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Should Uthman Badar’s talk “Honour killings are morally justified” have been cancelled by the Festival of Dangerous Ideas?

25 Jun

Uthman Badar is the Media Representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organisation whose goals are described on its website as follows:

 4. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Work

The work of Hizb ut-Tahrir is to carry the Islamic da’wah in order to change the situation of the corrupt society so that it is transformed into an Islamic society. It aims to do this by firstly changing the society’s existing thoughts to Islamic thoughts so that such thoughts become the public opinion among the people, who are then driven to implement and act upon them. Secondly the Party works to change the emotions in the society until they become Islamic emotions that accept only that which pleases Allah (swt) and rebel against and detest anything which angers Allah (swt). Finally, the Party works to change the relationships in the society until they become Islamic relationships which proceed in accordance with the laws and solutions of Islam. These actions which the Party performs are political actions, since they relate to the affairs of the people in accordance with the Shari’ah rules and solutions, and politics in Islam is looking after the affairs of the people, either in opinion or in execution or both, according to the laws and solutions of Islam.

Badar was until today scheduled to give a talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas titled ” Honour killings are morally justified.” After a public outcry, Mr Badar’s session has been cancelled.

The fact that I have great reservations about Badar’s proposed talk, and question the title and accompanying précis, does not mean I think it should have been cancelled. The fact that I don’t believe a festival of ideas is a platform for defending or advocating murder does not mean I think Mr Badar’s talk should have been cancelled either, in light of the story becoming rather more complicated with Mr Badar’s assertion that FODI dictated both the title and the content of his presentation, and neither were of his choosing.

It’s a mistake in a debate about free speech to assume that questioning or contesting an opinion equates to a demand for silencing that opinion. It is possible to hold two apparently opposing views simultaneously, for example, objecting to a position while allowing it to be presented and argued. It doesn’t seem possible in today’s climate to argue against a point of view, without an assumption being made that you are attempting to silence that point of view. My right to freely express my doubts and objections is not synonymous with me calling for the speech I’m questioning to be banned. Indeed, accusing someone of denying someone else free speech when they are robustly questioning a perspective, is an effective way of closing down debate.

We still have, if by the skin of our teeth, legal protections in place for when free speech becomes an incitement to perpetrate harm.

If I see a talk advertised under the title “Honour killings are morally justified,” given by an individual who advocates Shari’ah law, I’m not going to read that title as ironic, as has been argued by some. I might if, say, The Chaser used it. I have never associated irony with proponents of Shari’ah law, which might well be a grave misunderstanding on my part, however, the dire consequences of the implementation of that moral code, particularly for women and girls, lead me to believe a statement such as “honour killings are morally justified” is more likely to be literal than ironic when it apparently originates from an advocate of Shari’ah law. I am not Islamaphobic, xenophobic, racist, closed-minded, in favour of censorship, or a denier of free speech, when I question a talk that purports to commence from the alarming proposition that honour killings are morally justified.

It was once in Western culture perfectly acceptable to drown women suspected of exercising supernatural powers, which may not be vastly different from murdering women suspected of offending male sensibilities. I seriously doubt, however, that a talk with the declarative title “Drowning women who might be witches was morally justified” could be offered as an “exploration” of the topic.

Badar has been denied access to one platform, arguably not a particularly large one. He has other platforms available to him from which he is at liberty to express his views. To claim that his freedom of speech has been denied is ludicrous. Should he now post his talk on his website, for example, I’m fairly sure he’ll have a much wider audience, given the publicity, than he’d have enjoyed at the festival. Far from curtailing him this outcry, should he take advantage of it, will allow him to explain his opinions to a much wider audience.

Badar claims he did not want the title used, or the accompanying précis in which he argues that the West’s attitude to honour killings is a form of Orientalism, following Edward Said’s ground-breaking work. In itself this is a problematic thesis as the abhorrence of killing women and girls who have allegedly “shamed” their menfolk is an abhorrence of ghastly murder, rather than an abhorrence of Muslims. Like any other cultural practice, it can be and is employed in racist slurs, but to assume all objections to honour killing are racially motivated is ridiculous.

That the West’s position on honour killings is hypocritical is beyond doubt, given the numbers of women killed by their male family members in Australia alone every year. If this is the direction in which Mr Badar intended to take us, then FODI would have done well to better explain his intentions, and the talk would indeed have been dangerous.

Given that Badar denies that he supports honour killings, albeit it with the caveat “as they are understand (sic) in the West,” I think his talk should have gone ahead. I suspect FODI did not have the appetite for the demonstrations it would likely provoke, and so refused Badar access to their platform. However, if Badar’s claims are true, and FODI orchestrated both the content of his talk and its publicity, one has to wonder what their moral justification might be for the exploitation of honour killings of women and girls, in the pursuit of controversy and publicity.

Those of us who challenged Badar’s advertised thesis have not silenced him. FODI removed him from their platform, with Simon Longstaff, Director of the St James Centre for Ethics, claiming he would not be given a fair hearing. In other words FODI is unable to deal with the public reaction to a dangerous idea they proposed, apparently in their terms and contrary to the beliefs of the speaker, which, when you think about it, makes the whole purpose of FODI rather open to question.

This morning Longstaff tweeted as follows: “The session to explore ‘honour killings’ has been cancelled. Alas, people read the session title – and no further. Just too dangerous.” Unfortunately the session title does not suggest an exploration. It is a declaration: Honour killings are morally justified. Presumably the FODI publicists are aware of the power of a title, and the belief readers are entitled to hold that titles are an indicator of content, unless of course we’re reading News Corpse.

I do not accept there is a cultural context that warrants the barbaric practice of honour killings, anymore than I accept that the Puritans should have tied alleged witches to a stool and thrown them in the river. Therefore, quite what there is to “explore” on the topic is a mystery to me. The slaughter of women and girls for the alleged crime of offending male sensibilities is not a topic for clever intellectual play. Shame on the FODI for considering it to be such.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The house of widows

23 Jun

Mrs Chook, with whom I share a home, two dogs, and much of my life, became a widow some considerable time ago, after nursing her husband through lung cancer. For a while she was a member of the local Widows Club. They had good times, played cards and golf, got drunk and raucous, spoke realistically of the men they’d lost, acknowledging their aggravating complexities, at times speaking ill of their dead because there’s no human being who can’t be spoken ill of to some degree, and the Widows Club women were nothing if not honest.

I was once invited to become an honorary member, not because I was widowed but because I was separated, living life without my husband’s daily presence and sharing it with Mrs Chook, but I declined, feeling out of place. Yes, I’d lost my husband in a very real sense, but to see that misadventure as widowhood did not feel true to me.

A separation is indeed a kind of death. But death has different dimensions, and they must be given their due.

I’m sitting in a bus station watching the World Cup on the overhead TV. I’m between worlds, and remembering another bus station, another World Cup on an overhead TV in Cancun, Mexico, another country when I was alone just like now, and it occurs to me that there is something of a pattern in this, bus stations, football, overhead televisions, a heart in a confusion of desire, loss, grief, a woman facing an unknown future. A sense of the complete unknowableness of certain events, transgressive events that tear apart the fabric of the ordinary, events that force open the portal into the extremities of human experience. I realise I have no control over death, or desire or love, and should I attempt to exert any illusionary control I will make myself ludicrous. There are forces abroad in the world that far exceed my puny human capabilities, and there is nothing to be done but ride them out as best I can.

The bus station today is not in Cancun but Sydney, my husband is dying, and I suddenly recall with bizarre accuracy the notice on the door of a hotel room in Mexico City:

 Many people are injured having fun in Mexico.
Air pollution in Mexico City is severe.
Failure to pay hotel bills or pay for other services rendered is considered fraud under Mexican Law.

 

 I’m at a loss to understand the workings of my memory until I recall that my journey to Mexico caused my husband great angst, indefinite as I’d announced it would be, determined as I was to go without him as he had travelled so often without me. It marked a turning point in the dynamics between us. I had asserted myself as the leaver rather than the left. Twenty years older than me, he was outraged and bewildered, having spent much of our marriage wishing me to be Penelope, spinning faithfully at my wheel at home and keeping suitors at bay while Odysseus travelled the earth. The role never sat well with me and seemingly out of nowhere I exploded out of it, like a woman blown from the mouth of a cannon. This turning of the tables unhinged my husband somewhat, and he wept at the airport. Not even his tears could melt my determined heart. A woman has to do what a woman has to do I didn’t say, but I could have. These were serious endings. I was no longer who I had been up to that point, and neither was he who had never in his life before wept at an airport, while a woman he loved left him behind.

It is tempting to describe these endings as deaths, but I have a profound distaste for the appropriation of death as a metaphor. There is nothing in life for which death can be asked metaphorically to stand. There is nothing in life that can be likened to the radical absence that is the signifier of death. Death is the one situation in which all hope for presence ends. Up to that point, one has merely endured absence.

I have recently become a legitimate member of the Widows Club, though it no longer exists in its original form. More than three decades of marriage, always unconventional, have ended and I am no longer just living separately from my husband while we continue to love one another in spite of our differences. I am widowed. I have begun the labour of mourning, as Freud described the gradual relinquishing of all hope of connection with the loved one that is made inevitable by his or her death. I will never again see his face. I will never again hold his hand. I will never again climb up on his hospital bed and lay my warm body along the length of his frail and shrunken frame.

It’s the finality that brings me undone. I find myself repeating, in my struggle to come to terms with his departure, I never will again.

In the end, I did not leave him weeping at an airport. He left me. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I will always love him. I don’t know if he heard me tell him he did not have to stay, that I did not begrudge him this journey, that I did not need or want him to remain here with me, that I wanted only his release, that he could leave with my blessing, I don’t know if he heard those things I whispered as I laid my body the length of his, and held his beloved head against my breasts.

 Because we’re alive, we inhabit the country of the living; that which is outside, we don’t have the heart to believe, I read, in Hélène Cixious. She’s right I don’t have the heart to believe, yet it is necessary to find the heart to believe, what else is there to do?  We live in the house of widows, I tell Mrs Chook, sitting on her bed in my dressing gown, Little Dog lying on my feet, you’re so pale, she says, and I don’t tell her I’ve woken up maybe ten times in the night, crying those tears you know are serious because they are hot, and burn their way down your cold cheeks. We will be all right, she tells me. You will be all right. In time. It takes time.

As is to be expected at the death of a loved one, memories are crowding in on me, our life together parading itself well out of any chronological order, according to some time line I cannot recognise as having anything to do with reality. I see him dancing towards me across our sitting room, singing, You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it, which always symbolised for me his infuriating reluctance to take responsibility for anything. Give me give me give me give me what I sigh for, you know you’ve got the kind of kisses that I’d die for redeemed him, as he always knew it would. The night before he died I found on YouTube a video of him talking about poetry, made just before his stroke. And then, for reasons I cannot explain, I recalled a scene from The Sopranos in which Meadow Soprano sits beside her unconscious father, crime boss Tony, whom she fears is dying, and reads the Jacques Prevert verse:

Our Father which art in Heaven
Stay there
And we shall stay on earth
Which is sometimes so pretty
 

I shall stay on earth, which is sometimes so pretty. Vale, Arnold Lawrence Goldman.

Arnie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The unbearable ignorance of Tim Wilson, Human Rights Commissioner for *Freedom*

30 Mar

Tim Wilson, recently appointed Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, declared today that race hate laws are bizarre and unequal because while members of a community are permitted to use “racially loaded language” among themselves, outsiders are not permitted to do the same.

Mr Wilson clearly does not understand that *racially loaded language* used by outsiders is always, without exception, deliberately employed as a racial slur intended to insult, hurt, demoralise, ridicule and devalue the human beings  hate speech targets. When such language is used amongst members of a community it is used ironically, defiantly, and as a method of defusing and ridiculing the racist intentions of outsiders.

Everyone, Mr Wilson asserts ought to be allowed to use the term “nigger,” for example, because it is widely used in black communities. Wilson reveals his monumental ignorance and gobsmacking stupidity, through either his incompetent or  deliberate misunderstanding of the difference in the meaning of that term, when used within communities or by outsiders.

This dangerous call for absolute free speech favours only white people, and only certain highly privileged white men are demanding it. Wilson’s call for “personal responsibility” in this matter is ridiculous. There are matters society cannot afford to leave to an individual’s sense of “personal responsibility” and as has been proven over and over and over again, hate speech is one of them.

Like many others, I am enraged and heartbroken to see the gains that have been made in my lifetime crushed by the severely limited intelligence and utter lack of imagination of privileged white men such as Brandis, Wilson, Abbott et al. That a Commissioner for Human Rights (Freedom) is now campaigning for everyone to be free to use loaded terms such as “nigger” against our fellow human beings  because “equality,” signifies a journey through the looking-glass that leads to nothing less than insanity.

There can be no “equality” in the use of racially loaded language when the intentions behind the speech are utterly opposed.

This is a bald act of white supremacy, a brutal attempt to claw back what is perceived as a loss to the power of privileged white men.

PS: On a personal note, Tim Wilson recently blocked me on Twitter when I asked him a valid question about competing human rights.

 

 

Taking to the streets: why protest matters

13 Mar

shit is fucked up and stuffThis weekend, there’ll be a series of protest marches around the country known collectively as ‘March in March.’

The overall aim of the rallies is to protest against the manner in which the Abbott government is running the country. There is no single issue focus, and people are invited to peacefully state their own particular grievance/grievances against the LNP.

The protests have been organised by people who have no affiliation with any political party and indeed, little or no experience in organising protests. It sprang from increasing discontent expressed on social media by citizens who have no significant public platform through which they can vocalise dissatisfaction with and anger against the Abbott government. In every way, the March in March protest appears to be a genuine grass-roots movement, and no big names are associated with its initiation and execution.

March in March has come in for a fair amount of criticism for its alleged lack of focus and purpose.For some reason, ordinary citizens expressing grievances against their government is not regarded as being focused, or as having any purpose.

Protest itself, it’s also claimed in some quarters, is a waste of time, useful only to give participants a warm inner glow, and unlikely to achieve anything more than that.

I don’t know how the outcome of a protest is measured.  I’m fairly certain that change is usually very slow, and requires any number of ongoing actions to bring it about. I doubt anyone would argue that protest alone can achieve great things, however, it is one action among many that together can cause upheaval. As several people told me today, protest didn’t stop John Howard taking us into Iraq, however, nothing was going to stop Howard doing that, and in our parliamentary system the Prime Minister alone is permitted to make such grave decisions. What the protests did was allow citizens a unique opportunity to peacefully and publicly express their opposition, and in itself, this is something we should neither denigrate nor easily relinquish. Ordinary people without a public platform must have a voice.

While this Guardian piece criticising March in March contains much with which I agree, it entirely misses the point that this weekend of protest has sprung not from any organised political movement but from the rage of seriously offended citizens who have no other means of publicly expressing their fury. The peaceful public expression of  rage against those who govern is in itself a privilege many in different political systems do not enjoy, and we should treasure our freedom to take to the streets in protest at our governments. We may not, if conservatives have their way, have such freedoms available to us for much longer.

Hopefully, the March in March rallies will be the first in an ongoing public protest against the Abbott government that will reach its climax at the ballot box in the next election. It is a beginning. It’s an opportunity for motivated strangers to meet and engage. It’s a chance for a more finely honed focus to emerge and be developed. The grass-roots nature of these protests is thrilling. No Get-Up. No charismatic leaders. No political parties. Just citizens exercising their democratic right to peacefully dissent. Don’t knock it. Treasure it. Abbott is about to do everything he possibly can to take this freedom away.

The murderous refugee “policies” of Australian governments

18 Feb

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has just confirmed that one asylum seeker is dead, another has been flown to Australia for treatment after having been shot, and seventy-seven more are injured, twenty-two critically, after tensions at the Manus Island detention centre exploded yesterday.

This country, our country, my country, by virtue of being a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, invites those fleeing persecution and danger to seek sanctuary and asylum here, NO MATTER WHAT THE METHOD OF THEIR ARRIVAL.

We are known to those in countries where daily life has become untenable as a signatory to that Convention, as a country where they may safely ask for refuge.

As long as we remain a signatory to the Convention, we are issuing an invitation to those who live in daily fear, danger and despair. Children. Women. Men.

But we are liars. We are extending a false invitation. We do not offer sanctuary. We do not offer a decent hearing in which claims for refugee status will be fairly and legally assessed. We do not offer the possibility of resettlement and the opportunity to contribute.

Instead, we have turned the misery of children, women and men into a political football. With psychopathic disregard for our fellow human beings, we have ignored their desperation, and done everything possible to keep them away from us.

So, Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, Chris Bowen, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and the rest of you. You wanted to stop asylum seekers dying at sea? Well, your methods have them dying and critically injured  in detention. Where’s your fucking conscience now, then?

Abbott: ABC disses Australia by reporting my cock-ups. This must stop.

29 Jan

ABCIt’s unarguable that Prime Minister Tony Abbott has set his sights on the ABC.

Abbott claims the ABC displays what he terms “lack of affection for the home team” in its reporting of events such as the Indonesian spy scandal, allegations by asylum seekers that Australian navy personnel caused them to suffer burns (earlier described as “sledging the navy” by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison) and, perhaps most heinously, “advertising” the work of whistleblower Edward Snowden whose disclosures led to so much trouble in the first place.

The Prime Minister would like it much better if we were all kept mushroom-like in the dark and showered with LNP shit, rather than informed by the national broadcaster of what our government is actually doing.

Somehow, the inanities, incompetencies and illegalities of the Abbott government are not the problem. The problem is the ABC reporting them!! Who would have thought!!

This reminds me of the Catholic church cover-ups of child sexual abuse, in which victims are blamed  for speaking out and in so doing, risking the destruction of the institution. Similarly, many victims of intra-familial sexual abuse report they have kept silent because they have been told by the perpetrator that they would destroy the family if they revealed the crimes.

According to Mr Abbott, the ABC reporting his government’s failures and alleged failures is “working against Australia,” a classic perpetrator argument when silencing knowledge is his or her main goal. The objective is two-fold: self-protection and protection of the institution, in this case Australia (read Abbott, because he IS the country don’t you know) as the institution with the ABC as the instrument of its potential ruin if allowed to broadcast information that casts the government in a negative light.

This is a classic repressive conservative belief, that certain knowledge must be concealed in the interests of the greater good.

Abbott has confused his and his government’s interests with the interests of the country. As in the church and the family, the institution’s interests and the interests of all its members are not necessarily the same thing. If an institution cannot survive the dissemination of knowledge, then perhaps it does not deserve to survive.

Abbott has also lost sight of the fact that his government does not pay for the ABC, taxpayers do, and taxpayers hold a wide range of views, not just those of the LNP.

The government has its tame media voices in partisan shock jocks and the Murdoch press. Those of us who hold other views are, in this democracy, entitled to hear other voices and one of those voices we are entitled to hear is the ABC.

There is no homogenous “home team” in this country when it comes to political opinion and thirst for truthful information. The only “home team” Abbott can possibly be referring to is his government.

I see no reason why the ABC has any obligation to feel “affection” for this, or any other government. Indeed, we should demand quite the opposite.

I love Leonard, because he is sublime.

27 Nov

In three more sleeps, I’ll be at the Leonard Cohen concert in Brisbane. 

It’s impossible to choose a favourite quote from Cohen’s sublime output, but I do rather like this one, bearing in mind the man spent fifteen years of his life in a Buddhist monastery, from which he emerged to discover his manager had fleeced him of every cent:  I’ve studied deeply in the philosophies and the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.

Cohen’s sense of humour underpins everything he writes: those unbelievers who  claim he creates “songs to cut your wrists to” entirely miss his often gentle, sometimes darkly ironical humour, his innate”cheerfulness breaking through,” his extraordinary self-deprecating modesty that he manages to combine with an equally extraordinary dignity. Cohen is great. Cohen is humble. Cohen is, always, the one whose lonely love is unrequited: My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone, he wryly observes, and in the  beautiful “Ain’t no cure for love” he mourns:

I’m aching for you baby 
I can’t pretend I’m not 
I need to see you naked 
In your body and your thought 
I’ve got you like a habit 
And I’ll never get enough 
There ain’t no cure, 
There ain’t no cure, 
There ain’t no cure for love
 

I use the word “sublime” to describe Cohen’s work reservedly. While “sublime” indicates the presence of an emotional depth and integrity that transcends rational thought and language, strictly speaking it also requires the presence of horror and fear inspired by that which is, in Kant’s terms “absolutely great.” Kant explains the difference between the beautiful and the sublime thus:

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. 

The boundlessness of the sublime inspires a desire to transcend the limits of the self,  a fear-inspiring project if ever there was one, most commonly experienced when falling in love, that chaos of intense emotions, sublime delight, and necessarily, if one is offering one’s heart to another, trembling fear. To be in Cohen’s stage presence is to be for those few hours in an open-hearted state of  love without the fear: the man emanates an almost tangible love and generosity, you are the only audience he has ever had or ever will have, he is, like the best of lovers, entirely focused on you, given over to your pleasure, he lives, for these few hours, only to delight you. You feel Leonard Cohen in all your erogenous zones but it isn’t about sex. Cohen’s presence is sublime.

It is not so easy to find horror and fear in Cohen’s work, mediated as it is by humour, melancholy, and melody, however lyrics such as “The Future” describe a chilling dystopian vision:

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!

I can’t argue that Cohen’s music and lyrics are by themselves sublime. But the man’s presence and delivery make them so. Of course, like any text, they are not fully realised without the participation of the reader or audience: if you want to feel Leonard’s great-heartedness, you have to open up your own. He is a spiritual man, whatever one takes that to mean, and many of his love songs can be read as addressing either a mortal lover or a transcendental exteriority.

I’m counting the sleeps.

Like a bird on the wire, 

like a drunk in a midnight choir 
I have tried in my way to be free. 
Like a worm on a hook, 
like a knight from some old fashioned book 
I have saved all my ribbons for thee. 
If I, if I have been unkind, 
I hope that you can just let it go by. 
If I, if I have been untrue 
I hope you know it was never to you. 
Like a baby, stillborn, 
like a beast with his horn 
I have torn everyone who reached out for me. 
But I swear by this song 
and by all that I have done wrong 
I will make it all up to thee. 
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, 
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.” 
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, 
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?” 

Oh like a bird on the wire, 
like a drunk in a midnight choir 
I have tried in my way to be free.

leonard_cohen_1208796c

On infidelity

10 Nov

cheating spouse

My husband, whom I’ll call Bill, was unfaithful on two occasions that I know about and there were likely more, though it does the heart no good to dwell on possibilities.

I became aware of the first infidelity when Bill’s lover, whom I’ll call Emma, came to me in something of a state, and confessed. I knew Emma a little, we had both been Bill’s students, however, what I hadn’t known was that she’d been in love with Bill all through university, and had for the years since nurtured a deep loathing for me, provoked by our marriage. Which she had attended at Bill’s invitation, and on the day of the confession I remembered, as one remembers the most unlikely things when trapped in situations of intensity, noticing odd hand contact between them at our wedding party. Bill, when I asked him about it later, shamefacedly admitted it  involved passing between them a bag of weed, the smoking of which was apparently a ritual they shared in his office from time to time, and one he could not share with me because it made me chuck and weep.

Some months later, after our US honeymoon, in itself an extraordinary experience during which I was welcomed into a large Jewish Russian Polish American family whose matriarch liked to tell people in front of me that I was “just a doll of a girl, even if he has married out,” postcards began arriving for Bill from Emma, who was now in Italy on her honeymoon. “Caro,” the postcards began, which can be dear, beloved or darling, but Italian always sounds deliciously sensual and intimate, and I did ask why she was addressing him thus from her brand new nuptial bed. I don’t know, Bill said, I wish she wouldn’t, it’s embarrassing. After that, I forgot about Emma for years, and if anyone had asked me, would have said I presumed she’d forgotten about us.

It turned out that Emma’s marriage was not successful, hardly surprising since she said she’d never stopped loving Bill. They had been meeting for coffee & cake at the Gelato Bar at Bondi Beach for several months after her marriage collapsed, but as Bill and I had friendships that didn’t necessarily include the other, and he was always meeting with students anyway, their encounters never got a mention, and I conducted my life in blissful ignorance of what was building.

I should say here that Bill loved women, and women loved Bill. He was the smartest man I’d ever met, he was very funny, he had a way of speaking to others as if they were the only people of significance in his universe, and he was very seductive, though he swore he wasn’t on purpose and I think that was probably true. He could have had just about anyone, indeed, I once overheard a successful author wail at a gathering, “I offered myself on a platter and he turned me down.” When he asked me to marry him it went to my head, even though he said he only wanted us to get married so I would have his superannuation. Marriage as a thing in itself was politically and emotionally problematic for both of us, we’d both done it before, unsuccessfully, but him caring about my future without him (he was much older than me) won me over, so we did it.

Emma, it turned out, had sought out Bill after her marriage collapsed for comfort, which he would have given, initially anyway, in the most innocent of ways, because that was another thing about Bill, his empathy with the more difficult experiences of the human condition was legendary, and people sought him out when they needed someone to unconditionally accept them and their personal chaos. This sometimes led to us extending hospitality to characters you could think of as a little unsavoury, if you were feeling judgemental. It also meant having various former girlfriends to stay when they were passing through Sydney, and just wanted to have “a bit of his mind,” as one put it to me.

I don’t know how things escalated from comforting Emma to getting into bed with her, or at least, that isn’t true, I can imagine exactly how that progressed, but even these many years later I don’t want to talk about it, except to say that when one discovers a spouse has been intimately involved with someone else whilst conducting their ordinary life with you, it’s as if that period of time no longer has validity, it is not what you had thought it to be, you believed it to be what it absolutely was not, and that is something like the feeling of clinging desperately to a stair rail on the fortieth floor of a swaying building in a Tokyo earthquake.

The affair went on for several months, until Bill decided he had to end it. He told me he felt too guilty to continue, to which I rather scathingly responded that it had taken quite some time for that guilt to kick in, hadn’t it? Later he admitted he just didn’t desire her anymore and had found himself in the ridiculous situation of desiring his wife more than he desired his lover. In fact he always had, he continued, he’d just been so moved by the powerful combination of her distress and her unflagging long-term desire for him that he’d capitulated to her need. Desire begets desire. Don’t enhance it, I told him. A mercy fuck is a mercy fuck.

And then, because some of us are incapable of protecting ourselves and seek to know what can only cause our hearts to bleed half to death, I asked “Were you very passionate with her?”

There was a long silence.

“What else would you have me be?” he finally answered.

I was breathless at the audacity of his reply, at the excruciating hurt it caused me, and finally, at the truth of it. I would not have had him be a man who dithered about these things. If it is to be done, it ought to be done with feeling, holding nothing back. The man I loved was incapable of acting without passion in all things, and no, I would not have had him be less than passionate about his infidelity either.

However.

I was a that time involved in a family court matter with my first husband to do with property and child maintenance and all the detritus of a broken-down marriage. I had a lawyer. This lawyer made it obvious to me, by rubbing his leg against mine under the table as we sat in front of a magistrate hammering out details of the settlement, and with various other attentions I hadn’t known were included in his fees and that I ignored, that he fancied me as a potential sexual partner. I was about as uninterested as anyone can be, my preferred mode of relationship being serial monogamy, and being as deeply in love with my husband as it’s possible to get.  Sam didn’t stand a chance. But after Emma’s confession, everything changed. My hurt was a constant dark companion that made me feel quite maddened. I’d smashed up the kitchen, broken every thing I could break, started smoking, and in the most bizarre expression of grief I can ever recall in my life, shaved my head. All my long blonde hair, so loved by Bill, lay in a tangled slippery mess on the bathroom floor, and I refused to clean it up. Every time he brushed his teeth he tried to avoid treading in it but would always come to bed with strands  of my hair between his toes.

“I can’t believe you’ve done this,” he moaned the first night, and tried to stroke and kiss my head, but I swatted him away in a fury and removed myself to sleep in my study.

My newly bald look did not deter the lawyer. This was before the time bald immediately made everyone think of chemotherapy, when it was still exotic. I made up my mind. I would fuck the lawyer. If Bill could do it, so could I.

I cared not a fig for the lawyer, the sex was terrible, I cried the whole time and then I did it again. The affair was brief, over a couple of weeks, and I told Bill straight away, otherwise what would have been the point of it? This caused an explosion I could never have foreseen. It was, apparently, one thing for Bill to fuck around, but quite another if I did it. He didn’t smash anything because there was nothing left to smash, but he did insist on meeting with Sam to “discuss” the “situation.” They met at the Gelato Bar.  Sam’s contact lens fell out into his coffee, he said Bill was better looking than him, and he felt at a disadvantage. They agreed if I wanted both of them, they would learn to share me with as little acrimony as possible.

I heard that news from both parties initially with bemusement, and then rage. I could not believe the arrogance and stupidity of men. And Emma wouldn’t leave me alone.

Bill had, it turned out, made promises. He’d led her to believe he was in something with her for the long haul. She had offered him what she called an “unconventional” relationship, in which she would be his mistress, she accepted that he would stay with me, and he had agreed to the arrangement. I said I couldn’t think of anything more conventional than being some man’s mistress, and I let them both know I very much did not appreciate finding myself in such a fucking cliché.

“She isn’t going to let this go,” Bill told me, trembling, after another long, fraught phone call.

“Why should she? You gave her your word. You let her think it was a long-term thing. Is she now to think that either she’s a fool, or you’re an opportunistic liar? You knew she’d been in love with you forever. What do you expect?”

“I changed my mind, surely a man can be allowed to change his mind?”

“You really have to be careful about “changing your mind” when it involves relations with another human heart. Did you think she’d say OK, and thanks for all the fish?”

I’ve since noticed, listening to others describe their affairs with married men, that there seems to be an assumption on the part of those men that the words they say to their mistresses don’t carry the same weight and gravitas as the words they say to anyone else. In general, these men are amazed when their lover protests, but you said…and repeats back to them the undertakings they have made. There seems to be an assumption on almost everyone’s part except the women involved, that married men are not to be held to anything they say when they are involved in an extra marital affair. The woman, it’s generally thought, is a fool to believe them, and ought to behave graciously when he wants to return to the safety of his marriage, and should not remind him of what have become for him embarrassing promises and declarations of love.

This has never seemed quite right to me. I felt a certain sympathy for Emma. I felt furious with Bill for behaving like any other boring stupid married man who thought for a while he could have a wife and a mistress and then when it got complicated ditch the mistress, and then have the temerity to complain when she didn’t shut up and go away and instead held him to his words, and let her messy broken heart bleed all over his life. I didn’t care how much trouble she caused him. Bring it on, was what I thought. I never got annoyed if I answered the phone and it was Emma asking for Bill, even in the middle of the night. Of course, I’d say, he’s right here. Then I would sit, glowering at him, listening to his uncomfortable side of the conversation  while he made helpless shrugging gestures at me, as if to say, I can’t get away, she won’t shut up. Good, I’d mouth. Serves you fucking well right.

Eventually, Emma did give up and I have no idea what became of her.

I count myself as fortunate to have loved and desired Bill to the degree that I never wanted anyone else, so I didn’t have to struggle with what is, in Western culture, forbidden desire. Though I never managed it, I would like to have been able to deal with his infidelities with more equilibrium, because I don’t think there is anything wrong with desire, and I think  it’s probably much better to act on it than to attempt to repress and deny it. I tend to agree with William Blake:

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence

When Bill asked me, in response to my tortured question about his passion with Emma, “What else would you have me be?” I understood that a human being can never be enslaved by another, and though his infidelity was like death to me at the time, I could not have wished him to do it in any other way.

I don’t think Blake is suggesting I act on every whim, like a rude child selfishly doing whatever I want with no thought for anyone else. But desire isn’t whim. I think Blake is saying that desire is a powerful force, and to be reckoned with, that it is transgressive, that it will break down all my boundaries and lead me into the unknown, and if I turn away, if I refuse desire, I will be the lesser for it in the end. Desire is perhaps incompatible with convention and fidelity. Perhaps this is why cultures are so anxious to restrain it, and the infidelity that so frequently accompanies it, whenever it so subversively appears.

Blake- Marriage of Heaven & Hell

Why I don’t care that there’s only one woman in cabinet.

18 Sep

Look. It’s not as if we didn’t know Prime Minister Abbott’s attitude to women before enough of us voted for him to lead the country.

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s a reminder.

Abbott on women

So it should come as no surprise that the new PM has only one woman, Julie Bishop, in his cabinet.

Anyone who can make the above observation is not going to apply the same merit test for women as he is for men.  Abbott claims the LNP promotes on merit, leading in this instance to a vast majority of males in positions of power and influence. He doesn’t reveal his criteria for assessing merit, but if he starts from the position that women are destined to exclusion from large numbers of areas because of our lady bits, one is inclined to think one of them is owning a penis.

It is, of course, shameful that in 2013 a first world country should be led by a man with such biologically determinist attitudes. I don’t believe for a minute there aren’t women in the LNP as worthy and capable as many of the men Abbott has chosen. However, I have no  sympathy and no respect for any of them, if they are content to stand silently by while their leader treats them with such contempt, simply because they have vaginas.

Although a willingness to be treated with contempt because vagina is likely a precondition of joining the LNP.

Neither do I believe that Abbott’s policies would be any different if his cabinet was crammed to the ceilings with women, so in that sense it doesn’t matter if they are present or not.

The PM has further enraged many by appointing himself the Prime Minister for Women.  He has done this because he can. He is taunting us. We should do our very best to ignore him.

There is certainly a gender issue in play here. However, it is one for Coalition women to fight, not me. Coalition women don’t give a toss about those of us who aren’t of their number. Why do I care if they have positions of seniority or not? They aren’t going to do anything I’d like with their power. So they can fight their own battles, and if they don’t, it won’t keep me up at night.

Abbott & daughters

In our post-moral politics, something “works” when it gets politicians elected

22 Jul

There’s much discussion about whether or not Kevin Rudd’s “PNG solution” will “work,” discussion that has led me to speculate on what the definition of “work” is in these circumstances.

One way in which it may not “work” is for the well-being and peace of the citizens of PNG. The potential problems of resettling refugees in that country are clearly articulated in this piece. I recommend it to anyone interested in the complex realities of Rudd’s grand plan.

Of course, it could be that Rudd is depending on asylum seekers deciding that the persecution, torture and death many of them face in the countries they are fleeing are, on balance, a whole lot better than being resettled in PNG, and therefore they will change their minds about getting on boats in the first place. The contempt this implies for Australia’s former colony is breathtaking. We are transporting “illegals” to that now independent country, as if we are still its colonial masters.

The plan might “work” in the sense of reducing or preventing asylum seeker attempts to escape their circumstances by boat. Work for the government, that is, and for those among us who apparently live in fear of invasion, the imposition of Sharia law, and people from other cultures who look different and don’t speak English properly and will not queue. It won’t “work” for the asylum seekers, who will still be stuck with lives that are so tenuous they are willing to risk them on dangerous journeys rather than stay where they are.

That we have contributed to the turmoil in some of the source countries is incontestable. Our slavish capitulation to US invasion and subsequent destruction of source countries leaves us bearing certain responsibilities to their citizens. In the same way, our colonisation and exploitation of PNG (see this piece in the Guardian on our vulture capitalist practices in that country) ought to cause us to think carefully before using PNG once more for our own gain, with a cavalier disregard for the effects that will have on its population.

I can attest to some of the ruination inflicted on that country, having spent several years living on Bougainville Island watching the myriad consequences of copper mining there.

The plan might “work” to get the ALP re-elected, much as John Howard’s infamous exploitation of the Tampa and the tragedy of 9/11 “worked” to return government to the LNP when everyone thought they were done for. Howard cleverly whipped up the nation’s fears of terrorists, conflating asylum seekers with those who wrought havoc in the US. Rudd’s narrative of evil is ostensibly aimed at people smugglers, however those who will be most severely affected by his PNG solution are the human cargo, whom Rudd will traffic to PNG in exchange for aid to that country. Rudd’s narrative is also one of invasion by importunate undesirables, implying that we are under such acute threat from asylum seekers we must abandon all moral principles and do whatever it takes to keep them out. Or else, catastrophe.

Quite what form that catastrophe might take is unclear. I am waiting for a politician to spell out the actual dangers with which refugees threaten us, because I can’t think of any. The existential whine about losing our national identity leaves me baffled, as does the irrational fear of a ruptured sovereignty. Both are constructs, reified for political gain.

The xenophobic panic is arrant nonsense, but Rudd is not an arrant fool. He has, however, re-calibrated his moral compass since the days he lectured us on the necessity to behave with kindness towards the stranger at our gate, and espoused in essays his love for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It would be an interesting entertainment, if one had the inclination, to chart Rudd’s moral decline in the last six or so years.

Apparently in our post moral politics something “works” when it gets politicians re-elected. There is no place in the narrative for moral and ethical considerations.Our political and media elite have attempted to fill this gaping moral abyss with faux concern  for those who drown on the boat journey, especially babies. I say “faux” concern because they have no concern at all for the lives of these people before or after their perilous journeys. If they survive they will be locked up in indefinite detention, some of them even if they are found to be refugees. Babies, children and women are subjected to this treatment, with well-documented evidence of the psychological disasters this inhumane incarceration causes, particularly in the young. The refugees released into the community come to us not only traumatised by their experiences in the source country, but additionally and entirely unnecessarily traumatised by the treatment afforded them by Australian governments. Yet these same politicians will apparently move heaven and earth to prevent the drowning death of a baby. It is, I suppose,  sheer coincidence that this will likely persuade many people to vote for them.

There are times in the lives of nations and individuals when circumstances are so dire, moral and ethical considerations become a luxury that cannot be afforded in the desperate effort to survive. This is likely the situation of many boat-borne asylum seekers later found to be refugees. The concept of waiting in line for one’s turn can be a luxury only the comfortable can observe. Terror, desperation and the impulse to survive will override manners, and if you don’t understand that you’ve never been very afraid, and you suffer from a failure of imagination.

In no sense can Australians claim to be in such a state of terror and desperation at the prospect of asylum seekers arriving by boat, yet our politicians and those who support them have utterly abandoned moral and ethical considerations, just as if we are fighting for our survival.

Whether or not a solution is “workable” is not measured by how it best serves the needs of all stakeholders. It is not measured in terms of human suffering, in terms of decency, in terms of our obligation as human beings to treat our most vulnerable fellows with compassion and care.  It “works” if it is politically successful. That is all.

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