Elly McDonald

Writer


2 Comments

For National Volunteers Week 2019 – thoughts on the value of work

My first paid work was at age 16, in 1978, when the editor of a national publication commissioned me to write film reviews.

Trouble was, my first paid work went unpaid.

After a couple of months with no cheque in the mailbox, my mother wrote that editor a letter. Her daughter, she wrote, had worked hard on those film reviews. It was her first paid employment. Surely it was desirable that the lesson a 16 year-old learned is that labour is exchanged for monetary recompense.

A cheque arrived, belatedly.

By then I had moved on to writing for an Adelaide-based national rock music publication, for free. After nearly a year of writing for no money, I was offered freelance work by a higher circulation rock music publication, in Sydney, for whom I wrote till mid-1986, always commissioned articles, always as a freelance.

My stockpiled articles for the Adelaide publication continued to appear for some months. When they had no further articles of mine to run, a representative of that publication arranged to meet with me to ask me to continue writing for them, unpaid.

He pointed out that that publication could not afford to pay contributors. I was unmoved. That was their problem, I said.

He was passionate, committed to his project. He explained everyone involved made personal sacrifices to keep that publication viable. He himself was obliged to run drugs between the Riverina and Adelaide to bring in cash for printing costs.

Some time later I read in a mainstream newspaper that his body had been found by the side of a Riverina highway, shot-gunned, I don’t remember if the magazine had already folded.

A popular TV personality hired me to proof-read the reissue of his book. I charged $150. When he wrote the cheque, he told me he would have paid me ten times that much, if I had asked. I hadn’t asked.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” he said.

When I stopped writing freelance and moved into paid employee positions, I discovered that no employer ever paid me as a new employee on my first due payday. They kept saying it took time to set up payments – sometimes six weeks. Sometimes there were problems, delays, across the first few months. It was not till I was in my mid-30s that an employer actually paid my first pay when due.

I took a temporary contract job with a company owned by Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, what we in Australia would call the national Treasurer. His companies notoriously had a policy of paying contractors, freelancers and suppliers late, as late as they could get away with – sometimes three months or longer, until legal action commenced.

The procedure was that pays were meant to be processed on a Friday. Pays could only be processed if two directors countersigned an individual’s paperwork. But such were the demands on company directors that very often, two directors could not be found to sign off on the Friday. If they missed that day, pay due would carry over to the next fortnight’s payday – when it might happen that way again.

I had been there eight weeks and been paid twice, maybe three times. My immediate boss was due to take a family holiday in Spain. I was to hold the fort in his absence. I told him very clearly me showing up at work was contingent on me being paid on time. My boss promised he would speak to the directors and make sure it happened.

The night before my boss and his family were due to fly to Spain, I phoned him at his home to say pay had not shown up in my bank account. I told him I needed that money in my hand or else I would be a no-show and our work project would collapse.

He cried. He said I was blackmailing him. He said all he wanted was a week off in the sun, relaxing on holiday.

Did I like my boss? I liked him very much. Did I like that job? Yes. Did I like having to threaten my boss with an ultimatum? Not even slightly.

But I had rent due and I needed to eat and life in London is a hard scrabble. I’d done the work. I needed the pay. For sure, a multi-millionaire confidante of Margaret Thatcher did not need to hang on to my money those extra days.

I moved to a job where I was paid half what my male counterparts were paid. I complained about that. I was told by a billionaire banker that I was well paid (I was), and that I should feel grateful (I was not). Sorry. Not grateful. I did the same work. I did it as well or better. I was well paid, but well paid for a demanding and responsible role that required special skills, which I brought.

I moved to a similar job, on higher pay. At that time in the UK, there was a program whereby employees could nominate that set amounts from their pre-tax salary could be directed each payday to designated charities. I determined a small percentage of my salary and filled in the paperwork spreading donations between about 10 charities.

The company finance director told me if I had that money spare, they were obviously paying me too much.

A week or two later I received a formal letter from the finance director advising there’d been an error in my letter of offer. The amount specified as my salary was meant to be the amount of my total package. My salary therefore needed to be adjusted downwards.

My letter of offer explicitly spelled out my salary plus additional benefits, bringing the total package amount up to somewhere still a bit south of my male counterparts.

I was not willing to accept a reduced salary. On legal advice, I stayed at home, on sick leave, while letters were exchanged. I refused to answer phone calls or to meet personally with the company directors. I sent faxes to the central fax machine at that workplace, where any employee could read details of our negotiations.

Did I enjoy doing this? Honestly. Are you kidding?

I talked about this with a few CEOs down the years. Each of them shrugged, said it was par for the course. Shit happens. Employees get screwed over. That’s the game.

In subsequent years I’ve occasionally found myself again forced to draw on my inner bitch.

There was the time I resigned and was asked to finish up immediately. I refused to leave the office till I received my severance pay. So sorry, I said. I believe this business is trading while insolvent. I believe if I leave this office now, I will never receive payment.

My ex-bosses accused me of holding them hostage. I was intransigent. After all, I pointed out, I was willing to work out my notice in professional good faith. They were the ones who asked for an immediate severance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this history, I have preferred my voluntary employments over the years to my paid employments.

I first volunteered at age 21 (37 years ago) and have volunteered substantial hours consistently for the past 17 years.

The role call of organisations I have volunteered for includes (no particular order) Bellarine Community Health, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Geelong Gallery, GAWS (Geelong Animal Welfare Shelter), UCA (Uniting Church in Australia), Amnesty International, AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services), Melbourne Theatre Company, HM Prison Feltham, Women’s Electoral Lobby.

I have loved working for almost all these organisations, but I have my beefs.

One beef is showing up for a volunteer shift to find my superviser or manager has not given thought to how to deploy a volunteer that day. I hate being turned away and told to go home. Petrol costs. Besides, it’s disrespectful of my time and labour.

Another beef is this: when should a volunteer role be recognised as essential tasks and become a paid role?

It’s National Volunteers Week this week, 20-27 May.

While I’m impressed by the commitment of the many volunteers featured in posts across social media (promoting the organisations for whom they labour), some of these posts perplex me.

Three days a week for 15 years, contributing professional expertise?

That’s not a volunteer gig, that’s a job: an unpaid job.

In Australia, where I live, many of these people will be on Newstart or the Age Pension, having to deal with the bureaucratic indignities and public stigma that Centrelink welfare recipients live with.

Others are in a financial position to contribute unpaid labour, and thrive in responsible unpaid positions in desirable workplaces, with social kudos (the arts and culture industries), because of their privilege. (Yes, being able to offer labour for free is a position of privilege, regardless of how hard a person worked to reach that position of privilege.)

It is true that volunteering brings benefits to the volunteer that are not monetary. Many volunteers identify with the organisation where they contribute their labour. Volunteering provides meaningful activity, social interaction. Purpose, relationship. Access to an environment that aligns with their values and reinforces their desired self-image. They might feel an individual has an obligation to give back to the community at no charge, and where that is the case, good on ’em.

There may also be deferred monetary benefits. Volunteer work might provide skills development, keep job seeker references fresh, help a person into paid employment.

Here’s a couple of ideas:

1. Where people have volunteered in a specific role for 12 months, review that role and that individual’s contribution, to determine if it should and can become a paid role. Volunteers will shy away from this: volunteers love their roles, they make the role their own. They’re invested, and they do not want to walk away. Even so, after a few years it can wear thin. IMHO, after about two years, with the role unpaid, the employer is taking the piss. If you really can’t pay them, but wish to retain their skills at no cost, move that volunteer into a different volunteer function. Or suggest they broaden their unpaid experience by taking on new challenges elsewhere. Don’t milk them dry.

2. My preference: Where people have established a valued volunteer niche, have the government fund their institution to pay them properly for their labour, as a subsidised job. Give them the respect of recognising they’re DOING a real job, and untie them from the whipping post that is Centrelink.

This week is National Volunteers Week. It was also a national election week.

In a week where I saw Australian voters referring online to people on benefits as “bottom feeders”, I cannot see our re-elected conservative government changing the status quo.

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is the ideal of paid employment.

Remind me… What happens to ideals?

Show_me_the_money


7 Comments

Another revolution (31 December 2018)

You say you want a revolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world

The Beatles, Revolution (1968)

earth-sun

Earth has cycled round the Sun once again. Another new year rises. I’ve been on this trip 57 times now, and every year opens as infinite promise.

The New Year’s Resolution thing is, obviously, a conceptual conceit. Choosing 1 January to make life changes is arbitrary – after all, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, every breath is a resurrection. Every breath brings new life. Every breath is an opportunity for change.

Still, in Western culture, at least, a new year is viewed as a re-set button.

The nineteenth-century philosopher (and forerunner of contemporary psychology) William James wrote

To change one’s life:

  1. Start immediately.
  2. Do it flamboyantly.
  3. No exceptions.

Current psychiatric and psychological advice is to recognize behaviour change is hard, and there will inevitably be lapses (“exceptions”), and that understanding change as a gradual process, a process that requires we be kind to ourselves, and pace ourselves, is healthier and more likely to result in desired outcomes than what’s known as “all or nothing thinking”, or “black and white thinking”.

But current advice does suggest starting immediately (THIS breath, then again after a relapse, THIS breath) is smart, and that making our proposed behaviour change(s) public (“Do it flamboyantly”) makes us accountable, opens us to support, and is, all round, A Good Idea.

This week I had the dual experiences of attending a friend’s funeral and spending significant time with a vibrant young woman living with aggressive cancer.

I go to a few funerals. That’s a consequence of my parents’ friends being octogenarians, living in a community with an older demographic, working in aged care and community services, and having ties to a church community.

This funeral was different. The friend who died deserves a full obituary in his own right, so I won’t go there here. But contextually, I was struck by two things: how emblematic of my formative young adult years this man was; and the sense so many present had that this person, for many years, and for many reasons, after early glories had not lived to his potential, and had suffered sensing that.

He is not alone among my friends in that. It hurts me to think of the friends who died disappointed in their lives.

My living female friend presents a different picture. Despite being partway through treatment, with uncertain outcomes, and despite living with constant, often debilitating pain, she goes to the gym every day, walks her dog twice a day, continues a high-powered professional career part-time, cares for her primary school aged child, is a wonderful, loving, supportive partner, engages in a social life, and does all this with cheer and sparkling wit.

We must live until we die, they say (that amorphous, unattributable “they” – oh okay, maybe American country singer Clay Walker).

I have another woman friend with aggressive cancer at present. In this case, she asserts her will to live by continuing to be the combative, acerbic, fiercely intelligent, costume-loving, kick-ass broad she’s always been. She will not go gently.

This year, I want to live out the lessons I’m learning from those with a talent for living.

My resolution is to live like I mean it.

FB_IMG_1543876858235

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a vogue for the works of psychologist William Glasser, who developed what he called Reality Therapy, and Choice Theory, and whose books include Positive Addiction.

Glasser is not fashionable these days, partly because it’s argued he places responsibility to change, to live well, squarely on the individual; it’s argued his theories don’t take sufficient account of environmental factors (social and political structures) or genetic traits.

However: there’s not a lot we can do in the short-term as individuals about the social and political factors that impact us, and nothing we can do about our genetic legacies, save for making the best choices we can to minimize our genetic vulnerabilities.

I find Glasser confronting, but useful.

Essentially, Reality Therapy is about client and therapist focusing on practical steps, practical actions, to improve quality of life. Choice Theory is the idea that it’s all a series of choices. Make the better choice, as they (“they”) say.

Glasser’s theory of addiction stems from Freud’s contention that humans find worth through love and work. If a person believes they’ve failed at love and work, they feel inadequate. In Glasser’s view, they may, objectively, be inadequate.

It’s painful to see oneself as inadequate, so, according to Glasser, we choose behaviours that mask that pain. Generally, these are not good choices: self-medicating emotionally through alcohol, drugs, obsessions, compulsions.

The pain of our addictions is a smokescreen to spare us recognition of that underlying pain – the pain of our failure, our inadequacy.

Addiction is a neural rut, a habit wired in the neural pathways that turns a choice into controlling urge.

It doesn’t work to swim directly into a current; we’ll just exhaust ourselves and drown sooner. Instead, if caught in a rip or strong current, we’re advised to swim at an angle towards the shore, to pace ourselves rather than fight the rip – to focus on staying afloat.

Similarly, with behavioural change, and especially with addiction, instead of going mano a mano with the behaviour it might work better to take a more oblique approach: to focus on a positive behaviour, and substitute a positive addiction for a destructive one.

At the time Glasser wrote Positive Addiction, in 1985, research suggested two highly effective substitute behaviours that can displace addiction: meditation, and running. Any behaviour engaged in to excess can become problematic, if it adversely affects a person’s physical health, relationships, work responsibilities, social life or other significant commitments, and there’s been a great deal of publicity around ways running, particularly, can be problematic, but generally speaking both exercise and forms of meditation are extremely useful strategies in countering damaging behaviours.

No one can promise exercise, or meditation, will shield us from disappointment, or ill health, or under-performance. But exercise and meditation can help allay depression, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

So this year, even though I’ve said this before, I plan to put back some of the activities I’ve let drop.

I want to walk more, do more yoga, breathe more mindfully, ride my bike, swim, dance, tend my garden.

I want to play the piano, maybe the viola, sing.

I want to listen to more music, spend more time with friends. Enjoy my life.

I want to live.


Leave a comment

On being dehumanised – Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning, and the Gippsland Massacres

This piece is respectfully dedicated to the elders and descendants of the Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as Victoria and South Australia. I apologize sincerely on behalf of my own ancestors for the wrongs my ancestors committed against the Indigenous people they encountered in this country now known as Australia. I apologize sincerely for the wrongs the people of my heritage, Anglo-Celts, continued – and continue – to commit against the people of Australian Aboriginal heritage.

I hope in this piece it does not appear that I conflate the sufferings inflicted on the Indigenous people of Australia with the sufferings experienced by the emigrants from Scotland and Ireland who are my ancestors.

It is not my intention to do that.

Indigenous_survivors

My intention is to look at aspects of my own heritage I have not previously considered, with reference to two powerful pieces of writing I read today: a letter written in southeastern Australia in 1846 by a squatter (landholder) Henry Meyrick, to his relatives back home in England; and a novel by the Irish writer Paul Lynch, titled Red Sky in Morning.

Henry Meyrick wrote:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging … For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog, but no consideration on earth would induce me to ride into a camp and fire on them indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever the smoke is seen. They [the Aboriginal people] will very shortly be extinct. It is impossible to say how many have been shot, but I am convinced that not less than 450 have been murdered altogether.

Ref Gippsland Settlers and the Kurnai Dead – Patrick Morgan – Quadrant Magazine Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.

I read this appalling testimony today, the same day I read Paul Lynch’s novel, which, I think, centrally addresses these questions: how do we distinguish humans from animals; how and in what circumstances do some people privilege themselves as ‘human’ and reduce others to the status of ‘animals’; and, what are the consequences of some declaring themselves ‘human’ by denouncing others as ‘animal’?

What are the inter-generational consequences?

Massacre_of_Aboriginal_people

My father, who died last year at age 85, took pride in being part of history:

You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old [born 1802], my grandfather would be 175 [born 1842], and my father would be 127 [born 1890] and my mother 125 [born 1892]. Even my sister would be 105 [born 1912]. […] All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

My father’s grandfather arrived in the colony of South Australia in 1841 and made his way to the colony of Victoria, where he farmed land in central-west Victoria. My father passed on one anecdote only about the local Aboriginal peoples. He told me that his uncles – eight of whom survived childhood – who taught him to hunt and shoot, and whom he loved, practiced target shooting using the skulls of native people, set up as targets along fence posts.

I don’t know where these skulls were obtained. Presumably from Indigenous burial sites. Every thing about my father’s anecdote distresses me.

So what do I know, or think I know, really, about how my line of McDonalds came to be in Victoria, shooting at Aboriginal skulls?

In 1822 a girl was born in County Galway, Ireland, possibly to Luke Cavanagh and Mary Malone, but maybe not, and she was named Mary Jane. In about 1840 Mary Jane emigrated to Adelaide, in the young colony of South Australia, possibly travelling with a younger brother. There Mary married a man named Beresford, who worked felling timber on an estate called Burnside – neighboring the suburb where I grew up – and who died within the year. Beresford had a workmate named John McDonald. There were McDonalds in the neighborhood in Galway Mary might have come from, so possibly this John McDonald was someone she knew from home, or his family was known to her. Or perhaps, as his descendants believed, John McDonald hailed from southwest Scotland. We’ll probably never know. There were several John McDonalds who arrived in Australia in 1841 and whose known paths intersect with each other, confusing their tracks.

For certain, Mary Cavanagh married a John McDonald in 1841 in Adelaide and they had their first child, John, in 1842. This John is without doubt my great-grandfather.

In other respects there is doubt aplenty.

Mary Jane apparently had nine sons and three daughters with John McDonald between 1842 and 1858. A Mary Jane Cavanagh died on 8 October 1894 in Geelong, Victoria, at the age of 72. However… something is not right. There were twins, and twins in several generations of this line, but it still seems unlikely the same Mary Cavanagh had three children all born in 1858 and two children born 1851. My family’s research turned up a marriage certificate showing our Mary Cavanagh married John McDonald born 1802, whereas other amateur genealogy trees show her married to John McDonald born 1832 or 1835, which doesn’t make sense, given he’d be a child in 1841. It looks possible that somewhere, two or more Mary Cavanaghs and two or more John McDonalds have been elided.

It’s very unlikely that ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh died in Geelong. My father believed he knew his grandmother’s place of burial, in central western Victoria, but my father is dead. The main arguments in favour of ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh being the daughter of Luke and Mary and the mother of the named children is that the children include some with ‘family names’ that recur throughout our family tree: Donald, Angus, Annie, John, Archibald, James (Jim).

Does it matter?

We can’t know what kind of a person Mary Cavanagh was or why she emigrated.

I have always felt it was enough to say I cannot know and leave it at that. But in this past week I’ve read two novels by Paul Lynch that have made me rethink the Irish side of my heritage. The first, Grace, tells a story of the Great Hunger, the Great Potato Famine of 1845-46.

The second, which in fact was written prior to Grace (Grace is a kind of sequel), is the book I read today that shook me up so much.

Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning tells a story of a man named Coll Coyle who is born in County Donegal, just north of Mary Cavanagh’s home County Galway, and who in 1832 flees to America after accidentally killing his landlord’s son.

Coll’s story is fiction, but the climactic sequence and other elements are based on fact. The climactic sequence is a massacre: humans regarded as animals, slaughtered.

Henry Meyrick writes of the Aboriginal people that “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are”. Coll’s is another tale of a human being, in this case an Irishman, hunted down with unsparing perseverance, derided as an animal by his pursuer, the landlord’s right-hand man Faller.

Did you know […] the Irish never founded a town? Never founded a town. I bet you didn’t. But it’s true. The Danes and the Normans came here and cut down your forests. They founded on those clearings every single Irish town that exists. Had to build them themselves. Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Limerick, Cork. You’ve got the Danes to thank for all of that. […]

The Danes and the Normans they built your roads too. The Irish never founded a road. Imagine that. Thousands of years of trudging in the rain and the mud, back and forth, to and fro, in your bare feet, up to your knees in cow shit. It must have been slow going on your primitive roads. And nobody not once thought of making a road. You had to be helped with that too, didn’t you? […]

Not that you knew much about building either. You lived in your bothies made of clay and branches. You lived like that for thousands of years. But you could hardly call that living now could you […]? You had to be shown how to secure a proper roof over your heads. What I’m saying about all this is that you needed guidance.

[…] you have to wonder what the Irish were doing all those years. Imagine. What a state you would be in if left to your own devices. You really do have to think about that. To think of the advancement of the amenities of life. Well. I’ll tell you what you were doing […]. You were standing in the rain up to your oxters in cow shit. The world pissing on your heads. Huddling in your dank forests. Squirming about in your little wooden huts. Stealing each other’s cows then murdering each other for it. It’s not what you would call civilization is it […]?

The old man Faller is addressing says “What’s all that talk about? You’re as much from this place as any man. Not a drop of foreign blood in ye.”

Faller put his hands flat on the table and leaned into Ranty.

I’m not like you, he said.

I don’t think like you.

In truth, he does not.

A short while later Faller kills a man he repeatedly refers to as a “rat”, as vermin. He kicks a girl who he sneers is a “mamzer” (a Biblical term for outcast, the unclean product of incest). She should count herself lucky she lives. Almost no one who crosses Faller’s path lives.

In another short while Faller forces a crippled beggar to dance like an organ grinder’s monkey. He kills a man and orders the body fed to sheep.

Faller justifies killing two undefended women by saying

Let me tell you something […]. People aren’t people. They are animals, brutes, blind and stupid and following endless needs they know not what the origin. And all the rest that we place on top to make us feel better is a delusion.

In extremis, “Faller became at one with the beast” – by “beast” Lynch means requisitioned horse, but he might as well mean the Devil, the Great Beast. Faller is satanic. He is inhuman. As Coll’s bereft wife reflects, “Not everyone has the kindness in them.”

Encountering a loving, religious family who offer hospitality, help tend his injuries and promise to help him on his way next morning, Faller can only consider the husband and father “a very troublesome creature”. When bounty hunters trap him in the farmer’s home, he holds the family hostage, then uses the small daughter as a human shield, flinging her towards the bullets.

Is ‘Faller’ a reference to ‘Fallen’, or ‘Falling’, as in Lucifer?

Faller has a Darwinian dog eat dog philosophy. He lives to exert dominance, most particularly the power of life or death (mostly death). Cornered, he philosophizes

I’ll tell you, there’s always an agency more powerful than your own. Think about that. The terrible beauty of it. How it lies there unseen waiting for you. Every fate, every life, every story swallowed by forces greater […]

The man listening views Faller as a dangerous animal. He responds

But you know I spend a lot of my time on my own thinking betwixt me and the saddle and I ain’t come up with much but I did come up with this – the difference between a man and a beast is we’re able to imagine the future and they’re not. But what makes us no better than em is we cain’t predict it.

While Faller kills his way on his remorseless quest – like the Terminator, like a sociopathic Javert – Coll Coyle, the hunted quarry, barely one stumble ahead, faces shock after shock of life-threatening situations, and faces them like, dare one say, a man. A good man.

Irish_immigrants

He endures many weeks at sea in squalid conditions on the emigrant boat to New York. He helps nurse his companions through a lethal fever that kills scores of fellow passengers, their corpses swollen with bloat turfed overboard. He spares the life of a deranged young man who tries to kill him. He joins his compatriots in signing up with an Irishman in New York called Duffy who promises they’ll be well-fed and paid fairly if they work cutting down a mountain to make way for a railway at a site known to history as Duffy’s Cut.

Duffy’s Cut turns into a gulch of hell: “In the days that follow they begin to work not like men but beasts […] They burrowed into the surface like animals taking flight from some sluggish danger […]”

Transcontinental_railroad_workers

Transcontinental railroad workers in America

On a journey to Philadelphia for supplies, Coll and his mate the Cutter

[…] decided they wanted a drink. A place called the Bull’s Head Tavern and they opened tentatively the door. Card players with clean faces and suits and they stopped their game to eye the two strangers. A man coughed and they thought they heard him say dirty Irish and they felt they were being watched. The Cutter clanked coins on the counter and waved a grubby hand and ordered two drinks but the barman turned away from them […]

Coll and the Cutter are refused service at the Bull’s Head Tavern and, when they attempt to journey back to Duffy’s Cut, they’re run out of the district by a local posse.

Git walking. Up thataways. He pointed to the road. […] The men mounted their horses and followed closequarters.

Coll and the Cutter are marched back to Duffy’s Cut by the mounted gunmen, who see at the encampment dead and sick men. Cholera has broken out at Duffy’s Cut –

[…] their minds went wild with the thought of disease and they put their sleeves to their mouths to protect them from the air and they turned their horses one-handed and fled.

At the encampment, some of the workers feel their best chance is to leave while they still can. But now the horsemen know the Irishmen carry cholera fever, and it’s already too late. A man called Maurice walks away only to be dumped back at the camp entrance by a local horseman.

The men stood up and walked over to where he had stopped and they saw that he had left a body. It lay face down in the dirt noosed about the neck and Chalky turned it over with his toe. The man’s complexion was scratched raw and teeth were broken and gums were bleeding and they saw it was the body of Maurice. Beneath the blood his lips were grey and his eyelids brown and his extremities dark with his own faecal matter. The men stood stunned and the blacksmith wandered slowly over and he looked at the body. […] Coyle watched him and walked over. What in the hell?, he said.

Again the blacksmith sighed. There’s people about who’d like you lot to keep to your own, he said. That’s just the way it is. And he turned and led the mule away.

Coll, once again, nurses the sick, tries to do the right thing by the dying and dead. He enlists his remaining companions to load the sick up on a mule cart. They attempt to leave Duffy’s Cut as a group.

The mounted gunmen stop them.

Not another step I tell you, the leader said. Take yer sickness back down with you where you belong and not a damn sight near the good folk from round here families and all. You lot are staying put in the valley and if you think you aren’t hell will come paying. You hear me? I tell you. Pack of diseased dogs.

In the minds of the locals, the Irishmen have ceased to be human. In a short while, the encampment is overrun by men with guns who shoot down ever last Irish soul.

The way Paul Lynch imagines this massacre left me gasping.

DuffysCutHistMarker

I took to google to look up Duffy’s Cut on Wiki:

Duffy’s Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of PhiladelphiaUnited States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad‘s Main Line. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came to Philadelphia from the Ulster counties of DonegalTyrone and Derry to work in Pennsylvania’s nascent railroad industry. Less than two months after their arrival, all 57 are believed to have died during the second cholera pandemic. While most died of the disease, forensic evidence suggests that some may have been murdered, perhaps due to fear of contagion […].

I know that when Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlander emigrants arrived in the colony of Victoria, they were considered by the English settlers to be savages, and were penned up on arrival in camps in central Victoria until they could be ‘habituated’.

I know my forebears, both Irish and Scottish, were Gaelic-speakers.

I do not for one moment propose that the ways the Irish and the Scots who emigrated to the colonies had been dispossessed and mistreated in their home lands justifies their treatment of Indigenous people in Australia.

But I can’t help but relate the conditions of the subjected Irish and the Scots dispossessed in the Clearances with Henry Meyrick’s lines

For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog […]

Remorse did not extend far.

Highland_Scots_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Highland Scots


1 Comment

Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage

The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.

That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.

Mayhem.

… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.

Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.

Rausing’s account is many things.

If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.

But someone died, early one morning or late one night.

When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?

The story, its centre, can be schematised:

Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.

Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.

Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.

Should I say more?

I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.

The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.

When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.

She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.

Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.

Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.

Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.

In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote

One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.

Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.

In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.

The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:

Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.

It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.

The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.

Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.

One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?

Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.

Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?

Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?

Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.

The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.

Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.

Mayhem is

Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.

I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing


Leave a comment

#MeToo and the angry women

uma-thruman-you-tube_650x400_61509875594

I don’t remember the joke now but the punchline was something like “I’m long and thick and I come fast”.

The joker was my boss. I was his assistant. The mediator our company provided when I made a formal complaint began by explaining he was internal to the company and had worked with my boss previously on leadership trainings and was his mentor, but that there was no conflict of interest. He then explained to me that a boss-assistant relationship is like a marriage: it was my job to make it work.

He asked me why I persisted with my complaint – my complaints. Why didn’t I just find another job? I explained it was 2008, it was the middle of a GFC (Global Financial Crisis, for those with short memories), and as a 47 year old single woman with no savings I was not about to voluntarily resign and make myself unemployed just because my boss was a jerk.

I voluntarily resigned and made myself unemployed.

I am reminded of this farcical episode in my employment history by the current #MeToo debates on social media. Anyone who’s read other blog posts by me knows gender politics is my recurring theme, and that a number of my memoir blog posts engage with workplace and institutional sexual politics. I am now revisiting my blog posts adding in a new Category: Gender politics.

I’m particularly gripped by the recent upsurge of debate about women and anger. (Note: additional new Category?) How do women express anger? How can women express anger? Is an angry woman automatically an hysterical woman, an irrational woman, an ugly woman? Is she a turn-off? If we turn off, is there some way she can make her case heard?

Australian novelist Charlotte Wood wrote an excellent piece about women and anger for The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/18/charlotte-wood-were-told-female-anger-is-finding-its-moment-but-i-cant-trust-it?CMP=soc_567

There was also an excellent piece in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/all-the-angry-ladies/545042/

2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and 2010 Young Queenslander of the Year Yassmin Abdel-Magied – who in 2012 was also awarded Young Leader of the Year in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s inaugural 100 Women of Influence Awards and was an InStyle ‘Cultural Leader’ and a Marie Claire Woman of the Future, and subsequently honoured as Youth of the Year in the Australian Muslim Achievement Awards – has faced the consequences of expressing anger publicly.

She writes about the blowback in her autobiography, Yassmin’s Story (Penguin Random House 2016), published at age 24: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/yassmins-story-9780857986177

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard did a classic angry woman speech in parliament in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4

Yesterday while I was filing for my current boss (male), we commented on our mutual admiration for Gillian Triggs, former professor at the Melbourne Law School, former Dean of the Sydney Law School (Challis Professor of International Law 2007-2012), Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner of Australia’s Human Rights Commission 2012/2013, till 2017 President of the HRC, currently the Acting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

My boss and I were present when Professor Triggs spoke last month about how as a woman she’s perceived it necessary to present a studied veneer of rational calm, even when discussing egregious human rights abuses.

Yesterday I told my boss I see Professor Triggs, along with Hillary Clinton, as one of my “Elizabeth I women”:

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” (attributed to Queen Elizabeth I of England addressing her troops at Tilbury, on the eve of the expected Spanish armada invasion)

Hillary Clinton writes about this carapace of calm and rationality in her most recent book, What Happened. https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/hillary-clinton/

In her book Clinton never mentions the characterization of Claire Underwood in the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards. I always wondered how actors who are publicly Democrat activists could collude in a fictionalized hatchet job on the Democrats’ best recent prospect for presidential election. But then, political journalist Joe Klein already did that number on Hillary, back in 1996, with his roman a clef Primary Colors, which painted Hillary as an abusive, conscienceless harpy. Guess nobody likes an angry woman, huh?

Promoting her book, Clinton unleashed years of pent-up anger:

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/hillary-clinton:-the-interview/9055256

But for me, the most rivetting expression of women’s anger in the current #MeToo furore is Uma Thurman’s initial response on being questioned about Harvey Weinstein, her producer in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrWG6UmqkBw&feature=youtu.be

What I find most interesting about Thurman’s initial response is her awareness of how her anger might be heard and her willingness to take responsibility for the expression of her anger.

Famously, Uma’s father is the prominent Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. It’s not inconceivable Uma’s response to public questioning owes something to Buddhist teachings, such as those expounded by Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames.

Thay (as Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers call him) views the unmindful expression of anger as analagous to pouring gasoline on fire. Social scientists back him up: research suggests that when we “rehearse” anger – that is, when uncontrolled expression of anger is our habitual recourse – anger becomes our default. Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, is not a useful mode for problem-solving or bridge-building. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings influenced Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Thich Nhat Hanh promoted non-violence – in thought, word and deed – as the basis for workable peace talks during the Vietnam War.

Through this Buddhist lens, it’s not that we’re not entitled to our anger, it’s not that our anger is not justified – it’s the pragmatic issue, how does our anger serve us in this situation? Does it energise us to pursue justice and equity in productive ways? Does it help clarify the issues for us and others? Does it inspire and engage?

If the answers are yes, go right ahead: anger is working for you.

If on the other hand anger consumes us and immobilizes, cancels us out of the conversation, creates barriers to solutions, then maybe we might reconsider how best to get our objectives met, to best serve our cause.

It doesn’t need to involve un-sexing ourselves (like Lady Macbeth), or becoming an Elizabeth I woman, if being an Elizabeth I impairs us.

You don’t have to buy it. But here, for interest, are some words by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Anger is an unpleasant feeling. It is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control and causes us to say and do things that we regret later. When someone is angry, we can see clearly that he or she is abiding in hell. Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made. […]

When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves [i.e. to remain aware]. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. […]

It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.“Breathing in, I know that I am angry. Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.” So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists. If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later.

When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self. When we are joyful, we are the joy. When we are angry, we are the anger. When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy.

Then again. In my own life, there’s not a great distance between how Charlotte Wood writes, in her novel, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2016), and how I wrote, on the same themes. Tea, anyone?

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2016/01/14/tea-2012/


1 Comment

Crime and punishment – #TorF #NaturalJustice

recidivist_ii_by_jehkoba

Yesterday something bizarre happened.

Or, something I’d ordinarily think of as bizarre, but is perhaps no longer so out of the ordinary, so that ordinarily must be re-thought.

In fact, so no longer out of the ordinary that it happened twice in 24 hours, the second time a variant echo late last night.

What happened: someone I know made an allegation of criminal behavior against someone else I know.

During the day, I was witness when a person I know, who I dislike, entered the workplace of another person I know, who I do like, and attempted to report my friend as a criminal.

The person making this allegation felt it necessary to warn my friend’s employer, and made their approach where bystanders – such as myself – could overhear.

Then late last night a longtime friend of mine made an accusation on my Facebook page about another longtime friend of mine. (I will not specify the nature of the accusations or the genders of either accusers or accused. I will not state details that could identify accusers or accused in either incident.)*

Let’s take a moment to consider the first incident, the workplace denouncement.

There are a range of obvious possible rational responses – leaving, for the moment, emotional responses. I’m no lawyer, but sometimes I think Vulcan. On the question of guilt or innocence:

  • My friend is guilty as accused and has been proved guilty in a court of law. In this case, my friend has been sentenced by a judge and has fulfilled the terms of that sentence. In which case, I have always understood – ordinarily – that the debt to society has been paid, and the slate is wiped clean. I also understand this particular workplace runs police checks on all personnel. If my friend has a criminal record, the employer already knows.
  • My friend is guilty but has not stood accused in a court of law. Either accusations were not reported to police or the crown prosecutor determined allegations were not sufficiently supported by evidence for reasonable prospects of a guilty verdict under law.
  • My friend is guilty but has been acquitted in court.
  • My friend is not guilty and a not guilty verdict has been delivered in court.
  • My friend is not guilty and has never been formally charged.
  • My friend is not guilty and is subject to slander.
  • My friend is not guilty and is unaware s/he is being publicly accused.
  • My friend’s guilt or innocence is none of my business.
  • My friend’s guilt or innocence at this point is nobody’s business but their own.

I recall many years ago sitting at an outdoor café table by the fountain in Kings Cross, chatting with a man who was an active advocate of improving jail conditions and providing employment for ex-prisoners. A man passing by recognized my friend and, identifying himself as an ex-con, stopped to thank him.

My friend invited the ex-con to join us. It emerged in conversation the ex-con had served 8 years jail-time.

I recall my chain of thought: the immediate conclusion that 8 years served (assuming time off for parole) represented a major crime, probably a crime against a person – assault, or armed robbery or rape. I was discomfited at the thought I was seated at a table with a convicted rapist or shotgun wielder, someone who had damaged another person violently.

And yet – I’d done things in my life that harmed other people, things which at that time were not legal crimes but which, with changed legislation, now are. I felt – and I feel – immense remorse, and I am forever grateful I was not placed in a dock, did not end up in jail, and have been the beneficiary of forgiveness.

Recently I read a memoir by one of Australia’s foremost poets, Robert Adamson, who I know not only as a poet but as a Facebook friend, wildlife photographer and bird aficionado. Robert’s memoir is called Inside Out: an autobiography (Text Publishing 2004). It’s called Inside Out because Robert spent half his formative years in youth detention or in jail, for crimes ranging from theft to carnal knowledge.

Prior to reading his book, I did not know this about Robert.

Reading the book, I did not think worse of him. I was pained that his younger self consistently made such appalling decisions. I wondered why it is some young people seem to have unerring instincts to make the wrong choice. I pondered to what extent it might be genetic. It triggered the ex-teacher in me. The ex-teacher in me breathed a silent prayer of gratitude I hadn’t taught young Robert in a classroom.

(Although… maybe a young Robert, a young criminal poet, was exactly what the teacher in me needed to bring out our particular gifts, mine as a nurturer of talent and a mentor. I’ve been good in that role.)

I did not enjoy reading about Robert’s criminal past and I wish he had not had to live those experiences. Particularly, I wish he had not lived the experience of unintentionally causing another young person to be maimed for life. I know Robert feels remorse and shame for this, because he writes about that. Harming others scars us too, if we have any kind of empathy.

I did not think worse of Robert because I recognize he has empathy and sensitivity in abundance; he knows what he’s done. He does not need his readers, or his Facebook friends, to judge him. He’s done his time and what’s left is for him to deal with.

I tend to the belief that we should take people as we find them. Let their current behaviours, and their behaviours over time, be the evidence for what kind of person they are.

What, then, of the charming sociopath? What of the person without shame or remorse, without empathy or compassion? What of the person who has been denounced and punished but for whom, we might feel, it is not enough? What of the Rollo Tomasi and Keyser Soze figures, the ones that get away with it? (I am referencing two popular films here: 1997’s LA Confidential and 1995’s The Usual Suspects; in doing so I’m referencing the actor Kevin Spacey, who at this moment stands accused without formal charges.)

What about #MeToo, you ask? What about the fact that many women’s lives have been damaged by male behaviours that are not necessarily criminal in the legal sense, but which, through coercion, intimidation and longstanding, pervasive power imbalances, have enabled too many men to get away with harming women then silencing them, preventing women from calling out the perpetrators?

What about the longstanding failures of social institutions – workplaces, police and courts – to protect women or to provide redress when women are violated? Must women always observe the legal niceties and stay stumm unless they have unequivocal evidence? Are they not entitled to play nasty, to denounce in public?

When I’m not in Vulcan mode I can be plenty emotional. Let me state upfront, when anyone denounces a friend of mine publicly it does not endear the denouncer to me. Does this mean I’m in denial, shielding perpetrators? Is it illegitimate to require proof or give the benefit of the doubt or flatly proclaim it’s no business of mine?

Is it unfair to ask people making accusations to take them to the appropriate authorities, to make their case through established formal processes?

If they choose not to do that, or cannot make their case beyond he said/she said, is it unfair to call their accusations slander? Calumny? Libel? To ask them to desist?

When the #MeToo meme started, it was a simple statement of solidarity, no specifics required, no fingers pointed directly. Then more and more people chose to personalize their statements, to use social media platforms to detail allegations they may – or may not – also pursue through other avenues.

Here’s a proposition: Got a judgement or belief about a friend of mine? Feel moved to make it known via social media?

Make your denouncements on your own Timeline. Mine is not a billboard for finger pointing.

pointing-hand-vintage-image-graphicsfairy2

*Oh okay. The first incident involves white collar crime and was a woman accusing another woman based on hearsay. Does that make a difference to how you read this?


2 Comments

Siren: how I fell out of love with football

Rachel Matthews, Siren (Transit Lounge Publishing 2017)

Anna Krien, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (Black Inc 2014)

Paul D Carter, Eleven Seasons (Allen & Unwin 2012)

Deb Waterhouse-Watson, Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media: Narrative Immunity (New York Routledge 2013)

Deb_Waterhouse_Watson

Three years ago, in August 2014, I posted a blog piece titled A Few Thoughts On Winning – Part 1. Essentially, it was my love letter to Australian Rules Football (AFL).

I never got around to writing Part 2. Consider this the sequel: my Dear John letter, how I fell out of love with football.

I’ll start by considering some recent (and relatively recent) books that engage with sexual violence and football culture, then add in my own recent engagement with this issue.

Like Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, author of Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media, I am a fanatical Geelong Cats supporter. Since researching women and football, Waterhouse-Watson no longer attends games, in protest. I am about to join her sitting it out. Deb Waterhouse-Watson notes that more than 27 cases of sexual assault and rape involving 57 footballers and club officials had, as at time of her book’s publication, resulted in zero convictions. In November 2014 St Kilda footballer Stephen Milne pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of indecent assault in exchange for rape charges being dropped, from events that happened 10 years previously, in March 2004, when he was 24 and his victim was 19.

Deb_Waterhouse_Watson_3

Deb Waterhouse-Watson, author of Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media: Narrative Immunity

Milne was fined $15,000 and no conviction was recorded. His victim’s impact statement was reported by Wayne Flower in the Herald-Sun newspaper 18 November 2014:

Judge Michael Bourke said the victim spoke of very considerable effects and changes to her life.

“During the time immediately after, but also over the period of 10 years, and of the renewed publicity and proceedings, there has been impact on her work, family and social life,’’ he said.

“She deferred her university course for a year and she continues to have feelings of being withdrawn and isolated. She has felt judged by others, she has been abused, she has felt a sense of injustice.’’

The court heard the woman has difficulties sleeping and suffers from nightmares.

“She has witnessed and felt the impact upon her mother. Media attention has added to many of these things,’’ he said.

Judge Bourke said he had difficulty in assessing the victim impact statement because Milne had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than was originally alleged.

“The line of causation is not straight forward. Having said that, it is still clear that (the victim) has suffered a good deal arising out of the events of this night of which this offence was a part,’’ he said.

“She did nothing wrong and has not deserved the consequences and effects upon her. Precision is not possible however I must take into account the victim impact caused. I do so bearing in mind that you [Stephen Milne] have pleaded to and will be sentenced for the offence before me.’’

Eleven days earlier, on 7 November 2014, the Herald-Sun ran an article by Wayne Flower and Ashley Argoon in which Milne’s football club captain Nick Riewoldt provided a character reference in court:

“Riewoldt told a judge Milne was a great mate, who could have kept playing footy for some time beyond his retirement in 2013.

But being charged with rape had hampered the veteran forward’s career and denied him job opportunities and endorsements.”

Waterhouse-Watson terms the protection against conviction afforded to sports personalities “narrative immunity”. By “narrative”, she means the story that is told, over and over, that frames these cases: the story, as author Rachel Matthews puts it, “of the woman who must be blamed” (mamamia.com 14 August 2017).

As Matthews put it in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper (24 June 2016), titled Football’s Abuse of Women is Institutional,

“It’s about what we value. And where sheilas do and don’t fit. The symbols of our nationhood. Our sporting greats. And in our Australia’s colonial history, what journalist Francis Adams called the ‘true Bushman’ or ‘the man of the nation’. Such worshipping of masculinity leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background. And as targets for blame.”

Siren_Rachel_Matthews

 

Rachel Matthews wrote her novel Siren initially as part of her PhD in creative writing at Victoria University. To write about sexual violence and the mistreatment of women in Australian Rules Football she researched over a period of four years. The result is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the effects of rape, on the victim, witnesses, family and friends (but not on the perpetrator), and the ethics of rape reporting. Is a witness obliged to bear witness? Is a GP required to report? If the victim confides in a friend, is that friend obliged to tell the victim’s parents, or her own parents, or a teacher, or police?

As one character says, “In the end, it’s up to the girl if she wants to lay charges. These things are messy.”

What I like most about Siren is that it is about the girl. Matthews is determined to challenge the convention that worshipping of masculinity, as she puts it, “leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background”. She ensures that her narrative foregrounds the woman: Siren starts with Jordi (‘the girl’, ‘the victim’) and ends with Jordi.

Befuddled by our cultural expectations, I was slow to catch on. I kept worrying about when the rape would be reported, when charges would be brought, when the courtroom scenes would commence. But Matthews has a different project. She builds a narrative around Jordi, turning ‘the victim’ into a fully realised character with a history, a family, a family history, a place in the world – and a future, should she survive her experience of rape.

At first I worried Matthews was condescending to Jordi, with her insistence on surrounding Jordi by brand names and cultural references that establish her and her family firmly as that ocker stereotype, ‘bogans’. ‘Battlers’ is the slightly kinder stereotype. But she fleshes out Jordi, and her parents, Petra and Kane, and her siblings, Breanna, Cruise and Ryan, so that each has an emotional reality.

While Siren takes the narrative through to a rape being publicly acknowledged, Anna Krien’s Night Games follows a football-related court case, taking the court proceedings as her starting point for a wide investigation into sexual violence in football – hence the subtitle Sex, Power and Sport.

Anna Krien’s Night Games, unlike Siren, is not a novel. It’s a serious, intelligent inquiry addressing the grey areas of sexual ‘consent’, the ambiguities and anomalies in how rape charges unfold. She doesn’t refer to the young woman involved by her real name, as the young woman declined to participate in any way in Krien’s research for this book. Nor does she use the real name of the young man charged with rape.

Night_Games_Anna_Krien

The case Anna Krien follows arose out of events on the evening of Collingwood Football Club’s grand final win in 2010. Two young Collingwood players, Dayne Beams and VFL player John McCarthy, were questioned by the Victorian sexual crimes squad about accusations that they had non-consensual sex with a young woman at a party in a South Melbourne townhouse. Beams and McCarthy were supported by their club, which deployed the club’s lawyer, David Galbally QC, to ensure they were not charged.

McCarthy – pick 31 in the 2007 draft – was delisted by Collingwood at the end of the following season but was picked up by Port Adelaide, where he proved popular. His death in an accident in Las Vegas on a post-season trip with teammates in September 2012 resulted in an outpouring of grief across the AFL. In the trade period 2014, Dayne Beams requested a transfer from Collingwood to the Brisbane Lions, where he is currently captain.

Although the Victorian sexual crimes squad investigation began with accusations against Beams and McCarthy, the focus quickly moved to a friend of Beams who had encountered the alleged victim after Beams and McCarthy had sex with her. They’d spoken briefly, had sex in an adjacent alley, then walked together to the nearest main road to hail a taxi, which they had shared, conversing in the cab and exchanging phone numbers, kissing, and agreeing to meet the following day.

The young man, who Krien calls “Justin”, was charged with six counts of rape, one of attempted rape, and one of indecent assault. He played for Richmond’s VFL affiliate, the Coburg Tigers, but as soon as the rape charges were made public the football club board held a meeting, after which Justin was phoned and informed he’d never play another footy game for Coburg Tigers. Instead, Collingwood Football Club offered Justin the services of David Galbally QC as lawyer.

Anna Krien writes

“… with Beams and McCarthy not yet in the clear, the reason for the QC’s presence seemed pretty obvious to an outsider like me. It made sense to control the narrative. [Justin] was a nobody, but what really happened that night and how it revealed itself could affect ‘real’ footballers, not to mention the richest footy club in town.”

In my opinion Anna Krien’s Night Games should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in the AFL in any capacity, from fans through footballers through club CEOs. The book is not, in my opinion, unfair to the young woman Krien calls “Sarah”. The way I’ve outlined what occurred that night may make it sound as if “Sarah” surely consented to alleyway sex with “Justin”, but the case as it emerged in court was by no means that clear. It’s the lack of clarity, the Rashoman qualities, that are troubling. In exploring the differing perspectives, Krien refers back to other high profile incidents where young women suffered, through sexual abuse, and for speaking out against footballers about that abuse.

Anna_Krien

Anna Krien, author of Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport

When I first starting thinking about how to write this blog, I had in mind that I might list all the cases of sexual and misogynist abuse against women by footballers and football personalities that have occurred in the time I’ve been following the game (17 years – I did not grow up a football fan). But I realised the list is too long. To my knowledge, only one AFL player has faced charges of rape: Andrew Lovett, who was stood down by the club he’d just joined after being accused of raping a female friend of a teammate in December 2009. He was acquitted of rape charges in July 2011.

Where Rachel Matthews’ novel Siren examines the effects of rape prior to its public disclosure, and Krien’s journalistic enterprise Night Games examines how rape charges play out in court, Paul D Carter’s novel Eleven Seasons considers the wider, ripple effect of football rape. Paul D Carter spent nine years writing Eleven Seasons, which won The Australian’s Vogel Literary Award in 2012. The novel is quite slim, and subtle, and melancholy, and I’m glad he took his time writing, and kept the narrative pace gentle, because it’s a gem.

Eleven_Seasons_Paul_D_Carter

All the sad, lonely, lost characters! Carter’s character Jason Dalton, Jason’s mother, almost all the characters in Rachel Matthews’ Siren. Who knew football was a space of such forlornness?

What’s interesting is how Eleven Seasons explores the damage done to men by football culture, as well as to women. Siren does this too: I talked before about the narrative focus on Jordi, ‘the girl who got raped’ (how reductive); but there’s a dual narrative focus, with much of Siren concerned with the journey undertaken by aging footy star Max Carlisle, who witnesses Jordi’s rape and feels responsible.

Max Carlisle undergoes an emotional progression across the narrative that is Siren, and so does Paul D Carter’s Jason Dalton. Eleven Seasons is a coming of age novel. Recently when asked what book I’d put on a curriculum for teenage boys I unhesitatingly put forward Eleven Seasons. But, like Siren and Night Games, I would hope it reaches a wide readership.

Paul_D_Carter

Paul D Carter, author of Eleven Seasons

Which brings me to my own stake in this discussion. I grew up in the electorate of Sturt in South Australia, nominally a supporter of the SANFL football club Sturt. My family moved to Melbourne when I was 12, and I didn’t follow VFL in Victoria. I lived in NSW from ages 18 to 30 and did not follow football (NRL) there. I lived in London across my 30s and did not follow soccer. It was only when I moved to Geelong 17 years ago, into a house directly across a narrow back street from Geelong Football Club’s home stadium, that I took an interest in AFL.

I was lucky. The year I first joined as a member of Geelong Football Club, the Geelong Cats began the journey that took them to three premierships across a five-year period. The Cats have finished Top 2 in 8 out of the last 11 Home & Away seasons and have played finals every year bar one since 2007. I have been there, seated by deep forward pocket, screaming my lungs out proudly supporting “my boys”.

When one of our lesser players punched his girlfriend after a drunken night out, I was gratified that the players’ leadership group ensured he was dropped to the VFL team and later delisted. I trusted my club to promote the principles of Respect & Responsibility, the AFL policy devised in 2005 to counter football’s traditional sexism. I have no reason to believe Geelong Football Club does not immerse its recruits in Respect & Responsibility and does not walk the talk. Everything in my experience of Geelong Football Club tells me this club has its heart in the right place.

But it gets harder to ignore all that other stuff I see reported about women being abused by football players, about fans abusing women, about football media personalities indulging their misogynistic instincts. It’s got so that now, on grand final eve, my first thought is not for which team won, but which women out there – unknown, unnamed – were beaten or raped by drunken male fans or players ‘celebrating’.

This year the winning team was Richmond. On the night of the grand final a Richmond football player – gossip suggests a Richmond player who previously played for Geelong – took photos of a young woman wearing nothing but his premiership medal.* According to the young woman, he told her he deleted the pictures. Instead he posted them on social media. The photos have now appeared on the internet and in mass circulation newspapers. It makes no difference that her face isn’t shown, that she’s reduced to breasts. She trusted a sex partner, and that player betrayed her.

Also on the night of this year’s grand final a young mother went missing in the Surf Coast town Aireys Inlet. Last I heard human remains had been uncovered on the beach. Police were asking anyone who found further human remains to contact them. There’s no evidence to suggest that if she was murdered, this murder was a consequence of male football fans drinking alcohol all day. But I read the news updates, and I confess I shudder.*

Before Richmond Football Club won its grand final, its first in 37 years, it had to win through a qualifying final and a preliminary final. In the qualifying final Richmond beat Geelong. I was there, at least for the first half, when the Richmond crowd aggression led me to walk out. The game was over for me before it started though. It was over for me as I walked through the park that surrounds the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the famous MCG where AFL grand finals are played. As I walked towards the stadium, accompanied by three male friends, some male Richmond fans crossed our path yelling “STICK IT UP THE PUSSIES! STICK IT UP THEIR ARSES!”

They pantomimed gestures of sticking it up our pussy arses.

“There goes the Richmond brains trust,” grimaced one of my companions.

I understand idiot fans are ‘normal’ in footy. I understand most fans shrug it off, as my companions did. I understand the “Richmond brains trust” was drunk. I understand it’s unfortunate my team’s name, the Geelong Cats, lends itself to obscene sledging.

I understood that if I made a fuss about it most AFL fans would dismiss me as an uptight old lady, as “soft”, as “weak”, as not a true fan. I posted about it on Facebook, to my Facebook Friends. One of my friends told me I should take it further. He told me I should make an official complaint, to the AFL, the MCG, the Cats, and to Richmond Football Club.

I told him it wasn’t worth my time. He pointed out another Cats fan, a woman named Anne, had been on 3AW talkback radio that morning making similar complaints, to shock-jock Neil Mitchell. He said people were dissing Anne, accusing her of making it up. I said I’d think about it.

That night, the Monday after Friday’s qualifying final, I emailed formal complaints to the AFL, the MCG, the Geelong Cats, the Richmond Tigers, and I emailed 3AW, Foxsports and ABC’s sports flagship Grandstand. I received responses within a day from all bar Grandstand and Richmond, and Richmond’s Integrity Services Manager emailed me a few days later.

What I didn’t realise, until the following weekend, was that the story Foxsports ran about my complaint was posted on Foxsports’ Facebook page, and also on the AFL’s. Hundreds of people had commented on my comments.

Sure enough, I was a “soft cock”, a “pussy”, a “snowflake”, an “old lady”, and many other things besides. Most people derided me for not simply reporting it to Stadium security and letting it rest at that. I decided not to be an anonymous “Elly”. I sat up in bed for several hours that Saturday morning and replied to as many of those commenters as I could, vigorously stating the case for why it was not sufficient (or even productive) to report bad language to MCG security, and why I felt it necessary to cancel my football club membership, even though it was not my football club that had offended.

I received three responses: one a woman who wrote “lmfao” (“laughing my fucking arse off”), one a man who wrote “Good onya” (in Australia, that’s not necessarily an expression of good will), and one a female fellow Cats fan who wished me well. That’s ok. I was not seeking to convert anyone. I was standing up and having my say.

In point of fact I did attend Geelong’s preliminary final, the Friday after the Richmond match. I was thrilled to see “my boys” defy the predictions to claim a magnificent win over the Sydney Swans. If that’s the last footy match I ever attend, it ended on a high note.

I just hope – sincerely hope – no-one went home drunk and abusive, and no woman was the worse for my club’s win.

AFL_football

  • UPDATE: ABC News report 16 October 2017
    “Victoria Police said her death was not being treated as suspicious, but the investigation remained ongoing.”
  • UPDATE: ABC News report 30 October 2017 – the Richmond footballer who has publicly apologized for not deleting a nude photo as promised is not the former Geelong player previously rumored to have been at fault.


5 Comments

Hillary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election – What happened?

Hillary Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster 2017)

Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (The Text Publishing Company 2017)

Hillary_Clinton_blue

So much has been said and written about how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because she was a “flawed” candidate, and about her supposed inauthenticity.

In response to the question, ‘ Who is Hillary Clinton, really?’, large numbers of Americans have, in multiple ways, insisted she’s a liar, untrustworthy, a war-monger, an Establishment agent, a privileged white lady, a Lady Macbeth, unlikeable, avaricious, corrupt, criminal, vicious, and worse (enabler for a sexual predator, a murderer).

I’m not American. I’ve watched Hillary since 1992 (not before). I followed media and social media coverage of the 2016 campaign and election. I’ve read her autobiography Living History, and now I’ve read her memoir and analysis of the 2016 elections, titled What Happened, and I remain puzzled.

Not puzzled as to who Hillary is. Seems simple to me: she’s a Methodist. An over-achieving, hyper-capable, intellectually brilliant Methodist with a life-long dedication to public service.

My puzzlement continues over how it is that such large numbers of American citizens refuse to accept it can be so simple, and prefer to believe in Clinton as a bitch-witch Medusa.

These two recent publications – What Happened by Hillary Clinton, and The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by feminist academic Susan Bordo, a media critic and cultural historian – attempt to address public perceptions of who Hillary is, and other factors that contributed to her election loss, resulting in the triumph of President Donald Trump.

The-Destruction_of_Hillary_Clinton

If you’re committed to the view that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she personally is “flawed”, or flawed as a candidate, I hope you will nonetheless continue reading. Most of this review focuses not on Hillary’s character and history, but on those other factors that combined to help undo her campaign.

In both Clinton’s and Bordo’s accounts, but most expansively in Clinton’s, other factors of vital public interest are identified:

  • Cyber warfare, also known as “active measures” – “semicovert or covert intelligence operations to shape an adversary’s political decisions” (Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, London).
  • The war on truth – the phenomenon of “false news” and a transition within established media from traditional news values to news as entertainment: news for ratings, news as click bait, news to fuel a 24-hours news cycle.
  • Inappropriate interference by State agencies in the electoral process, in breach of established protocols.
  • The breakdown of Democratic voter solidarity, with voters taking their cues from dissenter Democrat or third party leaders.

In short:

  • Putin
  • Emails
  • Comey
  • Sanders

At more length:

Putin, Wikileaks, cyber warfare and the war on truth

In the section of her book titled ‘Frustration’, which examines in depth specific issues and missteps within Clinton’s campaign that caused its failure, Clinton has a chapter titled ‘Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians’. Whatever your personal views on Clinton, I recommend this chapter as a serious essay by a former Secretary of State on cyber propaganda as proxy warfare.

Clinton summarizes:

“The January 2017 Intelligence Community report called the Russian influence campaign a ‘new normal,’ and predicted Moscow would continue attacking the United States and its allies. Given the success Putin has had, we should expect interference in future elections and even more aggressive cyber and propaganda efforts. […]

“We should also expect the right-wing war on truth to continue. As Trump faces growing political and legal challenges, he and his allies will likely intensify their efforts to delegitimize the mainstream press, the judiciary, and anyone else who threatens his preferred version of reality.”

Clinton suggests four steps:

  1. A Special Counsel investigation in tandem with an independent commission with subpoena power, to “provide a full public accounting of the attack against our country and make recommendations to improve security going forward”.
  2. State and private sector partnership to plan and invest in improvements to U.S. networks and national infrastructure security, alongside acceleration of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ own offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities.
  3. Publicly calling out cyber enemies – Putin and Wikileaks – and taking tough measures against them.
  4. “We need to beat back the assault on truth and reason here at home and rebuild trust in our institutions.” Social media and tech companies need to adjust algorithms, deactivate bot networks, partner with fact-checkers and generally clean up their platforms. Mainstream media need to reaffirm a commitment to rigorously uphold factual rather than speculative or unexamined reporting.

By implication (Clinton doesn’t spell this out), individuals need to educate themselves to better identify fake news and stop fuelling it: stop Sharing fake news, but also stop Liking and Commenting, as responses on fake news posts trigger the algorithms that spread these posts more widely.

In What Happened’s final section, titled ‘Resilience’, in a chapter titled ‘Onward Together’, Clinton does strongly urge individuals to participate in public political conversation:

“If you’ve been keeping your opinions to yourself, try speaking out – whether that’s on social media, in a letter to the editor, or in conversations with friends, family, and neighbors. Your views are every bit as valuable as everyone else’s. You’ll be surprised by how satisfying it can be to express yourself. And chances are, once you take a stand, you’ll find you’re not standing alone for long. If all else fails, make a sign and show up at a protest.”

Using the mantra “Resist, insist, persist, and enlist”, with the emphasis on “enlist”, Clinton recommends further civic engagement:

  • “Register to vote.” Encourage friends, family and others to register too.
  • “Get involved in a cause that matters to you.” Actively involved.
  • Engage with our elected representatives.
  • Run for office.

In that section titled ‘Frustration’, Clinton addresses at length avoidable mistakes she made. A chapter titled ‘Country Roads’ examines economic stagnation in rural areas previously dependent on the fossil fuel industries, states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Ohio. She examines the impact of her statement at a town hall meeting that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. This chapter is heartfelt and thoughtful, and I was astonished at her courage in subsequently fronting up to a public meeting in Mingo County in West Virginia, “arguably Ground Zero for the coal crisis”. Here the candidate ran a gauntlet of “several hundred angry protestors chanting ‘We want Trump!’ and ‘Go home Hillary’”. One woman had hands dripping red paint to symbolize blood and yelled accusations about Benghazi.

In this chapter Clinton does not make excuses. She presents a distressing picture of the plight of Appalachian communities and discusses the issues from multiple angles. She does provide the full context of that inflammatory, widely disseminated quote:

“Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into Coal Country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right Time? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

In a later chapter in that section, titled ‘Why’, Clinton provides the context for the inflammatory quote about Trump voters being a “basket of deplorables”. Many Trump supporters, she continued, as quoted by Susan Bordo, are

“People who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. They are just desperate for change. Doesn’t even really matter where it comes from. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people who we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

Hillary_Clinton_grimace

Comey and “those damn emails”

There is a chapter titled ‘Those Damn Emails’. Although the issue of Hillary’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State dominated coverage of her presidential campaign, and ultimately, arguably, derailed it, the ‘issue’ was only ever a furphy. Federal Register regulations requiring that only government servers be used were brought in in 2013, after Clinton left office. She, like all previous Secretaries of State (Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, for example), did use a private server, and used it for both government and personal email correspondence; this was not in violation of any protocol or law. That she chose to delete her personal emails prior to providing all work-related emails for examination was found to be a legitimate choice. (Powell and Albright, by the way, did not provide any emails for examination, despite official State Department requests.)

Nor was Clinton guilty of improperly or carelessly disseminating classified emails. Even then-FBI director James Comey was obliged to retract his damning public verdict that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her email use. Under questioning on 7 July 2016 (prior to the election vote), Comey acknowledged only three of 110 emails he had claimed were classified, out of more than 30,000 work emails provided, “had any kind of markings on them at all which would have alerted the recipient to their classified status. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only ‘internally,’ with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails” (Bordo).

DEMOCRAT MATT CARTWRIGHT: You were asked about marking on a few documents, I have the manual here, marketing national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little ‘c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?

JAMES COMEY: No.

CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record, Mr Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Without objection so ordered.

CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header to the document, right?

COMEY: Correct.

CARTWRIGHT: Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little ‘c’ in the text somewhere?

COMEY: No. There were three emails, the ‘c’ was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.

CARTWRIGHT: So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?

COMEY: That would be a reasonable inference.

Across the presidential campaign, it’s been quantified that there was three times more coverage of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “email scandal” than there was on all her policy statements combined. The real scandal, according to Clinton and Bordo, is the way Hillary Clinton’s email use as Secretary of State was used as a political weapon to scupper her presidential campaign. Eleven days before the election FBI director Comey publicly announced further investigation into Clinton’s emails, even though the emails in question were subject to a wholly unrelated inquiry (into former congressman Anthony Weiner’s misuse of emails) and in the event turned out to be emails already examined months earlier during the closed inquiry into Clinton’s email use.

It violates protocols for an FBI director to publicly comment on an investigation in process, much less speculate about the possible reopening of a completed investigation where, in Comey’s words, “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant”.

But that’s what Comey did. Clinton makes a convincing case for Comey’s announcement on 28 October 2016 being the turning point and deciding factor in an election where, for all her “flaws”, she led as preferred candidate at and up until that moment. She believes that a small cabal of FBI agents in the FBI’s New York office pressured Comey into making public statements that amount to electoral interference. Bordo describes it as a “coup d’état”.

Hillary_Clinton_anger

Sanders and the Bernie Bros

In What Happened, Hillary Clinton is relatively restrained in her criticisms of Democrat contender Bernie Sanders’ impact on her campaign’s outcome. At some points her anger shows through. At other points she acknowledges him positively. Her main objection to how Sanders managed his campaign and its aftermath is that he set up ‘stalking horse’ policy positions, positions that were so idealistic, so far towards the left, that there was no chance of being able to deliver them as legislation, but which served to discredit her credentials as a “progressive” and made her own policy positions, which Clinton considers to be on the same continuum but pitched more realistically, appear compromised. She objects to his unwillingness to rein in the online vitriol of his more extreme supporters and to correct mischaracterizations of her activist history and affiliations. She notes he was tardy in publicly supporting her campaign after she was confirmed as the Democrat presidential candidate. She points out that ultimately she lost the presidential vote by a slim margin of voters, and that had some Sanders voters not abstained or voted Green, history may have been different.

Susan Bordo is not at all restrained. Her chapter ‘Bernie Sanders and the “Millennials”’ is, at 30 pages, the longest chapter in her book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She makes many of the same points Hillary does, but much more angrily. Unlike Hillary, she expresses exasperation at younger feminist voters who say they saw Hillary Clinton as an Establishment candidate or that they didn’t see her feminist policies and politics as relevant. Bordo isn’t at her most convincing in this chapter. She comes across as patronizing younger voters, accusing them of ignorance or immaturity.

The candidate herself is very clear younger voters are the future. She concludes What Happened? with a section titled ‘Resilience’, where in chapters titled ‘Love and Kindness’ and ‘Onward Together’, where she argues the need fervently for common cause. In ‘Onward Together’, she chooses to conclude her book with an account of her May 2017 visit to her college alma mater, Wellesley, where she had been invited to deliver an address to the graduating class, 48 years after she had come to national attention as the first student to deliver an Ivy League college graduation address, an event covered by Life magazine.

What’s interesting to me, and frankly moving, given how clear it is from previous chapters how personally devastated Hillary Clinton was by her election failure, is that in these concluding pages Clinton chooses not to focus on the speech she delivered to the Wellesley graduating class, but on the speech delivered by the representative of that class, Tala Nashawati:

“… she compared her classmates to emeralds. ‘Like us, emeralds are valuable, rare, and pretty durable,’ she said. ‘But there’s something else emeralds are known for: their flaws. I know it’s hard to admit, especially as Wellesley students, but we all have a lot of flaws. We are incomplete, scratched up in some places, jagged around the edges.’

I leaned in, curious. This is not what I had expected to hear.

‘Flawed emeralds are sometimes even better than flawless ones’, Tala went on, ‘because the flaws show authenticity and character.’

There was that word again, authenticity. But she was using it as a balm instead of a bludgeon. Flawed. How often had I heard that word over the past two years. ‘Flawed Hillary.’ But here was Tala defiantly reclaiming the word, insisting on the beauty and strength of imperfection.

Now her classmates were leaning in, too. They snapped their fingers instead of clapping, as Tala smiled and built to her close.

‘In the words of Secretary Clinton, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams,’ she told the class of 2017. ‘You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hues to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains.’

Now the snaps gave way to cheers. I was among the loudest. I stood and applauded and felt hope and pride rising in my heart. If this was the future, then everything had been worth it.

Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us.

The rain was ending. It was my turn to speak.

‘What do we do now?’ I said. There was only one answer: ‘Keep going.’”

Hillary_Clinton_smile


4 Comments

Easter Uprising 2017: on being Christian – a sequel to Buddhist Thoughts at Easter 2014

Last night, on Good Friday, I spent too much time responding to a meme posted on Facebook that read “Religion makes fools of us all”.

I was irritated that people feel a need to post atheistic aphorisms on the second most important date in the Christian calendar (after Easter Sunday), and on the Jewish Passover.

I was also frustrated by the terms of debate. What was meant by “religion”? Did it refer here to religious institutions, or to spiritual beliefs and practices, or to faith? If religious institutions, was it directed primarily at Christianity, or a catch-all statement? If Christianity, did it target traditional Roman Catholic Church dogma? Church abuses? If dogma, did it reflect an accurate understanding of the history and doctrines of church institutions?

What I found was people who claimed atheist positions decrying what they perceived as church positions. If I, as a Christian, disputed their interpretations of church positions they told me I was wrong, that my understandings of Christianity are faulty.

I have many faults. Christianity has many faults. The Christian Church has many faults – indeed, Christian churches have many faults. Religious institutions have many faults. Religion generally has many faults. Mea culpa.

But I cannot let stand attacks against religion that are attacks against straw man positions. Dust in the wind we may be, but straws flying loose in hot wind are ridiculous.

What I do NOT believe:

I do not believe in an old white bloke with a long white beard perched On High in a Celestial Firmament.

I do not believe that said old white bloke stretched out a finger and pronounced LIGHT and then created Earth and the universe in seven days.

I do not believe that when I die I will ascend to fluffy clouds and play a harp throughout eternity.

I do not believe that when I die I will descend to a place of fire and brimstone to undergo eternal torment supervised by demons.

I do not believe I will be bodily resurrected on a day of judgement that will see the apocalypse of John’s Revelations.

I do not believe I will meet my dead loved ones – or any others dead and departed – in a conscious after-life.

I do not believe in the laws or prophesies of the Old Testament a.k.a the Hebrew Bible.

I do not believe the literal truth of the Christian gospels.

I do not believe everything the apostle Paul taught. I do not believe Paul always taught in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, whom he never met.

Things I am not sure I believe:

I’m not sure a man named Jesus (or the Aramaic version of) who lived and died as described in the gospels actually existed.

If he existed, I’m not sure the accounts of his last days, trial and execution are historically accurate. Scrub that: I’m pretty sure they’re not.

I’m not sure of the nature of God. Currently I have a concept I embrace, but it’s just that: a concept. Any ‘God’ is beyond human capacity for conceptualisation.

Here’s what I do believe:

Religion is valuable, even essential, and spiritual belief and faith are innate in humans.

Religious belief has brought at least as much good to the world as it has harm.

All ideologies are subject to corruption and abuse. Secular ideologies have within a short recent period caused immense destruction, comparable to the destructions caused across centuries under the banners of religion.

Love is what matters most, is ultimately all that matters.

God is love (my concept, within my limited understanding).

God is the context, the ground of being. God is cause.

In first century Judea, a wandering healer who is remembered as Jesus practiced in Galilee.

His followers believed this man they called Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of Elijah and Isaiah.

This man they called Jesus, who they wrote about after his death, changed history and changed the way human beings view(ed) their responsibilities to one another.

I believe people of religious faith have more in common with each other, in terms of their worldviews, than they might with people who don’t understand and relate to religious faith.

I believe the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are spiritual cousins.

I believe the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, are compatible with the foundational teachings of the man we know as Jesus.

I believe nothing is lost, everything changes.

I reject any argument that defines a religious faith as a belief in the literal truth of religious texts. That argument attempts to define all religious people as fundamentalist. We are not. Nor are we all members of a church that claims an infallible authority as its earthly head.

Archaic language taints understanding.

To “sin” is a medieval archery term meaning “to miss the mark”, “to fall short”.

To “repent” is to “turn away from”.

“Mercy” is compassion and forgiveness.

“The Church” is the people, the followers of Jesus’s teachings. It is not a building or an institution. The term “church’’ originally meant heralds sent out to spread news.

“Gospel” means “good news”.

“Saints” originally refers to all followers of Jesus’s teachings, not only those formally designated “saints” by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, “the communion of saints” – the coming together in companionship and mutual affirmation of those who follow Jesus’s teachings.

“The kingdom of heaven” is a state of mind, a state of peace, compassion, integrity.

“For what does your Lord ask of you? To act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8. That’s all there is. (Yes, Micah is a prophet – it’s the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament I reject, not the wisdom teachings.)

Specifically, in relation to the Easter narrative:

As I experience faith, religion provides a spiritual source of strength, support and consolation, which I will term ‘Jesus’, which I can access (pray to or find companionship in) in times of brokenness: those times when I feel frailties, failings, inadequacies (“sins”) threaten to overwhelm me and disable me from choosing kind and just attitudes and taking constructive action. This is not secular, a psychological strategy. This is a spiritual practice. The crucifixion is a metanarrative reminding me there are no depths, no despair, I can sink into where Jesus has not gone before me, where Jesus will not meet me, and from which he has not, metaphorically, risen – and with this spiritual guidance, I can ‘rise’ too.

This is not just me, and not some pathetic, vulnerable “them”. We are all us of broken, in some ways, at some times. There is nothing shameful in being broken. We can heal and grow, though “God”. Our “reborn” self can be a fuller, wiser, kinder self.

I was not born a miserable worm, a piece of smeared shit the Old Man On High looks down upon and scorns. This is not what “Original Sin” (a term I have never heard used in my church) means to me. In so far as there might be “Original Sin”, it is the recognition that we are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate: we are genetically encoded with specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I embody genetically-programmed weaknesses but they do not define me. I am also in a state of grace, always already loved. In the words of the baptismal service, “We love, because God first loved us.”

I can celebrate “God” in the world through loving kindness and service. Loving kindness and service are “God” in action, “God” being in the world. We bring forth “God” in the quality of our interactions with others.

Which brings us to the thorny question of the Trinity, for those who care. The Triune God: Father/Son/Holy Spirit as one being (concept). What if we see the Trinity as a metaphor for inextricable relationship – what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”?

We make sense of our lives through stories. The religious tradition into which we are born is a metanarrative, framing our own stories, helping us understand and shape our stories. Atheists deride religions as “fairy tales”. It’s true religions intersect with the domain of poetics and metaphor. Are poetics and metaphor not “true”? What about the extraordinary art humans have created to express their religious experiences – visual art, music, architecture, writing? Is the only truth the materialist dogma?

It’s undeniable religious institutions, religious dogma and religious fervour have caused immense pain and damage over millennia. On the other side of the ledger, if you ask “What has religion ever done for us?” you can get a Life of Brian-esque liturgy: literacy, schools, hospitals, the evolution of social welfare (e.g. through the Minsters); the principles that drove many of the nineteenth-century Progressives (Abolitionist, prison reformers, asylum reformers, attempts at equitable profit-sharing); a social code nominally based on humans’ innate value, including the value of the most marginal (Jesus made a point of hanging out with the most despised and those usually excluded: madmen, foreigners, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions); the primacy of compassion, love, forgiveness… And that’s just the Christian contribution.

The question I ask of people who post atheist memes is this: “Is it so hard to recognise there are many forms of religious experience and understanding, some of them very sophisticated, some very personal, born of ancient traditions, and they have validity in the lived experiences of their adherents?”


Leave a comment

After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise (2016)

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora-philippe-mora

Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-and-mickey

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora

George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


7 Comments

Good in the world

Featured image: Screaming Freedom, and Freedom, both by Sina Pourhorayad

This week British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who in court justified his actions by yelling “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

Jo Cox was a champion for Yorkshire. She also championed, across her career, children’s health and safety, worldwide, and multicultural immigration to Britain. She campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and she campaigned for just treatment of asylum seekers. She believed in humanity and a shared planet. She believed “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She died for her beliefs. More particularly, she died in consequence of acting on her beliefs.

The tragic death of Jo Cox, at age 41, elected to the Mother of Parliaments just one year ago, idealist and career activist, a wife and mother of two young children, has me thinking about good in the world.

It’s a truism to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A partner to which might be the verse I quoted to some friends last night, from Julian of Norwich, the famed C14th English anchoress:

And all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be exceedingly well.
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.

Usually that line is left out. I think that last line is where truth lives.

In a church today I heard the challenge activism presents expressed another way. The question was asked, “If this church closed tomorrow, how would that affect this town’s community? Would this church be missed? How would it be remembered?”

Last night I observed community activism in support of asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne. Richmond Uniting Church made its gallery space, Gallery 314, available for Over The Fence, an exhibition of art by asylum seekers, curated by Uniting Church minister Lisa Stewart. The exhibition is open for two evenings only, as an event within Refugee Week.

At the opening last night, a former detainee, Mohammad, spoke movingly about the experience of being a young man in indefinite detention. He spoke of the corrosive effects of being confined, restricted in his interactions with the broader community, unable to participate and contribute in the ways he wished. He spoke of the extraordinary moment it was for him the first time an Australian citizen with Anglo heritage spoke that simple word to him: “Welcome!”

Welcome. Well come. How can it be I’ve never heard the “Well come!” in “Welcome”?

An advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, representing the Melbourne detention centre visitor program, spoke about her frustration at the questions sometimes put to her by Australians with Anglo heritage who are well-intended and educated and whom she would presume are well-informed.

She asked, “How can it be these people need to ask these questions? How can it be they don’t know the facts about asylum seekers? How can it be they don’t know we have a detention centre here in Melbourne?”

I cringed when she voiced this. I consider myself well-intended and in terms of academic qualifications, I had the best education Australia can offer.

Yet despite a strong sense that detaining people indefinitely is morally – and surely legally? – wrong, I have questions I hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding stupid, for fear of sounding callous. Out of fear I am both ignorant and not nearly as kind as I’d like to believe I can be.

My questions include, “But if asylum seekers who arrive without papers are not detained, what are the alternatives? How can we verify who these people are? If we can’t verify who they are, how can we determine whether individuals among these arrivals without documentation might pose a threat to our community?”

Without realizing it, I have to some extent bought into a perception of asylum seekers as to varying degrees sinister.

There were past and a few present asylum seekers at the art exhibition launch last night.

This morning when I was telling my brother-in-law about my experience of the exhibition launch, he interrupted me and said, “I get it. Good looking. They were good looking. You’ve used the word ‘good looking’ five times so far.”

Without realizing it, I have to a large extent bought into the equation ‘good looking=good’. How very shallow of me.

Yes, the asylum seekers present last night were conspicuously good looking. Also conspicuously ‘normal’, in the sense they looked as eager to please, as motivated, as intelligent, smart, as delightful and frankly delicious as young people generally do to my middle-aged eyes. They looked nervous, too.

I spoke briefly to one artist, whom I will call Ayesha.

I said, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You should be.”

In response, a flicker of what I can only describe as panic crossed Ayesha’s lovely face. Then she smiled, nervously, tentatively, and lowered her face slightly.

What did she hear? Did she hear an older Anglo lady say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You freeloader. You fraud.”

God, I hope not.

‘Ayesha’ is not ‘just’ a lovely face, and not ‘just’ a refugee. She is not a freeloader and not a fraud. ‘Ayesha’ is a talented and intelligent young woman, a young wife and mother – as Jo Cox was.

‘Ayesha’ and her fellow artists exhibiting in Over The Fence want to live. They want to live free in a community that accepts them and allows them opportunity.

They want to be “well come”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Ayesha and to see Mohammad and others who have been – or are still – in the detention centre in Melbourne. (What is its name? I heard the acronyms but I don’t know what they stand for. I would ask but I hate disclosing my ignorance.)

I am grateful to the volunteer detention centre visitors who attended the exhibition opening.

I am grateful to the activists who spoke and to those who organized this event.

I am grateful to the young woman employed by the detention centre security company who chose to spend her Saturday evening at this exhibition launch.

I am grateful for having my eyes opened, even if it took “good looking” young people and heart-rending artwork to clear away some cataracts.

Most of all, I am grateful to be reminded of goodness in the world. Jo Cox died and unjust detentions continue, but Good (with an uppercase) acts in this world, and I do believe good can prevail.

 


Leave a comment

Practice Talk (1986)

He is learning English.

He likes to practice.

 

– So tell me what your life is like

here

asks the passenger.

He practices talking.

 

– My life is very filled

he says

his life is full.

 

He drives this cab: all days

most hours.

He studies.

He works hard and he

is learning.

Family?

 

No family.

There is no

since he was 15.

 

His passenger asks

– Was it hard?

 

– getting out?

he waded down

a river he swam

at night: smell

 

bodies

bits of bodies

like bouillabaisse

and mines

and he

did not know how

or where

to turn or which direction

and the delta was a swamp

clogged with flesh and he trod

and wished

 

for moonlight and the sea and

for his uncle:

who was dead

among bodies somewhere

 

else

and now

he is here.

He is learning.

Not so hard.

 


Leave a comment

Remembering Snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow


Leave a comment

Black Woman (1985)

A woman is following me

She’s been with me since the street

When I turn, she’s not there

A thin woman, turned sideways – a shadow

in the dark

I can hear her footsteps, scuffling, now

tripping; I can hear

her breath catch, the odd stumbling

sob. She’s crying

in the dark, but when I turn

to speak to her she drops

from sight: the empty

space where I felt her

shocks – I am sure she’d

be there if I could just

see

if my eyes could make out

her outline against black

if I could just define

her features in shadow; a negative

woman, as dark as I am

light, crying

dodging streetlights, avoiding white

floodlights that wash

out subtlety, uncertainties, and leave what is

strong, what is simple – blinded and ambitious

I turn back, and I see her

standing against stars – a black shape

stamped out of the night

 


1 Comment

Limits of compassion (2 June 2014)

Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon whose experiments explore the limits of human empathy. He might, for example, show his subjects pictures of a starving African child, a child given a name, photographed gazing straight to camera with huge pleading eyes. The experiment subjects are asked how much they’d be willing to donate to, say, Save The Children. With this experiment, the average hypothetical donation was US$2.50. Slovic might provide a different set of subjects with facts about starvation and child mortality in Africa: how many million are malnourished, how many need immediate food assistance, prevalence of death by diseases linked to malnutrition. In this case, the pledged donations drop by 50%, to an average of $1.25 per experiment subject.

I read this in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. Lehrer was subsequently discredited in a plagiarism scandal, but his account of Paul Slovic’s work is unproblematic:

“According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. That is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water […] As Mother Theresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’”

Other obstacles to empathy? Relative power. Lehrer quotes UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner: “’The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour. You become very impulsive and insensitive […]’.”

Keltner bases this conclusion on the outcomes of his experiments including the so-called ‘dictator game’, in which designated subjects are given hypothetical ‘money’ and instructed to distribute it (or not), as they choose, to a fellow subject within the experiment. Most ‘dictators’ in these experiments are surprisingly benign, choosing to gift about a third of ‘their’ money to the person they’ve been paired with. But if you put the two participants in separate rooms, so the dictator cannot see the penniless person, generosity dries up. Social isolation has this effect. (I wonder, too, whether being paired with a direct counterpart encourages giving. Would the dictators give away as much if the pool of supplicants dependent on their largesse was larger, a “mass” even, in Mother Theresa’s words?)

We live in a world of creation and delight and simultaneously a world of pain. In our daily encounters, and on social media, we are constantly confronted by suffering. Sometimes we choose to harden our hearts and other times we let it bleed.

Oh, the bleeding hearts!

We are sick at heart for the loss of a little girl named Madeleine. For what her loss has done to her parents. We are sick at heart for that dog pictured in a Facebook post, the canine equivalent of Paul Slovic’s starving African orphan. We are sick at heart over young women emerging from years imprisoned in basements, subjected to sex slavery. For the children working as indentured labour, or slaves, in countries far from ours. For the people closer to home who sleep rough. Or stay in unsafe domestic arrangements out of fear. For the people derided, abused, injured and killed for being conspicuously different. For the victims of others’ explosive rage.

I have very little education in ethics. Or politics. I have not followed closely debate over the efficacy of international aid (whatever forms it takes). I am not skilful in how I express myself exploring these matters.

What I do know is it does matter.

It matters that we care, and that we express our caring, even if clumsily.

Currently I am reading, belatedly, Martin Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I didn’t get hooked by the first 100 pages. The sequences describing Australian servicemen in combat in Syria in WW2 then as POWs working on the Burma Railroad were gripping but I found the romantic backstory tedious. I thought much of the writing was overly literary.

Then the romantic subplot took an unforeseen turn and it seemed Flanagan was saying, “This, too, is tragic. This too is pain and loss that asks to be acknowledged.”

This interests me, as, through his central character, Flanagan repeatedly reflects on sentimentality, the expression of emotion, the centrality (or otherwise) of emotion, and the cultural significance of strategies such as optimism, magical thinking, fatalism and stoicism. And also, it seems to me our culture offers a hierarchy of compassion, with some forms of suffering ‘privileged’ over others, and some categories of victim accorded more sympathy than others.

With the romance, Flanagan seems to suggest that domestic tragedies can have similar weight to historical atrocities. Or I as reader am inferring that.

So what causes us to care, and what is ‘worthy” of concern?

It’s a truism to suggest we are most likely to care if the issue as it presents touches on something in our personal experience. My father supports Seeing Eye Dogs and Guide Dogs organisations. He does this because his father and his grandfather both became completely blind. But recently I was with a man whose face screwed up at the sight of a guide dog with owner. This man explained that he despises the entire concept of a seeing eye dog, precisely because his grandfather was completely blind. His grandfather felt strongly that it was ethically wrong to train a dog in such a way that it lost autonomy as a being in its own right, to reduce it to a functionary, an extension of a human. Similar starting point: blind grandfather. Different expressions of compassion.

The other thing that strikes me about the “I can relate” aspect of compassion is that our personal experience might bear only the most tenuous relationship to the event or circumstance that pricks our heart on behalf of another. There are issues – deprivation, catastrophic loss, abuse, exploitation, helplessness – that we identify in someone else’s situation, that we feel we share. But frankly, the gap between my experience of that issue and the situation I see playing out on the TV news might stretch any relationship to the point of metaphor. Is it the case that I feel deprived, abused, exploited, helpless, whatever … whereas what I see and respond to elsewhere is “real” deprivation, abuse and so forth?

This brings us back to the hierarchy of compassion. And the primacy – or otherwise – of feeling.

My position at this moment is that exercising compassion has value almost regardless of what prompts it. If, as is increasingly argued, what we understand as our ‘Self’ is an ever-changing complex of neural networks that reinforces the pathways most used, then I’d prefer the street named Compassion to be well-trod.

In the play A Streetcar Named Desire, a fragile woman confides she has always depended on the kindness of strangers. She is not an entirely sympathetic victim. She is not Weary Dunlop, not a war hero. She is not Malala. And her faith in kindness is abused.

But I think she has, essentially, the right idea. And I think there are worse things than to be a “bleeding heart”.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Du Bois