Thursday, 19 December 2013

Words of 2013

Words of 2013
Words have their currency, like any other fashion.  I remember quite clearly when the word ‘resile’ was au courant.  It was in the 1980s, I had left the public service, but hadn’t rid myself yet of the habit of listening to question time, and suddenly I heard it.  The oddly negative but nonetheless passionately delivered construction.  Minister after minister declaring, ‘I do not resile from …’  I don’t know its provenance, but there it was, the word of the moment.  And then it faded.  You hardly ever hear it now, though funnily enough I did just the other day, from the CEO of Vinnies as it happens.

2013 has had its fair share of repeated words, and I’m taking a stab at listing them here, with my own idiosyncratic takes on them.

1.     Misogyny
Brought to its peak of exposure with Julia Gillard’s electrifying speech in parliament, the word rushing  from her lips like a fire eater’s flame, it caused a conflagration on internet sites throughout the world and as part of the process even melted its meaning somewhat, transformed by the Macquarie Dictionary into a milder form of woman-hatred - something more like ‘sexism’, which was searing enough back in the 1970s.  Perhaps the Dictionary could have saved itself the trouble, however, as deep-seated revulsion against women appears to still have its grip on the hairy underbelly of our society.

2.     Signature

Most commonly used as a qualifier for ‘policy’, and in contrast to ‘misogyny’s’ fireworks, this is a word that has crept onto the horizon but is finding a firm place in our public discourse.   So much so that I’ve been  forced to delete it from a manuscript I’ve resurrected but drafted some years ago.  The phrase I’d used was ‘my mother’s signature passions’, which was unusual when I wrote it and good for the rhythm of the sentence, but I’ve had to abandon it for fear of using of what is fast becoming a cliché. 

3.     Competence

Admittedly, in this usage the concept takes precedence over the word.  The word that’s mostly used is the negative adjective formed from it – that is, ‘incompetent’.   ‘Incompetent’ is bandied about almost unthinkingly to describe the shortcomings of any person or group of persons, most particularly our governments, with the noun ‘incompetents’ also employed to the same purpose, with monotonous frequency.   But underlying these criticisms is the ideal of competence.  Which seems to suggest that this is what we prize above all.  Just that something is done right, with minimum fuss and expense – an ever-receding chimera as we sigh our collective sighs. 

4.     Deficit

There’s no greater sign of incompetence than the size of the budget deficit (though its percentage of gross domestic product is a much more significant marker).  We didn’t used to worry about government deficits, and we still don’t cavil when it comes to spending on things like defence.  But ever since the GFC our tidy little surplus has evaporated, and now we have a hole instead of a pile of cash.  Our current prime minister has been given to comparing government budgets to household ones, but any economist worth her salt will tell you they are very different beasts.  The last time we had a holy grail of a surplus we let a lot of essential services run down, there was a shortage of skills and our infrastructure was sorely neglected, so that an argument could be made that if government investment in these areas had been allowed to proceed our economy would have greatly benefited.  This applies just as much today as it did then and possibly more so when interest rates are just about as low as they can get.

5.     Debt ceiling

This particular piece of idiocy is yet another fercockte idea lifted holus bolus from one of the most dysfunctional government systems you could think of, and had no business here in Australia at all.  We finally saw what damage it could do when the US government was shut down because of the Tea Party’s ideology-fuelled shenanigans in the US congress.  The Coalition government should be congratulated for dispensing with it. 

6.     Carbon tax

The bogey of the decade, a tax designed to discourage polluters from polluting and to encourage consumers to change our wasteful habits but for which exemptions were made and compensations were delivered, and still we found it intolerable.

7.     Climate change

The whole point of the above.  No matter how many scientists in how many reports warn about its dangers and the consequences for our children and grandchildren, never mind the people today living in low-lying regions, the public has been made to believe that it isn’t a problem - even as ever more frequent, more severe weather events have affected thousands so far.  For the rest of us, these catastrophic bushfires, cyclones, blizzards, receding glaciers and rising sea waters tumble about ominously on our television screens.  I know otherwise intelligent people who have been convinced by the garbage they read on the net that climate change, or global warming as it should be called, is some colossal con perpetrated by conspiracies of one kind or another, or is due to sun spots.  (They assert as well that the climate has cooled over the last decade or so, when the records show the opposite is true, that the global temperature has been on an irrefutably upward trend.)

8.     Marriage equality

The High Court has decided that ACT’s legislation allowing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, but only because the feds have had jurisdiction over matters nuptial since the establishment of the commonwealth.  The ruling disappointed, but also offered hope, because the judges took pains to observe that marriage, a bond between ‘natural persons’, has evolved over time and thus their unanimous opinion was that it was gender blind, and in fact always had been until the 2004 amendment of the act which stipulated that it had to be between members of the opposite sex.  What parliament did parliament can undo, the court ruled, and so it’s only a matter of time.  It’s true that back in the 70s marriage was seen by many of us as an oppressive institution, and so it was initially puzzling that gays wanted anything to do with it.  But they’ve made their case, and in spite of the Christian lobby’s efforts, the issue is not going to go away.

9.     Anytime soon   

Okay, it’s not a word but a phrase, an adverbial one, but how many times in the past twelve months have we heard it?  I rather like it – it lends a nice kind of emphasis while avoiding stridence to whatever it happens to qualify.  But when does an apt phrase become a cliché?

10. Identity theft

Is this today’s ‘signature’ social panic, comparable to the Cold War bomb scares and terrorist fears of yore?  Count your passwords.  Measure the stress.

11. Innovation

We all approve of it, until it’s actually attempted.  Most of us loathe change but disguise the fact by asserting we welcome it.  What has actually changed over the past year is now in real danger of changing back.  Think of the educational reforms, designed to base funding on individual students’ needs, and so at last sideline the vexatious class issue of public schools versus private.   Or the NBN, that was meant to drag Australia into the 21st century by replacing outmoded copper wires with fibre – something undertaken overseas decades ago. 

12. Child abuse

The shocking revelations of various inquiries and commissions leave us in no doubt that institutions given licence to care for children are far too often the sites of their unbelievable abuse.   Most frequently, these are religious organisations, the Catholic Church being the most iniquitous.  The insistence on celibacy is the culprit here, but the fact that it occurs in other institutions where it doesn’t apply means that a pernicious culture of sadism and exploitation needs to be addressed.  Most importantly, at last the victims are being heard.

13. Asylum seeker

           I use the singular here, as it’s more likely to humanise the people whom Australians have 
            been encouraged to dehumanise.  We have a history of dehumanising people – think of 
            the treatment of indigenes and the notions of white supremacy that informed it, virtually
            unchallenged into the 1960s and beyond.  Just as the perpetrators of child abuse are
            being made to account for their actions today, those responsible for the unconscionable 
            treatment of people who jump an imaginary ‘queue’ by risking their lives at sea will be
            called to judgment one day. 

The list is not exhaustive.  There are other words that have graced our conversations this year and if you have your favourites please let us know.  It's been a bumpy ride, 2013, and the coming one will have us holding on tighter, but here's to love, friendship, kindness and the wondrous currency of words. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

On a Not-So Brilliant Education

This morning I got an email from a friend whose daughter went to the same orientation day my granddaughter did, as they both will be starting their secondary schooling at the local public girls’ school next year.  We live in a fairly affluent neighbourhood (in Abbott’s electorate as it happens) and the public school mentioned has, relatively speaking, a fairly high standard of education.  It could be that, given the choice, both these girls’ parents might have enrolled them in private schools, but there wasn’t the choice, and there’s a lingering whiff of anxiety that a shortfall of funds has disbarred them from the best sort of education.  Yet neither of these girls could be considered disadvantaged.  Nor do I believe that forking out a king’s ransom each year would necessarily provide them with good schooling.  I’ve learned enough about private girls’ schools from the experience of another granddaughter to disabuse me of that.  But where your own children or grandchildren are concerned, there’s always that lingering whiff.  It’s that old dilemma we've been forced to face – which should win out,  principles or parental love? – even though on many counts it’s a false one.  There’s nothing to say that what a kid gets at a state school is, ipso facto, inferior to that from a private one – it depends very much on where she is and the family she comes from.  The actual advantage of a private school lies in the confidence it may engender or the connections it can provide. As for protection from sex and the like  – well there’s little of that, if a particular North Shore private school I’ve had dealings with is anything to go by.

I went to a pretty wild school myself, a West Los Angeles public school with such a huge student body that our classes were staggered, with half of us starting and leaving a full hour earlier than the other half.  The school’s objective was to foster what was called ‘social adjustment’ over any academic consideration, mirroring in its philosophy all the resolute conformity of those Cold War years.  We had good teachers, but they were cowed by the loyalty oaths and the threat of McCarthyism, and the best I can say about this not-so brilliant education is that I made a lot of friends, a few of whom I’m in touch with to this day, and that I managed to survive it with my intellectual curiosity intact if what work habits I acquired were, on the whole, deplorable.  But for all that, we were taught foreign languages, which is more than most Australian public schools do today, and our teachers were members of a respected profession.      

All the recent shock horror over how Australian students are falling behind in the OECD ratings has stirred up a lot of these memories, and it’s started me thinking about education in general.  What its purpose should be and why the way it’s gone about these days is short-changing many of our youth.  I’d like to deal with the narrow partisan politics first, get them over and done with.  How anyone can possibly argue that the ideology of ‘choice’ hasn’t done real and lasting damage is beyond me.  The Howard government (whose reprise we're experiencing minute by minute since last September’s rout) skewed overall spending on education heavily in favour of the well-to-do, so much so that we find ourselves in the pickle we’re in now, with ‘independent’ private school students doing okay, but the many disadvantaged dragging the scores down.  The unfortunately-named Gonski reforms of Gillard’s government were formulated to correct this, but in a bid to get them accepted Gillard herself promised that no school, however well-favoured, would lose a penny.  So on one side of the party divide we had ideology masking class interest; on the other, a lack of the political courage to persuade the public of the need to stop funding the advantaged.

The current government has argued (if one can make any sense of its position from the flip-flopping it’s engaged in this parliamentary term) that it isn’t funding but ‘teacher quality’ that’s at issue.  But how is that to be improved, other than paying teachers more and giving them a better education, and how can this be done without costing the government – that is, us – more money?  So the real question is, do we think the money would be worth it?

As long as the question applies to individuals alone, perhaps it wouldn’t, so long as parents who can afford it are willing to pay for their children’s private education, and setting aside the question of whether such a purchase really does deliver what it claims to.  But if we apply the question to society, to Australia as a nation, as a whole, the answer is clear.  Then spending on education is not a drain on federal budgets, but an investment, at least as necessary as any investment on infrastructure, on ports and roads, and arguably more so.  If our country is to withstand the contraction of the long mining boom, the challenges of climate change, and its full conversion to a tertiary economy, its most valuable asset will be the minds of its population.  Seen from this angle, spending to achieve excellence in all our students is not a mere option but nothing less than an absolute necessity.

But how to go about this?  There are places other than America in which to look for models.  Gillard’s holus-bolus adoption of Joe Klein’s New York system, in which testing and tables play such a large part, I believe was mistaken; this particular model has been criticised since and most famously by Diane Ravitch, one of its principal architects.  Many people look to Finland’s as a better system to emulate, even though the size and relative homogeneity of Finland’s population make its system difficult to transplant to a federal one like ours without some adjustment, though Finland too has immigrant students and makes ample provision for them.  Its essence, however, is eminently transportable - better pay and education for teachers, greater autonomy for them, respect for their profession, in a basically public system.  A system in which equality is the by-word and special teachers are available when they’re needed, and in sharp contrast to the test-based, market-influenced one failing students in the US, features of which are copied too unthinkingly here.

I, for one, will be watching my granddaughter’s time at school like I’ve never paid attention to education before.  I know I survived a pretty lax schooling but survived is the operative word.  For all that I missed out on, I am a member of a lucky generation.  Things won’t be as easy for my granddaughter or for her country later in the century.  Our job now is to show the same respect for teachers as we do for sports stars, celebrities, bankers, CEOs, entrepreneurs and property developers - all of whom  take more from the economy and arguably give back less than teachers have ever done.  It all depends on what we really do value.

Monday, 4 November 2013

How I Love My Cuppa

How I do love my morning cuppa.  It’s become a time-honoured, cherished ritual.  What am I saying – become?  It’s been one for years.  Back in the Canberra days I had a blue enamel mug and earlier, I think, the beige stoneware one with the floral decal.  That’s when I developed a serious intolerance to caffeine.  I was writing my first book, West Block, and was draining down mugfuls of tea throughout the day to keep me at it.   To stoke me, you might say.  Now I have to be extremely disciplined.  It’s Madura at home - Madura claims to be only 3% caffeine and it’s Australian, so I can feel good about drinking it on these counts alone.  I alternate: tea bags one morning, teapot the next, though I’m not exactly sure why.  I buy the premium blend, preferring that to their English breakfast, but will accept any brand of that when I go out.
I became a dedicated tea jenny through the influence of my first mother-in-law, and it was her son, my first husband, who was the first person I’d ever seen put milk in his teacup.  The sight of it was shocking, so much so I nearly gagged.  Now, some 55 years later, it’s much my favoured way.
In the US I grew up in we only drank tea if we were ill.  It was and remains the best cure I know for nausea.  Very, very weak and black, and cloudy with sugar.  Mountains of it.  On less extreme occasions tea was drunk socially, but only black and then with a genteel slice of lemon.  And then there was iced tea.  Only Americans, and possibly only ones of my vintage, know how to  make it properly.  Lots of ice, with the freshly brewed tea poured over it, sometimes with lemon, though I would judge that unnecessary, and never with sugar.  The bottled variety we get with the Lipton label is nothing like what it should be; I say it’s an abomination.
The Australia I came to all those years ago was an unreconstructed tea country.  We hadn’t yet shaken off the concept of empire and the signature goods that went with it: marmalade, HP sauce, treacle (Golden Syrup), tripe and black pudding.  Most of all tea.  Hot water was sold at beach kiosks: the belief was that drinking tea hot cooled you down.  (I found that difficult to fathom, and still do, though I’m more amenable to it now.)  The coffee we drank came out of a tube or a bottle and we embraced the instant granules as soon as they came on the market.  Not soon after my arrival, though, espresso bars began to make their appearance.  It took some thirty years, however, before Australians became the discerning coffee drinkers that we are, and the country began to rightly boast of serving some of the best coffee in the world.  Due to our migrants, of course.  I was the exception, it seems, and it was Australia that made a tea drinker out of me, instead of the other way around.  A certain wistfulness comes over me, though, whenever I walk past a cafe late in the day, or see a woman striding the footpath with the ubiquitous paper mug with its safety lid clutched in her happy hand.  (There are few aromas   as lovely, I confess, as that of coffee, even a whiff of the grinds. ) That’s when I think I might like taking it up again, but it’s a passing whim.  Even a cup of tea drunk at that hour of day would keep me awake for a week.
You may have noticed that for this blog at least I’ve refrained as well from speaking of serious things.  I admit it’s because I find them generally depressing.  We’re told again and again that the economy has never been better, that we’ve never had it so good, at the same time that jobs are being shed in what’s left of our manufacturing industry, TAFEs are closed, public servants  sacked, houses are unaffordable, universities strained, the climate is rapidly changing etc etc.  The two questions to ask are how is this vaunted good life of ours is being measured, and just who is it ‘better than ever’ for.  For some bizarre reason I’m reminded here of the story about Thomas Jefferson who centuries before ordered that, in an move towards household economy, tea be drunk at Monticello instead of the more expensive coffee.  Well and good, but tea drinker that I am, and with the whole of Australia hooked on espressos now, I think we’ll have to work out more sophisticated ways of managing our national estate than that.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Story of a Sofa

The Monster
Just the other day our sofa bed went out on the nature strip, in time for the council clean-up.  It was a relief to get rid of it – it was far too heavy for either of us to move, the sun had leached out all the colour, reducing the rose-coloured suede cloth to a dismal, dirty grey.  Apart from that it was in perfectly good condition, plumply upholstered, with a barely-used, single innerspring mattress tucked away inside it, and it seemed such a shame to consign it to the landfill.
It was rejected on sight by the men from the Salvoes, and later by the ones from Goodwill.  The reason was the fading.   As both explained, it couldn’t be sold in their shops like that.  There were other possibilities (slim but hopeful) but when the Goodwill blokes offered to carry it onto the nature strip we were too worn out to refuse.  Still, this was a week before the council clean-up and we were worried about the forecast rain.  The suede cloth, tough as it was and chosen with the grandchildren in mind, might not survive a decent downpour.
Imagine our delight then to discover that within the day the monster, as we’d come to refer to it, had vanished.  Someone had seen it, we rejoiced, recognised its value and saved it from a drenching.  But as it turned out, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Before I go on, here is the monster’s back story.  We bought it on the stern recommendation of my husband’s daughter, who insisted that she would only come to stay if we bought a Moran for her, since that was the only type of sofa that had a proper inner-spring mattress, instead of the run-of-the-mill rubber ones.  We had recently returned from Canada to take up residence in a tiny flat in Manly and just had room for a two-seater.  But the two-seater Moran only had a single-sized mattress and if the daughter stayed overnight she couldn’t bring her husband.  Moreover, the mattress was padded on one side only, and in order to be stored that had to be on the bottom, and the one time she did stay I hadn’t figured out yet that I needed to flip it over.
By the time any grandchildren stayed I knew how it worked and we supplemented it with a futon from Ikea at a tenth of the monster’s price.  That worked out fine, if one grandchild was a little concerned about having to sleep in the kitchen when her brother was three feet away in what passed for the living room, the smallest he’d ever seen.
Eventually we moved, but the monster was so heavy we had to pay $200 extra to the removalists to bring it down one set of stairs and then up another.  The sun shines brightly on this new flat, so much so that within 9 months of our occupancy the upholstery was irreparably faded.  This, needless to say, was not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.  I was told by the Moran representative that I was a fool to have exposed the sofa to so much sun, and no doubt I was.  The dye wasn’t up to it.   I hadn’t even noticed the fading until one day when cleaning I saw that the rose hue on the back of the couch had totally fled from the front of it.
Couch or sofa?  Back in the 1960s, when the U and non-U divide was the popular way of determining status, it was considered non-U to refer to a couch as a sofa.  This was because ‘couch’ - considered uncouth by the lower middle class - was in one of those quirks of inverted snobbery embraced by the upper class.  Sofa, thus, was very non-U.  I had been brought up to call them couches – a term that’s hardly heard today, if at all.  Perhaps that’s due to the advent of sofa beds as we know them – I think a postwar phenomenon.   It was snobbery of course that led my husband’s daughter to insist on a Moran – the brand still exists but the furniture is made in China, and was even then.   It’s the story of so much of our manufacture.  The names live on but the skill, like the dye, has gone.
But if our leaders remain in the grip of an all-pervasive ideology designed to make a few people ever richer and the rest of us mere mortals wrestling with insecure job prospects, broken infrastructure and a polluted, rapidly heating environment, I still maintain that, against serious evidence to the contrary, most human beings are basically good at heart.  This shaky belief was confirmed when I discovered what actually happened to our sofa.  The young couple living downstairs saw it there on the nature strip and immediately got online to a swap and trade site that we knew nothing about.  They took a picture of the monster, posted it, and within seconds someone put their hand up, came within the hour and hauled it away.  Faded or no, I do hope they enjoy it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

How I Became a GetUp! Volunteer and Lived to Tell the Tale - Just

How to describe myself politically?  A friend once observed that I was ‘difficult to tag’ and I soon perceived I liked it that way, and have in fact spent the better part of a lifetime resisting group action, at the same time believing it absolutely necessary.   This contradiction is largely temperamental but also arises from some bitter past experiences.  Yet I let myself be recruited by GetUp! for the recent federal election, for reasons I’m attempting to explain.
Last Saturday brought the fifth change of federal government I’ve experienced since coming to Australia in 1958.  I can’t remember ever handing out leaflets at a polling booth before but I once was an ALP member so must have been commandeered.  I let my membership lapse, however, sometime in the 1980s when the Hawke government gave the green light to mining uranium.  I was opposed to the policy, was berated by no less than Keating strongman Don Russell for being a soft-headed fool, and this did little for my sense of loyalty.  Besides, the Black Mountain branch meetings were unspeakably dull and utterly futile, since every motion we managed to adopt was duly ignored by the government.  That was thirty-odd years ago and speaks volumes, I think, about the problems the party has been facing ever since.
GetUp! is an organisation I’ve admired but was never really active in before.  I’ve donated a little money and signed their petitions, but concede that this is the lazy woman’s way of trying to right the wrongs in our alarmingly imperfect world.  What does it cost in blood and sweat to click onto a petition or proffer a few measly dollars?  So in a critical moment I responded in the affirmative to their email asking for volunteers.  Yes, I would do it.  I would wear an orange t-shirt and hand out the GetUp! guide. A further incentive was that this was in Abbott’s Warringah, and the booth I signed up for at Balgowlah Boys High was only a few blocks from home.
People like me who live here are likely to feel beleagured.  I’m told it’s the same for progressives across the pond in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth.  These two electorates contain some of the richest suburbs in Australia, going by median per capita income and most expensive housing.  How I am a resident is one of the flukes fate sporadically dispenses, but I often wonder how long I can manage to stay.
As election day I approached I was introduced by email to my fellow volunteers, and spoke on the phone with the organiser, Andrew Fraser, like me an ex-Canberran, now studying public policy at Sydney University.  But only when I arrived for my afternoon shift did I meet anyone in person.  Liam and Jeremy, both young as GetUp!s tend to be, had been there since late morning.  Victoria and I, two 'maturer' women, signed on at 2, and Anita came an hour or so after.  I studied Liam as he approached voters to discover how to persuade them to take the guide.  I soon twigged that assuring we were independent gave the erroneous impression that GetUp! itself was fielding candidates, when the whole point of our being there was to inform electors how the parties stood on certain issues.
The guide was useful, despite being derived from a survey of GetUp! members, and inevitably reflecting their outlook.  No surprise then that on most of the issues listed, the Greens came out best.  That was fine by me; with things as they were I’d felt I had no choice but to vote Green anyway.  Like many a Labor sympathiser and former party member, I had to acknowledge that the political stuff-ups, factional shenanigans and whatever-it-takes philosophy of recent years had rendered the party unacceptable to me.  There was no way, however, that this deep discontent could translate into a vote for our muscle-bound local member.
Picture us then, in our bright orange t-shirts, with a couple of orange posters to note our presence, but overwhelmingly outnumbered by the blue Liberal ones emblazoned with Tony’s triumphant grin.  There was a Green one with young Will Kitching’s picture on it, and one announcing that PUP was somewhere in evidence.  The lone Labor poster was hidden in a corner.  Overall, it was a companionable day, a day for democracy; the weather was perfect, the smell of sausages sizzling and carmelising onions wafted over volunteers and voters alike. I made instant friends with the Greens, and the sole Labor man was clearly a kindred spirit.  For a time this pleasant geniality even extended to the one female Liberal, though we agreed to disagree on climate change.  (‘Did you know that England was warm in the 15th Century?’ she divulged. ) The Abbott men in their panama hats were predictably standoffish and consulted among themselves about the worrisome Y the Libs were given on the ballot.  But the truly dark side to all of this came from the voters themselves.
It wasn’t the older ones, or the Botoxed and kaftaned middle-aged women who disconcerted me.  They could be expected to wave us, and especially the Greens, peremptorily, contemptuously aside.  No need to remind myself then that this was Coalition territory.  It was the young ones, some without families, up and coming accountants or aspiring IT executives, and some with kids, preteens straggling beside them, and some with kids in strollers, living the dream and arrogant with it, with seemingly no concern over what’s ahead for those children. For, after all, Abbott has assured them that climate change is ‘crap’, and even if it isn’t the Coalition will fix it, painlessly and competently, and keep the riff-raff from their borders.  And apart from a few amazingly welcome exceptions, this is who the electors were, clinging to what they read in Murdoch’s papers and all the meretricious slogans Abbott has repeated ad nauseum, shaking their heads and holding out their palms as they swept imperiously past us and entered the polling both.
I knew it would be like this, but it still made me awfully sad.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On the Anniversary of Shulamith Firestone's Death

My workload this past month has been much heavier than anticipated, but it could be serendipitous.  I had hoped to get to the blog sooner but as it happens it now almost coincides with the first anniversary of Shulamith Firestone's death, a woman who had a profound effect on me and many of my contemporaries, when we were young and wild, way back in the 1970s.
     Shulamith Firestone died in a lower Manhattan apartment on 28 August 2012.  I had read the obituaries that told of her sad end, learning that she had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the late 1980s and had lived alone in what can only be described as extreme poverty.  A tragic fizzling out of a woman who had been a shining light of my feminism.
     In one of Firestone's more extensive tributes, Susan Faludi describes the women who attended her memorial and outlines their fates.  The gathering comprised veterans of radical feminism’s second wave, among them Kate Millett of Sexual Politics, and Kathie Sarachild, said to have coined ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’, the era’s resounding catchcry.  These are women who galvanised a generation.   But Faludi reports that few of them, whether present at the ceremony or not, have ended up very well, if what we mean by well is happily ensconced in family, fortune and undiminished fame.  Many have endured loneliness and penury; many, like Firestone, have suffered mental illness; there have even been suicides.
     Firestone’s death isn’t believed to have been a suicide but a terminal crisis of her illness.  The genesis of any mental disorder is hard to pin down, but Faludi’s suggestion that so many of our generation of feminists have been so afflicted, to greater or lesser degree, raises a few hypotheses, at least where radicalism is concerned.  In those days we used a phrase, often apologetically or censoriously, to concede that it was faulty logic, even dangerous to ‘extrapolate from the particular’.  But the essence of feminism is that we went ahead and did it anyway.    The personal is political.  
Don’t ask me to give you chapter and verse of The Dialectic of Sex, the book Firestone published at 25, an age when today so many women of her class and ability are busy accumulating credentials with a view to establishing a career for themselves.  I’m not going to review the book, or calculate its overall influence.  All I can do is try to convey its impact on me when it reached us in Australia.  At the time I was a thirty-three year old single mother of four who had recently left my marriage.  I was living in an inner-city Canberra house that I bought for the grand sum of $16,750 and a mortgage obtained with my antiquated Fiat as security.  (Believe it or not, we could do that then.)  I had a part-time job teaching writing at what is now the University of  Canberra, would soon join the public service, eventually as head of the prime minister’s women’s unit.  I could have made a career of it but I didn’t.  I had too much fire left in me, too much Firestone it seems.
     So what did she have to say to me?  She was one of the women who nailed the cause of women’s oppression as the system of patriarchal capitalism under which we lived.  She drew on the Marxist concept of dialectics, the dominant form of left analysis then, but taking off from there her thinking was breathtakingly idiosyncratic and original.  Her biographers can explain the distaste she had for parturition (the oldest daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family, she described giving birth as like ‘shitting a pumpkin’), but what I seized upon was her insistence that raising children was a social responsibility rather than one for individual parents, mothers especially.  I reasoned further that if a woman had endured nine months of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, why couldn’t others put in for the rest of it?  A little like Hillary Clinton’s dictum that it takes a village to raise a child but a thousand times feistier, and, yes, revolutionary.   When it all boiled down to practicalities, though, it wasn’t a prescription as such, but an idea that cast a strong light on society’s shirking of responsibility for children, which made for the lack of child care and support for parents generally.  But even to entertain such a thought was radical enough at the time, and arguably more so today.
     To stand against convention as we did can mean sacrifice, loneliness and, more than occasionally, poverty.  To experience any one of these things can lead to mental instability, the totality of them can undermine you completely, and this is what happened to many women of my generation, too many when I think of it.  Yet though I can’t speak for others, I would make the same choices again, in spite of the heartaches and hardships.
     As I write, I’m listening to Radio National’s Background Briefing on the threat of homelessness for older women.  Having experienced the tsunami of social change that freed us from the immediate oppression of the patriarchy, too many of us are left without the supports that will see us through retirement.  For personal reasons I was forced to sell that house I bought in 1972 and there’s no way on earth I could afford to buy one today.  We were courageous but could not have foreseen that the very critiques of patriarchal capitalism we fashioned would be dismantled so quickly.  The patriarchy of the wider society has had its ongoing impact and this combined with the entrenchment of a market economy has offered little defense against poverty.  Neither young people nor old ones like me can meet this challenge individually - we have to deal with it as a society.
     I haven’t kept a diary since the early 1980s.  I felt then that writing in a diary was taking up time and the energy I needed for fiction.  The diary I began in 2007, when I took a detour into painting, was primarily a visual one, but gradually the words crept in.  Now it’s more words than pictures, and the pictures are mainly sketches, executed quickly, to expand on the subjects I’m writing about.  When doing sketches of people I aim for a reasonable likeness but if I fail I don’t do much to change them.  I’m coming to see that the resistance to exactitude comes not from the subject but from me.  
     The photograph I’ve used for my sketch of Firestone is the only one available on the net, and its difference from my portrayal is significant.  The photograph has her staring through the tent of her amazing hair straight at the camera.  It’s a defiant look she gives us.  But today, in my portrayal of her, she is reflective, and those eyes, looking into a space that the viewer cannot enter, contain their measure of sadness.  Perhaps it’s our future she’s looking at, but who of us knows precisely what the future will bring?  Where we live is in the present, and it takes particularly brave women to take a stand against it, to argue for a different vision.  Even if it might make us poor, and sometimes send us mad.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

What I Miss About America

What do I miss about America?  Well, the answer is very little.  But it’s a question I ask myself now and then, a kind of reality check after what are this year 55 years living outside my native country - 50 of which I’ve spent in Australia.  That’s half a century.  But then I think I needn’t have bothered uprooting myself in the first place, when all I had to do was stay put here and wait for America to come sailing across the Pacific.
Yes, we have it all now.  Mexican food and sour dough bread,  freeways and supermarkets, poor public transport, rhythm and blues and fusion – I could go on.  Even the Aussie accent has changed, become twangier, more Yankee or West Coast American.  The links between my two countries, frayed at the time of the GI invasion during the second world war, have been polished and strengthened, as though nary a tension had existed between them.  I’m no longer teased about the way I pronounce ‘tomato’ and am free to write about characters who aren’t dinky-di Australian.   My children (at least some of them) think it’s cool to have a parent who’s American, when once it was a source of bewilderment and embarrassment.  American literature, more or less sniffed at on my arrival, is now embraced, as New York has taken front page and centre as the global English-language book capital.  And then there’s the politics, where gradually over the decades the Westminster tradition has given way to an increasingly presidential system, if not without its measure of confusion and pain.
I can’t say these are changes I’ve welcomed.  The America I left in 1958 was a divided country, as it remains.  It was just as parochial then as it is today, seeing everything and every other nation through the prism of its exceptionalism.   America is good, therefore what it does is good.   It dismays me when Australia  uncritically adopts this attitude, even when it’s argued to be in its interest.  It dismays me further to see Australians act like the worst of Americans, claiming that ‘god’s own country’ is their own, making a fetish, say, of Kokoda or Gallipoli or Australia Day.  Our economic policies have been shaped by American ones, and the last thirty years have seen as a consequence alarming rates of inequality.
But back in 2008 when Obama was running for president, and four years later when he was trying to get re-elected, I was moved to tears by sights on my tv screen of that other America – the one that’s perpetually screwed by those in power but still finds a way to fight back.   Those people lining the streets in support of him fairly melted my heart.   This was the America I recognised, though, sadly, the one rarely emulated.  America of the crumpled face and cheap-food body.   Not the slickly landscaped exteriors seen at the party conventions, or in most of the sitcoms, or sashaying along the red-carpeted gauntlet on the way to the Oscars.   Not the hate-filled faces of the Tea Party.  But Walt Whitman’s people, and  Carl Sandberg’s, and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s.  Braver than we know.
All through the 1960s, America exploded.  I watched in wonderment from afar, with a dollop of self-pity I admit, for missing out.  Kennedy was president and friends from my high school went on the freedom rides.  It seemed like the country I left was changing without me and, briefly, perhaps it was.  Then came the assassinations, Nixon’s election, Watergate, bankrupted cities, the usual quotient of murders, America being the endlessly violent place it is.  But there were good things too – the end of school segregation, civil rights legislation, Roe v. Wade, the swell of protest against the war in Vietnam .
Soon enough Australia had its protests too.   The Anti-Vietnam Moratorium and Women’s Liberation swept through the capital cities.  The Whitlam government was elected and then, by comparison, America seemed the backward country.   Gough had gone to China and, in office, ended conscription, pulled us out of Vietnam, opened the case for equal pay.  The country embarked on another era of social reform, for which it was rightly known, and part of it was acting independently from America.   After which the government was quickly dispatched.  (Conspiracy theory, we were told at the time, but what was the CIA about if not conspiracy?)  After that trauma Australian governments of every stripe have been willingly supine.  But what have they got us into?
The crux of the matter is that  there’s been scarcely been a time when America hasn’t been at war.  All through its history, from the War of Independence to the Spanish-American one at the end of the 19th century, and in the 20th it was the world wars, but also more local ones, playing one dictator off against another, dropping bombs, selling arms to everyone, friends and enemies, all in the name of freedom and democracy.   There have been periods of isolationism but they haven’t lasted long.  Often war has been waged against its own citizens, whether it’s been the crackdown on Wobblies and anarchists or Cold War executions, or incarceration in Guantanamo during this generation’s War on Terror.   Of course there have been resisters, many of whom have met with untimely, violent deaths, in spite of their own campaigns of peaceful disobedience.
Some of these have been whistleblowers, heroes our leaders – Australian and American - are only too quick to brand as criminals, even when what they make public are government actions wholly antithetical to the interests of their citizens, not to mention Vietnamese, Iraqi or Afghani ones.   Men like Daniel Ellsberg, and today, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.   
What courageous people, to take on the might of governments.   They, it must be said, are what I do miss about America. 

Next time: Shulamith Firestone. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Women and Politics: Gillard's Gift

The Women and Politics Conference held in Canberra in September 1975 was a groundbreaking event for women across the political spectrum.  Excoriated in the media at the time as an exorbitant waste of taxpayers’ money and worse, it’s safe to say it’s more than proved its worth.  Less than forty years later we’ve seen women politicians of all political persuasions at every level of government.   We’ve had women as premiers, ministers and governors.  We’ve had a woman for prime minister and one for governor-general.  A woman succeeding in politics is nothing like the novelty it was and gender issues are no longer shoved onto lifestyle pages.  Whether on air, the net, or paper, they are front page concerns. 
A couple of months ago, occasioned by her death, the media was filled with dutiful if qualified praise for Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.  For myself, Thatcher represented everything that is odious about economic rationalism, market or neoliberal economics, or whatever you want to call it, and the woman who stood out for me during the House of Commons tribute wasn’t the ghost of the Iron Lady but the woman who was willing to speak against her.   Glenda Jackson,  actor turned backbench Labour politician, whose brave words about Thatcherism ushering in an ‘aspirational society’ in which there was ‘a price for everything’  spoke to my heart.
But there’s no mistaking the guts it took for Thatcher to win the prime ministership and tighten the hold she had for eleven sorry years over her Tory minions, not to mention the country.  
It took a while after her election in 1979 as Britain’s first female prime minister for women here in Australia to be treated with any comparable seriousness.  Yet it’s possible to argue that Thatcher’s coming to power was largely contextual (the Tories’ electorability pre-Thatcher was dire) and set the pattern, in the English-speaking world at least, for parties to countenance female leaders only when there’s trouble ahead.  With few exceptions women have been promoted to premierships here when the governments they were part of stared ignominious defeat in the face. (I’m speaking about Labor - the Coalition hasn’t come near positioning themselves for the practice.)  We had Carmen Lawrence carrying the can in Western Australia, Joan Kirner in Victoria, Kristina Keneally in New South Wales, Anna Bligh in Queensland and, lastly, Julia Gillard.
The problems associated with Gillard’s prime ministership are proving intractable.  For what they’re worth, here are my reasons why.   I’m in no doubt that the circumstance of her ascendancy doomed her from the start.  No matter how difficult Rudd was to work with, whether or not he deserved the treatment he got, the electorate has never forgiven Gillard for the part she played in replacing him, how and, most importantly, when.  The oft-vaunted boost in the polls she received after his deposing was most likely the boost that any new leader gets, and even if Rudd was responsible for the leaks that changed that, wiser souls would have taken such a reaction into their calculations.  I’ve recently heard a friend report that a friend of his told him that Gillard is ‘the nicest person she’s ever met’, and I’m willing to believe it, but that didn’t change their voting intentions.  She may have thought she challenged Rudd for the sake of both the party and the government, but that isn’t how voters saw it, and the compromises she was forced to make in cobbling together a minority government only served to reinforce the negative views of her as dished up by the disgruntled Abbott. 
Had she been wiser – and yes, I know, it’s all very well for me to argue this in hindsight, and from my distance – she would have refused the poisoned chalice.  She would have done more to confront Rudd with his deficiencies.   She would have seen that the NSW musical-chairs game of replacing short-term sitting premiers was having disastrous results in that state.  She would have distrusted the scheming of Bitar and Arbib, who concocted it (and themselves sought shelter in the arms of Packer after it started going pear-shaped for Gillard). Above all, she would have waited - either for Labor’s second term or its defeat, when her undeniable suitability for the leadership would be universally welcomed.   But feminist ambition perhaps, trumped political wisdom.        
For all our feminist successes, maybe even because of them, sexism lurked in the background, ramped up to a horrific degree for Gillard.  And whether we agree with her policies, or style of delivery, we have to applaud her resilience.  As Katharine Murphy put it, she’s ‘the toughest cookie we’ve possibly ever seen in the Lodge’.   She has endured a lot.  In speeches last year and the recently published The Misogyny Factor elaborating on them, Anne Summers has outlined and graphically displayed the hideously misogynistic material posted about Gillard on the net, mainly in chain emails and from the unreconstructedly foul Larry Pickering.  YouTube audiences around the world were electrified by Gillard’s own passionate rejoinder to Tony Abbott for his alleged role in encouraging the scurrilous language with which she’s been routinely depicted.   ‘Ditch the Bitch’ and ‘Juliar’ being the least of it.
But if the content of the attacks against Gillard are indisputably misogynist – has any male politician ever yet been drawn with female breasts or a penis the size of a clitoris? – men who enter public life have rarely been spared the calumnies, disparagement and ridicule of our political discourse.  We’ve only to glance at the caricatures, or read the many traducements of their character, probity, and, yes, physical appearance, to acknowledge that fact.   If we want to participate equally in politics we either have to accept some pretty spiteful portrayals of us or do something truly drastic about lifting the tone of political debate.   This is one reason why, I feel, that relentless personal attacks on Abbott tend to be self-defeating.
And the situation is knottier.  Over the past three decades, at the very time when opportunities for individual women in politics have grown so remarkably, inequality in wealth, income and educational opportunity in this country has increased alarmingly.   Feminists can hardly be blamed for this (ignoring the frequent attempts to do so) but in focussing so hard on female advancement, not only in politics but in business and academia, we may have lost sight of the egalitarianism that once informed the movement - and, indeed, the politics of Labor. 
Granted, it’s arguable that few of our objectives for a more equal, humane society could be achieved without greater numbers of women in powerful positions, and it would be churlish to dismiss the gains.   But we do have to ask what a federal Labor party with a woman at its head has been prepared to do, or will be prepared to do if miraculously re-elected, about our massively inequitable tax and retirement arrangements, our inhumanly punitive asylum seeker policy, our mingy welfare provisions, our shrinking manufacturing, retail and agricultural sectors, a woefully under-resourced hospital system, ongoing Indigenous disadvantage, and an economy that persists on relying on the destructive, mostly multinational mining industry.   Yes, they’ve tripled the tax-free threshold, introduced Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Broadband Network, most of which will take years to come into being, and now we’re forced to think of the alternative: a Coalition government pledged to undo what we’ve got. 
It’s far too late now to replace Gillard with Rudd.  Whatever the polls say, there’s no guarantee this would translate into significant results come election time, especially when the terrible things said about Rudd by colleagues during the three years of looming challenge and the destabilisation he’s accused of are taken into account.   The whole scenario has the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the tragedy won’t be Gillard’s alone.  
--> The one good thing to come out of this mess is a resurgence of feminism, and my biggest hope is that this time the movement will be strong enough to allow our women politicians the freedom to withstand the blandishments of a spurious ‘success’, no longer forced to dance to the tune of corrupt, dysfunctional parties, or pander to the fears worked up by the giant vested interests and wilfully ignorant shock jocks and press lords of our nation.