on the joy, necessity and ephemarility of optimism

From the archives, I wrote this over three years ago, February 2010, for a student magazine. It’s funny, I force -edited it into a style that is just slightly unnatural. I’ve developed my perspective on each of the things described and wouldn’t phrase everything the same if I wrote this now. I dug it up as I’ve been coming into contact with positive minded people, with more than a hippyish tinge to them recently, which is provoking some thoughts which link back to the thread in this article.

“ we are the ones we have been waiting for”

“Paradise is where I am” proclaimed a sign, as we came to a gateway shaped with contorted figures, where we were greeted by beautiful dusty women. ‘Going Nowhere’ had become a mantra over the past months, especially during my hitchhike from England, and finally I was there, in the ‘desert’ of Los Monegros, Spain. Nowhere is a festival inspired by the Burning Man festival- which has become a temporary city in the Nevada Desert shaped by principles including ‘no commerce’, ‘no spectators’ and radical self expression. These principles are given living meanings as diverse as its population-peaking 35, 664 in 2004.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just a big party in the desert” I was told. This ‘party in the desert’ is, however, the focal point for a passionately dedicated community of Nooners- it is where they live the community they imagine and maintain all year. To me the atmosphere at Nowhere was one of a tangible but ephemeral euphoria. Maybe Nowhere has no purpose beyond itself and so exists on a purely hedonistic basis. Daniel Pinchbeck thinks not:- “The essential point of Burning Man [this applies equally to Nowhere] is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for community.” A man, while being body painted, explained how he envisioned a future driven by creativity transcending the work/life divide, and how spaces like Nowhere were laboratories for future forms of society. I wanted to share his optimism.

One week later Nowhere was a deconstruction site, reverting to a barren dustbowl. Many people left early on Sunday, to return to work on Monday, putting away their dusty booty shorts for another year. The community dispersed, maintaining threads of shared experiences and dreams. I met other friends and continued on the road, exchanging labour for experience, facilitated by the internet based HelpX. Our first hosts were building a straw bale house, and were escaping soulless timetabled ‘modernity’ for a more integrated lifestyle. In another valley we stayed with an offshoot of Rainbow gatherings, people hoping to gain a permanent escape from ‘Babylon’, as they referred to capitalist society, through becoming a permanent nomadic egalitarian community. The atmosphere resonated with that of Nowhere- a focus on existing in the present, coupled with a hope that this rightness could spread in the world. My friend, meanwhile, was frustrated with the self-contained contentedness of the gathering. “But how will they actually change the world?” he demanded.

Four weeks later I was at the Camp for Climate Action- 1500 activists living in a temporarily autonomous zone on Blackheath, within sight of the Gherkin, united by the aim of demanding ‘social change, not climate change’. Here people were united, not just in living a vision of alterity, but in pushing to radically change society.

Climate Camp justifies itself in terms of its political purpose. Despite this, the driving emotion may be shared with that of Nowhere, Rainbow gatherings and seekers of alternative lifestyles elsewhere- a desire to declare otherness from the apathetic inertia of a flawed society. Some ways in which this optimistic yearning for change is realised may be more explicitly and effectively engaged with reality than others. It seems, though, that they all draw on the energy expressed in the grand narrative of a ‘Great Turning’ – a term used by David Korten to describe an awakening into a better era, placing us as “the ones we have been waiting for”.


“Thanks, sweetie”

‘Could you pick up those pens, Sara? . . . Thanks, sweetie’

Ok sir, I don’t mind getting them

I might’ve dropped them,

but can I be your mate, your pal?

Like Khaleb, Ben and David?

How come they your friends,

when I’m some little darling?

Guess that’s how it is

and it’s not so much bother.

Least you answer my questions

not like some others.

Dad calls me ‘sweetie’ too –

he listens to my brother, but tells me

I ‘won’t get it, go and pester your mother’,

and I go upstairs, find mum’s bag

read ’20 ways to impress your man’.

Sounds complicated, not just the golden rules.

You don’t just tell the truth,

it doesn’t do to be too kind,

and you must never, ever, speak your mind.

So I smile and toss my hair, as I reach beneath the table.

I’m helping my teacher, I’m a good girl, he likes me.

I wrote this after a day in a year 5 class, with a young male teacher. He was unusually not-strict and flexible for the school, and did a few really good things to manage the classroom fairly, and the class clearly liked him pretty well. But he used some gendered term or other on me early in the day, which made my ears prick up, and through the day I observed him consistently addressing girls as ‘sweetie’, ‘dear’ and ‘darling’, only using their names when needed for clarity. With boys, he used their names slightly more, but called them, especially those who were more street – cool, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. Think he just about stopped short of ‘bro’, thankfully for the race and class dynamics there. It bothered me that all the terms for girls imply a paternalistic relationship, while the terms he used for boys all denoted equality.


I seriously intended to bring it up – with him, or with other teachers/ management. I didn’t get further than casually bringing it up with other teaching assistants in the staffroom. They all disliked how he was informal, commenting that he also called parents by their first names, and also commented the current yr 6 class (causing reverberations in the school with their naughty/teenagerish behaviour) were fine before he had them for a year. They valued formal respect, appropriate to people in distinct positions. Manners appropriate to cross – hierarchy.


Wanting to draw out more of the gender dimension I pointed out ‘these girls are going to expect to accept sexist treatment from their bosses – it’s really not ok. I mean, if [headteacher] were to call all the female teachers and T As ‘sweetie’ and the male ones ‘mate’ that wouldn’t be ok!’. They agreed, but the idea of doing something about this issue was clearly positioned well beyond their power. When a female deputy head started, I felt I would have been able to bring it up with her. But then, in an entirely different story, it came to light that the school had judged me ‘insubordinate’ and ‘not really fitting in to the team’ in my class, and so I concentrated on trying to work out just how this had come about, and never followed up the sexism. Oh, and the male teacher in question got some sort of national outstanding teacher award. Making it even less possible to criticise him as a temporary teaching assistant who ‘really has to be the most flexible person on the team’ as was explained to me by the head.

No apologies

A post from a member of OpAntiSH, who are intervening in violent mob sexual assaults in protests in & around Tahrir. This group is saving lives on the ground, at huge personal risk. The author was on a shift for nearly 8 hours, receiving 46 reports of mob sexual assault. From here, we can’t help with that. In solidarity, we can express our support, boost their media, and look out for any invitations for international support from afar. We might be able to raise funds to transfer to them, allowing people on the ground to concentrate on other matters – although there may be political issues with being perceived as receiving foreign money.

While Western journalists have been more respectful in their reporting than Egyptian mainstream media, articles have sometimes become framed in a racist/imperialist narrative of ‘uncivilised people in the middle east treating women badly again’ – something to keep in mind and be wary of. Take a look at this article, an interview with   Tamara Abdul Hadi about her latest photographic project Picture an Arab Man, which addresses the problems of stereotyping Arab men. It isn’t linked to OpAntiSH’s work, but can serve as a reminder that the mob sexual violence in Tahrir is in a specific and complex political and social context, and should be linked up to fights against sexual violence as a weapon to marginalise women from social movements across the world, to avoid the negative effect of racist stereotypes of Arab gender relations.

Cairo, again

Egypt at the moment feels like a series of battles and struggles, separated by geography but all ultimately linked together, hurtling towards some unknown destiny.  People are dying, politicians are floundering. This post is about one fight: the one against sexual assault.

The fight to free people’s bodies from sexual violence is a global one. Everywhere women and men have been and are raped, assaulted, and threatened with violent sexual language and gestures. The motivations seem to be myriad: individuals, armies, and political groups do this to try to intimidate and control people, or simply to make themselves feel more powerful. The fight over the bodies of women in Egypt is the one I know the most intimately, and the one that I struggle the most to understand. Egypt’s darkness when it comes to rampant, daily sexual harassment has been discussed in western and local media.

Since last November, protests in…

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