Archive | January, 2011

I must be alive ’cos my heart’s still beating.

29 Jan

Some time ago I was told that I have an indolent lymphoma, a death sentence, the specialist implied. But so is life, I said. The moment I’m born I’m old enough to die. David stared in dismay, as if he found my attitude cavalier. As if he feared I hadn’t been listening.

Dying Rose. By lovestruck via flickr

After receiving this dismal news, I left David’s office and went into the hospital bathroom, where I stood looking in the mirror for a long time, talking myself down from the ceiling and back into my body.

Who am I, I wondered as I stared at the pale woman in front of me.

Where am I going?

This sudden loss of self- recognition and purpose spooked me. Get a grip, I advised myself. I adjusted my old leather backpack on my shoulders. I washed my face, put some balm on my cracked lips, and left the hospital.

I was wearing jeans, brown boots, and a white shirt. An emerald green silk scarf, a gift from my youngest son whom we all call The Adventurer, was thrown carelessly around my neck. The scarf was stiff with tears and snot. I’d lost my bravado when David insisted on repeating his diagnosis. I’d held up both palms in protest, as if to keep him and all his words away from me, then I’d sobbed like a little girl who’d been unjustly punished, that it wasn’t fair.

David pushed the tissues across the desk. I’d used my scarf instead. It smelled, still, of my child.

This is how my life ended, and my dying began.



After leaving the hospital I walked carefully down the familiar Newtown streets,leaking vital energies like a dying alien.

Dog in the forest

To return to the city after a long absence is to invite a serious assault on the senses. My senses were attuned to the ocean, and the secret scents of the rainforest.To the distant chug of trawlers as they crossed the bar at sunset, heading out for the night’s fishing.

My senses were used to the sounds of the whistling kites nesting at the bottom of the garden, and the sorrowful cries of the black-capped terns on the winter beach. Calmed by the blue heron absorbed in picking its delicate way across the mud flats in the wispy grey of an early morning river mist.

These senses were ill-prepared for traffic fumes and the roar of trucks; the hot sun glaring off shop windows, and dog shit in steaming piles around my feet. Neither had they managed well with the hospital’s chemical odours, and the sight, through an uncovered window, of a purple-gloved hand preparing a large syringe.

Purple. The colour of bishops, martyrs,and feminism, and now of cancer.

I was much taken with the name of my illness. It sounded refreshingly non-medical, even poetic. Having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion. Sluggish, I read when I looked it up, the better to get a handle on the nature of the intruder.

I imagined the Indolent Lymphoma loafing on a Caribbean beach in a Panama hat, sunning itself under a striped umbrella, with a pink cocktail in its hand and a bag of weed in the pocket of its board shorts. I imagined myself confronting it.

‘We need to talk,’ I’d begin. ‘You’re on my cloud. You need to get off. Your attitude is costly for my life, and it cannot be allowed to continue.’

When I got up close I saw the creature had reptilian eyes and a self-satisfied leer. It winked at me and sucked on its roach. It didn’t speak, but roused itself enough to adjust the umbrella to keep the sun off its face. Then it idly threw the last of the roach into the warm turquoise sea. I lost my temper.

‘Well fuck you!’ I yelled.‘This isn’t fucking over yet, you know!’



For a long time I slept with my teeth clenched, and woke each morning with an aching jaw. I couldn’t rouse myself enough to talk to anyone. I dreamed I was swimming in a turbulent sea and when I sank beneath the waves, my skirt became trapped under a rock.

I told no one I was ill. I thought that by telling someone I would make the diagnosis real. I lived alone then. My children were scattered across the world, and I was bereft of husbands and lovers. It was easy to keep a secret.

The dreams became worse. Apocalyptic, with tidal waves; angry wolves, soldiers, and smoking theatres of war littered with the limbless dead. I became afraid to fall sleep. I sat up at night watching infomercials on television and drinking red wine. In the early hours of the morning I’d swallow non-prescription calmatives. I didn’t consciously consider suicide, though I had it in mind if things became too bad, if pain became too bad further down the track.

A frightening aridity then took hold of me. My fevers were dry and wouldn’t break. My skin shrivelled. My eyes felt full of grit. My salivary glands reduced their output and my tongue, deprived of normal lubrication, became unwieldy and attached itself to the roof of my mouth as if both were lined with Velcro. I craved fluids and drank frequently and in large quantities. But the liquids brought no relief.

My spirit is burning itself out, I thought. I hadn’t anticipated this deathly dryness, this burning up, this slow progression towards grey ash.

Grim Reaper. By Brave Heart via flickr

‘I don’t know how long I’ve got,’ I realised in a rare moment of reflection and assessment. ‘What do I most want to do?’

I had infant grandchildren as yet unmet on the other side of the world. Why not take a trip and visit them? At this thought I was immediately afraid. Fear has always been my Achilles heel.

‘What if I get sick, really sick in a foreign country?’ I worried, as I walked the winter beach with my black and white dog.

‘But why does it matter where I get really sick?’ I argued back.’Does anywhere feel like home to me? Where do I belong, where have I ever belonged? Does it matter at all where I die?’

I considered these questions mostly in the abstract. As generalised philosophical meditations, as a scholar rather than a sufferer, and got nowhere.

There are times when knowledge fails to make the necessary journey from the head to the heart.

‘Stuff fucking everything,’ I thought one day, overwhelmed by circumstances of such magnitude that my mind rebelled against admitting them. And besides, I was beginning to bore myself. There is only so much time one can spend contemplating one’s death. It was now a time for action, not stasis.I also wanted very much to start smoking again after twenty-four years of abstinence, and that urge had to be resisted at all costs.

So, with what felt like my last reserves of self-care, I decided I would go to Mexico. My son the Chef lived on the Mexican Caribbean coast with the grandchildren I had yet to meet. What better journey could I make? And my best friend, Jane, agreed to join me there later in the year.

I stored my winter clothes in boxes. Where I was going it was always summer. I packed my bags and boarded the 10am Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Forth Worth, and on to Cancún. A thrilling optimism took me over. No regrets! No tears goodbye! Hola! Buenos dias, senors y senoritas!

Flying into...

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Women bagging women: the female politician.

27 Jan

Sisters forever sisters. By joanneteh_32 via flickr

Once again the media coverage of the appointment of a woman to a senior political position has brought forth angry criticism, and accusations of sexism from some of the body politic. The questions asked and the commentary published is sexist, and designed to undermine the authority of female politicians, it is alleged. Nobody, it’s claimed, asks these idiotic questions of male politicians, or demands that they explain themselves if they aren’t married.

I don’t think this is quite true, however, that’s an article in its own right, for another day.

Lara Giddings, the latest of several ALP women promoted to the top job in state and federal governments, was yesterday asked the usual questions about her marital status, her childfree status, and the current absence of a boyfriend in her life. As yet, we haven’t heard what people think about her appearance, her hairstyle and colour, and her earlobes, but I’m confident that will come.

Yet when it comes to making ad hominem comments about female politicians, some of the worse offenders are women. Nikki Savva in the Australian of November 23 2010, offered sarcastic sartorial and political advice to Julia Gillard, in a piece titled Smarten up, PM, and do not wear green

Also in the Australian, July 28 2010, Janet Albrechtson’s Let’s be honest about Julia’s free gender leg-up ,while not focusing on her appearance, attacks Gillard’s alleged inability to relate to the women who’ve chosen to marry and raise children, given her own choices to do neither.

Social commentator Bettina Arndt also criticized the de facto arrangements of Julia Gillard in the Sydney Morning Herald article of June 29, 2010 titled: Shacking up is hard to do: why Gillard may be leery of the Lodge. Arndt questioned Gillard’s value as a role model for young women who wanted marriage, children and career.

Hard-line feminists describe those who launch such ad hominem attacks as “anti feminist women.” A few years back they described such a woman as “having a pr*ck in her head.”

(Ad hominem arguments are those that attack the speaker in the hope of undermining her or him, rather than addressing the argument. They frequently take the form of comments on physical appearance. For example, one I’ve never forgotten that came from a short, chubby, ageing bald fellow who exclaimed when he was introduced to me: “But you can’t be a blonde and have a PhD, darling!”)

It’s unrealistic to expect that women will be kind to each other just because we’re women.  Nevertheless, there is an unspoken, unexamined and entirely unproven expectation that we are somehow bonded through our gender, and therefore less likely to betray one another.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Women deceive other women all the time, with their male lovers and partners, for example. And very many women, in the throes of shock and despair, will say that while they sort of expect men to behave like that, and they are desperately upset, it’s how the woman betrayed the woman that really cuts to the bone.

Many women survivors of childhood sexual abuse reveal that while the perpetrator did them untold damage, they have never and will never understand why their mothers didn’t help them, and this betrayal is impossible to grasp on a very deep emotional and spiritual level.

Women can be unbelievably hard on their daughters, begrudging them success, and an easier life than they’ve experienced.

And yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, women continue to believe in and yearn for the kindness of other women, and continue to be disappointed  when it’s not forthcoming.

Women might need to toughen up and let go of the hopeful fantasy that women are the greatest supporters of women, or that they should be. I sometimes wonder if allegations of sexism against men, while frequently entirely justified, might also work to conceal and deny the truly frightening hatred we women are capable of experiencing and enacting towards each other.

Everyone recognizes the woman who seeks approval from a man by denigrating other women, thus portraying herself as “different” and “better.”

Women who have a public life in any field, are targeted by both genders for ad hominem attacks. There are feminists who explain this phenomenon as a consequence of overwhelming patriarchal influences that have set us against one another in order to further the patriarchal agenda. This may well be one of the explanations for a learned rather than innate cruelty, if indeed that’s what it is. And there’s another argument.

However, the explanation doesn’t justify the hostilities, and after so many years of feminist analysis, we can no longer claim to be ignorant of what influences motivate us and how we perpetuate those influences in our lives.

Perhaps it’s time for women to take responsibility for our attitudes towards other women, especially those in public life. Perhaps one way of doing this is becoming aware of when we’re engaging in the ad hominem argument, and stopping it before it starts.

Everybody does it to some degree, it’s almost like breathing. The things I’ve said about Julia Gillard’s voice. 

Nic and Keith’s new baby: feminist christian takes a nasty swipe

20 Jan

Baby in his Dad's loving hands. By Amanda.

The Australian newspaper, and Melinda Tankard Reist’s website today features an article titled Gestational carrier is an ugly term. It turns out MTR is referring to the descriptor used by Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban to explain the role of the woman who carried their new child, Faith Margaret.

As a poster points out, the term “gestational carrier” refers specifically to a surrogate who has no biological ties to the infant she carries. The term “traditional surrogacy” is used when the surrogate is the infant’s natural mother. In using the term, the couple were making this distinction public.

Tankard Reist claims the term “strips the woman of her humanity.” She continues:

THE objectification of women’s bodies and commodification of childbirth came together yesterday in a single antiseptic phrase contained in the announcement of a second child for actress Nicole Kidman and her musician husband Keith Urban.

Wow. Welcome to the world, baby Faith. But quickly! Cover the baby’s ears somebody, please! Don’t let that bad fairy hovering over her cradle ill-wish the child with this dark description of her genesis.

Surely MTR can’t be suggesting Kidman and Urban are guilty of objectification and commodification in their dealings with their gestational carrier?

And if she is, how does she know?

MTR then refers to “womb slavery in India,” the “disposable uterus,” and tells several horrible stories of  surrogacy arrangements gone badly wrong.

Quite what the link is between baby Faith’s happy birth and these dark stories is unclear. Except that MTR has seized the occasion to once again promote her one-sided perceptions of surrogacy.

She certainly is a glass half empty kind of gal. Apparently, because a situation carries the possibility of exploitation that’s the only aspect of it we should consider. And then we should ban it. No mention anywhere of successful surrogacies and the ensuing joys. No stories from women who’ve generously carried an infant for other women who couldn’t, and been glad and proud to have  been the bearers of great happiness.

But that’s not all. Today’s post is almost identical with a piece MTR wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald , November 8 2006 after the birth of Senator Stephen Conroy and wife Paula Benson’s baby, also carried by a surrogate. Apparently MTR hasn’t been able to find more recent horror stories to tell about surrogacy in the ensuing five years, because she uses the same examples.

A visit the to the website reveals where MTR is coming from. Briefly, she founded the Women’s Forum Australia, a “pro-life” feminist organization or an “anti-choice” feminist organization, depending on your point of view. For twelve years she worked for ultra-conservative Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine as his bioethics advisor. During his time with MTR, Harradine successfully negotiated a long standing ban on the drug RU 486, known in some circles as the “abortion pill.”

In her rhetoric against abortion MTR makes repeated and unproven claims that it is linked to incidences of breast cancer.

MTR shows up, always invited,at occasions and conferences run by religious organizations as various as Opus Dei, the Festival of Light, the Australian Christian Lobby, and Warwick Marsh’s conservative Christian “fathers’ rights” association. Bill Meuhlenberg, religious ethicist opposed to homosexuality, is also a fan.

Who was it said by their friends ye shall know them?

It’s probably quite sad to be someone who takes the occasions of other peoples’ joy, and uses them to highlight only darkness. Yes, there are undoubtedly situations in which surrogacy arrangements are far from equitable. Yes, there may be difficulties when the child wants to know her origins. Yes, Melinda, there is nothing in the world that doesn’t have its dark side. One of the challenges of life is to find our way through them into the light. Banning them all won’t cut it.

Put a case against surrogacy by all means. It should be out there, we need to be fully informed.

But do you have to cast your doom and gloom over the two occasions when the people involved seem loving and decent, and probably aren’t doing anything wrong to anybody in their desire to have and raise a child?

And isn’t it a little tiny bit opportunistic to seize these high profile cases on which to hoist your banner of propaganda?

BTW. Tankard Reist has apparently successfully produced four children of her own. Therefore she has never had to deal with the feelings of a woman who wants to carry and give birth to her child, but can’t.

How does she know the Kidman/Urban fertility status?

Count your blessings, Tankard Reist, and don’t judge those who aren’t as fortunate.

PS: I think there’s something in the theory that we see what we choose to see. That we construct our own reality. MTR sees only darkness, misery and exploitation in surrogacy. That’s her vision. She’s entitled to it.

But she isn’t entitled to prescribe that vision for everyone. She isn’t entitled to project that darkness onto people she doesn’t even know. It’s her darkness. We don’t all have to get down there in it with her.


Bleeding heart and bloody proud of it

17 Jan

Bleeding Hearts by Darren Bannister via flickr

Fed up with defending my position after an article I wrote for On Line Opinion last week about asylum seekers was greeted with the usual scorn, disparagement, ridicule and personal abuse , I spat the dummy.

I addressed the dummy spit to a particular poster, who, unlike me, remains anonymous and therefore free to say anything at no personal risk. Very brave.

But my break out was aimed at all the like-minded.

No Shadow Minister, you’re wrong.

The “single defining weakness of my argument” is that it is based on my visceral and moral objection to causing suffering and death to asylum seekers who are doing nothing more than accepting the invitation we have extended to seek refuge here.

My argument doesn’t have, in your terms, just one “single defining weakness.” It has many: (and here I listed as many of my “weaknesses as I could think of in a state of  rage)

1. It’s based in observing the spirit, as well as the black letter (as you recommend) of domestic law and the UNHCR Convention.

2. It is based on my abhorrence for the deceitful duplicity that leads my country to spend unacceptable amounts of money finding its way around laws it has voluntarily implemented, rather than having the courage and the honesty to admit these laws apparently no longer work for the country, and start addressing them.

3. It’s based on my profound disgust at my country’s willingness to use the death of asylum seekers, and the suffering of survivors incarcerated indefinitely in detention centres, as an example to other asylum seekers not to come here.  (Definite “weakness.”)

4. It is based in my belief that people of the world share a common humanity, and asylum seekers who arrive by boat (at our invitation) are as entitled to humane treatment as is any body else.  And we all know how “weak” it’s considered to hold that belief.

5. It’s based on my belief that to cause suffering in one person in order to teach another person a lesson is a very dubious moral position, and is abhorrent to me. (How “weak” is that?)

In my world, the governing maxim is “ First, do no harm.”

I probably hardly ever achieve that goal, but it is my goal.

I understand that you consider that position, and all my other positions, to be “weakness.”

Because of suffering in my own life, I’m not able to advocate inflicting it on anyone else. This reluctance is often interpreted as a weakness.

We  live by our values. If mine are considered “weak” by some, I can’t say that either surprises or upsets me.

Shadow Minister replied that I am being “emotional” and that an emotional position on refugees will end up like the pink batts did.

Oooo-eeer! Emotion! How scary is that!!!

Shadow Minister also said that my do no harm philosophy is what drowned people at Christmas Island.

And I thought it was a storm.

This exchange at On Line Opinion has sorely tempted me to ditch my personal philosophy for a while.

Feminist Christian reproduces sexualised images of children on website.

15 Jan
Vogue magazine cover, May 1917

Image via Wikipedia

It’s a complete mystery to me how those demanding the removal of sexualised images of children from the media can justify reproducing those very images in their campaigns.

For example, on the website of Melinda Tankard Reist, Australian feminist Christian advocate for children and women, there’s a series of images reproduced from French Vogue depicting very young children wearing adult clothing, shoes and makeup. Some of them are suggestively posed in sexually suggestive environments.

The point of the post is to cause outrage in readers at these sexualised images of little girls. In order to do that, I suppose their argument goes, readers have to be able to see them.

But there’s something awry about this reasoning. You don’t want these images viewed, you think it’s wrong that they are readily available in the media, and yet you reproduce them on the Internet to make a point?

You disseminate these images yourself, while at the same time railing against their publication in other arenas?

What is going on here?

I wouldn’t like any little girls in our family to be in this Vogue photo shoot. Then again, I wouldn’t like the little girls in our family to be in any Vogue photo shoot, even if they were covered head to toe and clutching soft toys. I want our little girls to do what little girls enjoy doing, and not what adults enjoy little girls doing. From what I’ve heard about photo shoots, they’re no picnic.

My first thought on seeing these pictures was, what were their parents thinking? Surprisingly, nobody addresses this aspect on the MTR website. It’s all Vogue’s fault. Well, it certainly is Vogue’s fault, but some adult caretaker allowed these little girls to do this photo shoot. Some adult caretakers allowed their charges to be transformed into sexualised commodities by French Vogue. As long as parents are willing and eager to offer their children up, somebody will be willing and eager to provide them with the opportunity.

It comes down to the individual. It’s a very personal matter. It’s about morality on a very intimate level, and this is where it has to be addressed, as well as more broadly as a media responsibility.

Perhaps Tankard Reist could have set a personal example by declining to publish the children’s photos on her website?

It would have made her post less titillating, and readers would have had to go find the photos for themselves. But at least it would have been one less publication of those dreadfully sad pictures, and one less exploitation of those little girls.

Tankard Reist criticizes the media for sexualizing children. But what she fails to realize is that she is part of the media. Her blog is on the Internet. Anybody, even the pedophiles she fears will be drawn to these images, can access her blog and see the pictures of the children she has published there.

I don’t think you have to be a parent to feel anguish for these little girls, or to feel a desire to protect them by refusing to perpetuate the circulation of these photographs.

What has happened to feminism that the end now justifies the means?

And doesn’t publishing these photographs make a mockery of their protests against French Vogue?

On the same website there’s a post critical of those who’ve published the names of the women involved in the Assange sexual misconduct allegations. Yet Tankard Reist, apparently without any awareness of what she’s doing, publishes an article by another blogger, in which the women are named!

Tankard Reist has now added her own name to the long list of people who’ve targeted the women by outing them on the Internet.

Then there’s an article by Clive Hamilton, failed Greens federal candidate, and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. Under the heading: Dymocks Bookshop: Porn Merchants? Professor Hamilton gives Dymocks a good old telling off for stocking a boxed set containing the first ten years of Playboy.  I can’t imagine what’s in them, and neither, apparently, can Professor Hamilton.

Call me picky, but I always think it’s a good idea to personally acquaint yourself with something, before you go on a public campaign to ban it.

MTR has kindly furnished an email address where you can send your objections to Dymocks about them stocking Playboy and acting like porn merchants.

Clive Hamilton is also a mandatory Internet filtering advocate, whose position is that while some legitimate websites would probably face accidental blocking by a mandatory blacklist, that’s a necessary evil, and that the good outweighs the bad.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear phrases like the good outweighs the bad, I get edgy. It sounds as if someone hasn’t really thought things through and they want to shut me up with a phrase designed to repress and suppress.

And who is Hamilton to make decisions for the rest of us? We have to take his definition of the good as a universal and filter the Internet? Non, merci.

Workplace Bullying: Blowing the Whistle on Conspiracies of Silence

14 Jan

Stewart Hase


By Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

There is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to workplace bullying. In the many thousands of words recently written about bullying at work in the local press the conspiracy has been maintained.

A conspiracy of silence occurs when everyone knows that bad behaviour is occurring but there is a tacit decision not to talk about it and certainly not to do anything. It was first used to describe incest in families and, more recently, other forms of abuse. People don’t do anything because they don’t want to rock the boat, to avoid conflict, and because it is just too hard. Sadly, by not speaking up or doing anything the observers validate the perpetrator and invalidate the victim.

As I have often seen in clinical practice, the effect of these conspiracies on the victims is monstrous. The victim feels as if he or she is somehow at fault, they are confused, and feel alone and unsupported. Most importantly they come to feel powerless and it is this that results in anxiety and depression, the most common effects of being bullied.

In all that is written about bullying at work there are two major conspiracies of silence that result in enormous pain and suffering for victims. It also seems that workmates who see the bullying can also be badly affected resulting in significant symptoms on their part too.

The first gaping silence is that senior managers in organisations prefer not to do anything about bullies. This conspiracy of silence occurs despite the fact that bullying is against the law and CEOs and boards of directors are in fact culpable by not acting. It is interesting to watch an organisation move a victim of bullying to another branch or even another job, and leave the bully in place: even after admitting openly that the bullying has occurred. Sometimes, it is easier to call a case of bullying a personality conflict and call in a mediator. The damage these behaviours do to the victim is enormous.

It’s also common to blame the victim. This is easy because the bullied worker has repeatedly made complaints, as instructed by the legislation and the bullying literature that is laying on the coffee table in the CEO’s waiting area. The victim, who has become increasingly distressed over time, can be simplistically labelled as unstable or over-sensitive: a troublemaker. Let’s not forget too that bullies often pick on already vulnerable people who might have a reputation already for being oversensitive.

There have been some notorious bullies in organisations in and around Lismore that have been allowed to get away with bullying behaviour time and time again: I have seen many of their victims at the clinic. Many of these bullies get promoted. There are also large numbers of senior managers that know that their staff are being bullied but do nothing. Under the legislation they are just as culpable as the bully and their organisation can be fined many thousands of dollars. But they still engage in the conspiracy and more often than not put the fox in charge of the chook shed.

The preferred personality profile of a successful manager (or one on the way up) appears to be someone who is aggressive, dominant, single minded, achievement-oriented, and task focused. Throw in a little pinch of narcissism, low empathy for others and an unsatisfied need for power and this is a nasty recipe for bullying behaviour. These are not easy people to deal with which makes it so much easier to turn the blind eye. Bullies often appear so good at their job and they create the right relationships with the right people to protect themselves.

And it happens every day in organisations in which we all work. In a recent case a colleague of mine was told by the human resource manager of her organisation that it would be better to let a case of bullying drop because it was against a very senior manager. The reason being that the consequences would not be worth it in the end.

The other conspiracy involves an unholy alliance between the organisation and the insurance company. Despite the pretty advertisements insurance companies want to avoid liability. To do this they will find any excuse to blame the victim rather than make the workplace deal with the problem. Everyone’s a winner: the insurance company doesn’t have to pay out and the organisation’s premiums are protected.

The main way this is done is to find a pre-existing condition in the victim such as a history of previous abuse, anxiety, depression, previous bullying or any other negative behaviour. This is then used as a means of blaming the victim. This is easy to do by running an unbalanced investigation and being highly selective with ‘the evidence’.  For someone who has genuinely been bullied at work this outcome is extremely damaging.

It is time for the conspiracies of silence to be broken. Those with the power to act need to make the hard decision and deal with the perpetrator rather than leaving it up to the victim who is already disempowered.

Stewart blogs at

Press council replies to complaint against SMH

13 Jan

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Image via Wikipedia

Further to the post of January 7 2011: “Today we sent a complaint to the Australian Press Council claiming that the article by Paul SheehanSydney Morning Herald January 3 2011, titled Cast adrift from reality, the slick spruikers of ‘our’ shame, breaches Principles 1,2,3 and 6 of the Council’s Statement of Principles.

I received the following email from the Australian Press Council today:

Dear Dr Wilson,

The Council has received a complaint from you, in which you raise a concern with terminology used by a bylined opinion columnist in The Sydney Morning Herald.

For your information, a copy of the Council’s principles and practices can be found on the Council’s website Therein are set out the standards of journalistic ethics that the Council upholds and the procedures it uses to deal with complaints alleging breaches of those standards.

Attached, for your information, is a copy of the Council’s Guideline No 288 on the issue of asylum seekers.

The Council believes that columns such as Sheehan’s should be given a reasonably wide licence to express a point of view. They are the clear expression of a viewpoint of the individual writing them and are commentary upon the news.

The terminology you complain of talks of  “illegal boats”. Since the boats can be seized and their crew tried before the courts, there is good reason to suggest that the arrival of the boats is in fact “illegal”.

Have you submitted a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald for publication in response to the published column? The Council has consistently said that the best response to a disagreement with such material is the submission of a contrary view for publication. I therefore urge you to take the matter up direct with the newspaper in the first instance, if you have not already. I will write to the newspaper urging it give due consideration to any submitted letter as a way of dealing with your concern.

I will bring your concern to the attention of the newspaper but believe that the best settlement of your concern, in this case, is through the letters to the editor column.

Yours sincerely,

Deb Kirkman, Acting Executive Secretary, Australian Press Council

To which I replied as follows:

Dear Ms Kirkman,
I have indeed twice written to the SMH letters on this matter, as I stated on my complaint form, and neither letter has been acknowledged.

To reiterate, the terminology I complained of is as follows:

1. Illegal boat arrivals. If Sheehan was referring only to the arrival of SIEVs, or to the crew of SIEVs, then these references makes no sense at all in the context of his paragraph.

It is rather disingenuous to suggest that Sheehan was referring to the vessels and their crew, given that the crews are arrested and the vessels are impounded, therefore the problem is addressed immediately at the source and offers no basis for Sheehan’s on-going angst.

Sheehan then goes on to comment on the “relatively small number of people who arrive by boat,” thus clearly confirming that he is indeed referring to the passengers who are seeking asylum, and not to the SIEVs and their crew.

2. Those who arrive by illegal means,and those who arrive without proper papers.

The UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is signatory, recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum.  

The Convention stipulates that what would usually be considered an illegal action, eg entering a country without a visa, should not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum.

Australian law, in line with the Convention, also permits unauthorised entry for the purposes of seeking asylum.

Therefore, under Australian law, and under the terms of the Convention we have signed, a person who is seeking asylum has the legal right to enter this country without papers, and by any method of transport, even SIEVs, and has the legal right to remain in this country, until his or her refugee status is established through the proper legal processes, to which, as asylum seekers, they are legally entitled.

Their mode of transport does not render asylum seekers “illegal,” as suggested by Sheehan.

This was re-affirmed by the High Court of Australia in November 2010.

Again, my complaints  relate to numbers 1, 2, 3, and 6 of your Statement of Principles.

Sheehan has misrepresented the facts of this situation – asylum seekers are not illegal, even if they enter the country on SIEVs.

Sheehan has suppressed facts that are available to him, i.e. the facts that under domestic law and by international agreement, Australia does not consider those requesting asylum to be illegal in any way, no matter how they arrived in this country, including if they arrived “without proper papers.”

The illegality of their mode of transport is a separate issue, as the law recognises, and is dealt with as a separate issue. Asylum seekers are not held responsible for the legality or otherwise of their mode of transport.

Sheehan has misinformed and misled the SMH readership by conflating the two, and in so doing, ignores Australian law and the UNHCR Convention.

Since when has it been acceptable that even an opinion writer has the license to misinform their readers about Australian law, and the legal status of a particular group of people?

Sheehan has not presented his readers with the facts, and his opinions are not based on the facts. Sheehan has acted irresponsibly in putting forward an uninformed point of view as his opinion. The facts are readily available to him. Surely even opinion pieces are supposed to have some basis in reality?

I have requested that the SMH correct Sheehan’s inaccuracies and conflations. I have received no response

Yours sincerely,

Jennifer Wilson.

Australian Press Council Guideline 288 in regard to Asylum seekers.

Guideline No. 288

Describing “asylum seekers”

Issued: October 30, 2009

For immediate release

The Australian Press Council has updated its guideline on “asylum seekers”, replacing General Press Release 262 with the attached guide. The Council issues guidelines from time to time. These are, in essence, amplifications on particular issues arising from the Council’s Statement of Principles. The guidelines apply the Principles to the practice of reporting and are intended to guide the press on how it should report certain matters. These guidelines are not intended to be prescriptive instructions to the press but act as a series of advisories on the application of the Principles that the Council seeks the co-operation of editors in maintaining. A list of the extant guidelines (and links to them) can be found on the Council’s website at

The Council has from time to time received complaints about the terminology used to describe people who arrive in Australia through means other than regulated immigration and visa transit processes. They are often referred to by the press and others as “illegal immigrants”, “illegal boatpeople” and so on –  or simply as  “illegals”. The descriptor “illegal(s)” is very often inaccurate and typically connotes criminality.

The press has, by and large, abided by the Council’s 2004 Guideline about the use of inaccurate and derogatory terminology to describe such people.

Having considered the matter further, the Council believes that the term “asylum seeker” is a widely understood descriptor, generally a fair and a sufficiently accurate one, and one which avoids the kinds of difficulties outlined above. The Council recommends its use as the default terminology in relevant headlines and reports both by the press and others.

The Australian Press Council comprises representatives of the public and of the industry and acts to preserve the freedom, and the responsibility, of the Australian press. It was founded in July 1976 and has been in continuous operation for over 30 years.

End of Guideline 288

Palin’s got them in her sights in the USA

10 Jan

by Ramon Duran via flickr

Twice a year I make the journey from Australia to the USA, to visit with my loved ones who live there.

I have other reasons. I also love America. I love its complexities. I love its idiosyncrasies. I love its ambiguities, its ambivalences; I love the impossibility of ever being able to define the country, or confine it in any particular categorical cage. No matter how hard one tries, America’s contradictions thwart all attempts at constraint.

And this I what love, in an individual and a nation.

When the American people elected Barack Hussein Obama as their president I was astounded, and filled with admiration. This brave new world that has such people in it, was what I thought, and said, though many laughed at me and called me naïve. What I was responding to was simply the fact that America had elected this man. I had no great expectations, he is, after all, a man and not a god, but that the country had chosen him seemed to me a wonderful and hope-filled thing.

Today, reading of the death and injury visited upon bystanders and participants in a political gathering outside a Safeway supermarket in Tuscon, Arizona, I’m sad again for another gun slaughter in America.

A few short weeks ago I was in the car park of just such a shopping mall in Nevada, a state that borders Arizona, and shares a geographical similarity. There I noticed an over-sized four-wheel-drive that bore the numberplate Jim Crowe. Jim Crow is not a neutral name in the USA. It refers to the racial segregation laws enacted in 1876 that were in effect until 1965. These laws mandated segregation in public schools, public spaces, transport and restrooms. Restaurants, drinking fountains and the military.

I pointed out the number plate to my son. He whispered that there is a great deal of racial tension in the state of Nevada.

A few days earlier I’d spent the day at a local public elementary school. At the end of morning assembly children and teachers placed their hands over their hearts, faced the flag, starkly outlined against the blue desert sky, and recited: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It was moving, to hear the children’s voices earnestly piping these noble sentiments. It was remarkable to witness just how much they seemed to mean what they said.

The Nellis Air Force Base is just outside of Las Vegas, and as we stood in the playground with our hands on our hearts, squads of fighter jets flew over in formation, in rehearsal for another theatre of war. It was a numinous moment.

The Tea Party

On the website of the USA Tea Party movement, whose most famous member is Republican Sarah Palin, there is a map of the USA. Various congressional seats are highlighted in various states on this map, including the Arizona seat where the wounded Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, murdered Federal Judge John Roll, and a murdered a nine year old girl, were gathered with others injured and killed on an ordinary day, carrying out their ordinary daily duties.

The congressional seats marked out on Palin’s map are targetted with gun sights. They are the seats currently held by Democrats who voted for health care reform.

In states where the Democrats have recently retired, the rifle cross hairs are drawn in red.

Palin’s tweeted slogan is Don’t retreat. Reload.

Above the website map is the exhortation: We’ve diagnosed the problem. Help us prescribe the solution.

I hear Palin has since removed this from her website. But I found it at the Huffington Post.

It’s too simplistic to blame Palin and her followers alone for this most recent mass shooting. Yet in a gun culture such as that in the USA, where the right to bear arms is fiercely protected, it is but a short step from rhetoric to action when the weapon is sitting in your closet. The escalating vitriol towards politicians with whom one does not agree, the sense that anyone who is not with you is against you, the incitement to violence and killing such as that directed towards the foreigner Assange, for example, all speak to a culture that can quickly become murderously out of control.

The notion that if you don’t like something someone says you can and should kill them is promoted, and not only metaphorically, by conservative public voices in the USA such as Glenn Beck, employed by Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch. The notion is based in concepts of morality that conflate disagreement with heresy and blasphemy, punishable by death in a righteous political war.

There are consequences to a rhetoric in which voters are defined as soldiers, the opposition is portrayed as morally bereft, and the solution is prescribed in metaphors of war. It permeates the atmospheres. It makes possible that which should not be possible. It promotes a culture of violent action and reaction, because it makes the unthinkable thinkable, and therefore all too possible.

Words matter. Words both construct and describe the world in which we live. Words can kill.

Winter in America is cold

In San Francisco, the iconic Virgin store on the corner of Powell and Market has closed down. Riding the trolley bus down Market towards City Hall, we see store after store with boarded up windows covered in graffiti.

In the big Westfield shopping centre there’s hardly anybody looking in the up-market Nordstrum store. There are groups of homeless and disaffected people resting in comfortable chairs in the halls and lobbies outside the stores, their broken plastic bags of belongings in unsteady piles beside their legs. It’s warm in here, and dry. San Francisco is experiencing one of its wettest winters for some time. Every morning we wake to the steady drip of rain on the apartment windows. On the television news, vision of cliffs in danger of collapse down on Pacific Heights, of apartments at risk of plunging into the ocean show just how vulnerable this city is to natural disasters.

We spend a lot of time in the Museum of Modern Art, and in Golden Gate Park at the De Young Museum. After three days of thinking the rain will stop, I’ve abandoned my torn hardware-store blue plastic poncho, finally accepting that it’s going to rain for quite a while and I’d better get a proper raincoat. I trot down Union Square to Macy’s, where they’re having a permanent sale, it seems. On the top floor I find thousands of raincoats. I’m completely bamboozled, and wander round irritated, overheated, and confused by choice. I want a cream Calvin Klein, on sale for US$80. It’s glamorous, it’s a movie star’s raincoat, and I’ve never owned anything like it. Instead, thinking of my grandmother, I choose a black one because it won’t show the dirt.

The poor are everywhere. Some have dogs, cats or birds for company. I don’t have enough money to give to everyone I see. There’s a long line of customers outside the Apple store on the day they release the iPad. A few homeless people push their way in and get onto the public computers. Apple staff don’t send them away, but they do hover.

Soon I’ll be leaving the USA. As always, sadness gets the better of me at Los Angeles International airport, and I cry quietly across much of the Pacific. I don’t like leaving the ones I love, and I don’t like leaving the country I love more and more with every visit. In spite of it’s exasperating contradictions. In spite of the notice in the local park that reads: No profanities. Have a nice day. I have barely been able to restrain myself from sneaking back into that park in the middle of the night with a black Texta stolen from a child’s pencil case, and scrawling No fu**ing profanities! Have a fu**ing nice day! right across that sign.

Back in Australia I notice in the airport car park a large four-wheel-drive with a sticker in its window that’s a map of Australia. Across the map is the slogan F**ck Off! We’re full!

I’m not one of the cohort who think that what happens in the US may just as likely happen in Australia. Our societies are very different, in spite of the influences of US cultural imperialism. Nevertheless, if we have any sense we will learn from the American experience. We’ll cool down our political rhetoric. We’ll call a halt to the verbal ferocities in our parliaments. Mindless slogans, ill-thought out verbiage, ad hominem abuse. We have a chance to avoid what the USA continues to suffer. Let’s hope we take it.

Feminist’s theatrical posturing in Wikileak’s founder’s sex case

8 Jan
Author Naomi Wolf speaking at an event hosted ...

Naomi Wolf. Image via Wikipedia

In the Guardian January 5 2011, American feminist Naomi Wolf calls for the two women at the centre of the allegations of sexual misconduct against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, to be publicly named. Thus far, the women have been referred to only as Ms A and Ms W in UK and Swedish legal proceedings. Wolf argues that this is demeaning to the alleged victims. She demands that the women be treated as “moral adults” and named as the complainants. She points out that it is usually only children whose names are withheld in criminal cases, and that to treat women in the same way is to infantalise them. Wolf writes: The shielding of sex-crimes accusers is a Victorian relic. Women are moral adults and should be treated as such.

Is Wolf’s call entirely gratuitous?

There is a certain disingenuous aspect to Wolf’s demands. The women’s names are easily found on the Internet, and have been published in at least one Australian newspaper. (As this writer doesn’t agree with the outing of complainants, you’ll have to go find the sources for yourself.) In the comments section of the Guardian article, a poster alleges that Wolf herself re-tweeted the names when she became aware of them. In her terms, that puts the alleged victims on an apparently level playing field with the accused Assange.

However, Wolf is sidestepping the reality that it is against the law in the UK to name accusers in sex crime allegations, even though she acknowledges this in her article. The current law makes her demands in this specific situation little more than theatrical posturing.

Does Wolf want all victims of sexual crimes to be named? Or just Ms A and Ms W?

It is very difficult to believe that a feminist such as Wolf is indeed launching a campaign for all victims of sexual assault to be outed when they make a complaint. For a person who wished to remain anonymous, and very many do, compulsory outing would be rather like another form of emotional and psychological rape.

Keeping the complainants’ identities secret seems like a sensible move. There is a great risk that women and men who’ve been sexually assaulted will be even less inclined to report their attackers if they themselves are publicly identified. The ordeal of reporting, examination, and facing your attacker in court is a great one, adding to this the risk of seeing your name blazoned across the media for weeks and months is not likely to encourage victims to complain.

Wolf and “the world’s dating police”

In the Assange case, the women have been vilified and harassed by his supporters across the blogosphere and in the mainstream press, which is a good argument for maintaining anonymity as much as is possible. Wolf has also done her best to discredit them prior to calling for them to be outed. In the article Julian Asssange captured by the world’s dating police Wolf accuses the women of using feminist rhetoric and the law to assuage their injured personal feelings over minimal offences. This may or may not be the case, and that is exactly the point. As yet, we don’t know. Equally, the women may have genuine grounds for complaint. Until the matter is heard, all is speculation and assumption.

When someone is wrongfully accused

There can be dire consequences for the man or woman who’s been publicly identified as standing accused of sexual assault, if he or she is subsequently found to be innocent of the charge. Mud sticks, sexual mud perhaps more than many other types. For the period leading up to the legal processes, the accused remains in an unenviable limbo, during which anything can be and is said about him or her in the media. We have seen this in Australia when, for example, footballers have experienced this process, and the media is seemingly willing to report just about anybody’s opinions on whether or not the man in question is guilty as accused, or innocent, well before the matter ever is heard in the courtroom. (Again, not wishing to perpetuate those issues about which I am complaining, you’ll have to look it up for yourself.) Trial by media is now an unfortunate commonplace.

There are murky circumstances surrounding the Assange allegations, not least of which is that they have already been dismissed by one prosecutor, only to be revived after the Wikileaks cable dump began in earnest. The allegations received new life when the case was taken up again by a right-wing Swedish politician, allegedly close to the US and facing an election, in spite of there being no new evidence against Assange.

Payback time?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Wolf is conducting a personal vendetta against the two women. To many feminists, it makes no sense at all that the identities of alleged victims of sexual misconduct should be revealed to the world. Wolf’s demands sound at this stage very much like tit for tat  – the women’s complaints have caused Assange great difficulties, and so they should suffer difficulties as well. This ignores the reality that the women have already been subjected to considerable vilification world wide, and that no matter what one’s personal opinion of their actions, they have made a complaint that is now subject to due legal process.

Taking up arms for feminism

As well as the apparently personal aspect, Wolf has also taken up arms in the cause of feminism. She claims that in their pursuit of Assange, Interpol, the British and the Swedish governments have engaged in a form of political theatre, ostensibly pursuing a man on sex charges, in reality fuelled in their pursuit by entirely political agendas. These claims do make sense: as Wolf points out, when did anyone last hear of an alleged sex offender being pursued as relentlessly as Assange, put in solitary confinement, and denied bail while awaiting extradition? (With the relatively rare exception of child sexual abusers.) Governments and law enforcement agencies rarely if ever go to such trouble and expense.

This, Wolf claims, makes a mockery of all the women (and men, though she does not mention them) who’ve never seen justice in similar matters, and worse. In a December 13 2010 article in the Huffington Post, (titled J’accuse, in itself an interesting reference) Wolf claims that the extraordinarily disproportionate pursuit of Assange is not an example of the State embracing feminist concerns about the violation of women, rather it is an example of the State “pimping” feminism. One is tempted to observe that the States’ pursuit of Assange had nothing at all to do with feminism, either embracing or pimping, much as feminists would like to believe the philosophy had an influence in the proceedings. It is far more likely to be entirely politically motivated, perhaps in a futile attempt to silence Wikileaks by incarcerating Assange, or as a means of extraditing him to the USA, via Sweden.

To any fair-minded person, the argument ought be that no identities are revealed in such cases, neither the alleged perpetrator nor the victim. The most sensible solution all round might be to withhold the names of the complainants and the accused in alleged sexual crimes. On the downside, such a move would give the media less to prattle about, and would curb the tongues of many commentators, but it would offer protection to both parties. It should never be forgotten that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that is sometimes the case with accusers as well.

Complaint to Press Council

7 Jan

Further to the post: The propaganda and collusion at the heart of “Stop the boats.”

Today we sent a complaint to the Australian Press Council claiming that the article by Paul SheehanSydney Morning Herald January 3 2011, titled Cast adrift from reality, the slick spruikers of ‘our’ shame, breaches Principles 1,2,3 and 6 of the Council’s Statement of Principles.

These Principles address misrepresentation of groups and individuals; suppression of available facts; deliberate misinformation through omission or commission, and fairness and balance.

We claim that these principles were breached by the use of the terms “illegal” and “without proper papers” when referring to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

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