as extreme acts of violence on the streets, perpetrated by the state and perpetrated by [right-wing] supremacists, inspired by having people in the White House who reflect their views. It’s a race against time intellectually, it’s a race against time socially, it’s a race against time ecologically.”

***

If you’re going to get sick at any sort of mass gathering, I recommend that you get sick at a convention attended by hundreds of nurses. I came to Chicago to interview Klein and to figure out if there was any hope for the left in the first long, hot summer of Trump’s America. But the second I stepped off the plane, I came down with what is known to science as the galloping lurgy.

My bones felt like they were being boiled for soup. My head was full of toxic slime. At the check-in desk, I happened to ask if anyone had any painkillers. Ten minutes later, I’m sitting on a plastic couch, trying to keep down my breakfast, and Deborah Burger, a co-president of the NNU – who surely has better things to do – is asking me what hurts.

Everything, I want to tell her. Everything hurts. Everyone I know is working too hard for too little money. Late capitalism is slowly strangling what remains of my generation’s youthful energy. My country is in political free fall, and it seems as though every other week another religious psychopath goes on a murder spree . . . And, on top of all that, I have the mother and father of a headache.

Burger gives me some painkillers and a cup of orange juice and talks to me about the coming end of kleptocracy. “We sponsored the People’s Summit because we have to continue the momentum in this fight,” she says. “We feel it’s important to have our voices heard as nurses, as well as being activists.”

Burger is a nurse, but she doesn’t believe that her job ends when the patient leaves. “We can’t just stop our advocacy at the bedside. We have to make it broader, because we want to prevent people from coming into the hospitals. We want to be advocates for preventative care. We want to be advocates for keeping people out of prisons, because the money that is drained off to incarcerate people could have been going to health care, to a good education.”

That is the sort of co-ordinated, serious movement of care that Klein advocates. “The role of the trade union movement in providing infrastructure and being the backbone for social movements has been historically so important,” she tells me. “Your generation and even my generation of organisers are so untethered from any sort of infrastructure that can bind. [I admire] the vision that the nurses have had in just stepping up and saying, ‘We’re going to be the backbone.’ But it’s a different kind of union. It’s a union that is majority women, majority women of colour, and the work itself is the work of care.”

Part of the reason Klein was able to write such a detailed work so quickly is that, in many ways, she has been preparing for this book her entire adult life. It is a synthesis of the theories in her three main previous political books: No Logo, on the political power of brands; The Shock Doctrine, on how elites exploit economic and social crises to consolidate their power; and This Changes Everything, on how the coming climate crisis will make a new kind of activism necessary for the survival of our species.

“I wrote the book for a lot of reasons, but the most pressing one was the feeling that so much of the way we were talking about Trump lacked any sort of historical context,” she says. Too many people are still treating the walking constitutional crisis in the White House “like a shocking aberration, with the logical conclusion that we just get rid of him and everything’s fine. We’ve made that mistake before. In some ways, we made it with [George W] Bush.” Trump, however, has clarified a great deal.

Nobody here is glad that Trump is the president of the United States. But the stakes have become obvious to many who were previously prevaricating. For instance, it’s desperately clear that the pro-business, anti-climate-defence agenda and the power-
grab of racist, sexist throwbacks are intimately connected, and resistance to them is the same struggle. Trump may be the shock – to use Klein’s expression – that will stun the global left into getting its act together.

Nobody at the People’s Summit wastes much time arguing about theory. What I see, over the course of three days here, is a great many women and people of colour with varying life experiences talking about different ways of remaking power and, good God, it is refreshing. If there’s one thing that the left is in no urgent need of, it is endless panels of elderly white guys ­arguing about Marx.

Talking of grizzled socialists, Bernie Sanders is due to speak in an hour. The line to see him is already half a mile long. Surely there is no way that all these people will get in and, if they don’t, I predict a riot: this is the one point in the weekend when we are allowed to go hog-wild and stamp and cheer and assign superhuman qualities to a nice, normal old man from Vermont who argues like your socialist uncle at the dinner table. Somehow, however, we do make it inside, and we get to hear Sanders speak.

The speech is good – at least, the parts I can hear over the applause and the callbacks. It’s like a mash-up of a mega-church sermon and the most rousing bits of Les Misérables, which is to say that even if it isn’t your thing, you can see why people get into it. There have been many charismatic speakers already and Sanders doesn’t say anything that others haven’t been saying all weekend. He is, however, the designated point of mass enthusiasm, and somehow his plain-speaking, angry-uncle shtick is charming. Not charming enough to make me get to my feet and roar with everyone else, but I’m a bit too sick and a bit too British for that.

This is when I finally realise the point of Sanders. Being right is not enough. People need symbols of faith, even if this faith is in the plain, reasonable idea that ordinary people deserve to survive and thrive. Bernie is the personification of an idea whose time has come, not least because even after two years of filling stadiums, he still looks a little surprised that people are paying attention and a little downhearted to find himself at a point in history when the request that sick children not be turned away from hospitals sounds like a revolutionary demand.

It shouldn’t be but, in the United States, it is. For the past few decades, Americans in particular have lived with a political consensus that the meaningful redistribution of wealth and power can only go one way: straight to the top. It has become ever harder for anyone who wasn’t born rich to keep their head above the rising tide of inequality.

The difference at the People’s Summit is something that the global left has been lacking for a generation: it works. People with no more time for drama are listening to each other respectfully and making connections. The sessions are inclusive and pragmatic. The food is sufficient and tolerable. The organisers manage, somehow, to make sure that 4,000 people know where they need to be and when. That is no small feat in a stratum of society defined by disarray, infighting, brittleness and the failure to organise our collective way out of a paper bag.

“It’s a reminder of why physical spaces matter,” Klein says. “We need to look each other in the eye. I think there’s a real desire now to create a culture of accountability, the ability to have criticisms, to have conflict, but not to bring the house down.”

Yet there is baggage. Most of the people at the summit are Sanders supporters and there is no love here for the centre right of the Democratic Party, but few are in a hurry to re-enact the Bernie-Hillary wars of 2016. “I really do not want to be having that conversation,” says the Women’s March veteran Linda Sarsour, in a panel discussion on intersectional organising. “Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt that we’re actually all working from the right place, and let’s put our one-issue politics to the side and understand that this is a global movement that is rooted in collective liberation.”

In No Is Not Enough, Klein refers to this as part of “becoming the caring majority”. Nurses are among those at the forefront of this change, because they have been living it for years, as Kari Jones, an organiser with the NNU, says. “I think the reason nurses have stepped forward as leaders in the progressive movement is because they embody a value system that is the equal opposite of where our profit-driven value system has taken us: one that values caring, compassion and community. It’s very hard to undermine the intentions of a nurse.”

Jones explains this to me in her hotel room, where I have just spent three hours sleeping. “We made sure you had ibuprofen and helped you find a quiet place to lie down,” she says, “even if that’s in my own room. It’s not something we do for you. It’s something we do with you. It’s important to walk the walk of the world we want.”

That architecture of care is the real site of resistance. It can be as small a chore as helping a sick journalist, or as big a task as reorganising the culture of a superpower to prioritise collective health and welfare. It can be as easy as ensuring that indigenous people are well represented on your discussion panels, or as hard as demanding that the oil buried under Native American land stays in the ground. This is where the struggle for change is being lived. It’s not only about marching in the streets, though that helps. It’s about what we demand of our society, our state and each other.

***

The critical theorist Nancy Fraser has identified a “crisis of care” running alongside what many have declared the crisis of capitalism. The work of building families, communities, institutions and democracies is not work that capital can absorb and monetise – yet without it, the human component of capitalism atrophies. People become miserable and sick.

For that reason alone, the fight for medical care for everyone, regardless of income, is central to the American left right now. Reinstating Obamacare is not enough. On every panel, in every speech at the People’s Summit, the demand for universal health care is repeated in some form, and it consistently gets the biggest cheers.

Providing universal health care in the United States would require a huge redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. In California, the cost will be enormous – and the state can afford it. But a bill for single-payer health care is stuck at the state senate stage. It’s a question of priorities: about a sense of the common good and the common weal. It is, in a serious sense, about love.

When Hillary Clinton came up with the slogan “Love trumps hate”, it felt silly, because it was. It felt pat and insipid because it was not grounded in a firm understanding of what love is. Love, in a political sense, is not a feeling or a sentiment: it is an action. It is ruthless and unrelenting. It is the discipline of showing up for one another and for the collective good, time and time again.

Loving other people is damn hard. ­Spending 36 hours in a convention centre with members of the international left will remind you of this. “The people” are moody and under-caffeinated and like to cheer for celebrities and slogans. Half the time, they can’t stand to be in a room with each other; but when the chips are down, none of that counts. What matters is that you show up for one another.

Many people misunderstand what “the power of the people” means. First, “the people” are not unified, and the phrase doesn’t refer to physical power. It doesn’t mean the power to withstand bullets or drone strikes. That power of the people can be stopped, easily. Rather, it is the power of memory and resistance; the power of caring and responsibility.

“It’s such a fearsome responsibility,” Klein says. “It’s not a responsibility I grew up with. In my adult political life, it didn’t occur to us that we could actually take power. What we’re seeing with Bernie’s campaign, with [Jeremy] Corbyn’s campaign, even with what [the leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc] Mélenchon did in France, with Podemos, is that it is within reach.

“And the fearsome responsibility of that, as the climate clock strikes midnight, as all of these overlapping crises are hitting us – I wouldn’t describe it as hope, but I would describe it as a pregnant moment. I don’t ­really want to waste too much time thinking about hope.” 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague