Archive | April, 2012

Birthing Buck Naked

30 Apr

I’m posting this story for Carolyn Hastie and the women I’ve met on Twitter who want us to have the support we need to birth our babies safely at home if we choose.

“We have turned away from our bodies. Shamefully we have been taught to be unaware of them, to lash them with stupid modesty… woman, writing herself, will go back to this body that has been worse than confiscated… ” Hélène Cixous

I’m having a phone conversation with my son in Montreal. He’s complaining that I wrote a poem about his brother and not him. Which I didn’t but anyway. 

“Well,” I say, “I’ve written a story about you being born.”
“Cool,” he says, “send it to me.”
“OK. I’ve changed your name to protect your privacy.”
“Hmmmmm. What did you call me?”
“Harry,” I reply.
“Harry! You can’t call me Harry! That sucks!”
“OK,” I sigh. “What would you like me to call you?”
There is a long and expensive silence. Then:
“Buck Naked!” he crows triumphantly. “Call me Buck Naked!”
So I have. The title of this story is not ‘Birthing Harry’ as I intended, but ‘Birthing Buck Naked.’ I understand that as a title it is somewhat ambiguous but what can I do? I’m a mother.

I prepared a corner in the room downstairs where I’d decided to give birth. I arranged cushions, pillows and blankets. I made a nest as warm and welcoming as that of any Arctic bird making a shelter for its young from spring rains and driving gales. I placed a pile of thick towels close by and on my feet I wore winter socks of cream wool. Then I rang Stephen.

“I’m starting,” I said. There was silence at his end. Starting what? I could hear him thinking.

“Oh God, I’m sorry. God, I’m on my way right now, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“It’s all right,” I told him. “I feel fine and I’ve rung the midwife.”

It wasn’t cold, though I’d prepared as if it was. It was April in Sydney, an unusually hot April but I knew I would feel cold in labour, and I thought outside of me could never be as warm as inside for the new child.

For the last couple of weeks I’d laid dreaming on the couch near the glass doors that led into the garden, rousing myself only to care for my four-year-old, Samuel, and attend to what was essential to maintain our daily lives. I gathered my focus and guided it inwards. A deep certainty filled my days and nights. I moved, languidly, to other rhythms. I became an ancient being, rooted in timelessness. I smiled when spoken to. I was engulfed by a great calm.

I knew plenty about the child. I was familiar with his restless stirrings on humid nights. I knew the energy in his limbs as he turned in my uterus. I knew his hiccoughs. His hands that seemed to be reaching out to me through the layers of flesh that kept us apart. The impatient, arrogant thrusts of his feet as he sought more freedom of movement than could ever be offered in my confined spaces.He was me, and he was not me. He was inside me, but I could not know him. Through me he lived, but the life outside would be his to choose.

Nobody can tell you ho hard it is to love someone so completely, and know as well that your task is to let him go. Nobody can tell you that from his birth it will be his task to learn to live without you. Nobody tells you how it will feel to whisper: “Go, my darling, into the world, into your life, and may everything good watch over you and bless your every moment.”

 I determined quite early in the piece that I’d have this child at home. This decision surprised everyone, not least of all me. I’d never thought of myself as interestingly alternative in my life practices. Indeed, quite the opposite: a traumatic and marginalised childhood had left me with a deep yearning for all things ordinary. Everyone I knew gave birth in hospital, as had I the first time. But something about the indignity of that experience, its clinical nature, the smells, the brisk and efficient manners; something about the instruments, the pipes in the wall, the lights, all conspired to convince me that I wanted to try another way.

Stephen went white when I announced my decision. He wasn’t a fearful man and usually faced demanding situations with courage and confidence. But this decision propelled him miles away from his zone of comfort. He attempted to dissuade me. The possibilities of error. Sudden dysfunction in the birth process. He called in our mothers, friends, the doctor who lived down the street. But I would not yield to argument or reason. I didn’t care to understand, at the time, the burden I’d placed on him. I was in the grip of a most profound determination, and nobody could change my mind.

We’d made the child in France, on a camping holiday in Provence. At the end of the trip, driving endlessly around the Boulevarde Périphérique trying to find our way into Paris, I threw up and realised I was growing a baby. That holiday, and living in the UK gave me the idea. Babies were born at home as a matter of course. It was no big deal. I’d read my Margaret Drabble: the birthing of the baby of a snowy night, the sleepy midwife, the snug bed. At that point we had no idea which country the child would be born in. It would be cosmopolitan. It would be born the European way.

Years later, grown up, he is a restless young man, nomadic. He takes leave of us for long periods during which he hitchhikes across the vast Canadian plains, offering his services as a ranch hand, barman and dogsbody. He takes jobs on fabulous yachts owned by French casino bosses, moored in Spain and the South of France. He swabs the decks, and serves cocktails to the wives, mistresses and daughters of the international mafia. He sends postcards from a market in Marrakesh. He rides the ferry from Sweden to Estonia, the Greyhound from New York to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. He sends emails: I love you Mum and I always miss you. I send emails: I love you, my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.

There is a point in labour where a woman may decide she’s not going through with it. It can happen in the best of labours. I arrived at that pivotal moment. I told them, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m stopping now. They laughed, kindly, and gave me chips of ice on which to suck. Damn you! I cried. You have no idea what this is like, I sobbed. Then I heaved myself up from the birthing couch and lumbered into the laundry, where I threw up in the sink. Gazing out the window at the peach tree in the back yard, it occurred to me that seeing a project through to the end was not something  I was renowned for. This urge to escape had been masked, in my first labour, by gas and drugs. Now I was feeling the full brunt of it. I looked at my hopelessly swollen stomach, and understood there was no way out. I cried. I’d tried to avoid positions of such singular responsibility all my life. The others could help me. Rub my back. Remind me to breathe. But bottom line, I was on my own. I turned from the window and propelled my massive self back to the nest. All right, I told them. I’m ready now. Let’s do it.

I want a new name for that valley between the contours of my thighs. Swollen with birthing, a bursting chakra radiant with heat. If I could see the colours of those energies, what would they be? Gold, rose-pink, ruby-red, lilac and lavender, and burgundy streaked with the rays of the rising sun. Sensation radiated from my centre and down the inside of my legs. The waves of birth pain overwhelmed me and as I’d learned, I gave myself up to them. If I cannot control this, if I cannot escape, I will yield to this pure sensation, unmediated by thought or explanation. I will yield.

Between my thighs the midwife spied the first tentative appearance of the child’s head. As the contraction subsided he slipped back,as if overcome by a sudden change of plan. The wily little character taunted us: Would he do this or not? But like me, he had no choice in the matter, we were in the grip of another force altogether and for him, like me, there was no going back. Another huge wave of sensation propelled him, regardless of his wishes, further down the birth canal towards his new life on earth.

They wiped my brow. I swatted at them as if they were flies. Everything was now an aggravation. I hated them. They distracted me with their advice. Fuck off! I roared at them, at the same time clutching their hands to keep them with me. Then something unrecognised and thrilling surged through me. Its force brooked no argument or interference. In its wake the infant’s poor squashed face, a study in fierce concentration, slid into the waiting hands of his father who crouched, white-lipped and weeping, between my naked thighs.

There are photographs of this event taken by my sister, who set up her tripod and captured it all.

Until he was twenty, Buck Naked steadfastly refused to acknowledge this newborn as himself, claiming it had to be his brother. At twenty he came home for the first time with a girlfriend he cared enough about to introduce to us, and after dinner one night he said: “Mum can we show Alice the pictures of me being born?”

I was astonished. Not only was he owning the event as his, he wanted to share it. I dug out the photos and we all gazed at them. They are curiously compelling. Nobody said much. We all sighed a lot. They are imbued with magical powers, those photos, though to what purpose I remain unsure.

After the birth they offered me Champagne we brought home from France just for this occasion, but all I wanted was tea, gallons of it, milky, sweet and hot. Neighbours dropped by with food and flowers. This was the first home birth in our street and everyone was interested. I found myself something of a folk hero. Even the disapproving congratulated us. The following year two more women in our street gave birth at home. It was a small movement.

The child latched immediately onto my breast. I had made it know beforehand that I wanted the placenta buried in the back yard and a tree planted to mark Harry’s arrival. Now I heard discussions about stray dogs digging it up, and hygiene and illegality. Stephen’s face was close to mine and our newborn child. “Please do what I want with it,” I whispered. “Don’t listen to them. It will be OK.” He nodded and kissed me.

In retrospect I see I lacked appreciation for his courage. After all, I seemed to be possessed of some esoteric knowledge about this birth that reassured me. All he had was my word for it. This man, whose life so far had prepared him for nothing that even came close to this experience, trusted the intuitions of his obsessed wife, and fulfilled her wishes. It was an act of faith on his part. It wasn’t as if I’d ever proved my reliability.

I remember those days in terms of the body. Of bodily fluids: waking in the morning in pools of milk from overflowing breasts. The infant’s liquids. The eroticism. The strange delight I took in bodily messes. I was real. I was flesh and blood and milk and desire and lust and sensation. It was good. I was good. I was embodied. I was, finally, earthed.

I received an indignant email from Canada concerning the flirtations of Alice. Echoing Freud, Buck Naked demanded: “What do women want, Mum? Just what the hell do women want?” 

I’m not sure he wanted me to answer this question. It had the ring of a complaint rather than a general inquiry, as perhaps did Freud’s original query. I never took to Aice, I must confess. In private moments I referred to her as “Miss Canada” owing to her uppity nature and her air of knowing everything. She ran rings around him, I could tell.

I wanted to take Buck Naked on my knee as I did in the days when he wore a soft yellow sleep suit with built-in feet. I wanted to take him back against my heart so he could feel its beating, and know that he is loved. Instead I sent another email. I addressed his pain as comfortingly as possible, and then I wrote: I love you my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.

“There is always at least a little good mother milk left in her. She writes with white ink.” Hélène Cixous


If this was The West Wing: the Slipper affair

28 Apr

Imagine this. Peter Slipper, Liberal MP is fast losing favour with his peers. Their  leader, Tony Abbott, admits to looking for ways to get rid of him. Mr Slipper meets a young man called James Ashby and feels an attraction. He attempts to persuade Mr Ashby to come and work for him. But the young man quite likely perceives that Slipper’s on the wane, and maybe not such a good prospect for on-going employment.

Then, by a bizarre convergence of bizarre circumstances outwardly set in motion when the ALP gave Kevin Rudd the flick but undoubtedly in play long before any of  us punters were aware of such machinations, Peter Slipper finds himself, courtesy of the ALP, in the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Representatives, reborn, newly robed and now in a position to give those who would have seen him gone the big finger.

Suddenly Mr Ashby wants that job. Now, this could well be because Mr Ashby is possessed of a healthy ambition, and Slipper’s sudden elevation makes working for him a whole other thing, as they say in The West Wing. But imagine another scenario. The LNP, finally rid of Slipper in one sense as he resigns and becomes an Independent, may feel itself outwitted by the Gillard government’s nifty move, quite likely highly aggravated, and chafing under Slipper’s authority at Question Time.

So somebody sets a honey trap. Slipper has a record of complaints of alleged sexual harassment against him. There’s allegedly video of him in an “intimate” situation with a young man on a bed. He’s already expressed more than a passing interest in Mr Ashby. So now might be a very good time for Mr Ashby to accept that job offer, mightn’t  it?  Who knows what might come of it? It could even bring down the government.

The subsequent text messages and emails indicate Mr Slipper’s interest in Mr Ashby, which was interpreted by Mr Ashby as sexual harassment. The matter is now subject to civil proceedings.

My primary objection to the honey trap option is that I find it hard to believe the Coalition has the brains to put this together. But they might have hired consultants.

If this was The West Wing Peter Slipper would know that his duty was not to himself but to the men and women who saved him from mediocrity and obscurity. He would recognise that for him to reappear in the Speaker’s Chair when Parliament sits next (yes, I know, they are two entirely different systems of government but suspend disbelief)  will be nothing short of farcical, and will set in motion a series of events that could well see the country under the leadership of the Dark One. If this was The West Wing, Slipper would sacrifice anything to avoid that outcome, especially his short-lived career as Speaker. He would stand aside until all allegations against him are dealt with.

In The West Wing everybody has their fair share of flaws from POTUS down. But what binds them is their goal: to keep POTUS where he is. They manage to overcome all personal differences, scandals, and weaknesses in their pursuit of this goal. This is what eventually drove me nuts about the show, but I could be wildly wrong. That tight-knit group gathered round Jed Bartlet seem to lack malice and ego. Even in their most flawed moments they convey a fundamental decency and an inherent capacity for redemption. I find this unrealistic, and just too damn sweet for my taste, but then I love Tony Soprano.

However, as someone pointed out the other day, in the cut throat race to become Presidential Candidate all manner of mud is slung, and many arrows fired. When it’s over, everyone gets behind the chosen one because getting your party into the White House supercedes personal rivalry, hatred, ambition and apparently most human flaws. Bartlett’s merry band of quippers take this to another level and seem to care for one another better than even Jesus’s disciples. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the Australian political system I’m calling bollocks on that.

However, there’s no doubt  we could do with a bit of this kind of loyalty in Australian politics. Peter Slipper has the opportunity to demonstrate how it’s done. He owes the Gillard government big time. They took a punt on him when everybody else was plotting his downfall. It’s not their fault it turned sour. The most ethical move available to Slipper at this point is to quietly withdraw until the civil proceedings have been resolved and if this was The West Wing,  he’d have announced it already.

As far as the civil proceedings are concerned, it may well be that the last thing the LNP wants is to see them fought out in court. Awkward questions will no doubt be asked of James Ashby, such as who briefed him on Slipper’s alleged peccadilloes in 2003 and why? Who is financing the court action? How much simpler if the government falls, the Dark One leads his people into the Lodge, and the civil case is quietly withdrawn, never to be heard of again?

Of course with the exception of President Bartlet The West Wing crowd aren’t politicians, perhaps this is the difference. But wait. The episode I watched last night featured a rather nasty Republican hell-bent on unearthing an ancient scandal about White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. At the last minute he was confronted by a Good Republican Man who told him muckraking was killing their party and it had to stop. The nasty man’s efforts were thwarted. I did not find this believable. I’m sorry. I did not.

War: what is it good for?

25 Apr

April 25 2012

Last night SBS Dateline reported on how life changes for many military men and women and their families after they’ve seen action in a theatre of war. Post traumatic stress disorder is rife, for example, and the effects of this illness can be horrific. It’s compounded by the stigma attached to those suffering the mental trauma of war, a stigma that can discourage sufferers from seeking help.

Reporter Nick Lazaredes has spent considerable time  investigating the dire circumstances of far too many returned military personnel in the US, and asks is Australia prepared to support and assist our soldiers who come home emotionally and mentally damaged by their service to their country?

This piece has just appeared at The Drum, addressing similar concerns, as does this one by Bruce Haigh.

As well, here at Overland is Jeff Sparrow’s excellent essay on Anzac Day and the celebration of forgetting.

As one observer in the SBS documentary pointed out, politicians like to declare “America is at war!” However, America isn’t at war, he claimed, America is in shopping malls. The military is at war, and America is ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of that when men and women with shattered psyches return to take up an ordinary life. The difficulties they face affect everyone around them, and the wider society.

If politicians are willing to send citizens to war in order to preserve our freedom and values, it seems remarkably short-sighted of them not to ensure the society we’re fighting and dying to protect doesn’t suffer, when those citizens return unable to rejoin it because of their contribution to its protection.

In 2003, then US President George W Bush told then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas: “God told me to strike al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” Our own John Howard supported Bush in this endeavour, as did then British PM Tony Blair.

It seems rather remiss of God not to have told Bush, Howard and Blair to make ample preparation for the care of the military personnel they sent to do God’s work, when they returned from their endeavours broken in body and/or mind. It seems remiss of God not to have commanded the leaders to adequately care for the partners, parents and children of these women and men who risked everything in God and George W Bush’s interests.

It seems remiss of God not to have ordered Bush to have a strategy in place for the period after he toppled Saddam Hussein as well. But there you go. The Bush God is a belligerent, obstreperous and ignorant war-monger. He cares nothing for the lives of women, men and children affected by his witless triumphalism. He rewards only the moral fervour of arrogantly incompetent white alpha males who cherish the delusion that American-style democracy must be adopted by the entire world, and it matters not who suffers in the pursuit of this implacable goal of blind universalism, as long as it isn’t them.

Politicians will always find reasons to send their populations to war, no matter how ill-founded, duplicitous, and opposed by the citizens those reasons are. The invasion of Iraq is proof of that statement. While that situation seems unlikely to change in the near future, what governments ought to be forced to do is made adequate provision for the wounded, in mind, body or both, when they return from doing their duty in whatever hell hole they have been assigned to by their governments. Anything less than this is scandalous.

What we need of course is a paradigm change. We need to cease our participation in what is, to paraphrase John Gray,  the US myth of its manifest destiny as a redeemer nation, expressed in missionary-style politics with the salvation of mankind as the goal.  As Robespierre noted in 1792: “No one loves armed missionaries: the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies. One can encourage freedom, never create it by an invading force.”

I’m encouraged by the perspective of this youthful blogger, who points out that while on Anzac Day we must commemorate those who died in battle, we shouldn’t be celebrating the wars in which we’ve participated. There’s nothing to celebrate in war. War is hell, and it is all too often good for absolutely nothing.

Axis of Arsehats

In Search of the Bricoleur

23 Apr

Guest post today by Stewart Hase

Bob le Bricoleur

In Search of the Bricoleur

Key Points

1. Another personality difference that creates conflict.
2. Bricoleurs see the word differently to non-bricoleurs
3. Bricoleurs are often side-lined.
4. Bricoleurs need to be invited into decision making situations not excluded.

I recently discovered that I am a bricoleur and it is a blessed relief to have outed at last. What this insight has done has explained how it is that I have managed to upset so many people in organisations, and perhaps other situations, over the years. It is a personality thing and, as I’ve mentioned before, it is personality differences where most conflicts begin, if not end.

Bricolage is a French word, as you’d probably guess, and originally referred to a worker who would make the best with what they had to complete a task. Thus they were people who tinkered with things, even playfully in an effort to solve a problem and used whatever resources they might have at hand. The term then became associated with art and craft. Later the usage has been broadened to include people who use their experience, their instinct, trial and error, and again, tinkering, to solve any sort of problem.

Thus, a manager or a researcher, for example, would bring whatever models are appropriate to a problem and would not be tied to a particular way of doing or thinking. They’d try something, perhaps even an amalgam of competing techniques or ideas, and see what worked rather than using a recipe driven approach. For the bricoleur, dogma and gurus who think they know the best way to approach a problem or issue are viewed with suspicion.

It is easy to see that to some people the bricoleur is nothing but a terrorist. They don’t work by the book, fiddle with process, flaunt policies and procedures, play with ideas, tinker and dislike high levels of control. This is the stuff of a nervous breakdown for the manager who is high on order, with crockery ducks flying along the wall in precise formation. The ISTJ will probably end up on high levels of psychotropic medication if a bricoleur is a member of their team. The archetypal Humphrey Applebee would be looking at Guantanamo Bay as a solution to the situation.

The truth is, of course, that we need both types in any organisation but it is easy to see where the conflict occurs. The bricoleur and the non-bricoleur are seeing the world through quite different lenses and will find it hard to understand each other’s language. Bricoleurs, in the original definition, were seen as being well-meaning amateurs by more traditional craft-persons or tradespersons who did things the ‘correct’ way. A bricoleur would see herself or himself as bringing expertise from many disciplines and experiences that enable them to see a task or problem in a different light. They’d see the other as narrow minded, limited in imagination and simply in the way.

My guess, and I don’t have any hard data to support this, is that bricoleurs would tend not to rise to the top of the corporate tree and f they did it would be an accident of sorts. Whether or not that is a good thing is open to debate and it may not matter because nature has probably spoken on the topic by making them unacceptable as leaders/managers and excluding them already.

I think organisations need bricoleurs, particularly in their decision-making and strategic processes. And it may be the case that they tend to be side-lined and ignored, infrequently being asked into the board room or places where the important decisions are made. We need people who are prepared to see things differently, ask difficult questions, be a bit different and tinker with ideas. They need to be heard and not just seen. My experience is that they tend to be seen as a bit too different, not a team player and just a bit too out there-a well meaning amateur perhaps.

Some years ago I was doing a consulting job with a great friend, Alan Davies. We were arranging a search conference to undertake a strategic planning exercise. The CEO was objecting to Alan wanting to invite union leaders and some other rebels who did not tend to toe the organisational party line. This list included customers who had not had a good experience with the organisation. Alan insisted they attend because you need to have your ‘enemies’ (not that they were really enemies but were perceived as such) in the room and not banging on the portcullis creating a stir. Best piece of management learning I every received and so too for the many CEOs who did eventually engage with the ‘enemy’, who is anyone unlike themselves.

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.

Stewart blogs at

Coalition moral high horse is nothing but a braying donkey

22 Apr

Before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his braying band of born to rule big mouths get too comfortable up on their freshly saddled moral high horses, they might do well to consider this: Speaker of the House of Representatives Peter Slipper has a history. The LNP is aware that this history includes, according to this account, alleged sexual harassment and sexual behaviour that some of their number found unacceptable enough to complain about:

According to the court documents, the Howard government was aware of Mr Slipper’s sexual relationship with another young male adviser – and other allegations of sexual harassment – as early as 2003.

Megan Hobson, a former adviser to Mr Slipper, approached John Howard’s then senior adviser Tony Nutt after she – and two other women – had viewed a video featuring the Speaker and the young male adviser.

According to the court documents, the video included footage of Mr Slipper lying on a bed with the male adviser and hugging him in “an intimate fashion”.

After hearing her concerns about the video, Mr Nutt allegedly told Ms Hobson to “forget all about it”.

The Coalition has overnight moved from “forget all about it” to “he must step down these are serious allegations.”

While the staffers Slipper allegedly harassed are adults, the Howard government’s attitude reminds me of the church officials who, when informed of the sexual predilections of some of their priests, simply shuffled them around from parish to parish, rather than call them to account and deal with the damage done to children in their care.

Sexually harassing an adult in your employ is an abuse of power. It’s against the law. It can cause a great deal of distress, sometimes long-term, for the unwilling recipient. It’s not a situation anyone should have to deal with when they arrive at their workplace every day. What the Howard government did, and what the Coalition has continued to do ever since, is cover-up serious allegations made against Slipper because it was expedient for them to do so, in spite of these alleged actions being against the law.

It’s a given that sexual abuse of all kinds perpetrated on  both adults and children can only continue to the extent that it does with the collusion of others. Institutions look the other way, or actively cover up  and repress allegations. It’s a given that we aren’t going to make big inroads into sexually abusive behaviours until institutions cease to enable the alleged perpetrators by protecting them from scrutiny. This is everyone’s problem. Politicians need to be leaders in this. They need to take action and be seen to take action when allegations of this kind are made against one of their number.

The Coalition doesn’t have a leg to stand on in the Slipper scandal. The way the situation was initially handled by them is disgraceful. They covered up allegations of a crime. They told complainants to “forget all about it.”  They showed utter disregard for staffers who had allegedly suffered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is sickening. No less sickening are those who hold positions of power that permit them to do something about it, and instead choose to cover it up for their own gains. Get off your moral high horse Mr Abbott. It’s really just a braying donkey.

On Julian Assange & the media

20 Apr

It was a little unnerving to find myself in agreement with former Liberal MP Ross Cameron the other day when as a panelist on ABC’s The Drum, he spoke in support of Julian Assange. In a democracy, Cameron opined, it’s necessary to have someone like Assange attempting to force accountability and transparency from governments. I almost fell off my chair.

On the same panel Annabel Crabb declared her disapproval of Assange for choosing to use a Russian television outlet, “Russia Today,” as a platform from which to launch his new career as a talk show host. It was, she claimed, unethical. This is a view shared by many mainstream journalists, and has led to Assange being described as a “traitor” and a “Kremlin patsy.”

According to the New York Times, Russia Today “is an English-language news network created by the Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin in 2005 to promote the Kremlin line abroad…Basically, it’s an improbable platform for a man who poses as a radical left-wing whistleblower and free-speech frondeur battling the superpowers that be.

I can’t resist pointing out here that many of us would consider it unethical for Assange or anyone else to avail themselves of facilities offered by News Corp, but that’s another story and one ought not to attempt such comparisons. Clearly, Assange’s choices were extremely limited, and given the contrary nature of the man, going with Putin doesn’t seem entirely surprising. writer Glen Greenwald, in an interview with Russia Today, declared that “Attacks on Assange…reveal much more about the critics than their targets.” He went on to point out that Assange goes where the main stream media will not or cannot go. This is the privilege of the independent operator: mainstream journos want to stay exactly that, and are necessarily restricted  (to varying degrees depending on which mogul employs them) by their understandable desire to keep their careers.

If we can accept this about them, why must they be so carping about Assange?

Says Greenwald: “The rule is clear: it’s OK for a journalist to work for a weapons manufacturer, the US or British govts, & Rupert Murdoch, but not RT? Assange should be judged by what he does and the journalism he produces – not where it’s broadcast.

It seems timely, then to republish this piece I wrote for On Line Opinion in December 2010.

I’m indebted to Antony Loewenstein for his article of December 2 in The Drum titled “Where’s the media’s backbone over Wikileaks?”

In his article, Loewenstein takes the Australian media to task for its collective inadequacy in the reporting of the 250,000 US cables dumped by Wikileaks.

One aspect he singles out for attention is the series of calls for the assassination of Assange, the demands that he be tried as a terrorist and condemned to death, and the demands for him to be killed without benefit of a trial at all.

These reactions, or more accurately, these incitements to murder, came from senior political and media figures in the USA and Canada, individuals with a wide-ranging public voice, and plenty of influence. Their calls for Assange’s death were reported globally.

Demands have also been made for Assange’s arrest by the US, on as yet unspecified, even nebulous charges. Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland has offered to assist the US in its pursuit of Assange, and together with Prime Minister Gillard is exploring the possibility of bringing criminal charges against him in this country.

Julia Gillard has, with no substantial grounds at all, repeatedly referred to Wikileaks and Assange’s activities as “illegal.” Whether or not the Wikileaks dump is “illegal” is far from certain. Even in the US, who is the primary victim if indeed any crime has been committed by Assange, the legality or otherwise of his actions remains unclear.

Australia has not been sinned against in the dump, but irrespective of that, in their desperation to assuage the USA Gillard and McClelland are casting about to find an offence, any offence, with which to charge Assange.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. Our Attorney General and our Prime Minister have publicly committed to doing everything they can to assist the US in its pursuit of one of our citizens, a citizen who has now been threatened with death several times by several different figures, in that country.

This is really quite remarkable. Our government is supposed to protect its citizens, as it protects US citizens, from threats of death. After all, didn’t we just go to great lengths to ensure that the convicted wife murderer Gabe Watson would not be returned to his homeland unless they first agreed not to kill him? Yet we’ll hunt down one of our citizens who has not been charged with, let alone convicted of anything, and offer him up for assassination apparently without a qualm.

What a very special relationship indeed we have with the USA.

But what is breathtakingly alarming is that nobody in the mainstream media, and in government, seems to find it at all necessary to remark upon the fact that Assange’s activities are considered by influential and senior figures in the USA and Canada to be deserving of death.

If you ring up your ex and leave “if you don’t stop telling everybody I’m a tosser I’ll kill you,” on the message bank, you’re in big trouble. But if you’re a powerful figure in the media and politics in the USA you can volunteer anybody for slaughter for any reason, and nobody will hold you to account for it.

And if you’re the Australian government and it’s one of your citizens being subjected to that threat, you can offer to help find him and nobody in the mainstream media will question your sanity and your ethics.

It seems that in Australia we’ve now sunk to such a level of moral turpitude that we are not at all ruffled by the notion of a whistleblower in a democracy being murdered for his activities.

Silence implies complicity. Silence implies approval. Silence implies that it is fine by us to incite the assassination of someone who has caused bother and embarrassment to important people.

Embarrass important people? Of course you’ll be killed!

Loewenstein appeared on The Drum on ABC TV December 2, to discuss his perspective on the media’s coverage of the Wikileaks dump. The panel consisted of Annabel Crabbe, Leigh Sales (both senior ABC journalists) and Joe Hildebrand of   the Daily Telegraph. It very quickly proved impossible to persuade any of these three panelists to seriously address the media’s coverage of the Wikileaks affair, or indeed the affair itself. They would not address the contents of the cables, or the death threats. Not even the implications for free speech and dissent if the US does declare Wikileaks a terrorist organisation (as has been suggested by the US Administration and others) could tempt them into a more thoughtful state of mind.

In fact, the panel illustrated exactly what Loewenstein is complaining about. Amid much giggling, Crabbe remarked that Assange had thrown a “tantie” about a New York Times article, and asked what did that tell you about the man. Well, not a lot, really. He can spit the dummy. And this matters because?

Sales insisted that Assange is a journalist and not, as Loewenstein suggests, a whistle-blower, on the grounds that he releases his material through the mainstream newspapers. Therefore he ought to be playing by journalists’ rules, which apparently don’t cover dumping 250,000 cables in the manner in which he has dumped them.

Mercifully, I cannot recall Hildebrande’s contribution, other than that it involved a lot of noisy laughter.

These comments from Al Jazeera reporter, Mike Hanna, give an indication of the information that is now available to us, thanks to Wikileaks. Hanna is referring to allegations that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered US diplomatic staff to steal the personal data (credit card, frequent flyer information) of highly placed United Nations officials:

Even the most cursory read (of the leaked cables) makes clear diplomatic staff are being asked to conduct a massive intelligence gathering exercise – involving, to put it bluntly, the theft of personal data. This, on the face of it, is a document asking diplomats to carry out activities that are not only against all accepted protocols, but are illegal in terms of US or international law. To repeat, it is couched as an order, an instruction, not a request.

In other words, there was plenty for The Drum panel to have an opinion about, and intelligently discuss.

The panel’s attitude to the Wikileaks story was, and remains, inexplicable.

Assange has scooped every mainstream journo on the planet. He’s rewritten the rules of investigative journalism with his massive dump, and he’s not even a journalist. Reporters have to go to the secondary source because Assange controls the primary. He’s not one of them. He’s an outsider. He plays by his own rules. And he pays the price.

Loewenstein suggested that envy and jealous rivalry might be a contributing factor in the Australian mainstream media’s apparent determination to give the Wikileaks story as little in-depth attention as possible. This the only explanation I can find, unless they’re in cahoots with the Gillard government to give the matter the minimum amount of credence, as authorised by the PM, and instead to distract us by focusing on Assange’s hair colour, temperament, and how he should list his occupation on his CV.

Lowenstein also suggests that some Australian media are far too cosy with centres of power, and far too impressed by them. They are thus rendered incapable of comprehensively analysing an attack such as Wikileaks has made on that centre. He gives the example of the ABC’s World Today Eleanor Hall, of whom he comments: “It was painful on Monday listening to ABC radio’s The World Today grilling a New York Times journalist about his paper’s decision to publish some of the revelations. Virtually every question asked by host Eleanor Hall could have come from the State Department. The contents and implications of the cables were mostly ignored.”

This is scary stuff. Is it now becoming the media’s role to shoot the messenger and ignore the message? To ask questions on behalf of a government? To put obstacles in the way of the public dissemination of subversive material?

There’s no doubt Assange is a complex figure. He has been roundly criticised for exposing government secrecy while simultaneously running an organisation that is viewed as highly secretive by some observers. It’s ironic that in order to expose secrecy one has to be secretive, however, it’s also difficult to imagine how any organisation can offer protection to whistle blowers without engaging in some form of secrecy that will hopefully protect them.

Be that as it may, complexity in people who stand out on the world’s stage isn’t remarkable: only the other day I heard someone carping about how difficult Nelson Mandela could be. Such people do not inhabit the “imagined sensible middle” that mainstream journos are supposed to achieve. (This link to Mr Denmore’s blog “The Failed Estate” is worth a read, BTW.  It’s a response to the unrelenting carping of many journos about bloggers and social media commenters, which is not entirely different from their griping about Assange).

Even Ross Cameron has his sexual scandals, one of which caused him to lose his seat in 2004. Perhaps the journalists who carp and judge are morally beyond reproach: I do not know. What I do know is that I am grateful for mavericks such as Julian Assange. When Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales, and Joe Hildebrand make a similar contribution to the world I will be grateful for them as well. It took guts to do what Assange did. It doesn’t take much guts to get up on the telly and laugh at him.

Mumbrella & the morals police

19 Apr

At the Mumbrella website you’ll find blogs and discussion about “everything under Australia’s media marketing and entertainment umbrella.”

You’ll also find an article titled “Stop making sex objects of women and kids,” written by morals campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist in November 2011. This article is “one of the most commented Mumbrella has ever published” and as a consequence, Tankard Reist has been invited to speak on her topic at the Mumbrella360 conference  in June 2012.

In the title of Reist’s article we see immediately the manipulative conflation Reist and her campaigners make with adult women and girls. As I’ve argued many times, we have two very separate issues here, on the one hand the alleged “objectification” and “pornification” of adult women, and on the other the alleged “sexualisation” of children. Reist and her followers make no such distinction and this is the first reason to suspect their claims are less than rigorously addressed.

Reist and her followers seem to offer an outstanding example of the “third person effect,” that is, they inhabit a psychological space in which they perceive advertising as having far more effect on others than themselves. While they can argue that themselves and their children are somehow exempt from an unwilling transmogrification into pornographic sex objects by viewing mass media advertising, everyone else outside their circle of friends and like-minded colleagues is unable to resist this hypersexualised state, resulting in a mortally crippled society in which everyone (except them) is either demanding sex  or offering sex 24/7, including children. In short, only Reist and company manage to retain agency, while the rest of us lose ours at the first glimpse of female flesh.

I say this because every time I read one of Reist’s fanatical rants, I ask myself who is she talking about? She is not describing anyone in my circle of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbours, extended family and community. I may lead a comparatively sheltered life, on the other hand I do get out. I’m also middle class and perhaps Reist’s demographic in danger exists in another milieu? Is Reist in the process of creating a class of deviants and their children who unlike her and hers (and me and mine) are infected with hypersexuality through their inability to resist the unrelenting assault of advertising, and are thus eroding the very foundations of our society?


I have heard distressing reports of teenage girls feeling obliged to provide boys with blow jobs, however I attributed this more to Bill Clinton who changed the definition of sex for generations of young people when he declared fellatio was not really sex, and therefore one ought not to feel guilty about it.

There’s no doubt that there’s a great deal more flesh about than when I was a teenager. Though watching the Brady Bunch the other afternoon, I noted that the skirts the girls wore to high school were little more than pelmets, and they also sported high heels, footwear they aren’t allowed to wear to school today.

It’s also true that the representation of female sexuality in advertising is a narrow one, and we ought to be railing about the lack of variety the industry offers. Reist and her followers would no doubt argue there should be no such representation at all, and trying to work out just what they would find acceptable is a pointless task. To them it’s all “sexualised.” But as I argued here in an essay titled “How to induce a moral panic about sex ” there’s a big difference between “sexualised” and sexy:

According to the American Psychological Association’s definition (I don’t trust them about much, but they’re helping write the book on this so they’re a primary source) “sexualizing” women means denying acknowledgement of anything other than our sexuality, according us value only because of our sexual appeal to the exclusion of all our other characteristics, constructing us as “things” for sexual use rather than seeing us as people with the capacity for independent action, and inappropriately imposing sexuality upon us.

So are the researchers confusing sexualization, which according to the APA’s definition is pathological, with sexy? The definitions of which are: arousing or intended to arouse sexual desire, and being sexually aroused, neither of which are, I hope, considered pathological by anyone. There is a world of difference between the two terms. Sexualization we may well get upset about, as a particular form of dehumanization. But sexy?

Is it a case of having failed to successfully demonize the sexy, a pathological disorder is the next step in the reactionary battle to control expressions of female sexuality?

The danger is that while sexy is a description of normal human pleasure, replacing it in the vernacular with “sexualized” throws any possibility of female sexual representation out the window. Every public display of female sexuality is interpreted as sexualized, and therefore pathological.

What kind of a lesson is this to teach our girls about their sexuality?

One can only hope the Mumbrella conference will offer its audience balance, and invite a speaker who will challenge Reist’s moral rhetoric with some common sense and research-based counter arguments. At the very least, Reist needs to make it clear just who it is she is talking about, rather than continuing with sweeping generalisations about “women” and “kids.”  Perhaps she could tell us how she herself avoids the pernicious influences of the advertisers to maintain her sexual integrity, and how she protects her children from objectification, pornification and sexualisation. This could be really helpful, because no matter what outside influences a child must deal with, the tools for survival are acquired in her or his family.

While Reist spends an awful lot of her life viewing (and, bizarrely, reproducing on her website for others to view) images she finds unacceptable, it seems she is unaffected by them. Why then should she claim the rest of us will be damaged, when she (and her followers) remain apparently unscathed?

Kelly O’Dwyer, Christians don’t own marriage, & goodbye Bob.

15 Apr

Shortly after Bob Brown announced his retirement, Federal Member for Higgins  and Abbott attack puppy in training Kelly O’Dwyer tweeted that we now had a female deputy PM as well as female PM. This observation prompted ABC journo Latika Bourke to ask whatever could Ms O’Dwyer know about Wayne Swan that the rest of us don’t?

Of course, Ms O’Dwyer was keeping alive the Opposition tradition of claiming that the Greens are really running the country and so their new leader, Christine Milne, is our deputy PM in everything but name.

I first noticed Ms O’Dwyer when she took part in a Qanda episode. If you’re interested, you can find this on her website. I formed the opinion then that she is given to belligerence, quite lacking in manners, and adept at the practise of  “talking over everyone else not caring if your audience hears you because your objective is to drown out all other voices not to make an intelligent point yourself.” Yes. That.

I also formed the opinion that her subtext was “Look at me Tony look at me! I’m doing it just like you! Can I have a schmacko? Please?”

Had it not been for the notice warning “Puppy in training. Not to be fed or patted by anyone other than handlers” I would have chucked her one myself, being a sucker for unrestrained approval desperation. Below Ms O’Dwyer is pictured with Mr Costello who never became leader of the pack. It looks as if he’s eating a sausage. Or perhaps he’s going to feed it to Ms O’Dwyer. I don’t know what these people get up to.

In 2010 I wrote this article for On Line Opinion titled “Reclaiming marriage from the great big Christian hijack.” I wrote: Marriage has existed a whole lot longer than Christianity. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, born in 551 BC, offered this delightful definition: “Marriage is the union of two different surnames, in friendship and in love.”

Two years down the track and because our PM made a point of reassuring us the day after she took office that there would be no change in the Marriage Act to accommodate same-sex unions, we are no further ahead. It is rumoured that Ms Gillard was compelled to make this otherwise inexplicable statement  by the Australian Christian Lobby. (I claim her statement was inexplicable at the time because Kevin Rudd had only just been rumbled, and the last thing on anybody’s mind was gay marriage.)

What remains inexplicable to me is that Ms Gillard is a professed atheist and personally uninterested in marriage. Some 60 per cent of Australians approve of same-sex unions and there are Christians among them.

Why the ACL should have such influence over Ms Gillard is also inexplicable, and quite unacceptable. Frankly, I’m a bit fed up with public Christians at the moment. That appalling performance by Cardinal Pell on Qanda did it for me. In the On Line Opinion essay I wrote:

Perhaps what is required from Christians these days is a little humility. An acknowledgement that they haven’t got everything right, indeed there are things they have got horrifically wrong, and that there is a collective as well as an individual responsibility for this that must be addressed before they can legitimately turn their rigorous attention to the maintenance of a broader human morality.

If I were imagining a god, she/he would care a whole lot more about believers destroying the bodies, hearts and souls of children than about preventing same-sex marriage, and same-sex adoption. If my god was going to smite anybody, I hope she/he would be smiting the perpetrators of those crimes against children, and those who enabled and protected those perpetrators and denied their crimes. I hope she/he would take positive action to enlighten those who would deprive children of love and legal security, solely because these people are unable to personally deal with the concept of love between same-sex partners.

My god would teach that loving one another is the only thing that matters, and from that all else will grow.

She/he would also be smart enough to admit that loving one another is the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do on this planet.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Christ.

“We must love one another, or die,” said the poet, W.H. Auden.

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” warned St Paul.

It’s time to reclaim marriage from the Christians. They can’t claim it as their own. It belongs to everybody. Marriage in Australia in 2010 is about loving one another, whatever gender the other happens to be. It is about hope, and deeply good intentions. It’s about wanting to be the best a human being can be. It’s about wanting to create a living, breathing mystery, day by day, with the person you love and who loves you.

How may times must these sentiments be expressed, and by how many people, before politicians take heed?

Christians, your noisy gongs and clanging cymbals are making my ears bleed.

Finally, adieu Bob Brown. There are many ageing white males in positions of power that I can think of who would do well to emulate Brown, and bugger off. Knowing when to go is a rare talent, whatever your field of endeavour.

I have no idea if this is the beginning of the end for the Greens. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas observed about death: One does not know when death will come. What will come? With what does death threaten me? With nothingness or recommencement? I do not know.

And that, my friends, is why I can’t call myself an atheist, for I do not know. While this is unkindly described as “fence-sitting” by some, I argue that it is a sign of maturity to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty. Only children demand certainty. The adult knows there is none. Nowhere. Ever. Ever. I know that for sure.

Bob and Paul

Well, Cardinal Pell?

13 Apr

I’ve just read this piece in The Age titled “Church’s suicide victims.” It’s about a report from the Victorian police detailing the suicides of some forty victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and calling for an inquiry into these and other deaths thought to be related to childhood sexual abuse by priests. The article states: In a damning assessment of the church’s handling of abuse issues, the reports say it appears the church has known about a shockingly high rate of suicides and premature deaths but has “chosen to remain silent.”

I then read this article published in On Line Opinion earlier this year, in which the author explains why  in NSW the Catholic Church cannot be sued when its priests sexually abuse children:

Put simply (as Cardinal Pell would no doubt argue), the situation is that when a Catholic priest commits sexual abuse, it does not happen in the Catholic Church because there is no such thing. It happens instead in one of its unincorporated parts and therefore responsibility for its rests totally on members of that part, especially the perpetrator and those responsible for appointing or supervising him. That is to say, responsibility is completely limited to the parish, school, hospital or whatever is the unincorporated part in which it occurred.

As the trustees merely own the property within which the abuse occurred and have no responsibility whatsoever for appointing or supervising the perpetrator, they cannot be held responsible for the abuse he committed. Of course, victims are perfectly free to sue the perpetrator or the unincorporated part but they have no assets (the Trust has them all and anyway priests take a vow of poverty) so there is nothing to be gained by it.

It seems that where sexual abuse of children is concerned in NSW, the Catholic Church has two parts: one that does the damage and one that owns the wealth…

I then read this:

Matthew 18:6  But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Well, your Eminence?  What say you?

Porn, Pell, & the unruly body.

11 Apr

There’s an interesting piece in The Drum today by Michael Brull, demonstrating just how unreliable are anti porn campaigner Gail Dines’ claims of “studies” and “research.” Dines argues the “studies” support her contention that we are all going to hell in a pornographic hand cart while compulsively masturbating, dressed in crotchless panties regardless of gender, and singing something with mofo in the chorus. For more about Dines unique turn of phrase see here  but if you haven’t got time, her description of men as “amoral life support systems for an erect penis” will give you an insight.

In a spontaneous example of Freudian free association, Brull’s article led me to consider Scott Stephen’s railing yesterday against the Qanda what can I call it, it never once rose to the level of a debate, encounter perhaps, and an acrimonious one at that, between Cardinal George Pell and atheist/agnostic/non believer Richard Dawkins. I was most disappointed with this mutually contemptuous exchange of scorn and mockery. If this is the best there is from both sides, we’re in trouble. Some respect, courtesy and genuine engagement would not have gone astray and on the whole, the audience questions were boring as bat scat. Actually, that is unfair to bats and those interested in their complex droppings.

Be all that as it may, Stephens, the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Editor, was profoundly upset by this programme as you will see if you have a look at the piece he dashed off immediately afterwards. Link above . There are many things with which to take issue in Stephens’ piece, however, because of Gail Dines, I’m thinking about this:

Unlike socialism – which invariably took the form of the radical assertion of the state over the economy, culture and indeed the bodies of the people themselves – the revolution that has defined our time and continues to hold sway within Western liberal democracy is the assertion of the freedom, the rights and the pleasure of the body over every other person or institution that might stake some claim over it, whether it be nation, tradition, community, marriage, children or religion. Or, as Herve Juvin has nicely put it, the Western body is “a body without origin, character, country or determination”.

In just this way, this conception of the body that represents liberalism’s political and cultural centre of gravity is both ahistorical – in that it is unmoored from its traditional determinants of kith and kin, its moral and civic duties, and even its biological inheritance and gender – and nihilistic – determined by nothing but what it chooses for itself, and oriented toward nothing but its own health, safety and pleasure.

Christianity has always had a fraught relationship with the body, and has sought to prescribe and control its functions, particularly the sexual. The body is regarded as subordinate to the soul, or as a temple of the holy spirit. The New Testament is littered with such images. The religious right carries on this tradition with its close attention to female sexual and reproductive behaviours.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there would eventually be a revolution of the kind Stephens describes, in which human beings in Western liberal democracies attempt to extricate themselves from the constraints imposed by Christianity on the body’s freedoms, rights and pleasures. Repress anything for long enough and it will eventually explode. The sexual revolution of the sixties was in part a reaction to the repression of the fifties, the intense interest in the body in 2012 a continuation of that revolution, enabled as never before by technology. We have the means to alter our bodies. We can do things to them we’ve never been able to do before. We can see the bodies of others as we’ve never been able to see them, just by sitting at our laptops. The body is available as never before, and of course we are enthralled by its availability.

However, there is an apocalyptic tone to both Stephens’ and Dines’ rhetoric. There is an “end times” desperation in their prose. They believe the  body is going to bring us undone. Our  unhealthy enslavement to its desires and demands will lead us into chaos and despair. It would seem that Stephens has nothing good to say about our intense interest in the body: like Dines and pornography, it’s all bad.

The “unmoored” body, that is, the anarchic body, caring only for its own welfare and pleasure, and Dines’ utopian vision of what might be:

We believe in a future free of oppression, and a cornerstone of this future is a world free of commodified sex and a media landscape that does not reproduce patriarchal culture. This is a truth we hold dear and there is no study, argument, or theory that will persuade us otherwise.

The moral fervour of this statement conceals, perhaps even from the enunciator, a blind desire to establish what she considers a legitimate sexual discourse and in so doing, repress and silence all others.

Both Dines and Stephens seem to nostalgically reference an imagined era far better than the one in which we currently exist. Both repudiate the unruly present. Both  imply a utopian dream of reinstating bourgeois moral values. The body must be policed, controlled and kept in its place. But by whom?

I have always considered the body to be miraculous in and of itself. It seems to me perfectly natural that the body should be a source of fascination and wonderment. I can’t agree with Stephens’ generalisation that the body is currently unmoored from its traditional determinants of kith and kin, its moral and civic duties, and even its biological inheritance and gender – or Dines’ ghastly assertions about male sexuality.     Some bodies are adrift, and that has always been so. Some sexual behaviour is frightening and dangerous, and that has always been so. However, both authors seem to be consumed by the same urgent project: that of ridding the world of what they consider to be “evil” and installing a new order stripped of the full human experience, which must, if it is to be real, include the dark, the difficult and the dangerous.

Which brings me back to Cardinal Pell. I detected in the Cardinal a distinct taste for revenge. He wants an afterlife in which those who behave badly are judged and punished. That’s his utopia. It’s not fair, he says, if those who cause suffering get away with it. Especially Hitler.




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