Archive | February, 2013

Morrison hammers another nail into decency’s coffin

28 Feb

Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s latest stinky brain fart that everyone should be warned when an asylum seeker is lodged in their neighbourhood is stomach churning on a number of levels, but perhaps the most alarming is that there are people living amongst us, and likely quite a few, who agree with him. Obviously it’s such people he’s seeking to engage with, and he will succeed.

The ALP has well-exceeded the barbarity of Coalition asylum seeker policies. What once seemed so shocking now appears comparatively tame. Morrison has to dig deep to compete. The sad reality for our country is that both major parties believe that hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees is a vote winner, and there’s enough of those votes in play to make this race to the bottom worth their while.

Morrison’s statements are propaganda. There is little point in engaging with their content, except to suggest replacing the term asylum seekers with Jews, or Muslims, or women, or even privileged white males and see how it sounds. His message is that for current political purposes, asylum seekers are the group which will be scapegoated. Scapegoating is employed as a legitimate political strategy. There is no difference between what Morrison is doing, and the early propaganda of the Third Reich. Call Godwin’s Law if you like, but sometimes it really is the only appropriate analogy.

The only hope we have is that there are enough thoughtful women and men in both major parties to loudly protest this unrelenting moral decline on the part of their leaders. The  sickening willingness of so many politicians to remain silent in the face of this vile othering is contemptible.

♫…It might as well rain until September…♬

25 Feb

Warning: this entire narrative, while true,  is also a metaphor.

In our house we know from years of experience that when the Pacific Highway is closed to the south of us, any trip north will be a dream. No trucks, hardly any cars & no speed traps. So yesterday, overcome by cabin fever, we decided to go to the big town to bother our friends there, and see a movie.

We left in a blaze of sunshine, after kicking the beast into four-wheel drive. Ten minutes later, this:

DSCN1122

After another twenty minutes of blinding rain slowing us to an unseemly crawl, ruining the anticipated experience of free ranging the highway from hell, we started to fight about whether we should keep going, or turn back. If we kept going, the high tide together with excessive rain would later in the day likely prevent us crossing the bridge that leads into our town and we wouldn’t get home. If we didn’t keep going, we’d all fight a whole lot more when we did get home, as frustration and disappointment would be added to the already raging group aggravation. An aporia in our narrative if ever I encountered one!

It’s stupid to keep going, one of us said. When is the last time we did something stupid, another (me) demanded. Nobody could remember the last time we’d (deliberately) done something stupid and that determined our choice: we would keep going.

This didn’t stop us:

DSCN1123

But when we got to this:

DSCN1130

people I always thought loved me turned. I didn’t make you keep going, I pointed out to them. I’m not even driving.  The driver is in charge, isn’t she? I asked, but very nicely. Anyway its too late to turn round and go home, I told them, we’re almost there, we’ll just have to make a detour. Let’s sing. Let’s sing “Solidarity forever!” Its ages since we last sang that!

A great deal of time later, there’s no need to say how much, we arrived at the movies with seconds to spare. See! I cried, triumphant (and relieved, imagine how they’d have gone for me if we’d missed the movie as well) I told you! The apparently stupid choice can often be the best one! You just have to be brave enough to take a calculated risk!

We still have to get home, a spoil sport darkly muttered, and your risk wasn’t exactly calculated. But I had only good feelings about getting home and guess what? I was right again! The highway home was dry as a bone, and we went wild, I tell you, wild! Driving at amazing speeds on the apocalyptically empty road! Shrieking with unrestrained joy: we did it we did it and, because I am generous and wise, I let them share the credit that was strictly speaking, all mine.

There’s a lesson in this for all of us, don’t you think? You just have to be wise enough know how and when to be calculatedly stupid. That’s all, and you’re most welcome.

rudd-gillard

Disclosure: this narrative is narrated in the first person by an unreliable narrator.

BREASTS. NIPPLES. BREASTS. NIPPLES. BREASTS BREASTS NIPPLES BREASTS.

21 Feb

Some weeks ago my fellow tweep, writer and philosopher Dr Damon Young, posted this cheerful image of himself naked from the waist up on Twitter, and on his website.

Damon Young

It was around the time many of us were becoming highly exercised at David Koch’s unfortunate take on public breastfeeding. Breasts were a thing, or even more of a thing than usual because if it’s a thing you’re seeking, you can’t go past breasts.

This coincidence of Damon and David stirred my outrage, albeit for very different reasons. I’ve addressed my Koch angst here.

If Damon can plonk images of his torso all over the interwebs, I railed, without fear of any consequences other than some good-natured joshing, why can’t I? Because no matter how much anybody tells me I can, I don’t think it is actually so.

Damon’s image is unadorned, taken, I imagine, as he paused in his progress from bedroom to bathroom, his mind occupied, I later discovered, with his BMI. There’s nothing vain or self-conscious about the photo: he’s a bloke in his shorts wondering if he needs to take better care of his physical vehicle.

And here we careen into the first thing a woman can’t do that a man is allowed. If I were to post an image of myself in exactly the same state of ordinary (as opposed to contrived) deshabillé, clearly preoccupied (and not with showing myself off) I would likely bring torrents of nastiness down on my head. Why? How long have you got?

Most obviously, because I’d be transgressing the cultural expectation that when a woman shows her breasts she’s got to be sexy about it. We learned that from the Koch situation, with this male commenter making no bones about it. A woman shouldn’t just let her tits hang out, especially at the dinner table, if not for erotic purposes. That is, our tits are only for display when they are being usefully employed in sexually titillating somebody. Standing in your hallway, in your knickers, concentrating on something other than how desirable you have contrived to look in that moment, is likely to be regarded as disgusting. How can she let herself be seen like that?

Nobody says that about Damon, I’m willing to bet.

For a couple of weeks I yearned to post an image of my naked torso on Twitter and this blog, because why shouldn’t I? I was, though, both infuriated and appalled by the powerful ambivalence I felt at the prospect of thus exposing myself to the public gaze. I bet Damon didn’t go through this either, I fumed. I bet he blithely stuck up his picture and thought no more about it. I don’t begrudge him or any man that freedom: I want it for myself. I want to feel as safe as a man does about just being in my body, as it is, but when it comes to publicly revealing myself, I don’t.

I then had a Twitter exchange with Helen Razer in which we contemplated our breasts, confiding to one another and thousands of other tweeps, that we both believe them to be our best feature. Neither of us posted twit pics, however, as people do with their favourite kittehs and puppehs. We also discussed our skin, our feet and our arses, but no other body part, for me at least, has the same frisson. I’m a breast woman. The word alone stirs complex and mysterious emotion in me, all of it good. It’s not until breasts collide with society that they become problematic. Left alone, stripped of imposed culture, they are, quite frankly, gorgeous.

It’s my considered belief that Western culture is alarmingly dysfunctional when it comes to breasts. Author Sarah Darmody explores this normalised peculiarity in this readable piece, titled “Why are we so embarrassed about breasts?” Having lived in the UAE, Darmody is asked what she thinks about life in a society where women are forced to cover up. “What, you mean Australia?” she retorts.

Breasts are fetishised to a degree that is maddeningly unfair. The rules about which breasts may be displayed and how are so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that to consider transgressing them fills a woman like me with something close to terror. For example, I will not usually go out of my house on a cool day without a bra or layers, in case my nipples expose themselves, hardened, as if with desire, through my t-shirt. This is falsely described as modesty, a commendable quality in a woman, I’m told. It feels like enslavement. It feels like repression. It feels like a shocking waste of my energy.

At the same time I don’t want to send the message of sexual availability hardened nipples signify, because that is a false message and I don’t need to deal with the repercussions. A woman’s day is full of such decisions, made largely unthinkingly, in robotic obedience to received wisdom we absorbed with our infant formula or mother’s milk. There are brave women who make it their business to thwart the ingrained conventions. It’s my goal to one day join them.

Damon’s self-exposure will do nothing to detract from his reputation as an erudite, intelligent philosopher, author and commentator. On the contrary, the image reveals another side to the scholar, one that is endearingly human. Were I, a female scholar, to publish exactly the same image of myself, I suspect I would incur all kinds of lewd and derogatory commentary, and I wouldn’t endear myself to anybody. Especially not my family who would be appalled, and likely wouldn’t find it possible speak to me for some time without averting their eyes.

If a female scholar, or any female exposes her breasts on the Internet, will that become the first thing anyone remembers about her? I suspect the answer is yes.

I’m very fond of my breasts. They’ve served me well, they’ve given pleasure to me and to my lovers, they’ve kept my babies alive and thriving, they continue to please the eye. They aren’t twenty anymore, but I’m told they still have a bit of phwoar factor. Be that as it may, the kind of exposure I’m talking about doesn’t require phwoar: I wasn’t planning a page three spread. I just wanted to do what Damon did.

Well, as you know, I didn’t. I feel like an abject coward. I still can’t even think about doing what Damon did without hot horrible squirmy feelings. If I did what Damon did I fear I would be doubly condemned, on the one hand for revealing my breasts at all, and on the other for revealing them in a non-sexy way, and with complete lack of concern for how they and I look.

It’s taken me weeks to even write this piece, not least because I understand that in the personal and universal hierarchy of women’s needs, the fact that I don’t feel free to do what Damon did isn’t in the top layer. Nevertheless, it does speak to the more urgent problem of how women are gazed upon, and how that gaze affects our way of being in the world.

Neither do I want to extrapolate my personal squeamishness to “women,” but there is no denying you hardly ever come across similar representations of a casually comfortable topless woman leaning in her doorway in her knickers.

Whining is unattractive, I know. But I don’t care. I want what he’s got. I want it really, really badly.

With thanks to Damon Young, whose latest highly acclaimed book is:philosophy in the garden - cover200x312

I’m Kevin and I’m here to…..Plus, this week in feminism

16 Feb

Is Kevin Rudd planning a come-back? Are there enough supporters now to return him to the job he so ignominiously lost?  Will Julia Gillard get her comeuppance? Will Kevin get the ALP across the line again like he did in 2007? Is Michelle Grattan making it all up?

Personally,  I’d back anyone with a chance of keeping the government the government  when Tea Party Tony is our only alternative, so who’s it going to be, Julia or Kevin? As we now know, we don’t have to keep the leader who wins the election, we can get another right after, so all we need is the one who can decisively win, and out of the two of them, history tells us that’s Kev. Who is still the most popular Labor politician in the country.

Let us hope that the ALP will use their heads and throw their weight behind whoever is most likely to win, because the alternative is simply too abhorrent to contemplate.

Of course much of this could be avoided if punters would do as I do and vote for the local member who does the best job, in my case the ALP member, instead of imagining we’re in some kind of presidential system in which only the leader matters.

Should women keep their own names when they marry, rather than taking their husbands’? This was one of the more profound questions posed by feminists for consideration last week.

For a start, what woman has her “own” name to keep? Most of us have our father’s names. If we have our mother’s names they are usually our grandfather’s names. The only way a woman has her own name is if she changes it herself. I’ve had my father’s name, my stepfather’s name, my first husband’s name and then I chucked them all and changed my name by deed poll to my grandfather’s name. When I married again I kept that name instead of changing it to my husband’s, mostly because I was sick of the paperwork.

Now I’m considering taking a last name that has nothing to do with anybody, like Peony, or Seagrass, or Waterlily or Dugong. Also I’m not Miss, Ms, or Mrs anymore, I’m Dr. So I have thrown off all the naming shackles of patriarchy, or will when I tackle the paperwork.

Unfortunately it’s too late to give my children my name instead of their father’s. This is a pity, because then all my grandchildren would have my name instead of their grandfather’s. There would be generations of Dugongs, Waterlilys, Peonys or Seagrasses instead of boring old whatevers. These generations would be shackled by the matriarchal instead of the patriarchal, and it’s about time.

I could continue in this querulous vein, explaining how in my opinion sacking Kevin in the manner they chose was the dumbest decision ever, and bound to seriously taint Ms Gillard’s Prime Ministership and the entire party for a long, long time, however, I have to go to the dentist. So have a good Saturday, and may all your troubles be very very small.

Yours, as ever, Dr Dugong.

Why Zero Dark Thirty is not an apologia for torture, or, don’t shoot the messenger

10 Feb

Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial account of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals in a CIA-led operation in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, has been described by feminist Naomi Wolf in The Guardian as “the handmaiden of evil,” and a successor to Germany’s notorious first female film director, Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl’s most famous work was the 1934  Triumph of the Will, regarded by many as an instrument of  Nazi propaganda, as well as by others as a brilliant aesthetic and technical achievement.

It has not taken us long to arrive at Godwin’s Law.

The opening sequences of Bigelow’s movie portray torture, including waterboarding. This is carried out rather genially by the male CIA interrogator and witnessed by the film’s central character, Maya, a young female agent who has made it her mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Initially Maya struggles with her role as witness to inhumane cruelty, but she rapidly overcomes this squeamishness and enters into the zeitgeist. This depiction of Maya’s rapid moral disintegration from someone capable of discomfort in the face of torture to someone who wholeheartedly embraces the process, signifies early in the film the deadening and dehumanising effects of torture on its perpetrators.

Yet here, to me, is where critics of the film have confused the narration of events with apologia. Torture at that time was fully endorsed by the Bush administration, and renamed “enhanced interrogation techniques” in order to normalise the practice and make it publicly acceptable. Interrogators conducted their dark craft fully supported by their CIA masters, and their government. It is not Bigelow who endorses torture. It was the entire apparatus of the state. Bigelow is quite right, when she claims in her defence that her movie realistically depicts the situation that existed at the time, and depiction does not, and should not be assumed to, correlate with endorsement.

Not only do the scenes of torture provoke horror in the viewer, it seems that Bigelow’s refusal to take a moral position  also provokes profound unease. How can she not use this opportunity to convey the absolute wrongness of the act? Why does she veer from the well-trodden path of traditional story telling, in which there is good and there is evil and the author has a point of view?

It’s true that if one stands by and allows certain events to take place, one can be held morally culpable. However, it is a different matter when one is narrating past events, and the climate in which they took place. At that time, the President of the United States encouraged his agents to torture. Do I really need anyone to spell out the horror of that for me? Has Bigelow failed me by not pointing this out in her film?

In declining to impose a moral vision, critics claim Bigelow has opted for what has been described as an “obscene neutrality.”

I am not sure that what Bigelow chooses is an “obscene neutrality” because I am not certain that neutrality in art is “obscene.” I think of The Sopranos, for example. Is David Chase similarly  guilty of “obscene neutrality” because of his morally neutral depiction of the unspeakable violence repeatedly perpetrated by Tony Soprano and his mob? Is it not the creator’s privilege to refrain from expressing a moral viewpoint? Is it not an expression of the creator’s trust in her or his audience to thus refrain, and in so doing, respect the audience’s ability to think for itself without authorial imposition?

Is it inevitably the artist’s responsibility to take a moral perspective in her or his work, and if she fails to do this, can her work be described as “obscene?”

And why, out of all the unspeakable horrors wrought by human beings on one another, should torture be singled out as the one that must not be portrayed “neutrally?”

Slavoj Zizek writes in The Guardian that “to depict torture neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement,” and goes on to say that “with torture one should not think.” Of course he is right in his call for a world in which the notion of torture is unthinkable, however, that is not the world in which we live. Given that torture remains a weapon of the state against its enemies, of course we must think about it, and of course it must be depicted in our art forms. Nobody ever changed or prevented anything by not thinking and not talking about it. That we must have this particular conversation is indeed indescribably sickening, but have it we must, otherwise there will be no opposition to torture. This is our reality. This is the reality Bigelow so bravely portrays. The critics are shooting the messenger.

I also find it difficult to agree with the description of the torture scenes as “neutral.” They were horrific and horribly confronting.  I cannot find any way to interpret those scenes as “neutral,” and I cannot find anything in the film following those scenes that  goes anywhere near “neutralising” them. I find it difficult to understand the mind set of a viewer who allows the impact of those scenes to be ameliorated by subsequent conversation and justification.

Indeed I would argue that Bigelow’s stark depiction of torture conveyed as nothing else could the abhorrent inhumanity of the practice. Nothing she did afterwards could erase that impression, indeed CIA justification only made things worse, as far as this viewer is concerned.

Bigelow seems to me to be a director who makes a conscious decision to withhold moral judgement, at least in her last two movies, The Hurt Locker & Zero Dark Thirty. The former, which is perhaps the most terrifying film I have ever seen, is told without embroidery of any kind: Bigelow embeds her audience with the  bomb disposal squad on its tour of duty in Iraq, and leaves us to make of it what we will. In interviews she’s stated that “what we are attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film” and this approach is supremely successful in The Hurt Locker.  Of course she is referring to journalism as it used to be, before it became opinion.

In Zero Dark Thirty there are later scenes in which Maya is warned that torture is no longer acceptable in the new administration of Barack Obama, indeed, television footage in the background shows Obama famously stating that America does not torture. It’s clear Maya may find herself held to account if she continues the practice, and the original genial interrogator quits in the nick of time and returns to Washington.

Critics claim Bigelow’s movie implies that torture led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout. This is the CIA’s position, though it is increasingly contested within the organisation. The victim supplies his interrogator with a name, over a civilised post torture lunch, after he has been sufficiently broken. This name, together with a myriad of other intelligence, eventually leads the operatives to Bin Laden’s hideout.

Bigelow does not endorse or contest this sequence of events. In my opinion she does not need to, and I would not have welcomed a directorial intrusion at this point. It is obvious that the CIA would justify the use of torture exactly as Bigelow depicts. Bigelow is not inventing this story. She is telling it how it is.

Earlier torture scenes demonstrate the unreliability of information gained through inflicting pain, when the victim claims any of the week as the date for the next terrorist attack as he is forced, after waterboarding and other vile humiliations, curled foetal-like into a hideous box.

Bigelow made her film with extraordinary co-operation from the CIA. There is no doubt the story she tells is the CIA’s story, and indeed at this point there is no other story to tell. One day a Seal or a CIA operative may break ranks and reveal another point of view. It’s hardly likely the survivors of the attack on Bin Laden’s compound will have much to say, and who would believe them?

This has brought condemnation down on her, as if in the very telling of the CIA’s version of events she has inevitably aligned herself with that organisation and its methods. She should have deconstructed the CIA story, she should have critiqued their methods, she should have made another film altogether and by god she should have taken a moral stand, otherwise she is agreeing with it, or so some critics would have it. To me, as audience, I needed no authorial or directorial instruction on the morality of the CIA and its methods in this event. I wanted to know what was done at the time, and the justifications that were made in the context of the times. I didn’t need to know what Kathryn Bigelow felt about it.

I can see how Zero Dark Thirty can be interpreted as an apologia for torture. I believe that is a limited interpretation, and we need to push ourselves harder than that. I don’t believe for a moment that Bigelow intended to make a pro torture film. The director put a great deal of perhaps misplaced faith in her audience. She treated us with respect, and honoured our intelligence. She did not expect to have to tell us that the CIA’s story is horrifyingly flawed, she expected us to recognise that.

It is not Kathryn Bigelow who is the apologist for torture. It was the Bush administration, the CIA and the revenge society that sought to kill bin Laden, rather than arrest him and publicly try him for his crimes. In focussing on Bigelow, the bigger issues are lost. She is the chronicler of the times, not the advocate.

This is not about Chrissie Swan it is about Lauren Rosewarne’s use of language as a weapon of division

7 Feb

In her piece on ABC’s The Drum this morning, academic Lauren Rosewarne takes to task a group of women who apparently have done their best to metaphorically lynch TV personality Chrissie Swan for smoking while pregnant.

I am not interested in having a smoking while pregnant debate, and Ms Swan’s perceived moral failings. Neither am I a fan of vicious pile-ons. What does interest me is the language Rosewarne uses to describe those criticising Swan, whilst simultaneously calling for us to cease “scrutinising and loathing” other women.

Swan’s critics are, according to Rosewarne, members of the “militant mummy mafia” and “holier than thou über mums.” Rosewarne claims she feels it is “…verboten to question the lactaters, or the baby-carriers, or the gluten-free vegan wholefood earthmothers.”

She continues, in an outstandingly anti feminist and alarmingly patriarchal-like complaint:  “As a feminist, apparently, I should know better than to ever dare take on any woman who has ever Created Life” (note Dr Rosewarne’s use of capitals here).

Well, I’m a woman who has Created Life, lactated and been a baby-carrier and I have no objection at all to being questioned (“taken on?”) about that or anything else. I do, however, wish to note my objection to being cast into the inexplicable abyss of Rosewarne’s only too-evident prejudices against women, all women, who give birth.

I have no idea of Dr Rosewarne’s personal circumstances, and I support the right of any woman to choose to remain child free. Indeed, there have been occasions on which I have cursed myself for refusing that option, and instead, sticking with dogs.

Be that as it may, I do not expect a public feminist to speak of me and women like me with such contempt and disdain, simply because we’ve given birth to future generations. It’s a dark and lonely job, but someone has to do it.

Mothers, like any other human category, do good things and not so good things to ourselves, our offspring and other women. We are not always nice to one anther, and neither should anyone expect us to be. However, for a feminist with a public platform to publish a wholesale denigration of women who are mothers is absolutely unacceptable, particularly when it’s done under the guise of appealing for women to stop judging and criticising one another.

This false division between mothers and women who are not mothers, for whatever reason, is sickening to me. I believe it is destructive to us as individuals, and as a species. There is no great kudos in either state: they are, in the best of circumstances, choices and should be respected as such.

If Dr Rosewarne really feels she cannot “take on any woman who has Created Life” she  is seriously restricting her life experience, and that, I respectfully suggest, is a problem for her rather than the rest of us.

Tony Abbott: I’m your man

7 Feb

If you want a boxer 
I will step into the ring for you 
And if you want a doctor 
I’ll examine every inch of you 
If you want a driver 
Climb inside 
Or if you want to take me for a ride 
You know you can 
I’m your man* 

It’s unsettling to observe the speed with which Tony Abbott is attempting a personal transmogrification from street fighting, slogan-chanting, Putin-wannabe stuntman into calm, responsible, intelligent and concerned alternative prime minister.

Some might argue this is an indicator of the man’s ability to adapt to changing situations, and therefore positive. Others might point out that Abbott’s willingness to turn himself into whatever he thinks you want him to be is a troubling personality trait for the leader of the country. Does it indicate a lack of certainty on his part as to who he really is? Or, if he does know who he is, does his preparedness to adapt indicate a compulsion to act out what he thinks is required of him in any particular moment, rather than be himself?

We saw a similar early attempt to be who she thought we wanted her to be on the part of the incumbent PM, Julia Gillard. Ms Gillard went so far as to publicly declare the emergence of the “real Julia”, in retrospect not the most wise course of action for a leader, and likely a contributing factor to the punters’ lack of trust in her. Announcing that you’re going to be real now, as Abbott has done without actually declaring he’s doing it, can only cast troubling doubt on what you’ve been until that declarative moment.

The majority of punters don’t really care for leaders with shaky personalities. Someone who will change with the wind doesn’t inspire trust. There’s a fine but important line between mature adaptability, and self-interested false accommodation in the interests of gaining or maintaining power.

Abbott has spent the last two years showing us his aggression, his wilful ignorance, his inability to deal with anything remotely complex, his fascist reliance on slogans, and his willingness to use women close to him as human shields. In the space of forty-eight hours he wants us to believe he’s become prime ministerial material. All he’s done is change into yet another set of new clothes and clothes, as my grandmother always told me, do not maketh the man.

*Leonard Cohen, I’m your man.

fire fighting abbott

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