Archive | April, 2011

Home of the brave

29 Apr
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

Image via Wikipedia

So, now Obama has produced his birth certificate proving he was indeed born in the country.  America has a REAL  president, just like we have a REAL Julia.

Speaking generally, one of the striking differences about Australian and American attitudes to government is the undisguised fear and loathing many Americans feel towards  theirs. While in Australia we are bored, fed up with and cynical about politicians, we have a long way to go before we reach the dizzy heights of fear and loathing generated in the USA.

Though maybe the state of  loathing is approaching faster than I thought – driving down the US 95 this morning I had a sudden vision of Prime Minister Abbott, and it seemed so real I nearly ran right off  into the desert. How did those Labor dorks get it soooo wrong? They had everything going for them way back in 2007 and that alone is sufficient reason for Australians to chuck them out – talk about the squandering of social and political capital: you have to be totally ignorant and arrogant (worst possible combination) to achieve that degree of loss so fast.

 There’s many Americans who seem to believe that any government intitiative is a conspiracy to strip them of their treasured freedoms of the kind we in Australia don’t consider freedoms in the first place.  Health care reform, for example, is seen by some as a form of moral corruption – you should be able to take care of yourself, and if you can’t, you probably deserve to get sick and die, is the Darwinian/moral subtext of the unreasoning  fury directed against this particular reform. Like some of the anti abortionists who recently ripped into me on the Drum  – the health care reform antagonists are full of what everybody should do and entirely lacking in understanding of what people do do. They’re lost in fighting for the realisation of  Utopian visions of their perfect world in which there’s nobody in financial need, (because they’ve got rid of them all somehow) and nobody ever has an unplanned pregnancy, so we don’t have to have all these morally disturbing conflicts in the first place, freeing us up to thank Jesus and make money. Or whatever. In the meantime, the messy real world of real messy people keeps getting in their conservative way and resists, thankfully, all their strenuous efforts to repress it.

I’ve long considered US society to have perfected a form of socially acceptable begging, otherwise known as tipping. Your waiter, hairdresser, and other service providers are paid pitiful minimum wages, on the understanding that if they perform their duties well, they’ll be rewarded with a tip to bump up their remuneration to  a living wage or better.  As a consequence service providers are  excruciatingly nice to you, and everybody knows why. There’s that moral equation again: nice servers deserve great tips, even when they don’t really give a toss about you. Appearance is everything.  I don’t know what it does to an individual’s psyche to have to put on extravagant demonstrations of entirely manufactured concern ten hours a day five days a week, but it probably doesn’t leave a lot of time to think about politics and society. Maybe that’s it’s purpose. Hell, I’m becoming a conspiracy theorist.

I did watch Fair Game on the plane over. The movie about how there really weren’t any WMD’s.

 Yesterday I discovered my granddaughter sitting on the dunny with the sheet music of  Star Spangled Banner on the floor before her, practicing her part for the school choir. National pride is everything in schools, they pledge every morning with their hands on their hearts, under the flag. But don’t talk about politics when you’re invited to dinner. Better you should bring up sex, or even death, but if it’s death you choose  don’t say they  died, say they passed. They don’t care for died. It’s too crass.

 Where I come from you pass wind, and sometimes the salt.

As I listened to the child’s tuneless piping of the home of the brave and the land of the free, there  was a ruckus going on upstairs where a four year old was hanging out a bedroom window yelling “Yo! Watcha doin’ dumbass!” at a bunch of Mormons going door to door in our street, while his Momma hauled him in by the seat of his pants on his way to the naughty corner for a good fifteen minutes. Meantime down in the kitchen someone had  left the back door open and five sneaky chipmunks frolicked under the baby’s chair, cleaning up his leftovers and depositing a few of their own. There’s hardly a moment not filled with fun.

 As I sit here picking the chipmunk poop off my feet and reflecting for a few precious stolen  moments, I consider America.  Like Leonard Cohen says, I love the country but I can’t stand the scene. Democracy has not yet come to the USA, no sir, it certainly has not, so how they think they can export it to the Middle East is a mystery to me.

Related Articles

Hello from the land of the free

26 Apr
Political commentator Glenn Beck at the Time 1...

Image via Wikipedia

Well, one bit of good news is that  infamous Tea Party supporter and Fox News ranter Glenn Beck is leaving the Murdoch network. Apparently advertisers started dropping like flies from his show after it was revealed that his stark predictions of an economic apocalypse, requiring the hoarding of food and gold, were sponsored by a gold seller and a survivalist freeze-dried food company.

However, all is not lost for Beck and his disciples. In Beck’s own words: “We will find each other. I will continue to tell the story, and I’m going to be showing you other ways for us to connect.”

One of these other ways is his new website, The Blaze, starting its life as the conservative answer to the Huffington Post, itself recently sold off to America On Line for vast amounts of dollars. Interestingly, former HuffPost executive Betsy Morgan has joined The Blaze to manage its business operations. Morgan claims to be apolitical, and apparently agrees with her former employer’s position that these sites are  “beyond left and right because the system is broken.”

I have a queasy feeling that the Huff Post will quickly shed it’s left leanings, and it’s beyond belief that Beck’s audience will ever be anything other than conservative, though he aims to reach further than the Tea Party stalwarts.

Apart from all that, spring in Nevada is spectacular, and America as compellingly bizarre as ever.

In the name of the ROSE

17 Apr
Cover of "The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose

Life in Spanish academia echoes the intransigent mentality of the Inquisition, writes expatriate Dutch academic Maarten Renes. Some Australian academics will relate.

To grasp Spain’s commitment with its academia, it’s useful to go back to Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a medieval murder mystery set in an Italian monastery which simultaneously functions as a scholarly treatise on semiotics and literary studies. It was translated into English in 1983, became an international bestseller and, made into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, also a box-office success.

In the novel’s postscript, Eco explains that its title’s cryptic central image, the rose, is so rich in symbolism that it has virtually turned into a semiotic wildcard. In the novel’s case, it is easy to read the rose as the monastery’s hidden library, stocked with copies of the Classics, some lost nowadays. Its location is painstakingly maintained secret to prevent its forbidden knowledge, at odds with reigning church beliefs, from being read and divulged.

The criminal investigation carried out by the travelling monk and scholar William of Baskerville so as to uncover the reasons for the inexplicable murders taking place at this location of Roman Catholic worship, worldly retreat and dedication to scholarly study finds an apt twist in the filmed version. It is ex-Bond Sean Connery who stars as the medial detective in a crossover between Sherlock Holmes and the 14th century monk William of Ockham, who laid down the rational principle of Ockham’s Razor—the simplest explanation for the facts is often the most reasonable, accurate and correct. This principle is also a major guideline for Holmes’ deductive reasoning, and applied by Baskerville to the logical unravelling of the monastery’s secrets.

The homonymous film largely does away with Eco’s semiotics, and concentrates on the mystery plot and the clash between modern notions of science and religious backwardness that underpins the former. A notion that is literally and metaphorically proffered to the film audience is that knowledge poisons the mind, and thus: the body. It is, ironically, a notion promoted by an old blind monk who has applied mortal venom to the corners of the last, nowadays lost copy of Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics, causing havoc among his overcurious companions.

The film shows how Jorge’s lethal interventions, founded on an ardent defence of the Christian model of the universe and civil society, ties in with the general drift of medieval times; the Roman-Catholic Inquisition arrives at the monastery to take over from William’s successful logical probing into the community’s ills, and ‘solves’ the mystery through a regime of violence and fear without scruples.

Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisitor rapidly condemns the most vulnerable characters on the scene in order to exorcise heretic—read: unacceptable because unorthodox—behaviour: two monks, one mentally disabled and the other with an obscure sectarian past, and a hungry, thieving peasant girl are taken to the stakes after a violent session of torture that preys the desired confession and presumed guilt out of them. In a rebellious response to this barbaric regime, the poor girl is saved by the local population and the cloister burnt down to the ground, the wealth of knowledge guarded in its entrails forever destroyed—knowledge that would only be retrieved by the Renaissance fervour for Arab, Latin and Greek texts.

The rigour of the medieval Italian Inquisition was brought to further extremes by the Spanish Empire in Early-Modern times under the reign of King Philip II, who waged a Roman-Catholic crusade on Protestant Northern Europe. I still remember the patriotic history lessons I received as a teenager on the long Dutch War of Independence against Spain from 1568 to 1648, when the Dutch republic was finally recognised as an independent country, presumably to thrive as never before.

The reigning climate of religious and intellectual intolerance under Philip II was said to provoke the escape of many free-thinking intellectuals from territories under Spanish control to the Netherlands; this then would have contributed to the onset of an economic boom, famous Dutch ‘tolerance’ (far to be sought nowadays) and the Dutch Golden Age in literature, the arts, science etc. in the 17th century, boasting the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Spinoza and Huygens.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt (1642)


My country’s nationalistic tale of rebellion and resistance in defence of tolerance and open-mindedness forms part of the dark myth of Inquisitional Spain: in the latter, the self-defeating intellectual bleeding that took place in this period, which had started with the expulsion of the Moors and Jews by the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) in 1492, is seen as a strategic error from which Spain never fully recovered and which, for better or for worse, hampered its participation in Modernity. No doubt Renaissance reality must have been more complex than this.

Nowadays, Spain is a puzzle of political factions cultures on the national and regional level, some more progressive and cosmopolitan others more conservative and provincial. There does survive, however, a strong reactionary undercurrent in civil society that is extremely wary of change and cultural difference which revives the spectre of La España Profunda or Negra—the orthodox ‘Deep or Dark Spain’ that won the Civil War (1936-39) against the Republicans, installed a fascist regime in connivance with the church and legal authorities that lasted for four decades, and survived the advent of democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.

The concept of ‘Deep Spain’ is echoed in the blind religious fervour and concomitant intolerance and distrust of worldly knowledge displayed in The Name of the Rose, whose reading/watching offers an apt metaphor for what is happening in Spanish universities nowadays. Drawing on the flower’s flexible semiotics, I take the rose to stand for the policing of academia in the name of a new Spanish creed: the Religion Of Scholarly Excellence or the ROSE—which aims not to improve but purge university staff through a confessional model of accreditation.

In the development towards a common European space of higher education (the Bolonia process), the Spanish government now forces all contracted university staff without tenure to go through the central filter of a specialised agency (ANECA) at the Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) in Madrid so as to be eligible for their current, temporary posts as well as for higher academic rank.

This centralised bid for scholarly excellence sounds laudable but proves arduous, time-consuming, patronising and counterproductive. It imposes a constant pressure to re/train, do research, lecture, participate in congresses and projects, and publish, which inevitably replaces quality with quantity through inoperable red tape requirements. Any item mentioned on a demanding, extremely detailed CV form has to be seamlessly certified with official documentation, in most cases provided with stamps and seals from the pertinent institutions, and with backup of supplementary photocopies of abstracts and first and last pages of book chapters, congress and journal papers and so on.

The results of this red tape ordeal are converted in points on a rather arbitrary scale reminiscent of the worst in quantitative science so as to decide the applicant’s luck in commissions of obscure composition. The time and energy lost in this arbitrary process of assessment, both before and after submitting your papers, is horrendous and unimaginable.

The Inquisitional distrust displayed is enormous. Most of us that have to go through this torturous act of confession have many years of academic dedication to boast and therefore certify. One can understand some kind of independent inquiry into candidates’ qualifications, skills and experience for university posts in order to prevent favouritism and provincial backwardness in local universities, but not the kind of quasi-religious bureaucratic scrutiny engaged at present.

I concede that lack of academic mobility amongst universities is a typical Spanish ill, but mostly inspired by inadequate state funding, which binds upcoming scholars to the safety of their home (universities) to establish their careers. It is, unfortunately, the poison that has made the system ‘work’—up to now. Structural lack of funding is also revelatory of Spanish society’s deep distrust of academic knowledge and its fundamental adherence to a Roman-Catholic top-down organisation of civil society where a select few hold the keys to truth, resources and power.

No need to ask yourself why the Roman-Catholic church receives ample state funding by an undemocratic Constitutional pact between Spain and the Vatican, which turns the church into a state within the state. Imagine what we could achieve if this money were invested in academic research and innovation! There is a straight line from religious straight-jacketing to the confessional cross-examination now of people who have long proven their academic worth and dedication in return for appalling contractual conditions.

The blind criminalisation that is currently taking place in the name of the ROSE demands irrefutable, hairsplitting, multiple proof of academic activity reaching up to sometimes 20 years back. It is in the name of the ROSE that the intransigent mentality of the Spanish Inquisition has been resurrected against the most vulnerable factions of university staff.

In short, having been in close contact with the poison of worldly knowledge, you are guilty of heresy until proven otherwise, and pestered until you have conformed to the ROSE’s truth—the bible of scholarly excellence as the Ministry perceives it. Confess your sins and you might be absolved but burn at the stake if you resist. On paper Spain made the shift from religion to science as the referential model for understanding the world in the Modern Age but it appears old structures of thinking are difficult to defeat in a confessional state, even in these postmodern times, as they are re-applied to Science-as-Religion.

A lot of this harks back to the age-old problem of the centre and the margins, of effective democracy and self-management on the local levels. Franco is dead but his spectre haunts the margins relentlessly from the central state location and pulls them back into the national panopticum.

Javier Pérez Royo, a columnist in a widely-read national newspaper, recently addressed centralisation as one of Spain’s greatest endemic ills, hampering the country’s development. In his article “Incomprehensible prestige” he writes that “in Spain we have tended to equal centralisation to order, rationality and rigour in the management of public affairs while we have tended to associate decentralisation with the opposite.” Yet, empirical evidence shows that “[t]he unified and centralist state has been a disaster in our political, constitutional history … It has been an enormously authoritarian state … and consequently … very inefficient” (El País 19 March 2011: p.23, my translation). Why this has been so is not hard to guess.

Yet, my (and some of Javier’s) prayers for release may have been heard. We do have local assessment agencies for academic accreditation as well, set up by the autonomous, semi-federal regions of Spain. In the case of Catalonia, where I live, the procedure is simple: you hand in a standard CV stating all your academic merits, some basic documentation to support it—no stamps or seals required—some academic assessment reports and a signed statement of truthfulness.

The funny thing is that this does not lead to better but worse results: only 30% of the applications is granted a pass by the AQU, considerably less than in the case of the national agency, ANECA. How to read this? Are Catalan applicants really that badly prepared? Or is the initial vote of confidence just a smoke screen, and the civil servant’s ingrained distrust resurfaces when CVs are actually assessed? Or is the Catalan agency so strict in its criteria just to prove itself more serious than the central agency—a case of exalted regional nationalism, of being more Catholic than the Pope?

The result is that many of my colleagues believe it is a waste of time to go through the AQU. Theoretically this and the central agency do the same job, and should have similar results—but they don’t. A profound reflection on their (mal)functioning is due to rationalise things.

My solution: the new Spanish creed of scholarly excellence requires the intervention of the likes of Sean Connery. In the best of the Scottish tradition, he shares Sherlock Holmes’ genius, efficiency and quick-wittedness and, on top, he’s well alive and frequently shows up in Marbella on Spain’s south coast, where he owns a villa. He’d be easy to approach over a good malt whiskey and probably willing to do us a favour for the good cause in between his games of golf and sunbathing. I know it’s heresy but I’d even clone him in his 00-Ockham part: having that kind of deductive reasoning and attitude pour over our CVs rather than local zealots applying bureaucratic and confessional procedures would provide better results.

He would certainly suffice to deal with the kind of academic check that is required on the local level. It’d also be more cost-effective and beneficial for an institution which is hard up for freedom of movement and qualified academic staff, chronically underfunded but ear-marked to lead the way out of Spain’s economic slump. ANECA and AQU should have no licence to kill, so let’s leave patronizing models behind and provide scholars with the means to realise their potential for the benefit of all. Ten years on the university payroll should owe me some credit rather than discredit; the only thing I’ll confess in the name of the ROSE is that I have little if nothing to prove after a decade in the academic trenches.

Dr Maarten Renes

Maarten Renes is an expatriate Dutchman who has lived and worked in Bacelona since 1987. He holds a PhD in English by the University of Barcelona and is assistant lecturer for the literature section of its Department of English. He is vice-director of the University of Barcelona’s interdisciplinary Observatory: Australian Studies Centre.

Keep your moralities off our bodies: ABC Drum today

15 Apr

 Always find out where your women’s health advisor is coming from Read it at the Drum Opinion today.

Behrendt, Bess Price, and Bolt. And adios from the Diaper Fox

15 Apr

“I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price.”

Larissa Behrendt

So tweeted Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, about remarks made by Bess Price, Chair of the Northern Territory Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, on ABC’s qanda, Monday April 11.

Behrendt and Price disagree on the NT intervention implemented by John Howard in 2007, and Price expressed her support of the policy on Monday night.

Marcia Langton has now taken Behrendt to task for her tweet, framing it as a betrayal by a sophisticated urban Aboriginal woman of her bush sisters, and as an unprecedented public insult directed by a younger Aboriginal woman at an elder.

In a further twist, Behrendt is the principal litigant in current action against

Bess Price

columnist Andrew Bolt, who, it is alleged, indulged in racial vilification of Behrendt and other Aboriginals in a piece in which he questioned the right of what Bess Price calls “white blackfellas” to identify as Aboriginal. The case has provoked vigorous debate about the parameters of the right to free speech.

Oh my. This is why I don’t tweet anything, except the titles of posts. It’s taken many years for me to learn that putting my foot in my open mouth doesn’t have to be a default position, as was suggested to me on more than one occasion by a husband. Tweeting can only be trouble for a fool such as I, and given the stories, for many others who hotly squirm long after after reckless Twitter moments are over. Blogging is big enough risk.

Bolt published his views in a newspaper, and Behrendt thought she was only tweeting a friend, so in that sense comparisons are weak. However, if one considers the spirit of the content of both communications, there are un-nerving similarities. Contempt, disregard, mockery, denigration, insult, efforts to invalidate the other, inability to deal with opposing points of view; intolerance, prejudice, and  hatred.

Nothing more than you read in the comments on any blog on any day. We are, on the whole, an un-evolved lot.

Price is apparently consulting lawyers about the tweeted slur. Behrendt may yet find herself in Bolt’s shoes. What a time to have to leave the country, but leave I must!

Talking about slurs: how I came to be known as the Diaper Fox.

Diaper Fox

Some years ago a grandson of mine (growing up in the US, hence diaper) out of nowhere one morning took to calling me the Diaper Fox. At the time I was complaining about changing his little brother’s diaper while we discussed how we needed a fox to help us get rid of the jackrabbits that hop under the back fence from the desert and eat the lettuces. These two superficially unconnected issues became linked in his imagination, and I became Diaper Fox.

The name has stuck, and now everybody uses it. On the phone it’s when are you coming over, Diaper Fox, and will you bring me a toy crocodile, a sarong, a koala (real) a cool surfer t-shirt, and Vegemite!! while the littlest talking child sings out in the background “Diaper Fox Grandma! Diaper Fox Grandma!”

So on Monday I’m off to hold this gang of four scallywags in my arms again.

These kids are the best antidote I know to the beltings and bruisings of the adult world and though I always come home exhausted in body, I’m replenished in spirit. Children and dogs. They do it for me every time. I just wish I could persuade their parents to come home so I don’t have to suffer the indignities and dangers of long haul travel – last time our Qantas flight ran out of fuel (???) between LA and Brisbane and had to divert to Noumea. The time before it was water they ran out of, and everybody was asked to try not to pee. When we landed the stampede at the LAX dunnies was life threatening.

Adios, friends, be well and lively, and will see you again in a few weeks.

Gang of four Scallywags

Don’t mention the mothers

14 Apr

First posted on ABC’s The Drum

Tiara Kid

Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Early Childhood and Youth, is about to receive a petition requesting his support for a plan to boycott the introduction of American style child beauty pageants into Australia, organised by the “anti-sexploitation” group Collective Shout

Averse as I am to censorship and banning as methods of effecting cultural change, in this case I’m in partial agreement with the zealots.

Watch the video here and you’ll be left in little doubt that subjecting young girls to the intensive and brutal grooming demanded by the organisers of these affairs is abusive of the little child’s body, mind and spirit. Think hot eyebrow wax ripping off a screaming three-year-old’s tender skin, as well as indiscriminate amounts of chemicals from fake tans, bleached teeth and hair; Botox injections, and after that the make up.

Together with the sexy moves the little girls are taught to use and the glittering costumes they are required to wear, reminiscent in their extravagance of Las Vegas showgirls, you’re looking at a violating form of child abuse that is normalised in certain sections of wealthy Western democracies as highly profitable entertainment for adults.

Some mothers argue that it’s nothing more than a game of dress ups, a disingenuous justification that allows them to convince themselves that their little girls are having fun. But dress ups in your mother’s bedroom don’t entail painful beauty treatments or have as their goal the attainment of physical perfection, and the adults you parade before accept you no matter how you look.

Little girls tarted up like caricatures of adult beauty queens put one in mind of the excesses of drag queens, and indeed the little ones look just like infant drag queens, sans the irony, humour and agency the adults bring to their displays. If an infant beauty queen is a tragic sight, an infant drag queen is even more so, especially if she’s scared, forgets what she’s supposed to do, or falls over her own little feet when she’s parading across the stage while her momma shrieks “Shake it like I told ya, baby!” from the front row.

It’s the patriarchy again

On the website to which I’ve linked there’s some comments criticising the mothers who get themselves and their little girls into this Mardi Gras and Sleeze Ball for tiny tots pageant scene. The disapproving commentary is critiqued by others who claim that it isn’t the mothers’ fault, we must be careful not to start a false good mother/bad mother dichotomy in this debate, and that the mothers are themselves products of a culture in which how a woman looks is all that matters.

While I agree that starting a bad mother/good mother binary oppositional is less than useless, I take issue with the justification that the mothers involved are victims of a sexist hegemony promoting the belief that “…women and girls aren’t human – we are all apparently male’s disposable sexual service stations,” to quote one of the comments.

How then, do we account for the millions of women just as subjected to cultural pressures (the majority, I venture to claim) who are appalled by the pageant scene and wouldn’t dream of letting their little ones anywhere near it?

We can’t account for their escape, but what the victim justification does do is allow those mothers who exploit their little ones in pageants to be relieved of responsibility for their choices.

That’s responsibility, not blame, the difference between the two is a big one, and perhaps the failure to understand this difference is what is preventing some of us from fully acknowledging the mother’s pivotal role in child pageantry.

This victim justification inevitably leaves faceless corporations primarily responsible for the “porno-sexuality” allegedly propagated by the beauty industry, and apparently wholly and indiscriminately internalised by pageant mothers. Women and girls, this argument goes, are nothing but “fodder” for “sexist, classist and racist corporate machinery.”

Where have I heard this disavowal of agency and individual responsibility before? Oh yes, the KanYe West and Brian McFadden sagas; the Victoria’s Secret knickers saga, and most recently in the games rating debate article on the Drum.

Wherever you find those who seek to censor you will find the corresponding denial of agency and individual responsibility. According to the censor and ban brigade, a majority of people but especially women, are bereft of all ability to discriminate, soak up cultural influences as if we have Wettex in our craniums rather than brains, and have to be protected from ourselves because we are undoubtedly our own worst enemies.

In other words, women are even less capable of discrimination and choice than children, and women are a priori patriarchy’s victims.

Never underestimate the power of the mother

My argument for having a close look at these pageants isn’t because the mothers are victims. It’s because their children are, and children don’t have a lot of agency in any situation that is controlled, driven and dominated by the mother’s extreme desires. However much a child protests and some of them do, she is bullied, manipulated and cajoled into accepting the cosmetic violation of her body, and into dressing and performing as her mother demands.

The pageant mother’s perception that her child is inadequate and requires physical enhancements is a damaging one, and we should not be accepting it as part of the “normal” range of maternal attitudes. The completely normal little girl is taught by her mother that she is physically lacking, that this is a handicap, and that if she works hard to perfect herself she will receive love, affection and admiration from her mother, and her wider audience.

This is a message the child will carry with her into adult life, introjected as parental messages frequently are so that we come to think they’re our own beliefs, and it’s a big task to free ourselves of the more negative of them.

The intense maternal focus on perfecting the child’s body should alert anyone to the real possibility of creating an obsessive preoccupation in the little girl that will likely be carried into her adolescence and adulthood.

Never underestimate the emotional power of a mother over her little child, even if that mother is herself a victim.

The Twinkie defence

If mothers are relieved of responsibility in the matter of child beauty pageants, the myth that all that is required to protect children is for us to prevent through censorship and boycotts the patriarchal cultural brainwashing of women, is once more perpetuated.

Faceless corporations will be held solely responsible, and the consumer’s Twinkie defence of diminished capacity on account of having been unwittingly appropriated as fodder for the beauty industry, will serve to deny personal agency and responsibility.

I can think of little that is more unrealistic than ignoring or glossing over (so to speak) the mother’s role in beauty pageants, as is advocated by those who are protesting these events. Their undertaking to instead focus on pageant culture (minus the mother’s agency in it) and what it represents sounds doomed to failure, in terms of productively deconstructing these abusive events.

The “woman as victim” ideology

As are all efforts to control through censorship and prohibition alone, this one is at best superficial. We might succeed in preventing the pageant culture taking hold in Australia to the extent that it has in the US, but we won’t have done anything to ascertain what drives a woman to subject her infant to these ordeals, or what she may be doing instead if they aren’t available as an outlet.

Yet again we baulk at acknowledging women’s capacity for violence whatever form it takes, and instead seek to place responsibility elsewhere.

Yet again we are proffered the view of women as without agency, victims of a patriarchal consumer culture that blinds us to our own and our children’s best interests.

Once again some of us are denying women an opportunity to claim agency and own responsibility for our actions, and in so doing become proactive participants, rather than the perceived passive victim recipients of the culture in which we live.

And, as is all too often the case, the biggest losers are the little girls denied the ordinary enjoyment and acceptance of their normal children’s bodies, paraded instead in grotesque finery in front of adults like primped, beribboned and ruffled toy dogs in a very bad circus.

And again, the question must be asked: what is it with some women that makes them apparently incapable of acknowledging and addressing blatant maternal abuse, even “for the sake of the children?”


Bill Henson revisited

11 Apr

I’m putting this upfront again because a new discussion has opened up as a result of my piece in the Drum yesterday on Robert Crumb and Hetty Johnson.

Bill Henson by publik 16 via flickr

Bill Henson has a new photographic exhibition at the Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne.

The usual suspects, who art critic John McDonald calls the “despisers of the body” (Spectrum, April 9-10, 2011) have taken up cudgels against Henson’s images.

Interestingly, two prominent objectors, journalist and media researcher Nina Funnell, and Christian conservative Melinda Tankard Reist, both admit they haven’t seen the exhibition, however Reist says she has seen previous works and she knows what Henson is up to.

I haven’t seen this exhibition either, so am in no position to comment. What I do object to, however, is the conservative attitude that any depiction of adolescent nudity is pornographic, and the implication that everyone who views the images of adolescents is doing so from the perspective of a paedophile. That is, the danger they perceive is that all viewers will be sexually aroused in an inappropriate manner, and will want to sexually engage with the young people depicted in the photographs.

Therefore, the photographs  are “a catalyst for forbidden desires” to quote McDonald again, and  as such, should be censored.

Objectors such as Funnell and Reist have as their basic assumption that the young person’s body can only ever be viewed as a sexual object when portrayed in Henson’s photographs, even when they haven’t actually seen them.  They do not allow for any other understanding or interpretation, such as those Henson himself has advanced that are to do with his interest in capturing the liminality of adolescence, and revealing the young person on the threshold of immense change, in the throes of  all the uncertainties and ambiguities that accompany this state.

In the world view of the protestors, there is no room for any interpretation other than the sexual, and they urge all of us to view the images through the eyes and with the imagined desires of the paedophile.

There is something very alarming about their perspective, and something even more alarming about their urgent need to thrust that perspective on everyone else. Funnell tells us breathlessly that Henson’s images are known to be collected by paedophiles. Well, so are Target catalogues picturing little kids in their undies. Does this mean we must order and censor the world around us according to the base desires of the perverted? Does this mean that anything likely to appeal to the paedophile’s gaze must be obliterated from our cultural landscape?

Or are they arguing that any gaze directed towards photographs such as Henson’s is inherently paedophiliac, simply because the owner of the gaze directed it there in the first place?

This attitude turns everyone who visits the exhibition into a vicarious paedophile. It defines all visitors as abusers. It suggests that all those who view the images are compelled to adopt the perverted gaze to the exclusion of any possible other.

And this is what makes people like Funnell and Reist dangerous. They see a world comprised of sexual predation and abuse, and are unable to allow the legitimacy of any other vision. For this reason alone, they should not be trusted in the matter of Henson’s work, anymore than one would trust a paedophile’s limited and distorted perspective.

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