When skateboards do not matter

Louis Proyect is an interesting and engaging writer, whose blog the Unrepentant Marxist I read every second or third day. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes disagree, but his contributions are always thought-provoking and informative. I came across a particular entry some time ago called “Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free” where Proyect reviews the memoirs of a certain Said Sayrafiezadeh, a forty-something writer who grew up with parents who were ardent members of a socialist party in the US, the Socialist Workers Party. I do not know much about that party, except from the writings of its members, and the entries of Proyect, so I cannot comment directly on the activities and political culture of the American SWP. What I do want to comment on is the memoir of Sayrafiezadeh.

Normally when I review a book, I read it carefully from cover to cover, making a concerted effort to understand its contents, the author’s background and motivations, the importance and value of reading the book, and why others should take an interest in it. Proyect has reviewed the book here. But I am going to make an exception in this case – based on what Proyect has said about this memoir, it is disgraceful trash that should not even have made it to the printing press. Sayrafiezadeh devotes his book to angrily denouncing his parents and the party to which they belonged. It is basically an antisocialist rant by a child still harbouring resentments against his communist activist parents. Disagree with your parents – fine. Have the political arguments out with them; but to hold them and their beliefs responsible for your purportedly ‘deprived’ childhood is just a detestable, vile, hurtful, malicious thing to do. Speaking in such a venomous way about one’s own parents reveals something sleazy and vicious about Sayrafiezadeh’s character.

The title of the memoir is derived from a story where the young Said is denied a skateboard, being an expensive toy. The parents rationalise their decision by stating that after the revolution, all skateboards will be free. Get it? The evil commie parents, being ideologically too rigid and brainwashed by the socialist party, refuse to buy a toy, readily available to other kids, that would bring joy to the young Said’s life. The child misses out because of the rigidity of his parents’ convictions. So you see, the story is emblematic of how the poor Said misses out on a normal happy childhood surrounded by the finer mod-cons provided by a capitalist system.

In a New Yorker magazine interview, linked to by Proyect on his blog, our hero, having denounced his traitorous parents and remaining loyal to the consumerist dream, has this to say:

“Q: So what do you say now when people start ranting about capitalism’s dying days?

A: People have been fucking saying that my whole life. I like my life, and I don’t really want to change. I don’t need society to be dismantled. I don’t want to feel guilty about the things I have. I have a 32-inch high-def flat-screen TV. I fucking love that thing, man.”

You see, isn’t capitalism wonderful? We can enjoy 32-inch TV sets – as long as we do not pay too much attention to minor details such as wars overseas, millions of Iraqis and Afghanis dead, increasing erosion of civil liberties, torturing people in secret detention camps after they have been ‘rendered’ (don’t you love that euphemism?), the decline of the health care and public transport systems, the established media spewing racist diatribes against migrants, refugees and anyone it deems the ‘other’, the increasingly tenuous and casualised nature of employment, the rise of religious fundamentalism – but hey, the purpose of life is to accumulate possessions, such as TV sets, isn’t it?

From the New York Times review of his book, Sayrafiezadeh had this to say;

“We were poor, my mother and I,” the author writes, “living in a world of doom and gloom, pessimism and bitterness, where storms raged and wolves scratched at the door.”

How depressing it must be growing up in a socialist household! Gee, what terrible suffering, where the parents naively sacrificed everything for the revolution. If Sayrafiezadeh is nostalgic about his childhood, as the NYTimes reviewer suggests, then why does he spend so much time rubbishing his parents and portraying them in the most loathsome terms? Not only is Sayrafiezadeh deprived of a skateboard, but is not allowed to watch television by his mother when she is away at party meetings.

A Humanitarian Socialist and Loving Father

I am proud to have grown up in a socialist household. My father was a life-long socialist and committed activist. My mother has always been a supporter of social justice and committed to righting the injustices inflicted by an inhumane system. Being of Armenian background, we have had numerous Armenian friends who would visit but were of the opposite political point-of-view, just like Sayrafiezadeh. Now those Armenians in Sydney who fled from the Soviet homeland, were appalled by the experience of a bureaucratised, degenerated workers’ state. However, that experience does not fully account for the xenophobic hatred they express for everything on the Left of the political spectrum.

Most of my father’s Armenian friends were sociable, but always had a nasty underside. Many came to our place, making pointed, malicious jibes at my father, the underlying ridicule and contempt always simmering beneath the surface. “What are you, a Bolshevik? Why don’t you go and live in Soviet Armenia?”, they would sneer at my father. Surely the point was to fight the injustices of the capitalist system, and think about your fellow human beings, not just pack up and leave at the first sign of trouble.

In 1990, as US forces began their buildup in preparation for war against Iraq, my father, an Egyptian-born Armenian, joined with his fellow Arabs and campaigned against the war, outraged at the death and destruction of a society that would surely result from such an imperial war. “The whole world is against the Arabs, aren’t they?” was a typical sneering comment directed at my father by some of the anti-immigrant, reactionary Armenians. “If you mean the white-skinned world, the US, Britain and Australia, then yes they are. But around the rest of the world, India, China, South America, Malaysia etc the American war drive is opposed.”

The same xenophobic crowed and sneered as the USSR dissolved in the early 1990s. “You see, capitalism has won!” they stated, echoing the feeble ‘end-of-history’ thesis propounded by the literary lightweight Francis Fukuyama. “Well, all these years you told me that if the communists win, they will take your house, car, private property, everything you own – right? Well, since the restoration of capitalism in Armenia, people have lost their health care, education system, guaranteed housing, employment, cultural achievements – so what system has created more poverty?” But these logical arguments of my father’s were to no avail against the ingrained ignorance of the tribalist Armenians. The purpose of such people was not dialogue or debate, but contemptuous sneering and rhetorical one-upmanship.

They are representative of what I call cruise missile cowards, cheering the death and destruction rained down by American cruise missiles while acting as cheerleaders for US imperial wars. Do they analyse politics like my father did? No. They are victims of their own Islamophobic hatred, detesting everything Arab while cravenly submitting to the power of US imperial interests. They are seduced by the seeming might of the US empire, impressed by its superficial lustre, and have become blinded to the violence purveyed by US imperialism.

The title of my contribution derives from my point of view – skateboards and material possessions do not matter. My father never gave me a skateboard – actually he did, and while that was great when I was a kid, it became irrelevant to me as I grew up. The skateboard gathered dust. What he gave me was much more significant, something that I use until today – an education in the way the world works, how to analyse global politics, and to always stand up against the mighty and powerful when they abuse their power. He was a loving father, a compassionate, humanitarian socialist. He taught me well – may he rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that I will never stoop so low and become a scumbag like Sayrafiezadeh.

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