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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When your dad is not the PM

16 Jun

Frances Abbott, 24 year-old daughter of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, made news a couple of weeks ago when it emerged she’d been offered a $60,ooo scholarship to attend the Whitehouse Institute of Design. The scholarship has been awarded only once before, to the daughter of the school’s director, and students interviewed say they had no idea such a scholarship was available, and would have applied for it if they had.

As the scholarship is apparently awarded on merit, the Whitehouse Institute of Design appears to have a remarkably low number of meritorious students, the Director’s daughter and the daughter of the Prime Minister being the only ones considered worthy of such financial largesse in the Institute’s entire history.

Today it’s been revealed that Ms Abbott broke her lease agreement  on an apartment she rented in Prahan, citing lack of security in the ground floor dwelling, and telling a VCAT hearing that “My dad is the Prime Minister” and he and his security teams did not consider the apartment safe for her. Ms Abbott had signed the lease without first consulting her father on the security issue because she wanted to be “independent.”

For reasons I find completely incomprehensible, not least because they haven’t been explained, VCAT found in Ms Abbott’s favour, and she was not obliged to pay $1000 requested by the landlady, a single mother recovering from cancer who was forced to default on a mortgage payment to cover her costs after Ms Abbott broke the lease.

Nobody would disagree that members of the PM’s family need security, however, it is remarkable that Ms Abbott herself did not think about this, or consult her father prior to signing the lease. This does not sound like the same standard of mature, responsible behaviour Mr Abbott demands from other 24 year-old Australians, especially those who are unemployed.

If you are in this category, and your dad is not the PM, you will have to apply for 40 jobs every month for six months before you are eligible for meagre government assistance, and quite how you are going to house, feed and clothe yourself during those six months is anybody’s guess.

Mr Abbott clearly believes young people ought to be independent, unless, of course, they are his young people. Handouts never encouraged anyone to stand on their own two feet, unless of course they are handed out to his children in the form of $60,000 scholarships. If your dad isn’t the Prime Minister, you won’t be offered scholarships nobody else knows about to get you through university, private college, or TAFE,  if you choose to learn instead of earn between the ages of seventeen and thirty. Indeed, the cost of your learning, set to double or triple in the coming years, plus interest, may make it difficult for you to carry the burden of a mortgage as well, so you will be facing extraordinary challenges of the kind we are not used to in Australia, where education has been a right, and not simply a privilege available to the wealthy and powerful.

The matter of Ms Abbott’s security, and the matter of the broken lease are two separate issues. While I sympathise with Ms Abbott’s struggle to carve out her independence, something many of us had to do before we were twenty-four but let’s not carp, surely it is Ms Abbott’s responsibility to fulfil her legal obligations. The lease was signed. The property proved inappropriate after the lease was signed. If this happened to me, or you, we’d be stuck with it or we’d pay the penalty for breaking our agreement. If our dad earned half a million dollars a year, he might help us out with whatever costs we’d incurred, but only if he had political power could we get off scot-free, leaving another out-of-pocket and paying for our irresponsibility.

Mr Abbott insists that families should be off-limits in the political arena. However, he did rely heavily on the presence of his wife and three daughters throughout the election campaign, not least of all to prove he isn’t a misogynist, though I remain unconvinced by that dubious evidence. When politicians’ families benefit from the spouse and parents’ occupation, it is impossible to argue that they should be left out of the fray. They can’t be in it for the goodies, and out of it for the critiques. Ms Abbott is an adult. Her father is making enormous demands on adults of the same age, and much younger.  It is these very demands made by their father that will continue to ensure the Abbott daughters remain under intense scrutiny. The Prime Minister cannot see his daughters favoured, while he subjects the daughters and sons of others to harsh and cruel demands that have the potential to ruin their lives.

No love in Abbott government’s tough

12 Jun

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have taken to describing their budgetary cruelty as an act of “tough love” for which we may well rail against them in the present, but will respect them for in the years ahead, presumably when we can see how their tough love has achieved the goal of all tough love, that is to bring the poor amongst us to their senses and force them to live non-vulnerable, standing-on-their-own-two-feet lives, or die.

Tough love is a phrase usually associated with advice given to parents of drug-addicted offspring: refuse support in order to achieve a drug-free outcome. It demands that one have sufficient strength to withdraw all assistance that might enable the addict to continue on their self-destructive path. It requires the stamina to watch another spiral into an abject desolation and marginalisation that is allegedly entirely his or her own doing, and in which, the theory would have it, the addict will hit their own personal bottom line and in so doing begin the long trip back to sobriety and a decent life. I have no idea if it works or not.

There is no love in the tough Abbott and Hockey are dealing out to the vulnerable who will bear the brunt of their withdrawal of government support. Indeed, it is very telling that Abbott and Hockey appear to equate (with no evidence whatsoever to support their bigoted assumptions) economic vulnerability with anti social addictions, and have set about “curing” the vulnerability by withdrawing already meagre support in the deranged belief that if you make people starve, they will stop being vulnerable. Vulnerability is, in the Abbott and Hockey ideology, a choice, and people must be forced to stop making it by using the harshest possible methods until they hit their bottom line, and wake up one morning enlightened, repentant, and ready to get a job.

This government has no interest in equality. The admirable ethos of the “fair go,” so intrinsic to what we fondly think of as our national character, has been mangled beyond recognition in the first few months of the Abbott incumbency. Instead, we have Hockey thundering why should you pay for someone else’s education, completely overlooking the fact that someone else paid for his. We contribute to the costs of educating others because it benefits all of us. Educating people gives us the professionals who are absolutely essential to our daily lives and well-being.

Abbott and his government are in the business of installing a new regime of truth, one that is foreign to us, a regime that casts fairness and concern for others in a negative light, a move that is made even more inexplicable by the Christian affiliations of the PM and his Treasurer. The marriage of religion and neo liberalism apparently spawns an extreme of wilful ignorance, and the inevitably cruelty that accompanies the trait.

In his excellent piece in The King’s Tribune, Tim Dunlop argues that progressives need to change the current conversation, that there is little to be gained in agitating for a change in LNP leadership, or castigating Abbott, pining for Turnbull or bringing back the ALP in its current configuration. The Australian ALP appears to be in its own downward spiral, following the lead of the UK Labour Party, described by George Monbiot in this Guardian piece  as selfishly committed to inequality in its acts of omission, and its commitment to supporting aspects of the obscene Tory attacks on that county’s vulnerable.

What progressives must do, Dunlop argues, is work from the premise that we do want a country in which it is possible to offer everyone a fair crack at a decent life, a premise that will lead us in a very different direction from that offered by the LNP. The way in which we might achieve this revolution is by vocalising our resistance to the government’s imposition of inequality as a way of life in our country, using protest and withdrawal of labour. Where there is power there is always resistance, as Foucault noted, and the most powerful form of resistance available to citizens in situations such as ours is taking to the streets, as often as we have to, and letting the government know we are not a people who desire the increased suffering of the already vulnerable, rather we are a people who will fight for the fair go.

There is no love in the Abbott government’s tough. Much as Abbott and Hockey seek to portray themselves as men of character who are willing to risk short-term popularity for long-term gain, the reality is these men have gone for the jugular of the most vulnerable human beings in our country. There will be no long-term gain for the vulnerable. There will be increasing hardship, despair and disintegration. Abbott and Hockey will deliver us a new underclass, generations of citizens who have never been given a fair go.

Vulnerable people have never experienced entitlement, that is the province of the wealthy and comfortable. The age of entitlement is not over, it thrives. The age of the fair go has come to a sticky end, and we will all be the poorer for its death.

Abbott redefines “human” to exclude vulnerable

29 May

I don’t know if anyone else is feeling traumatic fatigue as a consequence of the unrelenting assaults on truth and decency perpetrated by the Abbott government.

Where to start, recovering HECS debts from the dead, lying about the circumstances that led to the death of Reza Barati in the Manus Island riot; $111 million cut to CSIRO while $250 million given to school chaplains; Abbott and Hockey’s persistent efforts to sell their draconian budget as “fair” when anyone who looks for more than a nano second can see it patently is not, favouring, as it does, the rich, while demanding that those who have little give more than they can bear from what little they have, must I go on?

One thing all the government’s ideologically inspired torments have in common is their attack on human dignity, be it the dignity of asylum seekers, of disabled people, of pensioners, of students, of women who are unfairly disadvantaged, of the young unemployed, of the children who will be born into generational disadvantage as a consequence of this government’s policies, must I go on?

Attacking the human dignity of just about everyone, in fact, except the comfortably off and the rich, causing me to conclude yet again that in the conservative mind, the only human who deserves to conduct their life with dignity is the human with power and money.

Which one of the bastards said it is necessary to break eggs if you want to make an omelette?

Denial of human dignity discredits the worth of any cause that needs such denial to assert itself… What may be true for omelettes becomes a cruel lie when applied to human happiness and well-being.*

The ideological assumption from which many, if not all of the Abbott government policies are born, is that if you find yourself in a position where you need government assistance of any kind you are exiled from humanity, that is, they have redefined human to exclude the vulnerable. Indeed, you are not vulnerable at all, as the conservative mind does not accept the notion of vulnerability. You are a bludger, a scrounger, an importunate failure whose existence can only serve to drain the resources of the successful, and this has nothing at all to do with the circumstances of your life, or the society in which you attempt to live it. To the conservative mind, vulnerability equals immorality.

No evidence is ever presented by either politicians or the media who support their ideology, to substantiate claims of bludgers sitting on couches living the high life on the dole. No evidence is ever provided to substantiate the stereotypes of profligate youth, lazy mothers, thieving pensioners, criminal asylum seekers, people faking disability, et al, all of whom apparently exist only to deprive the successful and the powerful of what they claim to have worked their arses off to achieve, that is, depriving the humans who deserve to survive, and survive with dignity.

The value, the most precious of human values the sine qua non attribute of humanity, is a life of dignity; not survival at all costs. *

Yes, Prime Minister Abbott reassures his audiences, this is a hard budget, it will be hard but it is necessary. Yes, Prime Minister, this is a hard budget and it is hard on those who can least afford the pain it will bring. It is an attack on the vulnerable, an attack on human dignity, a disgraceful, undisguised war on anyone who is not, in conservative terms, successful.

And if Bob Ellis is right, though I dare not hope, I dare not, it will bring you down so hard on your unsellable arse that you will never get up again.

The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human, wrote Hannah Arendt. And neither does the Abbott government.

 

*Zygmunt Bauman

The Budget: All cruelty springs from weakness

19 May

Cruelty springs from weaknessIt can’t be denied any longer, conservatives really do believe they have no responsibility to the vulnerable, and it is perfectly acceptable to the Abbott government that those who can least afford it endure the most harsh of financial limitations.

This piece in the Sydney Morning Herald reveals that while high income couples stand to lose scarcely at all, families on benefits may lose up to 10% of their income. Known as “Detailed family outcomes,” this information was withheld from the budget, contrary to custom, by Joe Hockey, obviously because it reveals the Abbott government lie that everyone will be doing their fair share of the heavy lifting allegedly required to get the budget back on track.

Abbott also stated in an interview with Alison Carabine on Radio National Breakfast this morning that the highly paid, such as politicians, judges and senior public servants, will suffer a pay freeze for twelve months, costing Abbott something like a $6000 addition to his $500,000 plus benefits salary package. Not even the most witless among us could possibly believe this can be in any way comparable to the situation of a young person without resources denied Newstart benefits, and low-income families and pensioners having to choose between a middy, a treat for the kids, the doctor’s bill, and medicine, for which they will also have to pay more.

Pensioners also stand to lose extras such as free car registration, and reductions in rates, water and electricity. These concessions were made available to the people in the community who were recognised as vulnerable and needing assistance by governments unlike this one, governments who were capable of making such acknowledgements.

The question I am waiting for a journalist to ask the Prime Minister and the Treasurer is, why are they placing an intolerable burden on the most vulnerable while the wealthy are called upon to do comparatively very little?

What is it in the conservative psychology that makes such unfairness acceptable to them?

No country can afford to be governed by people who hate and fear vulnerability, as do these Australian conservatives. Far from being adult such people are dangerously immature, incapable of understanding any life experience other than their own. Convinced of its superiority, this government asks little or nothing of those best placed to contribute to the country’s needs, while demanding that those least able, relinquish what little they already have. In other words, the Abbott government is determined to punish the vulnerable for their vulnerability.

All cruelty springs from weakness, declared the philosopher Seneca. Wealth and power do not guarantee strength of character, and it’s hard to detect that quality in Abbott and Hockey. Strength of character requires the ability to identify vulnerability and refrain from taking advantage of it. Hockey and Abbott have indeed identified the vulnerable, and have proceeded to take the most appalling advantage, of the kind they would never dream of imposing on the wealthy and comfortable.

Conservatives are, in general, weak and cruel. Our government is weak and cruel. We are in dangerous times, with this weak and cruel government. As we have seen with the treatment of asylum seekers in this country, (and this has been demonstrated by both major parties) once the bar has been lowered for the treatment of a particular group of human beings, it is very easy to escalate ill-treatment.

This budget is devastating for the vulnerable, and pays no mind to their survival. This budget will lower the bar on the treatment of vulnerable people in our society. It will become easier to treat them even more harshly, to consider them even less worthy, to demonise them as threats and parasites, just as has been done to asylum seekers in the last fourteen years. And in the way of things, as history has demonstrated over and over again, ill-treatment becomes normalised, and scapegoats become the bitter focus of a community’s fears and discontents.

Beware of cruel governments. They will only become more cruel. Because they are, at their heart, cowardly and weak, and when the cowardly and weak attain power, the vulnerable will be the first they destroy.

In his own words: Abbott brings our democracy into disrepute.

17 May

 “It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.” Tony Abbott, August 22, 2011

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink

I’m Joe Hockey. You’re not.

15 May

Stop the war on the poorTreasurer Joe Hockey’s comments today on the effects of his budget cuts on those less financially advantaged  should convince, if one is not not already convinced, that the conservative, or as some would have it the neo conservative mind lacks the imaginative ability to consider the inevitable complexities of a capitalist society, and is also singularly lacking in any desire to inform itself on the same.

In an interview with Chris Uhlmann on ABC radio’s AM program  this morning, Hockey declared that those strapped for cash will have to realise that a $22 packet of cigarettes will pay for three trips to the emergency room, two middies of beer will do the same, and surely, any parent worth his or her salt will choose the emergency room for the kids over their own pleasure.

When asked how he would fare if  in his twenties, out of work and denied benefits Hockey replied, “Well, I’d expect to be in a job.”

Uhlmann then says: “People on a fixed income, pensioners for example, might find it difficult…they might have to make choices in life.”

Hockey: “Well, we do have to make choices…”

In Joe Hockey’s ideology a packet of cigarettes and a couple of middies enjoyed by the poor is a vice. The poor are not entitled to enjoyment of any kind because they are poor, and poverty is immoral. Immoral people without means can’t expect to have any fun. That’s the price they must pay for their immorality.

Hockey’s own enjoyment of cigars and Grange Hermitage is an entitlement, basically because he’s Joe Hockey and the poor aren’t. Hockey may also be immoral, there are many who might hold that view, but he is comfortably off and immoral, so he is entitled to enjoyment.

Yes, the Abbott government’s awareness of the complexities of Australian society in 2014 is that simplistic. It’s Dickensian. Soon they’ll bring back debtors’ prisons.

If a government cannot afford compassion, it is a government of sociopaths. If it cannot govern with common sense, it is a crazed government. If it is driven entirely by ideology and considers its citizens merely as stereotypes, it is a gravely dangerous government and it ought to be thrown out at the earliest opportunity. If it wages war on the unworthy poor in order that it might protect the interests of the worthy wealthy it’s on its way to becoming an oligarchy.

But hey. I’m Joe Hockey. You’re not.

 

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