Liz Conor: Comment and Critique

opinion, essays, cultural and political analysis

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Monkey-grip of Conflict Photojournalism

If you look closely you’ll see they’ve just lit up. Russian insurgents raise a soft toy in salute to nearly 300 deaths on flight MH17. A dead child’s stuffed monkey is in ghastly repose in his meaty fist, its long arms trailing limp. It’s been pulled lifeless from the wreckage, intact, unmarked. The newly lit fags insinuate muddled undisciplined rebels. The toy evokes a lost child. But as the world condemns the rebels for contamination, perhaps looting, of the site, along with exclusion of investigators and of abusing protocol towards human remains, this toy has come to poignantly attest the anguish of relatives debarred from repatriating their loved ones and their last belongings. The photo puts us on notice: given means, a motley gang of ham-fisted yokels might arbitrarily and summarily extinguish the life of any child, and then stand guard over their remains despite world condemnation. But the image inscribes a particular kind of vulnerability, quite distinct from that of children to drone attacks and air strikes – nearly 200 over the last five years in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, or 70 Palestinian children by this round of Israeli airstrikes, and rising. Each time our world tours through the shock and grief of atrocity a photograph comes to the fore that describes at a glance the complex geopolitical coordinates of the incident while seeming to reach beyond the frame of documentation, to instate the only credible moral position. It is swiftly circulated as though answering unmouthed prayer. Conflating knowing with seeing, it sweeps away any equivocation that photographs are evidence. Whether the plane was shot down accidentally becomes immaterial. The photo provides an interpretive framework for the entire scenario, imposing, as Barthes so famously said, ‘meaning at one stroke’. Collectively we can call up images that have shifted the axis of perception, galvanized entire movements and altered world events - perhaps none so iconically as that of Kim Phuc, the napalmed Vietnamese nine-year-old trying to outrun her burning skin. Now a UN ambassador for peace, her photographed ordeal placed child victims to the fore in the theatre of modern warfare, changing attitudes to conflict just as civilian casualties were overtaking those of armed personnel. Growing numbers of Child casualties in conflict provide a leitmotif for the atrocity of indiscriminate targeting. In other circumstances the photo might parody a game hunter’s trophy. The insurgent was nevertheless alive to its poignancy. He no doubt held it aloft to accuse his Ukrainian adversaries of perpetrating the crime. Grim faced beside him a blighted young man looks on through tight features. A cannier insurgent stands behind him furtively facing off under a balaclava. Displaced from its natural habitat to the debris of a Ukrainian field the monkey tells us a nursery somewhere is empty tonight and those grieving are enduring a cruel wait for the remains they desperately need to lie to rest. 80 children died in this shambolic calamity. Meanwhile over in Gaza, the deaths of scores of Palestinian children evokes no such outrage. But the images of four cousins crumpled on the beach, and of little faces peaking through wrapping in a morgue are circulating social media and spurring demands for ceasefire. A bandaged child injured in an Israeli airstrike holds aloft another notice; ‘In solidarity with Malasia from Palestine #Pray for MH17 #Pray for Gaza’. This little boy, one eye swollen shut, reminds us that when any child becomes a casualty of indiscriminate and disproportionate violence we are all of us bound to act. If we are diminished by the loss of a life, none more so than a child’s, since it is only we adults empowered to destroy and defend them. The MH17 image hinges, within the span of this rebel’s outstretched arms, ultra-nationalism with hyper-masculinity. Lost children, summoned right before our eyes, entreat us to bear witness to its lethal toll. We are habituated to consume their ‘suffering as spectacle … and then put it to one side’ as Jane Lydon has recently argued. Such photographs should be witnessed as ‘testimonial’ to the complex mesh of factors creating the conditions for these atrocities. How they calculate the comparative value of children’s lives in disparate conflict zones also needs consideration. Russia claims to be hosting 14,000 child refugees from Ukraine - though it is said they’ve have inflated the figure. Clutching diametrically opposed toys in each hand the insurgent trains a Russian equipped automatic weapon on the disputed territory behind him, a desecrated mass grave at his feet. Such photojournalism warrants looking and then looking into how we can act. We each have a personal gallery of such images and footage, increasingly focused on child victims. They swim up through the windscreen in traffic, darting through our averted vision and dreams with spectral menace. For Westerners they disturb the peace by calling attention to the unnoticed, removed violence our peace depends on. This piece first appeared on New Mathilda, 22 July 2014, https://newmatilda.com/2014/07/22/monkey-grip-conflict-photojournalism

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Dangerous Premises: The Bendigo Mosque

On the serene shaded lawn of the Bendigo Base Hospital stands a building that threatens to rent apart the township's social fabric, infuse it with terror and importune the chastity and honour of its fair ‘Daughters and Granddaughters’. This inoffensive white stucco cottage contains a file room jammed from floor to ceiling detailing the, mostly, father and grandfathers who have terrorised the women and girls of Bendigo over decades. In 1990 I worked as a counsellor/advocate at this sexual assault centre and Bendigo's local exposed underbelly forever altered my worldview. It was no different to any regional centres sexual assault file room. Though I was struck by the racial homogeneity of its European-heritage accused. Curiously no one sent in the army, I mean, Norforce, with or without guitars and footballs. The foreboding of Councilor Elise Chapman that Bendigo's daughters and granddaughters are vulnerable to sexual assault is more accurate than any town cares to acknowledge, unless of course they are defining that threat as men of colour. The approval last week of a mosque on scrub in industrial-zoned East Bendigo has incited the usual shrilling of radicalised typecasting and Jim-Crow like vigilantism with black balloons tethered to the fence posts of local Councillors identified as Muslim sympathisers. The inflatables were meant to symbolize the prevalence of domestic violence in the Islamic community. The requisite Facebook page, called ‘Stop the Mosque in Bendigo’ posted a mocked-up image of the council’s logo, captioned ‘the City of Grovelling Bendigo welcomes terrorists, paedophiles [and] rapists’. The black defiler rides again, this time under the cloak of terror, rather than slave rebellion, bride capture or Big Men corruption. So what is it about Muslim men that make them particularly rapacious in the minds of the mosque opponents? Can't be Valentino's Sheik since he hardly took prayer. It is of course simply their racial difference - Muslim collapsed with Arab despite Councilor Chapmen’s protestations that she is not a racist - since Islam is not a race. And haven’t we been here before? I seem to recall a glassy-eyed squatter’s daughter a few years back protesting a mosque proposal in another rural centre. She breezily warned us that Muslim ‘women might hide bazookas under their burkas’ (a slant rhyme with berko, as it happens, only in Australia). Then as now, the media zoomed in on oversized belt buckles, afterdark acubras and flannel checked shirts. This stereotyping is of course undeserved for the majority of rural Australians many of whom have an unassailable record in coexistence, welcoming refugees and spearheading activism around local mandatory detention centers. But for those of you drowning out proponents of the mosque with middle-eastern music at last week’s council meeting in Bendigo, we might have to leave it to the Attorney General himself come to your defense, ‘fraid. For Brandysnap bigotry works both ways. So let's talk about white men as a particular category of sexual offenders. When white men rape it isn’t descriptive of their race. Instead chivalry defines their particular brand of, say, colonialism, enslaving, occupying and warmongering since really truly they are defending brown women from the sexual depredations of their ‘primitive’ or libidinally unkempt men. White men don’t rape within a typological category - ok, unless they plead insanity. Muslim men, Aboriginal men, Lebanese men, all have recently been typed as sexually predatory, and not coincidentally within territorial disputes, from Cronulla Beach to township leases to rightful places of worship. But when men of colour are invoked as a sexual threat to white womanhood, they are themselves exposed to the worst excesses of racial violence. The approach to our picturesque rural centers was once characterized by strobing crops, rose gardens and dappled memorial avenues. These lovely townships now introduce themselves to travelers with Masters mega sheds, tile franchises, autobarns and sexylands. Yet no one has batted an eye at these prefabricated corporate fortifications now walling our townships. Purely as a planning matter the Bendigo mosque can hardly cause more offense, indeed the golden minarets along Merri Creek are a local treasure. But this isn’t about planning, it’s about prejudice. If Councilor Chapman is looking for somewhere to lock up Bendigo’s daughters, judging from the records of perpetrators at the Bendigo Sexual Assault Centre when I was there, a local mosque is a safe bet. Certainly it provides a sadly needed refuge from Australian racism for Australian Muslims. This piece first appeared on New Mathilda, as ‘Lock Up Your Daughters Bendigo... At The Local Mosque!’, 30 June 2014, https://newmatilda.com/2014/06/30/lock-your-daughters-bendigo-local-mosque

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Families, Weapons, Warfare, Annihilation and other Varieties of the Nuclear Age

We should more properly refer to Nuclear Families as Nucleus Families, as the term derives from the central properties of cells from 1846, and atoms from 1914. It was first applied to families in the 1920s but took hold in the heyday of its realization, the gingham and valium drenched ‘50s. But whether this normative family structure associates with Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), apocalyptic Fallout or Winters, or thermonuclear global catastrophe remains to be seen. For better or worse Nuclear Families are not about to self destruct, but as long as they remain heteronormative and monogamous and place the burden of childcare on women, they deserve to. American anthropologist George Murdock, describes the Nuclear Family thus: ‘The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’. ‘Socially approved sexual relationship’. Let’s come back to that, for monogamy is the keystone of the Nuclear Family, and whether the stability of children’s lives should be keyed to what their parents do with their genitals is, I think, one of the unbidden and unresolved issues of our age. For Senator Cory Bernardi this Nuclear Family structure is working. Unquestionably. In his recent book he claimed criminality among boys (soon to include protesting in Victoria and already being a biker in Queensland) and promiscuity among girls (call in the mobile lobotomy van) is linked to being brought up in single-parent families. Senator Bernadi called for social policy to be drafted by ‘those who understand the primacy of natural law’. ‘It is perfectly reasonable and rational therefore for the state, if it is to have a role in social policy and the affairs of marriage, to reinforce and entrench those aspects of traditional marriage that work, not undermine them and promote alternatives which have led to social chaos’. Let’s start with ‘tradition’. The Nuclear Family has in fact only been viable as an economic unit (anyone who’s gone through a property settlement quickly realizes how indelibly these material ties bind) under proto-industrial nascent capitalism in Western Europe in the Seventeenth Century. The Nuclear Family has its origin from aristocratic and feudal guarantees of patriarchal primogeniture but took shape as normative under the transition to agrarian capitalism, changes to household economies, the growth of markets and population - all of these factors determining historical and socio-economic influences on family formation. The need to secure paternity for agnatic bloodlines of inheritance became increasingly important to the commoner under these changes to landholding patterns and property. If I seem to be talking about the dark ages here, recall that the Centuries-old rule of succession in the British Monarch, was only scrapped to allow for female heirs in 2011. But the legacy continues in our romantic attachment to sexual exclusivity. Let’s turn to the question of whether nuclear families are in fact working in the present. In Australian nearly one in three marriages end in divorce. 48.4 % of all divorces granted in Australia in 2011 involved children. The Median years between marriage and divorce are currently 12.2 years. In the UK the number of nuclear families fell from 39% of all households in 1968 to 28% in 1992. The startling figures aren’t often qualified by the obvious caveat that many of these people once lived in Nuclear Families, and their children have grown up, or they’re yet to start a family. Nevertheless, no matter how far we may stray from its familiar pattern, the Nuclear Family is a point of reference for us all, and people living out of its bounds testify to constantly searching for the language to explain their circumstance. So tradition? Not so much. Natural Law? Highly unlikely. Current members of the Liberal party having any real grasp of these concepts? A demonstrably preposterous proposition. ‘Alternatives which have led to social chaos’. Is there any need to substantiate opinion with fact, or even Look Things Up? Hell no, when you’re a Liberal sitting member you can let rip like bean fed cowboys on the frontier of cognitive function. Now, before I can turn to the question of monogamy and the damage it does to the stability and functionality of the Family I need to say a few words about women, public discourse and ideas of family fealty. When I set up a feminist mothers’ advocacy campaign, the Mothers of Intervention in 2000, I noticed with surprise a certain hesitancy in mothers to engage with a critique of the contemporary conditions of mothering. They felt, as I sometimes did, they were confessing out far too loud that the love and care they gave to their children was personally unsatisfying. Some expressed they didn’t want their mothering to be valued in terms of money. I was even asked by a reporter when advocating for maternity pay, ‘but isn’t it a labour of love?’ When I later publish a feminist critique of monogamy as an op ed in The Age it was received as outing my own lover as deficient and an act of unconscionably shrewish betrayal. The implication is that anyone living within a monogamous relationship should not engage in public debate about it as a structure of power in which men and women are differently positioned, for the conclusions that will be drawn about their personal situation. The sticking point here is a taboo on exposing the truth about monogamous relationships: that some 57% of men and 54% of women admit to infidelity and while these do not account solely for divorce rates, infidelity is still a major trigger of separation. So for over half of the population I am broaching very uncomfortable terrain. There is also a taboo on women publicly discussing men’s sexual performance, following centuries of often violent public enforcement of women’s moral conduct within highly oppressive constraints. We have to start asking whether monogamy is a viable structure, particularly one that should underpin children’s emotional infrastructure. The violence women and children are vulnerable to under what we might call turbo-monogamist men who define their masculine identities around sexual possession should be cause enough. I am not merely talking about sexual satiation, as complex as this is. Recent court cases such as Simon Gittany throwing his girlfriend off the balcony, the murder of Sarah Cafferkey by her boyfriend in Point Cook, the drowning of the Farquharson boys, and Arthur Freeman hurling his little girl off the Westgate bridge are the outlying extreme of violent men’s expression of sexual possessiveness. We should be able to talk more openly about what we might call sexual adversity and the myriad health impediments to sexual function. Those couples who have found enduring satisfaction in monogamous relationships should stop being sexually triumphant and condemning. When celebrities and public figures fail to meet the ideal we should be able to reflect on their situation in broader terms than their moral failings, and contextualize it within an informed critique of monogamy. After all they are only the most public proof of overwhelming evidence that it isn’t an ideal most people find easy to live up to. The other key stressor in the formation of the Nuclear Family is the organization of care, particularly childcare – I say at the risk of appearing an unloving mother. If there is one thing we can understand from both the experience of mothering and feminist analysis it actually does take a village to raise a child. The insularity of one-on-one mothering, the patterns of boundary testing that this incites in bored little kids, the exhaustion of caring in isolation produce maladaptive patterns of sociality. Mothers are sinking into guilt-induced maternal depression and children are bewildered at the physical and emotional limits they strike up against under their care, limits that might never be reached if she was better supported. The Nuclear Family isn’t, I don’t think, about to collapse in a perfect storm of Mutually Assured Destruction waged by sexually repressed husbands and wives, or neurotic children. Because the truth is, if you can get them to work, and are willing to include all comers committed to caring and loving one another and you have the wherewithal and support, families are of course wonderful sanctuaries of connectedness and warmth, productivity and idiosyncracy - and even for parents a haven of mutually assured rompish delights. But it is hard to get them working well. They are under increasing pressure, and we need to remove the taboos around talking openly about its failings, dissatisfactions and ambivalence and think harder about the present constraints on realizing an ideal most of us hold very dear. Most of all we need to resist the definition of family as a heteronormative nucleus and accept and nurture the increasing diversity within this enduring form of sociality. This op ed was presented before Melbourne Free University. A shorter version would've run on The Conversation, but the fallout from The Age piece was such that my partner (who for the record is a thoroughly compelling snog) and I decided against it.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

For Pity's Sake: Deterrence and Asylum

‘Tis the season to be inundated with Ferrero chocolates, lost for a park and trawling stands of trinketry under piped contemporized carols. Until the kiddies pounce on your bed at half-light and the family arrives all smiles, it’s a hard slog of preparation, of par boiled potatoes, canvas coddled puddings and marinating roulades. If any spirit of Christmas survives this onslaught of consumerism and resource gouging, it tends to contract to our nearest and dearest, as we put to one side sniping family dynamics and get stuck into the totem tennis while cousins run and splash in happy herds. The ethos of giving is certainly not forgotten by our favoured charities, as an influx of Christmas appeals slot through our letter boxes at a rate to rival Harry Potter’s Owlish call to Hogwarts. There is barely time to attend to them all, and they all play on precisely this disjoint between fostering family while some families go untended. This season that disjoint is most defined by families in detention as a series of distressing revelations of the conditions on Nauru, Manus and Christmas Islands have recently come to light. A Mother separated from her hospitalized newborn, a baby on a defective pacemaker denied adequate care, an infant death and stillbirth following mothers repeatedly being turned away from a camp clinics, and one denied an ultrasound, and depressed children self-harming. Doctors cite “unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards”, particularly in regards to neonatal care and the detention of over 1500 children. These heartbreaking findings simply beggar belief. Doctors and senators are decrying substandard facilities and treatment, likening mandatory detention to child abuse and railing against the governments disbanding of the Immigrant Health Advisory Group. It is utterly contrary to the charity and care we display over Christmas that this abuse and cruelty can be justified in terms of our security and protection. The doctrine of deterrence is at the heart of this government’s amplification of the previous two governments’ dehumanizing policies. It is ideological in substance, its precepts barely examined, appealing instead to common sense assumptions about human nature and motivation. It has, of course, been disproved, every time people fleeing the persecution that threatens their very lives opt for a risky transit to Australian shores. No amount of abuse will deter people whose lives are already under threat. Desperation and deterrence have been pitted against each other by our recent governments in a macabre competition with the cruelest regimes on this earth. Ultimately Scott Morrison is aiming to outdo bloodletting leaders he positions as his rivals in human rights abuses to further daunt the most frightened people among us. This doctrinaire logic of deterrence has our nation in its grip, yet it is unsubstantiated, asinine and infantile. It is leading us astray. A challenge was made to us as a nation before Christmas in 1889 to resist the attraction to certainty held out to us by doctrinaire logic. It appeared all this time ago in the Queenslander, the weekly masthead of the Brisbane Courier, in a now lost article on the theory of Dying Race as applied to Australian Aborigines. The rubric of Darwinian Evolution was then being misappropriated to race relations under the consolidating doctrine of Social Darwinism. This remarkable, historically mislaid intervention argued cogently against the doctrine of survival of the fittest as it was being applied to ‘the dying remnant of the original possessors of the soil we now hold’. It is a chilling read in hindsight for it summons prophetically some of the worst experiments of the twentieth century. Under the axiom of survival of the fittest extermination of the ‘unfit’, the ‘weak and helpless’, the ‘congenitally criminal’ and insane would become a matter of scientific regulation. Reading it forward, as we now can, into the global rise of eugenics and its influence on National Socialism the article is startlingly prescient. It warns, ‘No method should be considered too severe to bring about such restriction of population in proportion to the means of subsistence as would conduce to the "fitness" of those most Darwinianly deserving to survive’. The unknown author observes that if the aim of Nature is that only the fittest should survive, ‘charity is choked at the fountain-head.’ Under this sway, they add, ‘we hesitate to give our sixpence to the beggar on the street lest the rash act should interfere with the regulated processes of racial evolution’. Arguably it was a similar hesitation, this uncertainty among many Australians in response to the growing number of drownings that both parties harnessed to the doctrine of deterrence. In 1889 this broadside against doctrine was probably torn into strips and hung on a nail in the outhouse. If it had been heeded over a century ago history might have taken a different course. For as a nation we are now beholden to a doctrine that is no less ideologically pernicious, this dehumanizing ‘mandate’ of deterrence. Like Darwinian Evolutionary science and its vernacular misintepretion into Social Darwinism, the theory of deterrence has its basis in revered scholars. It can be traced to the social contract philosophers Hobbes, Beccaria and Bentham. It was revived in the cold war to justify the escalation of nuclear weapons to deter Soviet aggression. And it is outdated and obsolete. If there is one expression of charity we can extend to families enduring detention this Christmas it is our common refusal to succumb any longer to the doctrine of deterrence as it is being applied to asylum seekers. In 1889 some of us knew that ‘Compassion is not a weakness; it is a source of strength … It is not the cruel nations that are strong. The pity extended to the helpless expands into kindness towards the whole group, and the result is mutual support and lasting consolidation’. 26.12.13

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Feminine Beauty and its Mystifications

There few things over which confusions reigns so manifestly yet mutely as feminine beauty. In the pie graph of women’s identity, feminine beauty has, since the industrialisation of photography, fanned out to a disproportionate wedge. There is nowhere we can go in public space without encountering it. It is not only a central cultural trope but the very rationale for billion dollar industries not to mention myriad personal regimes in the maintenance of the self. Being such a large-scale enterprise feminine beauty is enmeshed in some of the principle operations of power. It is racist and commodified, sexualised and ageist. It affords some women opportunities of unimaginable consequence, presence and even influence. For some women it is the basis of the rags-to-riches narrative that underpins nearly all fairytales and continues to play out in so many make-over versions from the Devil Wears Prada to Extreme Makeover. For all these reasons it is deeply suspect to women who aren’t extended its dividends, and in a few rare cases to women who are. Its meanings are entrenched, extending back to the goddesses of ancient civilizations and biblical evocations. Beautiful naked women are draped and poised throughout all art traditions. They are still there to behold and behold them we do, with reverence and marvel, for they convey some of the most poignant and dearly-held meanings in any cultural tradition, of transcendence and desire, of love and even deification. You’d think by now, with all that gaping, we’d know what to make of it. The truth is we’re more perplexed by feminine beauty than ever before. Historically, the public appetite for feminine beauty may have played a role in the paradigm-shifting entrance of women into public space. In fact beauty granted some women a permit to be seen publicly and veiled the majority in domestic oblivion. Remarkably in our present mediascape those restrictions persist in some realms. Not in any that involve women in consumption, notably. The woman shopper was one of the first to strike out over the private threshold in that great step for womankind, forging an enduring presence in the metropolis. Making money - that was a harder realm to enter, and it is still delimited to certain women, preferably without children, for instance, and prostitutes, while tolerated, should keep themselves under wraps. These may seem like archaic, lapsed beliefs but they still bubble to the surface in the froth surrounding feminine beauty. Because of its outstanding success as a presence in nearly all markets beautiful women have an assured place in public space. They’ve secretly been assigned a role that most aren’t even aware of. They’re supposed to allure, fascinate, solicit the gaze and draw it to themselves. At street level, if they act like they’re indifferent or adverse to being ogled they come up against unrelenting hostility – otherwise known as sexual harassment. There is still a limit to the number of permits granted to women in public space. Unless you’ve been given one, making a spectacle of yourself is very much frowned upon. Knowingly using feminine beauty to politically strategise, for instance, is suspect, unless you’ve already been granted such a permit, as had Rachel Griffiths, as an actress, before she protested topless at the opening of Crown Casino in Melbourne in 1997. Being calculating or even self-knowing about feminine beauty is considered a blatant contravention of the conditions of any permit – just ask Samantha Brick. Gold Diggers and Media Tarts knowingly deploy their ‘wiles’ – such a descriptively gendered word - for personal gain. The irony here is that beautiful women are granted access to a level of visibility and adulation that we once reserved for royalty. The catch is they must never EVER give even the slightest hint that they are aware of the bounty of their genetic windfall. The last thing a beautiful woman should ever do is admit she has eyes of her own. She may also have arrived at this understanding about herself having been told so, unrelentingly, everywhere she went. Should her beauty have brought her fame it is extremely ungracious to say out loud that anything other than talent got her there. Yet we know as well as she does that without sublime looks her talent would rarely have been enough. The truth about beauty - which we can reasonably define as youthful clarity and symmetry of features - in its present incarnation is that it is rarely put to good use. As long as it outweighs all the other wedges in that piegraph of feminine identity by which women are valued it is manifestly unbalanced, sometimes even undemocratic. While it endures for only one-quarter of a woman’s lifespan it is for the most unattainable, even for the most beautiful women for most of their lives. And yet, that all said, feminine beauty is utterly engrossing. As long and hard as I’ve thought and written about it, I still cannot look away. A beautiful face, especially when as finely wrought as a woman’s, is something we all love. We always have and we always will. Unless we were very unlucky the first thing we focused on was the smiling face of a young woman. That is how our mothers bestowed love and life on us, and we’ve never got over it. I suspect if we honestly allowed ourselves that regard, while being vigilant about the conditions and entitlements it is embroiled in, we could liberate feminine beauty from its morass of mystifications. If we all calmed down about it, and it ceased to be the first thing about women, we might start seeing beauty in a lot more faces, forms and applications, and even put it to good use. There are many examples, but three recent inspiring models (in the better sense) are the Weld Angel, by forest protestor Allana Beltram of 2007, Cate Blanchett’s role in the Say Yes campaign on climate change in 2011, and Angelina Jolie’s recent advocacy for refugees and breast cancer. Liz Conor is an academic in the National Centre for Australian Studies, the author of The Spectacular Modern Woman and co-convenor of ClimActs.

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Inverting the Causality of Suffering: Asylum and the Legacy of Xenophobia

Since Kevin Rudd announced his government’s resettlement deal with PNG Australians have reeled into opposing camps on the question of asylum seekers that loosely side with the slogans of the main political parties: ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Stop the Drownings’. Between the increasingly polarized camps of refugee advocates and their adversaries debate has raged over the definition of terms. The legality and accuracy of captioning the plight of asylum seekers with coercive language such as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ has been rightly disputed. Our obligations under UN Convention on Refugees have been correctly restated. Yet something more that confusion reigns, arguably something far more inflected with emotion and affect and beyond even invoking threat through the language of border security and invasion. There is something else in play that is difficult to acknowledge in such a sharply divided debate; that is the disquiet Australians feel about the drownings, sinkings and violent landfalls. Because these shocking fates have been misappropriated by the major parties and deployed to justify their inhumane policies, it has become difficult to even raise the question of unsafe passage without being identified with the anti-refugee camp. Yet if we skirt over the question of drownings those oppositional camps will only entrench, for it is a key rationale for the sloganeering of the major parties, as Rudd said, it calls for ‘radical’ policy. Gathered on the salt hem of this continent we perhaps know better than most that drowning is a horrific fate. We know you don’t slip under the water and drift off to sleep, but rather you claw for oxygen as your lungs riot with pain. For over 800 people to be left to such a fate, some knowing their children were suffering the same death with them, is simply unimaginable. Arguably Rudd will be able to introduce his policy not because Australians are heartless – though some clearly are - but because most are profoundly disturbed by the drownings but are defensively inverting the causality of asylum. If people loved their children they wouldn’t place them at such risk of drowning, the argument goes. Conversely, people are so in fear of the fate they are fleeing they perceive drowning as a lesser risk to the children they love. There can be no purchase for deterrence under such a scenario and it’s doubtful PNG, for all its malaria, casual sexual violence and poverty can proffer a worse deterrent than drowning. Australians have a peculiar history of inverting causalities, very often arising from their own defensive witnessing of the suffering of others. Causality was inverted with the very visible suffering of Aborigines on the frontier and in its aftermath. Rapid depopulation was attributed not to the impacts of colonialism, but the ‘barbaric rite’ of infanticide which, like ‘children overboard’ was never substantiated. It was a defensive shrug, an alibi for massive child mortality, just as ‘children overboard’ was an alibi for Australia’s failure to rescue people from capsizing boats. The legacy of colonialism for non-indigenous Australians comes from our disputed origins of ‘home’ and belonging. We will ever be constitutionally unsettled in those foundational meanings of identity, not only arising from dispossession, but from forced transportation and deportation. It has made Australians unusually defensive, and more likely to succumb to the inverted causality we see written through the asylum seeker debate. It has made so many of us cruel. In inverted causalities vulnerable, desperate people are assigned blame for circumstances they did not create. A string of causal factors drop out of the picture. Australians, for instance, were part of the forces invading Iraq and Afghanistan. We contributed to making many of the places people are fleeing uninhabitable, either by failing to act advisedly, or acting inadvisedly. What we are doing to asylum seekers is simply vindictive, and like so many pitiless policies, it says more about our own unsettled identities than the needs of asylum seekers. People who are at risk of drowning need our help. People who perceive that risk as lesser than the fate they are fleeing really need our help. Until we acknowledge that we can never fully feel at home here and find ways to resolve the paradox at the heart of our national identity, we will go on blaming, demonizing, even punishing vulnerable, traumatized people who turn to us for asylum. The PNG deal is as great a wrong as this nation has perpetrated and will only add to our unsettled feelings. This piece first appeared on NewMathilda.Com as 'How we Justify our Cruelty' 29 July 2013

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Aping Racism: Adam Goodes and Typecasting

In the aftermath of that now famous racial taunt Adam Goodes asked a worthy question. Pointing out that his assailant was just a kid he asked, ‘how could that happen?’ He was right to point to her innocence, and question what we’re teaching our kids, even to argue it’s a wider social issue. Since Eddie McGuire’s radio gaff his question became more acute, posed as it is now to an adult who has publicly adopted an anti-racist stance. It goes to the heart of how racism persists. But where does the idea that Aborigines are apes come from in the first place? When the English Buccaneer William Dampier collided with this continent in 1688, he took a dim view of the inhabitants. He called them the ‘miserablest people in the world’ and said, ‘setting aside their shape they differ little from the brutes’. From the very first Europeans have likened Australian Aborigines to animals. So how did these attitudes pop out of the mouth of a virtual babe, 325 years later? Dampier’s words were repeated an infinitum in a public sphere changing dramatically as printing presses took us on our first steps toward the industrialized media scape we inhabit today. In Dampier's time exotic Others were imprinted through types such as the Barbarian, Heathen, Infidel, Indian or Savage. Dampier was quoted again and again even outside the reprints of his own travel journal. To give a sense of how racism persists his remarks were reprinted in the rather premature 1787 History of New Holland. They reappeared in an 1854 Dictionary, under ‘Races of Men in Australia’. They found their way into one Albert Calvert’s 1893 Discovery of Australia. They were reprinted 14 times in Australian newspapers between 1890-1948 as well as in Walkabout, the widely read travel magazine, in 1947. Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1952, that a NSW School Magazine quoted him a little more circumspectly, noting that attitudes have changed since 1688. By the time Cook toured the south seas the ideas of the Swedish botanist Carl Linneas and his classificatory system of taxonomy had taken root. In 1758 Linneas upset people who believed we humans were closer to Angels, by ranking humans with monkeys in the category Primates. In classifying humans as animals he outraged naturalists at the imputation that we weren’t made in God’s image. But Linneas spurred widespread fascination in the relation between primates and humans and scientists ranked racially different humans as closer in gradation to primates. By the time Darwin’s theory of evolution came along Australian Aborigines were thought to have been fossilized by their long isolation. As theories of human origin abounded Aborigines were often believed by zoologists and comparative anatomists to comprise the ‘missing link’ within evolutionary racial taxonomies. Individual Aborigines were likened to primates through names such as 'Neddy Monkey.' In the 1920s cartoonists frequently depicted Aboriginal women with Simean features, and pilloried their domestic competency. Yet the challenge to racial typecasting had been raised as early as 1892 when Alan Caroll in the Sydney Quarterly Magazine, wrote, ‘The blacks of Australia have by some been called the “missing link”, but this is as absurd as the term, Australian Race, having no foundation in fact.’ The quest to account for racial difference by establishing the origin of ‘species’, had by this time amassed a pile of data which did not prove uniformity within distinct groups, as expected, but instead revealed that human diversity was literally all over the place. Types of teeth, skulls, language and hair structure were cropping up within all human races and all over the globe. These traits didn’t belong to any one group at all. The attempt to typecaste humans by race was capsizing under the weight of too much data. Again in 1951, Abbie discounted key measures of scientific racism in the magazine Oceania. He wrote that aboriginal skulls and skeletons were ‘within the normal range of human variation’; that apes show as ‘wide a range of pigmentation as do humans’: that hair form ‘is a very poor guide to ethnic affinities’; and that brain size, shape or configuration is no basis for the assertion of superiority or inferiority. Indeed American Army intelligence testing had found most of its enlisted men to have the I.Q. of fourteen years, ‘and this figure appears applicable to whites generally’. What we can learn from this potted history is how contingent and arbitrary meanings of race have always been. But what is startling from our perspective, is just how long these meanings endured, in spite of being disproved. It shows that racism persists because of particular encouragements. Typecasting in public, such as through broadcast radio, is perhaps the most efficient way to spread the ill word of racism. With just one word a long history was invoked in which the very human standing of Aborigines is in question. A whole string of derogatory meanings are attached. That Aborigines didn’t know how to cultivate the land, they more or less scavenged, so we might as well have it thanks very much. That Aborigines were lazy and unhygienic, so their kids were better off taken, lonely and heartbroken, to training homes where they were often abused and deprived of love. That Aborigines were great mimics, they could ‘ape’ whites, but underneath they’d never progress to our ‘standard’. All that, in one three-letter word, reaching back through 325 years of persistent denigration and spat at an elite athlete at the top of his game, who just by being there challenged all those white lies. But he still had to point the finger at racism. Goodes couldn’t have put it better when he said racism cuts deep. Liz Conor is an academic in the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University and is finishing a book on settler perceptions of Aboriginal women.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

You had me at .8 Degrees Celcius

I hope I can be forgiven if I’ve come to envisage climate scientists in the guise of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird – resolute, visionary, dutiful to children and devastatingly handsome. For, as I’m sure climate scientists know all too well, their work is more important than any commission in human history. They have been pilloried, indicted and ignored. Yet their meticulously tested, peer-reviewed findings form the basis for our very survival. They are demonstrably nothing short of heroic which, in this surface-fixated world, necessarily casts them as someone like Atticus/Peck. For it is down to Hollywood to enshrine the climate scientist as heroic. Through its familiar telling he will toil away in isolation for decades, his evidence-based data elided from government reports, his figures recanted and his credibility attacked. A more visionary director will cast this savior-scientist as a woman, and she will also rail to protect her children and, as her story unfolds, their children. Their foe will be coal barons, energy corporation CEOs and corrupt, criminally negligent governments failing to act in the face of their evidence of dire global warming. They will hammer out the best records modern instrumentation can produce, but they will reach a point, the script pivot, when they realize they have to act, and the obstruction to their work will mean they know exactly how to go about it, more effectively than any of the eco-warriors incidentally making appearances. The fight they then wage should be cast in epic, biblical terms. They will storm ineffective UN climate conventions like Christ in The Temple Mount. Fanciful right? Actually the development of this script by the world’s preeminent creative minds is more important that the handing down of the next alarming IPCC projections. What is needed with urgency is a dramatic shift in public sentiment about climate change and the catalyst will be story. People need to be convinced about the science and it is in the nature of our present public realm that this best comes from Hollywood – or at least an infrastructure of cultural production with similar resources, creative brilliance and luminous star vehicles. Habermas was right when he historised the decline of rational-critical debate in our public sphere. He described the crumbling of government response to public demand against the sinister infiltration of lobbyists and vested interests increasingly commanding the ear of our elected representatives. He might have added to his analysis the corruption of the democratic electoral process through corporate campaign funding. Nor did he foresee the additional, pernicious influence of the deceitful shock Jock, paid off by these same interests and wielding unfettered, oracle-like power over the tenor and character of public debate. From here we watch these machinations from the NRA in the present US gun debate with jaw-dropped disbelief. Yet our fossil-fuel moguls are taking their cue from such operatives. The increasingly frightening findings of climate scientists – a rise of 4-6 degrees by the end of the century - can have little purchase within the collapsed public sphere of neo-liberalism. We have succumbed to a carefully choreographed public realm in which galvanized political sensibility depends entirely on the visibility granted to an issue as embodied by the stories of individuals. Violence against women in India thus assumed global significance through media capture and galvanizing of public sentiment over a vicious attack on a young medical student. The chronic rate of third-world infant mortality death due to malnutrition, the tragic acceleration in civilian deaths under modern warfare, the shocking cruelty of industrialized animal production, these and many other issues in need of urgent intervention and concentrated reform, swim in and out of collective consciousness. It all depends, too too much, on media interest and its own reliance on human-interest stories and its entrapment in the 24-hours news cycle. And so it is with climate change. Surely the destruction wrought in lives and property ranks it in human history as of befitting of public attention as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, resistance to national-socialism or the boycotting of apartheid. But it will take the large-scale machinery of storied dream-scapes to finally shift public sentiment on climate change, for it has come down to emotion and affect, not fact and data – those things need to be repackaged within the most persuasive cultural form available to us and that is presently narrative film. The task before us is an imaginative engagement with environmental and social collapse. The obstacle is that we’ve learnt since the cold war to coexist with imminent apocalypse. We’re also adept at witnessing children starving over our TV dinners comprised of tortured animals. We’re highly skilled in denial and indifference. The best storytellers need to explain climate change to us in terms we are not already habitually inured to. Another end-of-the-world blockbuster isn’t going to sink in past the adolescent audience demographic. Every one of us on the surface of this besieged planet understands what J.D. Salinger meant when we wrote, ‘It’s a perfect day for Banana Fish': or what Lou Reed felt when he rasped, ‘Oh such a perfect day, it just keeps me hanging on’. Set as context must be the resource wars triggered by energy crisis, the loss of viable food production, the contracting cycle of extreme weather disasters, the entrenching grief and trauma from hurricane, fire, flood and famine. But we also stand to lose something so precious, so written through our shared psyches we haven’t considered the impact of its theft. We will lose the sustaining nostalgia of benign summer days. Can we really ‘adapt’ to the loss of campsites under river gums, the delight of toddlers running under sprinklers, lying through lunchtimes with our lovers on soft park lawns or drifting off to sleep on warm sands. When these sustaining individual experiences provided by nature are gone we will not think of it as ‘adaptation’: the feeling will conduit into public sentiment as profound, unbearable loss. And so just following the worst heatwave on Australian records I charge our most visionary story-tellers to set out all the embodied dimensions of climate change for us. Only then will the business-as-usual membrane burst and the public insist on government action on climate change.

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We are Guardians for the Future

Whenever my 14-year-old asks me if she can get a ‘stretch’ earring, a piercing or a tattoo I tell her I am the guardian of her 40-year-old self who might not like living in the future with the permanent choices her 14-year-old self made. From the moment I decided to carry my girls I have mitigated against every threat to their future. I steered clear of alcohol during the pregnancies, and drugs during their births. I slathered them in sun block and plonked hats on their curly heads. I buckled their squirming bodies into every seat they were transported in, took their little hands across every street, rinsed the pesticides off their fruit, rubbed salt off their chips, and more recently chased off a risk-taking boyfriend and blockaded their screen time. Like every other Mummy I am focused on their futures, a place I never doubted they would thrive in. Since the first warnings by climate change scientists I have taken refuge in a business-as-usual bubble. I have surrounded myself with an Orwellian membrane of half-awareness and gone on rushing from pillar to post to provide a future that deep down I’ve known for years is in doubt. I have signed a hundred online petitions and hoped against hope that Obama would come through in his second term and force real and concerted action on climate change. The fact that he hasn’t and won’t. The US still hasn’t ratified Kyoto. I took my 14-year-old aside a few weeks ago and apologised to her. What for, she gruffed. Because my generation has done something terrible to yours, I said. We used up the planet, we changed the climate and trashed it, and all because we wanted more stuff than we could possibly find room for. When you are my age there will be more storms, less places to grow food, more wars because oil supplies have peaked, and so much of the species, the beauty, the sheer wonder and inspiration of this planet will be lost forever. It was the hottest December day on record and we looked down the empty street. This is the future, I said. People holed up indoors to survive more and more days of extreme weather. Urmph, she said. When the latest findings of climate scientists came out last fortnight, just as Doha was coming to its negligent close, I knew then sorry doesn’t quite cut it. A report released by the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists, announced that the planet was on-track for the worst-case-scenario projections of the IPCC, of a rise in temperature of between 4 and 6 degrees by the end of the century. They found emissions have increased 54 per cent since 1990. A World Bank-commissioned study also warned that a 4-degree leap was possible this century – even if current pledges to cut emissions are met. Meanwhile at the latest UN conference on climate change Government heads finished a marathon meeting in Doha, Qatar, where they extended the Kyoto Protocol which proposes a set of measures many climate scientists have argued will be ineffective in halting rising greenhouse gas emissions. For me the failure last fortnight to grasp the latest findings of peer-reviewed climate scientists, and act decisively to stop burning fossil fuels was my moral ‘tipping point’. These reports are beyond alarming and frankly terrifying. They condemn our children and grandchildren to eke out a miserable existence, buffeted by violent weather, on a planet blighted by drought, fire, flood, no longer able to supply their basic needs. Already we see this nightmare of food shortages playing out in Africa as crops fail due to drought. As a mother I have a duty to protect my children’s rights and as a citizen it is my duty to protect the rights of the next generation. They are entitled to thrive, as have we, under a ‘benign cycle of sunshine and rain’, and within climatic conditions that secures their basic needs. As a historian I like to think that if I had been faced with the moral questions of past times, such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the rise of national socialism, civil rights and apartheid, I would’ve had the foresight to grasp their significance and act. I now feel certain that the problem of climate change poses a moral imperative beyond anything faced by humanity and the time to act is now. By any standard it is wrong, unconscionable, unfair and negligent to continue to go about my life in the Business-as-usual bubble that we seem to have taken refuge in. On Monday last I took a bike lock to Parliament House and bolted myself to the members’ gate. The police came and after cordial exchange called for Search and Rescue who would not wait for a key to materialize and angle grinded the lock. I was banned from the Parliament House precinct for a week and from the CBD for 72 hours. On the way home I picked up a new lock. For Doha made clear that governments are either incapable of acting to regulate the fossil fuel industry, rendered impotent by the over-indulgent hand of neo-liberalism, or they believe none of them will lose their jobs if they continue with the business-as-usual approach. They are taking their cue from us. We are not in safe hands. For our children’s and their children’s sake the time has come to hold governments to account. When the full impact of climate change is massing on the horizon I hope to be able to look my girls and their children in the eye and tell them I did everything I could. This piece first appeared on The Drum 28 December 2012.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bucket Refills and Slim Pressures

When my girls were little the first letter they identified was M. Everywhere we went their familiarity with the letter was readily confirmed, for every couple of blocks we could count on a large yellow M arching over a MacDonald’s Drive in. “M” they would cry out, and I would affirm, M for Mummy, in what neurologists identify as the classic learning processes of repetition and immersion. I never said M for MacDonalds for I do not view that business as a good corporate citizen. Indeed, I think it has played a large role in the current epidemic of obesity, it has entrenched an ethics of snacking on animals produced under abhorrent factory farming conditions, and its business practice is dependent on deforestation particularly of the Amazon. But they soon spotted the colourful playgrounds and found out from playmates that yellow M signified a place for kids to have parties and eat ice-cream and chips and visit a clown. As I watched these associations come together in their ingenuous minds, it irked me. It may not have been the most considered parenting but I told them Ronald MacDonald was an evil clown who really only wanted to trick people with their playgrounds to sell them unhealthy food that, if they ate too much of it everyday, in the end could even make them sick. I told them Ronald MacDonald only wanted to make lots of money and didn’t care about anything or anyone else. I figured it was MacDonald’s insidious indoctrination against mine, and that as their mother I had a right to counter their clown, playground, party message with a bit of the ugly underbelly of multinational corporate food production. I didn’t factor in that MacDonalds is unavoidable. When family and friends offered to take them they reacted with fright. In the end I had to take them and show them it wasn’t a scary place so they didn’t develop Maccas phobia, and I was delighted when they thought everything but the ice-cream and chips tasted like cardboard. Now those girls are older and once again MacDonalds is playing a role in their social development. For after school they hang out with friends at Maccas, and if not Maccas they might drop into 7/11 and sit in a circle in the park with a pile of junk food in the middle. At their age I used to pinch money from my Mum’s purse, sneak around to the MilkBar with friends and buy lollies to gobble soundlessly in the dark at our regular Midnight Feasts. But this was before Maccas and 7/11 came to our shores and things are different, principally larger, as in portions. 7/11 holds a Slurpie Night where kids are encouraged to bring in containers up to the size of a bucket, each, to fill for free. At the movies kids can get buckets of popcorn. All-you-can-eat Buffets are standard fare in the ‘burbs. Meanwhile overeating is just now being recognized as part of the eating disorder spectrum. Many have ventured that overeating is encouraged pervasively in the present food consumption mileau, for the simple reason that the more people eat, the more food corporations profit. However, the standard advice for parents when it comes to their children’s eating is to put healthy food under their noses and say nothing about it. No pressure. This makes good sense when it comes to family meals, but how should parents respond to the insidious patterns of overeating that have crept into the day-to-day social rites of older kids and adolescents? There is a clear disjunct between the parenting advice of no pressure and the pressures kids are under to overeat. I was confronted to learn my daughter had filed in a questionnaire and selected ‘Always’ under ‘My Mother pressures me to eat certain foods’. Here’s an example of that ‘pressure’. When she came home with a friend and a family-sized packet of chips and a tray of donughts to take in over a movie I confiscated their stash explaining that they were asking too much of their pancreas’, and that this was simply too much to eat in one sitting on a regular basis. I might have slipped in a few lines about large food corporations and why they now sell chips in packet-sizes that weren’t available when I was their age. Is that pressure or guidance? Since she relayed her questionnaire response it’s clear that she’s experienced that advice, as I’d considered it, as her ‘mother pressuring her to be slim’. Or, I wonder was there another way to frame that question? Is it reasonable for parents to explain to their kids the corporate pressures and consequences of overeating? Presently we’re advised to say nothing. I wonder if that aids and abets Macca’s evil clown.

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The Model, the Maiden, Youth and Beauty.

It isn’t every Saturday night that your home fills with the casting call for Australia’s Top Model. 40 of them tettered in my door on platform porn star heels last weekend. A number of them arrived with bags and changed here into outfits their mothers might not have approved. In little numbers as high as the fold of their bottoms, with elasticized panels of lace from the Supré 3X small-sized party range – perhaps their entire range – these girls struck me as the fashion industry’s bread and butter. This may not be the correct appraisal of a mother hosting a birthday party, but it is the way our perceptual relations are primed. Every one of us recognizes model proportions when we see them. They are at saturation level every time we traverse the urbanscape. It is akin to recognizing a royal. The heels were soon discarded (having contributed a paltry sum to the Chinese young labourers of the worker’s paradise) for they are simply too painful to wear beyond an hour. But the attenuated length of leg to trunk was still a shared trait. As was the ratio of shoulder to hip in perfect agreement, if not for a slight overhang of their exquisitely articulated collarbones. Their feline heads were poised on Nefertiti necks. Their hair was sleek and shiny like the duco of a luxury car. Their skin was as consistent and luminous as unbaked meringue and their eyes brimmed with a disarming mix of supple unguarded clarity. ‘Nates’ is how Nabokov would’ve described their bottoms. Unlike the jutting protuberances of Marilyn Munroe’s day, those parts that define the human body as female have been, since Twiggy, understated. Coltish and built for speed these girls pranced about to Sia like, well, they were Titaaniiuum. This was hardly the opening of an international film festival. How is it that such a critical mass of model qualifying looks flocked this suburban event. We all know these physical proportions and attributes are a genetic rarity. In any ordinary crowd one or two women might carry these traits and they would stand out in a mottley gang roughly assembled like this. Unless they were 13. Then they would be the norm. The problem is they would also embody femininity as determined by the fashion industry. Logically there can be only two explanations for this. Models are 13 – I give you the winner of Dolly’s recent cover competition. Or we now define beauty by not just youth, which is understandable, but extreme youth, virtually childhood, which is unforgiveable. It is one thing to note that children on the cusp of puberty embody a distinct beauty. It is another to, within profit-driven industries, claim that as beauty’s sole manifestation. It is highly unusual, biologically improbable, to continue through life unformed. Some months ago my daughter’s pediatrician told me she was a notch above being dangerously underweight and that in this condition her bones could not mineralize and she won’t carry the body mass to commence puberty. I looked over her lithe form, glanced over at the fashion covers on the waiting stand, recognized the ideal in the room and washed over ice cold. In 3 or 4 short years she and her girlfriends will take form as women and maybe one of them will still get into her Supré 3X party frock, elasticized or no. She may, like so many models, not be genetically ‘blessed’ but more likely have an eating disorder. Victoria Beckham’s most recent show paraded a string of waifs so sunken and hollow that telltale flint of bone stuck out from the inside of their elbows. They looked like they should be trailing drips. We could shrug off this macabre ideal of extreme youth only realized thereafter by extreme dieting as just a bit silly. Most of us do resign as adults to the physical reality that our bodies are constantly changing and that they met the current ideal of beauty before they were fully formed. We know it is an impossible to attain and cruel ideal. But I fear for that roomful of girls reveling in having effortlessly attained the ideal. That very shortlived approximation is what makes them so vulnerable. They may not know it but the kids who enter into this age a little plump or with a rash of pimples may have learned a very tough, yet empowering lesson before it’s too late. Because no one tells their flawless friends they won’t stay this way. Everywhere they look this profoundly delimited femininity smiles invitingly. When all those proportional ratios reconfigure it becomes a bewildering experience. They will think they are to blame, that they must be eating too much and the spiral of short-lived diets, binge-starve cycles and obsessive exercising could begin. In an effort to fit in, that prime motivator of adolescence, to an ideal of beauty that is literally a transient fashion, rather than take form as women, some of them will trash their meringue complexions to look like they have fatal diseases. Most culpably a handful of them will.

Telstra automated reminder calls

It’s Saturday morning and the week has been our hardest. Our 10-year-old was sent away from another specialist who can find no physical cause for her now 5-month illness. Her teenage sister is not coping in ways I’m not at liberty to describe. We are exhausted, sick-at-heart, and after a fitful night of administering painkillers and turning over and over the logistics of a family in crisis, we finally together sink into the solace of sleep and that is where we mercifully stay into the morning. For it is Saturday and we are sleeping in. We are catching up on lost sleep. We are resting and recovering. We desperately need it. At 8.20am the phone jangles right through the house and I make a dive to silence it before the family I have coaxed into sleep most of the night is woken. All our friends and family know not to call before at least 10am. Who can it be? Could it be another emergency? It is a recorded message from Telstra, reminding us that our bill is overdue. They had rung at the same time six times during the week. Since our daughter has been too unwell to go to school, they woke her, each time, after sleep interrupted already with pain. When she needed to be resting. When it was critical in fact to her well-being. The recorded lady rang again this morning, which happened to be one of the few mornings our daughter has felt well enough to go to school on time. They didn’t wake us as such, but we were slowly gathering up lunches, homework, coordinating meetings with piano runs, and so on. Is there anyone, at all, who has time to take a call at 8.30am on a weekday? Actually there is. The recorded lady has time. She can prompt frazzled families, as she did ours, through a maze of options until she graciously declines your credit card number, which she incorrectly deems incorrect, and – this is the bit that most underscores the sheer corporate arrogance of Telstra – she could refuse to let us hang up. That’s right. Even when we hung up on the recorded lady and her supercilious prompts our line wasn’t available to us. It was busy. With the recorded lady. Saturday morning was our limit with Telstra. We will go to the enormous inconvenience of discontinuing our service with our ‘telco giant’. Enough is enough. I wondered about other families who might have been up all night pacing with a newborn, trying to find a teenager who’d texted they couldn’t get home, managing care for a elderly parent with dementia, still arguing about who should’ve washed up - and who knows what other permutations of familial calamity Telstra is blithely intruding on. Who knows is the pertinent question here, because I’m guessing the suits that came up with the policy of ‘Collection Calling’ at 8.30am, and again around dinnertime, don’t know precisely how difficult family life can be. I’m guessing their wives might have a better idea, but they themselves have none. For they themselves are cocooned in their corporate masculine identities, so safely ensconced in the public realm they don’t actually know what goes on in the private homes they blunder into at ungodly hours. Indeed it is breathtaking that the evening time they chose to call is routinely called, by some immoderate mothers ‘c#$* O’clock’ or, more moderate mothers, ‘the witching hour’. Does anyone but the Telstra boardroom need reminding of what’s actually going on at 8.30am in most families? They might have enjoyed an uninterrupted shower under their bonus-sized showerhead, picked up a bit of toast waiting on the granite kitchen island before they settled into their chauffeured limo. That might be an unfair characterization of the Telstra management elite, but I am struggling to find ways to account for the hauteur of a group of men who would dream up, endorse and implement the policy of morning-rush and evening-scurry Collection Calls. While the entire Telstra workforce is sleeping in on Saturday morning their recorded lady is waking up hundreds of families, in who knows what circumstances, and ‘providing them with the option to request an extension on their bill’. That is how their Philippine complaints centre operator described it to me. There’s another startling and very descriptive asymmetry – the Telstra suits sleep in undisturbed, while young women in the Philippines take the flak from irate customers like me. That strikes me as iniquitous, so I asked for the CEO’s, David Thodey’s, home number. It wasn’t forthcoming. Of course if we don’t want to be harassed by Telstra we should just pay our bill on time, right? This week it wasn’t quite on the tipetty-top of our list of priorities. My guess is the very families Telstra is harassing have unpaid accounts for a range of reasons we could calibrate into a list of common family pressures. The higher reaches of the complaints food chain did try and explain to me that Collection Calls was a service Telstra offered to customers because they didn’t want to cut them off. They were good enough to explain to me Telstra has to take care of its ‘business side’. Testra offers a vital service which extends the reaches of human communication. It has just axed 650 staff, particularly from rural call centres. It has posted a rise in net profit to 3.5 billion dollars. 30 per cent of its shares are held by foreign investors. Its top executives have recently received bumper bonuses of 11 million dollars. David Thodey pocketed a $2 million pay rise in 2011. Yet it is obliged to maintain its ‘business side’ by imposing a policy of Collection Calls on harassed families. The words ‘business side’ intimates that Telstra has other sides. I very much doubt it. Most infuriating is that we had paid the bill.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

The anti-intervention movement and violence in remote Aboriginal communities

There is no subject more inflammatory than violence against children and sexual violence, the abuse of innocence, universally sickens and abhors. The vulnerability of Aboriginal children has been central to settler imaginings of Aboriginal people. They were early and routinely said to be victims of infanticide, cannibalism, the ‘terrible rite’ (sub and circumcision), ceremonial disfigurement and child bride capture and later the more banal crimes of poor hygiene and inadequate discipline. These confections, all based on hearsay and speculation, became commonplace, and they drove the Protection and Assimilation administrative regimes, which did untold damage to Aborigines, ‘for their own good’. Given this record, the Northern Territory Intervention and its newer incarnation Stronger Futures should be viewed with deep suspicion. These latest administrations are imposing another assimilationist regime, this one informed by the very neo-liberal economics that are presently tipping over European economies like dominos. With wearying repetition, the government wants the extensive Indigenous land holdings of the Northern territory, because a new frontier is well underway, of mineral extraction. Yet non-Indigenous Australians are faltering with this campaign. They know there is acrimonious disagreement among Aboriginal leaders on the question of the Intervention. They are reluctant to take sides, wary of the colonial strategy of divide and rule and preferring to stay with another colonial staple – that Aborigines are an undifferentiated entity rather than a diverse and contemporary people. Most discordantly they know this time the violence in remote communities is both real and fetishised. This has made it a political no-go zone. Because of the opportunising of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard Governments on the exposure of that violence and the racist identification of it as particular to Aboriginal peoples, along with people’s reluctance to shame Aboriginal women and demonize Aboriginal men, it has entered the category of the unspeakable. Those who oppose the Intervention and Stronger Futures omit it and even excuse it. Recently an activist referred to the young men who broke into a campervan outside Alice Springs and gang-raped the tourists inside. She said they were trying to get home. She said ‘You can see why these boys get into these things’. Actually, I can’t see how stealing a vehicle to overcome a lack of transportation bears any relation to rape. The anti-intervention movement has encountered stalling and evasion from the same people who readily galvanized against Howard’s anti-Wik 10 point plan and marched in droves for Reconciliation. Yet facing up to, rather than minimalising, violence against women and children in remote communities, is key to resisting the racial discrimination these latest forays into Indigenous administration have imposed. For this violence is manifestly not Aboriginal. It is everywhere endemic to our society. It is male and the perpetrators are a minority of men. Family violence is first and foremost about gender, not race, but it is more pervasive and extreme in communities where masculinity is in crisis. That crisis is identifiable, around the globe, with communities afflicted with inter-generational disadvantage, and all of the self-destructive behaviors that consistently impact on people enduring the most entrenched socio-economic alienation. Those men, consistently and manifestly, have prehistories of violent subjection, often racial, sometimes colonial. But returned soldiers and institutionalized men are also susceptible. We humans are inordinately efficient at perpetrating violence and paradoxically incapable of enduring it. But gender plays a role here to, for a minority women coping with trauma are more likely to be self-destructive, whereas a minority of men are destructive to the people around them. Violence in remote NT communities is more visible. The collusion of silence to uphold high-stake reputations, the surrounding infrastructure of services and amenities, all conspire to keep it under wraps in the rest of the country. Some have claimed Aboriginal men are customarily more violent to their women and children. Violence has spiraled in some communities because of the coupling of socio-economic disadvantage with the kind of self-destructive behaviors that ‘customarily’, in all human societies, go together with a crisis in masculine identity: particularly alcohol and substance abuse. It is Orwellian to identify pornography with Aboriginal men. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks recently, patiently, explained, you won’t see Aboriginal people posing in pornographic material. She drew attention to a descriptive cultural disjunct. If anything, porn, most of which has undersold the ideals of libertarianism and sunk into the myopia of misogyny, is an assimilative apparatus to gender relations that I’m afraid have charactised non-Indigenous society as far back as the First Fleet. I’m talking here about the eroticizing of the power asymmetry between men and women and men and children. There is only one solution to male violence, and it applies wholesale across all communities around the world, whenever expressions of masculine identity become, with a minority of men in that community, inextricably bound up in the abuse of power. The women in that community and the non-violent men who support them, should be supported in their demand for the removal of violent men from their homes, communities and lands, until they can guarantee they will cease to pose a danger. Ironically, the exiling of violent men was able to be enforced by the entry permit system that was disbanded under the Intervention. This removal should not be enforced as a criminal matter. These men need to rebuild their lives so they can return to where they are needed most, their homes, families and communities. Before the Intervention women in some remote communities were working together in an attempt to deal with violence. They are not passive victims waiting for whitefellas to rescue them. We need to go back and look at what was already working. We need to empower the Aunties for if they and their men are disempowered, by top-down imposed administrative regimes that humiliate and discredit them, the violence can only worsen. A version of this article first appeared as ‘Some Hard Truths about the Intervention’, in The Age, 2 July 2012.

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Monogamy 2

There is a universal truth to all long-term sexual relationships that is never openly discussed. This widespread sexual malaise lurks behind all our frenetic sexual questing, and provides a feast for all the opportunists who snout in the resulting trough, from philanderers to pornographers to Bettina Arndt. It is simply this. At some point every sexual relationship loses ignition. This simple unavoidable and bewildering fact is a hidden infirmity, that in our solution-compelled world we imagine we can resolve without first fully understanding. We can’t. Once sexual ignition dissolves, for some after 3 years, for others after 10 years, for a rare handful years later, it thereafter makes rare appearances between the sheets. Many turn to what are quaintly termed ‘marital aids’, ranging from lingerie to fantasy to toys to DVDs to acts that give that kick purely because they are transgressive. What do I mean by ignition? Ignition is the roar of the engine. The overtake of all senses and thought processes by the overwhelming need to get into your lover. Combustion might flash when the inside of a knee shows as it’s crossed under a bar. It might spark within the first frank gaze of longing, the flick of a tongue, the wrench at a belt buckle. And when it ignites every last one of us is clawing, thrashing, convulsing and doing flamenco hands with our feet. When it mutually ignites sex becomes a head-on-collision. It is, we’ve all said it, The Best Thing Ever. Ignition is what we all want. But most of us have loved someone enough to stay all the way to the point when it is lost. Most of us has grieved it, some quietly, at the risk of making our beloved feel we have lost ‘attraction’ even though objectively we know that doesn’t make sense. Some of us sensibly talk it through knowing in doing so we destroy that entirely unbidden mechanistic jolt that by its nature can never be contrived consciously. Some of us endure rounds of counseling thinking ‘intimacy’ is lost, even though objectively we know that also doesn’t add up. Ignition is something outside of words or cultural contrivances of any sort. I am a social constructivist, yet I think ignition is something we will never explain or manufacture. Ignition is essential, yet like all the biological things we do with our bodies, we have built elaborate social rituals around it, from monogamy to conjugal visits to viagra. We can hypothesise into the next millennium about why ignition is lost – children, overwork, domestic inequity, impotence - but for now we haven’t yet faced up to the fact that we all try to survive in sexually exclusive relationships without it. This is a very tough call. Margaret Mead wasn’t the last to observe that the institution of monogamous marriage depends of wide-scale prostitution. But that doesn’t tell us much about how women cope, who aren’t prostitutes that is. Couples that survive the loss of ignition have invested so much of their lives in their sexual interdependency – children, mortgages, love – they hobble along without it, since there is too much at stake to overthrow on such a seemingly facile premise. Make-do sex rules. Some replace it with other things and though technically sated they live with a certain hollowness. Speaking, as I have all the way through, from experience – extrapolating outrageously in fact - those of us that find a way through the loss of ignition settle for sex without it because losing all the things invested in a life partnership is a far worse prospect. Besides, enduring love may not turn the key, but it can be immensely, ecstatically sating, and the glow goes on for days. This kind of sex oils the machine. It’s great, and we accept it doesn’t roar. But the loss of ignition is part of life so long as we construe our lives around monogamy. Monogamy can’t sustain ignition. Generations ago I suspect ignition was less central to ideas of sexual success, and successful relationships. Its loss may have been experienced as part of the maturing of a relationship from which, once endured, new things could be built. Is it a matter of just growing up and getting over it? I for one think we humans weren’t meant to be sexually exclusive, and building our lives around monogamy has been disastrous for too many, particularly when children are involved. How many more broken bodies do we need to hurl onto the count before we acknowledge it’s not working, it rarely has and it rarely will. Perhaps the problem isn’t the loss, which we should openly accept as part of the pact of monogamy – though preferably not on Bettina Arndt’s website as something mean-spirited women inflict on men. The problem is we repress the loss of ignition and don’t know how to tolerate it and move on to something else. That something might be polyamory, or it might be some cherished understanding that binds a couple closer. I think after decades of sexual questing we can safely say it isn’t anything the sex industry has been able to resolve for us. This article first appeared as ‘The Disaster of Monogamy – we should acknowledge that it rarely works’, Opinion, The Age, 1 November 2011, p. 15, HYPERLINK "http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/the-disaster-of-monogamy--we-should-" http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/the-disaster-of-monogamy--we-should-acknowledge-that-it-rarely-works-20111031-1ms42.html

Monogamy

It was the tip of the nose that did it, and not just for me. The wife of Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer stood by his side on 12 March 2008, as he attempted to salvage his reputation by resigning from office. Looking rent to the core of her frail and neatly suited being, she stood quietly as her sexual allure was effectively trashed by her own husband before millions of viewers. Pale but keeping it together with what must have taken an iron will, it was just the tip of her nose that give away how utterly humiliated, dejected and betrayed she felt. So poignant was the picture, it inspired the television law drama series The Good Wife (2009) which replayed that interview with a cathartic reprise. She smacks him one out of sight of the cameras and didn't it feel good. Men like Spitzer make us collectively angry. He not only abused public funds - some $80,000 - to pay exhorbitant escort fees, he caused distress to the very people he is charged with protecting from the slings and arrows of life, etc.  Yet the Spitzer story was somehow different to the Clintons' and a blur of public figures whose unfaithful marriages have undergone the same flayed-alive, overexposure. Sometimes it takes a critical mass to disperse the fog of unquestioning. I saw the carcass of the Spitzer marriage being flung atop a mass of corpses too high to see over. I needed to step back to get perspective, and once I did I saw a heap that, like most heaps, looked like a monumental waste. It's no surprise Sptizer’s call-girl has done very nicely for herself, with a Playboy shoot, a single release and a sex-advice column in the New York Post. Spitzer's wife, Silda Wall, has also capitalized on the media attention, releasing a book, ‘Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer’. She has said, 'The wife is supposed to take care of the sex. This is my failing; I wasn't adequate.' Bettina Arndt would agree. It is men who suffer a 'sex-starved' subsistence in heterosexual monogamous marriage. Women deprive men, women dismiss men, women shame men about their natural urges. Women are, all over again, Female Eunuchs and God's Police. Whatever sexuality we managed to reclaim during the sexual revolution, we are now content to consign to history and worse, impose our desultory, lack-lustre, bed-death on the men we love.  Eric Anderson also discerns a gender abyss between men and women's sexual needs in his recently released book, ‘The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating’. This study of 120 partnered undergraduate men found that 78% cheated, and unlike Arndt who attributes men's infidelity to sexual neglect, Anderson blithely puts it down to men wanting to have sex with other women. He and Ardnt advocate rethinking monogamy, and I agree.  It may just be the surveillance and exposure of our once private lives that has brought us to this point of realisation, but monogamy clearly isn't working and in the end it's kids who are getting most hurt by the trashing of perfectly functional relationships all because we have lazily failed to pay attention to the self-evident – sexual exclusivity is a cruel and repressive ideal few attain. Long term monogamous sexual relationships at some point lose ignition. Most soldier on without it, but a critical mass can't live without it. Rather than hurt the partners they love, and destabilise their kids, they lie. Increasingly the absurdity of the institution, its inherent sexual repressiveness, is being questioned. What concerns me is this nasty turn toward correlating monogamy with women's sexuality, as though it suits us because we have lesser, read deficient, read inferior needs. By all means let's rethink monogamy, but why that entails blaming women for the failings of an institution that arguably hasn't left us overly sated and all-over-rosy either, isn't clear. Aside from entrenched, habitual misogyny, it is hard to explain why the voices of women are either missing or stereotyped in the debate to date. Arndt has so alienated women over decades of overexposure in male-appointed editorial column space I'm astonished any have contributed to her 'research'. I for one refuse to have another Saturday morning trampled by her myopic ravings and haven't read a word she's written in over ten years, anymore than I would listen to Alan Jones, or watch Andrew Bolt. Certain men, who may not have taken ‘Gender, Sexuality and Feminism’ in their undergraduate years at a guess, will flock to her website seeking solace, making her sample self-selected. I wonder if any have ever asked themselves what they might do better to make their wives want them again – Cut their nails? Brush their teeth? Read the kids a story? Make eye contact? Instead it is all about women’s lack of testosterone. It's easy to blame, and harder to think with rigour on a question that does indeed cause untold numbers of men AND WOMEN real distress, either because a central part of their well-being is daily undermined by living unsated, or because their entire lives, their emotional and financial security, things they have worked most of their adult lives to build, and that of their children, has been thrown asunder on the tissue-thin premise of sexual possession and its betrayal. The keystone of the institution of monogamy is sexual possession. Its origins lie in the securing of agnatic bloodlines for property inheritance. Over centuries it has cast a long shadow disproportionately over women's lives because we are the only ones in the reproductive dyad who can prove with certainty our children’s parentage. The Father could be anyone, and nothing cuts deeper for men, as it would for women. It has made them a little insecure about women’s sexuality and that’s putting it mildly. It is thus women who have endured real suffering Bettina, such as violence, incarceration, lobotomies, impoverishment and social stigma. Indeed the body count for adulterous women over the centuries and the horrific state of many of their corpses is testament enough to the gender asymmetry in heterosexual monogamous marriage. Sexual possession has no place in modern relationships or familial configurations. It is like religion. For some, for a time, it provides an ideal to live up to that gives structure and purpose. To have mutual satisfaction over a lifetime with the person you love is not just ecstatic, it is a triumph given all the impediments to good sex a couple can face. But for monogamist fundamentalists, sexual possession provides the rationale for violence against women and children. The children of monogamy fundamentalists face a clear and present danger when their mothers repartner; in two recent cases, of being left to drown at the bottom of a dam, or of catapulting to their death off the Westgate Bridge. There is much at stake here, and we have reached a critical moment in this nascent debate. Let's not squander the opportunity to create better relationships, and perhaps defuse one highly volatile fuse for violence against women and children, by letting gender bias and misogyny creep into the discussion. This article appeared in The Hoopla, 9 January 2012, http://thehoopla.com.au/monogamy-its-over-lets-talk-it