Last night, the Wheeler Centre was involved in Anne Summers’ Town Hall conversation with former prime minister Julia Gillard.
The event covered Gillard’s time in power, the challenges, struggles with the media and the then-Opposition, and her own sometimes controversial positions on issues including misogyny, gay marriage and the price on carbon.
We chatted with attendees of the packed-out event afterwards, to get their views.
‘Julia Gillard has meant a lot to women in my age bracket,’ said one young woman, a political and lifestyle blogger. ‘Even though it’s been hard to watch what we hoped she’d represent initially falter, tonight gives me a great sense of hope for the future.’
Another woman, a former law colleague of Julia Gillard’s who has followed her career with interest, said that she was ‘a bit unhappy’ with how Gillard was treated in public life. ‘I thought the misogyny was extraordinary, and I thought the way that she met it, with her grace and her refusal to be too affected by it, or too drawn into it, was just extraordinary.’
‘I think Julia Gillard has been one of the most important people of our lifetime,’ said one man. ‘It was important for me to be here to listen to her, and to pay tribute to what she’s done for this country.’
Like many in the crowd, he was surprised at ‘her clear lack of bitterness at what has happened to her and her optimism for the future, and her optimism for women in public life’.
‘I watch her misogyny speech weekly,’ said one unabashed fan, a young woman who is a member of the Labor Party and was visibly excited at the chance to hear Gillard speak. ‘When she left the leadership, it was just such a shock.’
Another woman was pleasantly surprised by Gillard’s reasoning for her position on gay marriage. ‘I think her position about the state’s involvement in people’s personal relationships has some merit. To hear her say that was the real reason is the first real time I’ve heard her speak from that position. That was a surprise, and a relief in some respects.’
The lifestyle and political blogger said Gillard’s response to gay marriage seemed ‘so far left, it’s in some ways Marxist – in that there should be no marriage at all for anybody’. She was sceptical that Gillard’s position was ‘relevant to the community’.
‘We need strong moral and political conversations – and more of them – in this country,’ said one man, on his way home from the event. ‘Tonight was a taster. It was terrific.’
Julia Gillard has kept a deliberate, dignified silence since her departure as Labor leader in June. But last week, she announced a series of public events with Anne Summers – which sold out almost immediately. And on Saturday, she published a substantial 5000-word essay in the Guardian about her legacy, the future and purpose of Labor, and the pain of losing power.
She criticised Labor’s eleventh-hour decision to replace her as leader with Kevin Rudd, saying it ‘sent the Australian community a very cynical and shallow message about [Labor’s] sense of purpose’. The decision was rooted not in an embrace of a new policy agenda, but a belief that ‘Kevin Rudd had the greater talent for governing’.
Labor frontbenchers Chris Bowen, Joel Fitzgibbon and Bill Shorten have emphatically defended the decision, though they haven’t contradicted Gillard’s reasoning. Bowen told Weekend Sunrise that Rudd made Labor ‘competitive’, while Fitzgibbon told Insiders that Labor held onto 10 or 20 more seats than they expected to under Gillard.
‘Labor unambiguously sent a very clear message that it cared about nothing other than the prospects of survival of its members of parliament at the polls,’ wrote Gillard of the leadership change.
She says that Labor’s first task in opposition is to re-embrace its purpose. This includes making decisions about how much of its record in government it seeks to own, and how much it seeks to reject.
Gillard pleaded for the ALP to stand behind carbon pricing, despite its public unpopularity. ‘Climate change is real. Carbon should be priced.’
She called on Labor to ‘claim and explain’ policies like fair work, education reform, disability care, health and aged care reform and the demands of the Asian century – and to learn from the mistakes of 1996. After that election loss, the party distanced itself so comprehensively from the Keating government (hoping to leave behind negative associations like high interest rates and high unemployment) that it lost the opportunity to be associated with achievements like modernising the economy, turning the nation towards Asia and ‘appropriately and fairly responding to the native title decisions of Mabo and Wik’.
‘Labor must not make that error again,’ she said.
Gillard also believes that the party needs to value the kind of work that’s done behind closed doors, rather than on our television screens. She says that bringing policy development work into the public arena would ‘show purpose to the public’ as well as highlighting the value of that work to parliamentary colleagues.
James Button recently made a similar observation, at our Australian Democracy in 2013 event. He criticised the divide between the inside world of politics and the outside world of the voting public, and called for the ALP to conduct its policy debates in public again, like it used to.
‘Rather than having the shadow ministry debate difficult policy questions, parliamentary party policy seminars should discuss them, open to the media and live on 24-hour television,’ Gillard proposed. ‘Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms and into the light … By being open from the start, the debate can be put in the prism of purpose. A norm would be set that ideas matter and those with the best ideas are the most valued.’
The idea of open public debate may be put into practice immediately, with the contest for the Labor Party leadership. Contenders Anthony Albanese and Bill Shorten will engage in a month-long contest; they’re still deciding whether debates will be open to party members only, or to the general public. Televised debates are also being considered.
Shorten and Albanese have agreed that whoever wins should remain leader until the next election.
‘'We’ve got to conduct these next 28 days civilly, and that once the verdict’s over, that’s it, and we get behind each other for the next three years,’ Shorten told Weekend Sunrise.
The video of the 1 October event with Anne Summers will be published here at wheelercentre.com the day after.
Dennis Altman looks back on forty years of work as a gay rights activist and author – and the ‘extraordinary’ changes that have been made to how we imagine sex and gender since the gay rights movement began in the early 1970s. He asks what those changes mean for homosexuals today: both his generation and new generations, who have grown up in a very different world.
In 1975 I was invited by a student group to speak about homosexuality at the Townsville campus of James Cook University. The local paper reported my talk, which led to hostile questions being asked in the state parliament, where I was referred to as ‘a bare-footed practising homosexual’, and an attack upon me by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Thirty-five years later I was invited by the vice-chancellor of Central Queensland University to Rockhampton to give a similar talk, chaired by federal Liberal MP Warren Entsch. This time the local paper editorialised its support for the event, and I was a guest on both local radio stations.
Flying north from Brisbane, I was tempted to believe I was entering a different country; the men in the departure lounge – one with a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’, others with surfers gear and heavy tats – would not have been a common sight back at Tullamarine. But walking around Rockhampton, with its slightly stuffy and old-fashioned downtown area, reinforced my sense that Australia is a remarkably homogenous country, and that apparently different attitudes between regions are more likely to reflect economic status and demography, not some particular essential difference between state cultures.
This was in fact my fourth visit to provincial Queensland to address gay issues. At the end of 1993 I first visited Rockhampton for a conference at the university entitled ‘Voices of a Margin’, which brought together speakers from all the predictable indicators of disadvantage.
Seventeen years later, Rockhampton appeared to have changed little. However, The Boy From Oz was playing at the town’s theatre – an interesting reminder that Australia’s two most successful musicals (the other being Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) are, as they used to say, as camp as a row of tents. What had changed was the assumption of a kind of normality around homosexuality, so that the vice-chancellor could joke publicly about his wife’s attraction to the men pictured in a Queensland gay calendar. It was inconceivable that a vice-chancellor would have felt sufficiently relaxed about sexuality to make such comments twenty years earlier. Of course, prejudice and hostility remain: a week after I was in Rockhampton, the visiting American author Armistead Maupin encountered blatant homophobia in a restaurant in Alice Springs, when a barman told him the toilets were ‘reserved for real men’. Tourism Central Australia was quick to apologise, and the Melbourne Age followed up with an apologetic editorial.
Anyone over fifty in Australia has lived through extraordinary changes in how we imagine the basic rules of sex and gender. We remember the first time we saw women bank tellers, heard a woman’s voice announce that she was our pilot for a flight, watched the first woman read the news on television. Women are now a majority of the paid workforce; in 1966 they made up twenty-nine per cent. When I was growing up in Hobart it was vaguely shocking to hear of an unmarried heterosexual couple living together, and women in hats and gloves rode together in the back of the trams (now long since disappeared). As I look back, it seems to me that some of the unmarried female teachers at my school were almost certainly lesbians, although even they would have been shocked had the word been uttered.
In 1955 Princess Margaret had been forced to repudiate marrying a divorced man. Since then, three of Queen Elizabeth II’s four children have divorced, and the current heir to the throne is married to a woman with whom he obviously had an affair during his previous marriage. Most of my female schoolmates who went to university were on teachers’ scholarships, and would be expected to resign from the department if they married, which not infrequently happened because of unplanned pregnancies. Abortions were illegal but were often performed under appalling conditions; the occasional girl was known to have suddenly made a trip ‘to Melbourne’ in search of one.
Homosexuals were invisible, at best referred to in guilty jokes that I generally failed to understand. Barry Humphries wrote of this period that ‘Pooftahs were happily confined to the small hermetic world of ballet and window dressing’, but this was a snide half-truth. (Not surprisingly, Humphries did not appear to think lesbians were even worth a snide reference.) In the same way, our cities were overwhelmingly racially homogenous: an overt white supremacy was dominant, reinforced through the notorious White Australia Policy and through the legal inequality of Aborigines, and deep prejudice existed against the few non-Caucasians living in Australia. When I was growing up I recall several Chinese-Australian families, but they were regarded as alien and exotic, even though some had been in the country for a century – far longer than the families of many of my classmates, who treated them with contempt.
During the 1970s, when Australia saw the first public affirmations by gay men and women, homosexuality was regarded with deep suspicion – as a vice, as a crime or, at best, as an illness. Sexual behaviour between men was illegal in all states, and very few women or men publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. Even if the anti-sodomy laws were rarely applied, police harassment and entrapment, and fear of disclosure to families and employers, maintained a low-level reign of terror sufficient for most homosexuals to spend considerable effort managing constant subterfuge and evasion. The current world, in which there are openly gay politicians, judges and even the occasional sports star, was literally inconceivable. We used to worry about being bashed for walking hand-in-hand. Young queers now worry about wedding planning, even though the threat of violence is still real, and in some areas possibly increasing.
The last decade, in particular, has seen extraordinary progress towards the normalisation of homosexuality across the western world. Legal protection exists in most jurisdictions against discrimination based upon ‘sexual orientation’, and same-sex partnerships are increasingly acknowledged by civil (if not religious) institutions. Openly homosexual politicians are increasingly evident, and a significant ‘pink vote’ is now courted during elections. No mainstream television series seems to be without its gay and lesbian characters, and there is a well-established targeting of a gay/lesbian market in travel, real estate and consumer advertising. In 2012 the high-rating television station Channel Nine resuscitated the reality show Big Brother; the winner was openly gay and proposed to his partner on live television.
Those of us old enough to remember the period in which a large-scale gay movement began have lived through a revolution, and it is difficult for us to make sense of it. Change occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven. Looking back over four decades, one can trace major shifts in the discourse, representation and regulation of homosexuality – all of which terms are open to multiple meanings. Nor does change occur without cost. Many activists find that, as they age, they feel a nostalgia for a remembered past, which seems increasingly preferable to the present. Gore Vidal, of whom I have written elsewhere, wrote a novel that identifies the ‘golden age’ as the decade following World War II, but in effect he is writing about his youth, which is where most of us locate that period.
The changing Australian attitudes reflect a much larger global story, where new images of the self and possibilities for activism circulate increasingly rapidly. The American influence has been particularly significant, and through its media the US has shaped how most of us imagine the world. Americans have been role models and reference points for changing images of sex and gender from Marilyn Monroe and James Dean through to the characters of Glee and Sex in the City. Our generation lived through a major shift in emphasis from British attitudes and culture to an increasing embrace of that of the United States, a change that paralleled the steady increase of non-British immigration to Australia. At the same time, the realities of globalisation, in all its diverse meanings, mean that even local stories have to be told through an awareness of the wider world.
Of course, for me it is difficult to disentangle what has changed in the larger world from the realities of my own ageing. As soon as one relies upon personal observation, one has to recognise the extent to which these observations are distorted as well as enhanced by the personal. A friend wrote several years ago on Facebook:
I’ll be in New York this weekend, and it turns out to be the Black Party. That used to get me as excited as when I was a little boy about to open presents on Christmas Eve. Now the person who could get excited about either seems impossibly remote, barely half-remembered, from another lifetime.
Another friend, browsing recently through a gay bookshop, remarked that The Joy of Gay Sex seemed to have been replaced by The Joy of Cooking, although it is worth noting that The Joy of Gay Sex, originally published in 1977, has been reissued and revised several times by writers drawn from my generation.
To make sense of change requires us to focus on a number of arenas simultaneously. As change occurs, it creates new possibilities but it can also reinforce old patterns – which may be why so many young people today regard ‘hippies’ with distaste. In a familiar cycle, yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. So it is with sexuality. The changes over the past forty years have not replaced one mode of being homosexual as much as they have added new ones. The world of hustlers, drag queens and self-denial described in John Rechy’s 1965 novel City of Night can still be found, alongside well-dressed professional women and men at gay business fundraisers. The simultaneous existence of old-fashioned ‘queens’ and edgy transsexual ‘queers’ illustrates Raymond Williams’ discussion of ‘residual and emergent cultures’, whereby new forms don’t necessarily displace as much as they complement existing modes.
It is not hard to sit in a clearly gay urban space and see both the past and the future of gay life; what was once shocking is now taken for granted. A casual passer-by on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, for example, can watch go-go dancers clad in the most revealing of briefs, while young pierced and tattooed queers walk by, largely disinterested. Rather like individuals, all cultures have complex and multiple identities, and change often means the incorporation rather than the replacement of old forms. During my most recent visits to that strip – one of the few remaining clearly gay zones in the United States – I saw three generations of queer life, from an elegant lesbian couple walking their matching dogs, to young guys, uneasily still in their teens, half-cruising for money and opportunity. ‘Ghettoes’ function as sites for both nostalgia and initiation, and if places like West Hollywood, the Castro and Chelsea have traditionally functioned as spaces to which young queers come from rural and small-town America, they are now increasingly playing this role internationally.
Major changes in the understanding of homosexuality reflect larger social and cultural shifts. One example: it is likely that the invention and spread of the internet has changed patterns of sexual behaviour as widely as did the contraceptive pill forty years ago. In both cases the changes were neither foreseen nor intended, and in both cases the impact of new technologies was partly dependent on political and ideological forces. Memory has suddenly become a major topic in queer circles: in 2012 thousands of people signed up to websites for ‘lost gay’ Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and so on, while in Brussels a special colloquium was organised to remember the ‘homosexual militancy’ of the 1950s.
In some ways, these moves grew out of a number of celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 2009. A raid in June 1969 on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known homosexual bar in Greenwich Village, New York, provoked a number of patrons and passers-by to fight back against the police, triggering several nights of riots that have since been mythologised as the founding event of the contemporary gay movement. Much has been made of the coincidence that the riots took place on the eve of Judy Garland’s funeral, and Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz probably gave rise to the euphemism ‘friends of Dorothy’ to describe homosexual men. In 1988 Edmund White declared Stonewall to be ‘the turning point of our lives’; certainly the years between 1969 and 1972 represented a major tipping point in homosexual awareness and assertion across the western world.
Books from the early period of the gay movement are now being reissued, and ‘vintage’ (that is, pre-AIDS) pornography is now widely dispersed through the internet, and in some cases has become collectable. Even so, there are still very few ways in which young people discovering their homosexuality have the means to learn much of the history of their sexuality, and of the ways in which homosexuals have been regarded historically.
Maybe there is something about forty years, which marks the coming to adulthood of a third generation since Stonewall; whatever the reason, I find myself talking increasingly with far younger people, for whom my memories help make sense of their history. Intergenerational friendships have their own particular challenges, involving as they do implicit assumptions about motives and hierarchy; older men, in particular, are assumed to want sex, while younger women and men are usually thought to be cultivating their elders for financial or career advancement.
One of the greatest pleasures in writing my latest book has been the discovery that we learn from each other, and often in ways that seem counter-intuitive.
Maybe, too, there is a desire amongst younger queers to find an equivalent to the family-tree version of history that is so strong in ethnic communities.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Dennis Altman’s book The End of the Homosexual?(UQP), available now.
Dennis Altman will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox address, The End of the Homosexual?, at the Wheeler Centre this Thursday 12 September at 12.45pm.
As the federal election looms on Saturday, we thought it was a good time to look back on our political events earlier in the year, for reflections on the state of our politics.
In our Australian Democracy 2013 event, James Button was one of several prominent Australians who spoke about the challenges and opportunities of democracy right now.
He spoke candidly about the problems he sees with our democracy – which he located with the growing divide between the ‘inside world’ of Canberra and the ‘outside world’ of the general public.
‘That inside world has stopped talking to the outside world,’ Button said. ‘The consequences of that are very serious.’
He talked about the decline of the quality of Australia’s MPs, over time – and the corresponding shrinking of the pool of Australian society that MPs are drawn from. Farmers, teachers, doctors and the like are now uncommon.
‘You work in an electoral office, become an advisor, and if you play your cards right, you eventually get preselection for a seat.’
Button said that the problem with that system is its internal focus. People are focused on getting preselection, so things are settled inside the party, rather than taking policy debates into the open.
‘The ALP no longer conducts its debates in public as it used to do. One consequence of that is that issues are dropped on the public without debate – like the mining tax and media law reforms.’
The number of political staffers has hugely increased. ‘You don’t hear much about them, but they’re very important. They’re the people who advise ministers.’
Button estimates that they’ve ‘probably doubled’ in numbers.
We hear even less about the role of the public service in the political process, but Button emphasised the importance of their role – and of institutional experience within the public service.
‘Australia’s excellent response to the GFC was the public servants who remembered the lessons of the 1991 recession and gave advice to the government to do particular things.’
‘They had the corporate memory.’
Button believes that the decline in the quality of our politics is reflected in our media, where the pool of experience is also shrinking.
The cuts to mainstream media organisations mean that they don’t have the funds for serious policy work – or the interest either.
‘Weirdly, both the media and politicians are obsessed with opinion polls – and that’s part of the dance.’
Button cited the examples of business’s fierce opposition to the ALP’s carbon price in 2009, and the fact their public campaign resulted in many of the changes they wanted made. The hostile campaign against the mining tax resulted in a backdown, too.
‘Our academics, with some notable exceptions have switched off from being involved and engaged with complex, difficult areas of public policy,’ said Button. ‘It’s a longstanding problem.’
Button concluded with the reflection that even when politicians have had the bravery to back unpopular policies, they haven’t backed them.
‘Julia Gillard did a very fine job on the carbon tax, but they’ve walked away from it. They never speak about it now, because it’s unpopular.’
‘You have to do unpopular things sometimes in politics.’
Above: Watch the full video of Australian Democracy in 2013.
She was a political journalist until her retirement in late 2005, after five years writing and editing Webdiary on the Sydney Morning Herald’s website. She has also worked for the Age, the Canberra Times, the Courier Mail and A Current Affair.
Margo was Phillip Adams’ Canberra Babylon journo on Late Night Live for five years. Margo has written two books: Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) and Not Happy, John! Defending our Democracy (Penguin, 2004, 2007).
She tells us how covering Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign transformed her view of journalism, how she overcame her phobia about the ‘I’ word, and advises against going into a journalism career.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I had a breakdown in my mid-twenties while lecturing in business law. During my recovery my sister, a reporter on Brisbane’s Courier Mail, suggested I write a travel piece for the paper. Two pieces about my recent trip to India were published, and on the back of that I wrote to the editor asking for a cadetship. The paper had decided to move away from employing school leavers and he put me on as a D grade journalist. Big luck.
What’s the best part of your job?
Seeking out and fostering new writing talent.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Succumbing to the vortex of virtual reality and forgetting to take a walk and enjoy nature.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
Getting down and dirty in the real Australia on Pauline Hanson’s 1998 election campaign, which I covered full-time for more than a month. The experience was so confronting I wrote Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip (Allen & Unwin, 1999) as therapy. It also transformed my view of journalism, and convinced me that there were two Australias, neither of which could communicate with each other.
The experience heavily influenced my approach to Webdiary, the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2000-2005 experiment in online interactive journalism. I sought to facilitate civil conversation between Australians of vastly different backgrounds and opinions.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
In the 1980s the Sydney Morning Herald sent me to Mt Etna near Rockhampton to report on the controversy between a mining company and protesters trying to save a bat cave. Activists smuggled me to a cave at night, but we were sprung by a mining employee and threatened with prosecution for trespass. I asked my then chief-of-staff how to write the story since I had become a part of it, and he said a journalist should never use the ‘I‘ word and that I should report that ‘the writer‘ was threatened with arrest.
A decade later I had no choice but to use the ‘I’ word in writing the Hanson road trip book because her relationship with her press pack was central to the story. It was very painful and confronting to do so, but since then I invariably use the first person in my work. I have come to believe that personal transparency actually engenders trust in readers, not takes away from it. I also believe that the concept of objective or detached journalism is a convenient and untenable myth.
If you weren’t a journalist and writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I deferred my final year of nursing studies this year to do journalism again after a break of seven years. My goal is to be a palliative care nurse.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
In the 1970s I did a writing subject at the University of Queensland as part of my Arts Law degree with a double major in English literature. The idea was to submit assignments following the conventions of different genres. I did very, very badly because I tried to experiment within the genres. I was shattered and did not pursue further writing studies.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
Don’t! The industry is in existential crisis. There are very few full-time jobs, and people in them are run ragged. Freelancers are invariably unpaid or underpaid. I am into citizen journalism, where people interested in reporting news and views do it for enjoyment and challenge.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Generally in a bookshop: I haven’t got into ebooks.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character (or figure), who would it be and why?
Jane Austen. I fell in love with her work at university and see every movie and TV adaptation. I’ve read several biographies, and am totally fascinated.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
The Grapes of Wrath. It blew my mind when I read it in Grade 11, and I feel it solidified and even influenced my political beliefs.
Margo Kingston is the editor and co-publisher of No Fibs, a citizen journalism website.
By Jacinta Le Plastrier
When Albert Camus died, he had been sidelined by his fellow left-wing intellectuals for his opposition to Algerian independence and his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags. Fifty-five years later, writes Jacinta Le Plastrier, his stance on both issues has withstood the assault of time far better than those of his contemporaries.
And the long overdue release of his final book, Algerian Chronicles, translated into English for the first time, reveals the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to his birth-country, in passionate reportage that spans the 1930s through to the 1950s.
Albert Camus published the final book of his lifetime, Algerian Chronicles, in Paris in 1958. The great writer’s final work – his own selection of his deeply haunted articles on his birth-country Algeria and the question of its independence − was met by an almost complete critical silence. That silence continued to reverberate following his early death two years later.
The reason for this public disdain was twofold. Camus had been traumatically sidelined by other European-based left-wing hommes engages such as Jean-Paul Sartre, not just for his opposition to Algerian independence, but for his condemnation of Stalin’s gulags.
Fifty-five years later, Camus’s passionate discourse − and his almost solitary intellectual and activist stance, on both issues − has withstood the assault of time far better than his contemporaries. In the light of this, the long-overdue, full English translation of Algerian Chronicles is presciently relevant.
‘Dismissed or disdained in 1958, Algerian Chronicles has a new life in 2013, a half-century after the independence Camus so feared,’ writes editor Alice Kaplan in her introduction to this new edition. ‘The book’s critique of the dead end of terrorism − the word appears repeatedly, with respect to both sides of the conflict − its insistence on a multiplicity of cultures; its resistance to fundamentalisms, are as meaningful in contemporary Algeria as in London or New York. Camus’s refusal of violence speaks to Algerians still recovering from the civil war of the 1990s – “the dirty wars”, or “black decade” that resulted in an estimated 100,000 civilian deaths.’
In Algerian Chronicles, which gathers his reportage on his birth-country from the 1930s to the 1950s, Camus meshes the machinery of journalistic ‘on-the-grounds’ reportage with what would become his literary hallmark: an austere styling of language whose results are both exquisite and intensely humane.
In the book’s first series, Camus describes the ‘misery’ of the mountain-based Kabyle community, which had suffered a cruel famine in 1939. He writes, ‘The reader will have seen, at least, that misery here is not just a word or a theme for meditation. It exists. It cries out in desperation. What have we done about it, and do we have the right to avert our eyes? I am not sure that anyone will understand.’
Eighteen months after Algerian Chronicles was published – breaking Camus’s self-imposed, almost-complete public silence of 29 months on Algeria – the writer was dead. He died, aged 46, in an auto accident, alongside his publisher Michel Gallimard, who was driving the car.
The final words of his preface to Chronicles, characterised by his customary astringent order, would become valedictory: ‘This is my testimony, and I shall have nothing more to say.’
The absence of the book’s English publication until now speaks to the terrible sentence of silence that was then imposed on this work. This may surprise those who have grown up familiar with his famous writings, such as The Stranger and The Plague.
Camus’s final few years were lived in a form of exile, from both the country of his birth and his Paris-based community of writer-activists. This was despite his being awarded the Nobel Prize laureateship in 1957 − the second-youngest writer after Kipling to have received it.
Camus was denounced within the Algerian milieu, by both colonialists and members of the independence movement. When he last visited Algiers, in 1956, to helm talks discussing a possible French−Algerian solution to the country’s civil conflict, ultracolonialists in the crowd called for his death.
In Chronicles, Camus writes: ‘I know from experience that to say these things today is to venture into a no-man’s-land between hostile armies. It is to preach the folly of war as bullets fly. Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery.’
For 20 years, Camus maintained a consistent approach to Algeria, supporting full reparation for the Algerians and formal reforms that granted equality to both Algerians and French-Algerians (while maintaining a French-based government). His views had led to a virtual ‘exile’ when, following his articles on the ‘misery’ of Kabyle for a left-wing Algerian newspaper, Camus was blacklisted by the French government. He was forced to move to Paris in order to earn a livelihood. Camus’s stance on Algeria, then, was a long and chronically solitary one.
While waging that public silence, broken only by his Nobel speech and a single published letter to Encounter magazine, Camus is estimated to have personally intervened, via private letters of plea to French President René Coty, in 150 cases where Algerians were condemned to die after being charged for participation in pro-independence activities. He did not save all their lives, but he did save a number. Camus intimated, in press interviews around the Nobel Prize, that he had acted on behalf of the Algerian cause in ways that were not known. He did not reveal explicit details of his actions though. His silence, says Kaplan, was being read as ‘a metonymy for cowardice’.
Kaplan is clear about the fault-lines of Camus’s approach to the Algerian issue. When he returned to the country in 1956, the place was unfamiliar after his long ‘exile’. The post-colonial academe attacked his representation of Arab characters. I read Chronicles close on the heels of Camus’s final, incomplete, semi-autobiographical novel, The First Man (published in English in 1995, one year after France). The novel, which narrates his impoverished yet sunlit childhood in Algiers, is evidence that Camus’s own blood, and its Algerian spawning, pulses intimately within the lines of his reportage. Camus also came from the disentitled: he was born into the dirt-poorest pied noir community of Algiers. His father died in the first year of Camus’s life, in World War I and on French soil. This was the household of Camus’s childhood and adolescence: a mother, deaf, almost mute, and illiterate; an uncle, intellectually disabled; and his grandmother, domineering, tyrannical.
Camus described his motivation on the Algerian issue during the presentation in Algiers in 1956. ‘I thought it possible, and even considered it my duty, to come before you to issue a simple appeal to your humanity, which in one respect at least might be able to calm tempers and bring together a majority of Algerians, both French and Arab, without asking them to relinquish any of their convictions … Let me say first − and I cannot emphasize this enough − that by its nature the appeal falls outside the realm of politics …’
‘I am only here under the pressure of the situation and the way I sometimes conceive of my profession as a writer.’
Algerian Chronicles, ed. Alice Kaplan, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, is published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2013).
Jacinta Le Plastrier is a Melbourne-based writer, poet and editor. She is blog editor at Cordite Poetry Review, publisher at John Leonard Press, and is presently a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She blogs at www.jacintaleplastrierofficial.blogspot.com.
The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships are designed to give writers space to work on their projects, and made possible by the generous support of the Readings Foundation. In 2013, twenty writers were offered a $1000 stipend and a workspace in the Wheeler Centre over a two month period.
Michelle Grattan is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics.
As a former editor of the Canberra Times, Grattan was also the first female editor of an Australian daily newspaper. She is currently associate editor (politics) and chief political correspondent at The Conversation.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Some articles in Broadside, which was a short-lived magazine which was about the Labor Party, and also an academic article on the Kooyong by election, which followed Menzies' retirement.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst part is there is always too much to get across adequately because we have to deal with so many specialised issues, and also journalism involves a lot of waiting around.
What’s been the most significant moment in your journalism career so far?
No one moment, just being able to observe at first-hand a whole lot of other people’s dramatic moments, like the dismissal for example.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about journalism?
The best advice was always to make one more phone call, and I’ve managed to forget the bad advice.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I’ll have to pass on that one. I’ve always resisted the temptation to Google myself, as I think that would be bad for one’s psyche.
If you weren’t a journalist, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Probably being a farmer.
What’s more important for a budding journalist: experience or study?
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a journalist?
Realise that journalism these days is not the same as the rather romantic image that it’s had in the past, that it is quite a difficult road, persist but keep other options open by gaining a wide education.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Usually in a physical bookshop, occasionally online if I want something specific that I can’t get easily in a physical store.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Some of the characters in Anna Funder’s All That I Am, because I found it a really powerful book and the lives they were forced to lead were so moving and difficult.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
No one book, I have read a lot of biography and I think that the stories of people’s life and work do influence you, not in one knockout sense, but more subtly.
By Hugh de Kretser
Whether it’s our treatment of asylum seekers or the current debate around free speech, we seem to be confused -about the notion of free rights for all. Australians care about human rights, but we’re also dangerously complacent about the lack of protections that exist – and conflicted on the question of who deserves human rights protection. Looking back into our rights history to examine today’s issues, Hugh de Kretser outlines a vision for stronger, universal protection of rights in Australia.
Australians care about human rights and making sure they are properly protected.
A major survey conducted as part of the National Human Rights Consultation (2009) confirmed that most Australians think human rights are important and a majority support stronger rights protections, including an Australian Human Rights Charter.
It also confirmed most Australian want to know more about human rights and they want both the government and the courts to protect rights.
But dig deeper and our support for human rights depends on who the humans are.
The survey asked 1200 randomly selected Australians whether the amount of protection given to some groups should be more, less or the same as it currently is.
About three quarters of respondents thought that the disabled, the elderly and people with a mental illness need more human rights protection than they currently get.
A slim majority thought that children and Indigenous Australians living in remote areas need more protection.
Less than a third thought gays and lesbians need more protection.
And more respondents thought asylum seekers need less human rights protection than more. In other words, there’s more community support for stripping back asylum seeker protections than there is for increasing them.
The results confirmed what many might intuitively suspect – that when it comes to rights protection, there is a hierarchy of sympathy in public opinion.
But more than that, there is also a perception that our rights aren’t threatened.
For many Australians, human rights violations are something that happens to other people in other places: either to people overseas in Syria, North Korea or the Congo; or to people living in very different life circumstances; in remote Aboriginal communities, detention centres, aged care facilities or psychiatric institutions.
Only 10% of survey respondents reported they had ever had their rights infringed in any way and only another 10% reported that someone close to them had their rights infringed.
This is good news for the 90% who say their rights haven’t been infringed. It should genuinely be celebrated – and it probably leads to the next survey finding, that 64% of people agreed that human rights in Australia are adequately protected.
This, I think, is plainly wrong.
Rights aren’t adequately protected in Australia
The perception that rights are adequately protected sits uncomfortably against:
• the large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
• the fact that Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely to be in jail than non Indigenous Australians
• the 100,000 or so homeless people in Australia
• the fact that less than 10% of directors in the 200 largest publicly listed companies are women
• the fact that around 1 in 3 Australian women over 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence
• the even higher rates of sexual violence against women with cognitive disabilities – mental illness, acquired brain injury and intellectual disability
• the research showing Australians with foreign sounding surnames are less likely to secure job interviews
• the high rates of verbal and physical abuse and discrimination experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians
• the 1,000 or so children detained in immigration detention
I could go on.
We ran some figures comparing imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men with higher education enrolment.
Indigenous men between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to be in jail than enrolled in higher education (and that includes TAFE). In 2010, there were 4530 Indigenous men in this age group in jail – but only 3745 Indigenous men of any age enrolled in higher education.
Compare this with non-Indigenous men and the picture is dramatically different: 10,367 men in this age bracket in jail compared with around 380,000 non Indigenous men of any age in higher education – and that’s excluding international students.
While Indigenous imprisonment rates are getting worse, it is good to see improvements in the rate of Indigenous involvement in higher education.
Relative comfort on rights protections is nothing new.
Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed in 1967 that ‘the rights of individuals in Australia are as adequately protected as they are in any other country in the world’. He meant what he said – as did other commentators who made similar statements.
With hindsight, we can look back and point to the gaping holes in these sentiments. The government policies until the late 1960s that caused the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The criminalisation of consensual homosexual sex. The White Australia policy. Entrenched institutional sexual discrimination. And the fact that, in 1967, it was perfectly legal to refuse to employ someone because of their race, religion or sex – because there were no anti-discrimination laws or equality protections in the constitution. (Except in progressive South Australia, which introduced the first racial discrimination laws in 1966.)
My father’s family are Dutch Burgher Sri Lankans – the descendants of Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers who arrived in Sri Lanka in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and who are of mixed European and Sri Lankan descent.
The only reason my father’s family was able to immigrate to Australia in 1949 under the White Australia policy was by proving their European heritage – tracing our lineage back to the Dutch sailor Cornelis de Kretser in the 1600s.
But apparently the arrival of ‘European’ Sri Lankans with non-European appearance caused some consternation. In August 1951, the Department of Immigration issued guidelines to the Australian High Commission in Colombo which advised that it ‘should not authorise the entry of persons who are likely to cause adverse comment on arrival here or be restricted from landing by immigration officers at the ports, as being predominantly non-European in appearance’.
One of the best cases that shows how far we’ve come involved a Victorian pilot, Deborah Wardley, who applied in the late 1970s to become the first female pilot at Ansett.
Ansett refused her application. The general manager wrote : ‘Ansett has adopted a policy of only employing men as pilots. This does not mean that women cannot be good pilots, but we are concerned with the provision of the safest and most efficient air service possible. In this regard, we feel that an all-male pilot crew is safer than one in which the sexes are mixed.’
She challenged the refusal to employ her under (then) recently enacted Victorian anti-discrimination laws; she won and went onto a successful career.
So we can look back in hindsight and be shocked at these attitudes and the lack of protections.
But in a similar way, I have no doubt that in 40 or so years, Australians will look back on today’s society and think, What were they doing?
There was majority support for same-sex marriage yet neither major party supported it.
They locked up thousands of refugees fleeing persecution, arbitrary detention and torture in remote detention camps in Australia or outsourced the detention and rights abuses to former colonies in the Pacific.
They had one of the strongest economies in the world and yet income inequality was increasing, the gender pay gap was increasing and babies born to Aboriginal mothers died at twice the rate of other Australian babies.
The challenge for us, as human rights advocates, is how to broaden the realisation that while most Australians are doing well, there are some who aren’t.
The challenge is how to change ’human rights for some, but not others‘ to ‘human rights for all’.
Human rights issues impact on all of us, every day. Being stopped for a random breath test or receiving a parking or speed camera fine that reverses the presumption of innocence against the registered owner of a car are two minor, common examples or rights issues – where, I should say, the balance drawn on limiting rights is appropriate.
When we get old, many of us will get dementia. Rights issues then become more acute – what does the law say about when do we lose the ability to make our own decisions about how we spend our money, where we live and what medical treatment we receive? And about who makes decisions on our behalf when we do?
But while rights issues affect all of us, they affect some more than others – and in more intense ways.
I had a privileged upbringing: attending a private school and studying at Melbourne University.
I studied human rights in the abstract: studying the Holocaust as part of my arts degree and studying human rights law as part of my law degree.
I went on to work in one of the top corporate law firms where large corporate clients had almost limitless resources to get the best advice.
The law firm generously agreed, as part of its admirable commitment to pro bono work, to loan me for six months to work in community legal centre in Deer Park, in Melbourne’s West. This is where I got my real human rights education.
One of my first clients was a Roma – a gypsy and a real gentleman. He told me childhood stories of being moved, as he said, ‘from pillar to post’ wherever his family went – people complaining to the police about them and then being moved on. They never stayed in the one place for more than three months. He never received an education and as a consequence, he couldn’t read or write. He came to see me because his wife needed dialysis; he’d drive her to hospital several times a week, but couldn’t read the parking signs properly and repeatedly received parking fines.
Another client was a young man who was a heroin addict and ended up in jail, where he was bashed by prison guards. After he was released, I took a statement from him in his mother’s house about the bashing. I remember his mother crying as he told me what happened to him and how he’d now become a hardened criminal.
Other clients were victims of childhood sexual abuse; often I was the first man they ever told what had happened to them. They’d tell me how hard it was to trust people and live a normal life and how they overprotected their own children. One of them, whose stepfather had filmed the abuse, shared her fears that the images of her abuse were circulating on the internet – and how this impacted on her whenever a child pornography arrest aired on the news.
Other clients were victims of family violence or random street violence, or were struggling with debt issues, relationship breakdown or ill health.
I’d see these clients by day, and live my comfortable life at night and on the weekends – and it made me uncomfortable, which is a good thing. The experience perhaps reflects the reality of human rights protection in Australia. Rights, in practice are enjoyed by many of us but for some they aren’t.
For me, my immediate experiences working in a community legal centre brought home the lack of human rights protection in Australia.
For some, this experience is far more personal and comes through their own existence as person with a disability, a migrant or a victim of violence.
For others it comes through proximity to these people – caring for a relative with dementia, seeing a friend discriminated against, working in a sexual assault crisis centre.
We need to communicate this experience, through the media, through social media, through education, through volunteering, through forums like this to broaden the support for tackling these issues.
At my first national community legal centre conference in Hobart in 2003, I sat next to leading gay rights activist Rodney Croome at dinner. Rodney played a leading role in the campaign in the late 80s and early 90s to overturn Tasmanian laws that made consensual gay sex illegal – with a penalty of up to 21 years jail.
I’d read about the campaign’s successful complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that the laws violated international human rights protections.
I wanted to talk to him about his success in proving the unjust local laws violated international law. But he wanted to talk to me about how they won over public opinion in Tasmania. How over the course of their campaign they turned minority support into majority support through a mixture of education, advocacy – and the legal cases. How Tasmania is now leading Australia on legal protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Majority public support certainly makes rights protection easier.
But the protection of human rights shouldn’t have to rely on majority support.
Human rights tend to matter most when they lack majority support, whether it’s asylum seekers, people charged with terror offences or people in prison and our society as a whole is diminished when the rights of vulnerable minorities are undermined.
The key human rights treaties which bind Australia and over 160 other nations around the world embody the fundamental principle that rights are universal – they attach to all of us by reason of our being human, regardless of popular support.
These treaties stem from the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document forged from the horrors of World War II where the Nazis treated the Jews as less than human.
The two key treaties enjoy bipartisan support: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Whitlam government signed them and the Fraser government ratified them; both steps were required to bind Australia.
These treaties and the rights set out in them are intended to place limits on government actions. They protect against popular will overriding the fundamental freedoms of a minorities.
Yet the treaties aren’t adequately incorporated into Australian law. International law doesn’t automatically become incorporated into domestic Australian law when we ratify a treaty. It needs to be implemented by legislation passed by the federal or state parliaments.
And the principal way to implement key international human rights is through a Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.
Unlike every other western nation, unlike the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand, we have no legislative or constitutional bill of rights. Instead, we rely on a patchwork of individual pieces of legislation and judge made common law. And the patchwork has holes in it, with key rights like freedom of speech, privacy and freedom from arbitrary detention suffering from inadequate protection.
We have come a long way in protecting rights in Australia, but the advances in our rights protection didn’t come easily at the time. Yet, they are easily taken for granted now.
Today, it is clear that there is still inadequate rights protection for some groups – particularly where those groups don’t enjoy majority support.
I’m confident we’re seeing a positive evolution of rights protection in Australia. But if we want to realise the promise of human rights for not just some, but all, we need to do more.
How can we improve rights protections in Australia? We need better education about human rights, a stronger human rights culture within government and the broader community – and an enforceable Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.
This is an edited transcript of Hugh De Kretser’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, given at the Wheeler Centre.
The Wheeler Centre Lunchbox/Soapbox addresses are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre, 12.45pm to 1.15pm. Admission is free, BYO lunch.
We share some of our favourite finds from around the internet this week.
Take a coffee break and have a long look at these eerily stunning images of 30 abandoned places from around the world – most of them caught in the process of being reclaimed by the natural world. (Though a few of them seem more the result of beautiful photography than intrinsic beauty.)
The internet has been buzzing with debate over Tony Abbott’s ‘women of calibre’ paid maternity leave plan. Eva Cox has asked whether feminist criticism of Abbott’s plan is personality rather than policy based. She believes that Abbott’s version of paid parental leave ‘meets so many traditional feminist demands’ and supports its basis that parenting leave is a workplace entitlement, rather than a form of welfare.
On Overland, Zoe Dattner takes a radically different point of view, arguing against the idea of paid maternity leave altogether, calling it ‘a toxic and potentially harmful idea’. She argues for employers to find ways to integrate children and family life into the workplace, rather than paying women off to go away and parent.
There’s a terrific interview with actor, writer and film-maker Rashida Jones in the current edition of The Believer, which touches on the changing movie business, roles for women, why she doesn’t want to date actors, her writing partnership with her best friend, making Celeste and Jesse Forever and growing up as the daughter of Quincy Jones.
I do think that if we’d made this film ten years ago, we wouldn’t have gone through so many machinations. Executives are so into their ‘quadrant language’ that they don’t know what to do with a movie that is romantic, and has some comedy, and is also a drama. You can’t have movies like Broadcast News anymore because they’re like, ‘We have a romantic comedy here… and we have a drama over here… and we don’t know where to put this.’
Is Oprah’s book club saving literature as a pursuit for the masses, or trivialising great novels – and patronising reluctant participants like Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen? A New Yorker article looks at the growth (and approach) of Oprah’s book club, and asks whether the quintessentially female mark of approval of an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on a book’s cover might scare away male readers. (As Franzen famously feared.)
she seized on the novel’s dedication page and, leaning forward, asked [Cormac McCarthy] gently, ‘Is this a love story to your son?’
It was the quintessential Oprah moment, the kind that made the Book Club thrive and her critics cringe. She was taking a novel about the end of the world, one that includes an image of a baby roasted on a spit, and making it palatable for talk-show television.
This short video, made by Canadian university students, delivers a sharply effective (and occasionally chilling) message about how advertising persistently casts women as the lesser sex – in highly sexualised terms. It then cleverly reverses the roles in some of the ads it shares, including a topless man in suspenders suggestively licking a lollipop, kneeling on the floor wearing knee socks. The violent advertising images for high-end brands are especially shocking – like the Jimmy Choo ad featuring a woman lolling in a car boot in the desert, while a man beside her digs a hole.
Warning: some of these images are disturbing.
By Joel Deane
People with disabilities – and the everyday challenges they face – have been in the spotlight over the past week, as the national Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has dominated headlines and political coverage. For Joel Deane, the political is deeply personal: his daughter Sophie has Down Syndrome. Last week, he attended a public high school open day, looking for a high school for his daughter – and was sadly reminded that discrimination is alive and well in today’s Australia.
Social progress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
For instance, we like to think that Australia is less racist than it was. Considering the heritage of terra nullius and the White Australia policy, there is some validity to that belief; after all, the Federation of Australia may have been founded on notions of egalitarianism and racism, but racism has since been superseded by multiculturalism. Still, none of that would have mattered to the four Indigenous Australians left standing by the side of the road by four taxis last week in Melbourne because of the colour of their skin.
The same applies to disabilities. We like to think that times have changed, that the institutions have been closed and people with a disabilities are no longer locked away from the world, but the truth is some are still living in institutions and hundreds of thousands are shut out of mainstream Australian life – treated as second-class citizens because they have a disability.
I don’t have a disability, my daughter Sophie does.
Sophie is 12. She was born with Down Syndrome; it hasn’t stopped her. She reads and writes, mucks around on the monkey bars, can be well behaved and badly behaved, runs like a billy goat, and is a budding photographer (her portrait of Julia Gillard was retweeted more than 400 times over the weekend).
Sophie will be ready for high school in 2015 and, according to all the professional advice we’ve received, should go to a mainstream school.
With that in mind, my wife Kirsten and I went to an open night at a high school in the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne last Tuesday night. It was not an enjoyable excursion.
This is the email I sent to the principal, whom I will call Ms M, last Wednesday.
I’ve been advised not to name-and-shame the school for legal reasons. The reason why I’m abiding with that legal advice is that the soft-shoe discrimination my family experienced at that unmentionable high school is not unique, but endemic. It could be your local high school. I refer to that unmentionable school as Discrimination High.
Consider this email a complaint, a wake-up call, a shot across the bows; whatever you like. My wife, Kirsten, and I have three children. Our oldest two, Noah and Sophie, will be making the transition to secondary school in 2015. Sophie has Down syndrome.
Kirsten and I have been visiting secondary schools, looking for the right fit for both Noah and Sophie. To say your school was the wrong fit would be putting it politely.
Why is Discrimination High the wrong fit for our children? Let me count the ways. The first reason it’s the wrong fit is that only three out of 1300 students have a disability – that’s less than 0.3 per cent.
I found that figure surprising given the nearest primary feeder school … has a large number of students with disabilities. ‘Why aren’t there more students with disabilities?’ I wondered. Then I mentioned to two staff members that Sophie has Down Syndrome and had my question emphatically answered.
The automatic response from both staff members (and, in case you’re wondering, this is the second reason why Discrimination High is a big nyet) was, ‘Does she have funding?’ For parents, this is usually a red flag, telling us that the school sees students with a disability not as a part of the community they serve, but a drain on resources unless there’s a bucket of money hanging around the child’s neck.
For the record, Ms M, yes, Sophie does have funding, not that it’s any of your school’s business until she enrols (don’t panic, she hasn’t and won’t).
Kirsten and I then had a more in depth conversation with a staff member we were referred to who, according to our guide, was the authority on how Discrimination High handled students with a disability. This brings me to my third reason why Discrimination High is on my when-hell-freezes-over list of schools to send my children. This staff member spoke artfully, very artfully; finding new ways to tell us why our daughter was better off elsewhere.
She opened up by saying that Discrimination High was geared towards tertiary education (apparently tertiary education is verboten to people with a disability). She then said that Discrimination High was a mainstream school – emphasising mainstream, which made me wonder whether she thought Kirsten and I had contracted a learning delay (don’t worry, Down Syndrome isn’t contagious). On a serious note, by this stage your staff member had been made aware of the fact that our daughter already attended a mainstream school. The staff member then said, ‘You might be better going to a school with more community links’ … meaning outside mainstream education, employment and life. Community links! That, Ms M, was a stroke of genius – I’ve never heard ‘community links’ used euphemistically before. I was stunned to silence. I felt as though I should make a run for the car while I could, but was persuaded by Kirsten to stay and hear your address. So I did.
You know what, Ms M, your address didn’t make me feel better.
You spoke a great deal about the new buildings that the school has; and how you had the power to expel students; and how a school over in China had heard about how great Discrimination High was and wanted to partner with you; and how the Education Department kept coming out to visit and film because your school was so ace (OK, you didn’t say ace, you said something about excellence); and you spoke about multiculturalism.
Curiously, you didn’t talk much about the teachers that make the school work. The school buildings seemed to be more important than the school culture. And, in case you were wondering, I love the new basketball stadium, too, (it reminded me of High School Musical) but, seriously, talking about the millions invested doesn’t make Discrimination High sound like a private school; it makes it sound like a cashed-up-bogan school.
By the way, I liked the bit about multiculturalism; I really did, Ms M. But it also saddened me. Let me tell you why. What saddened me (OK, annoyed, too) was that your school was failing to roll out the same welcome mat to students with a disability. That’s why Discrimination High may be multicultural, but it is not diverse because its student body does not reflect the mainstream (there’s that word again) community of which people with a disability are very much a part.
Let me tell you another thing, Ms M, Discrimination High is failing to meet if not the letter of, then the spirit of, the Disability Discrimination Act. Ever heard of that law? I suggest you Google it.
Have a nice day.
Later that day I received an emailed reply from Ms M. She said she was disappointed I had ‘formed such a negative opinion of the school’ and invited me to visit Discrimination High’s website ‘for a more detailed outline of our college.’ No apology. No counter argument. No suggestion that there was anything worth talking about.
Legally, people can’t be discriminated against in Australia, but one thing I’ve learned as the parent of a child with a disability is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Joel Deane is a poet, speechwriter and novelist. His debut novel is The Norseman’s Song. He has worked as chief speech-writer for Victorian Premiers John Brumby and Steve Bracks.
Last night, the news broke that Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first female prime minister (and the twentieth century’s longest serving one) – had died, aged 87, of a stroke.
‘Margaret Thatcher succeeded against all the odds,’ said serving British prime minister David Campbell, on hearing the news. ‘As our first woman Prime Minister, She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country. I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peace-time prime minister.’
Australian prime minister Julia Gillard tactfully offered her condolences, acknowledging Thatcher’s history-making achievement as Britain’s first female PM and recognising her ‘strength of conviction’.
‘Margaret Thatcher arrested the decline of Britain and gave the British people renewed confidence,’ said opposition leader Tony Abbott. ‘She ensured the British people no longer simply dwelt on the glories of the past but could enjoy a strong and prosperous future.’
In death as in life, her legacy is divisive.
In areas of England and Scotland, partiers are celebrating with champagne and songs of ‘ding dong, the witch is dead’. In a party of over 300 people in Glasgow, the ABC reports that ‘anti-capitalist campaigners shouted, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie” while the crowd replied “dead, dead, dead”.’
In keeping with the tributes being paid to Thatcher’s conviction and ideological strength, a tongue-in-cheek (we assume) e-petition has been launched to privatise her funeral.
In keeping with the great lady’s legacy, Margaret Thatcher’s state funeral should be funded and managed by the private sector to offer the best value and choice for end users and other stakeholders. The undersigned believe that the legacy of the former PM deserves nothing less and that offering this unique opportunity is an ideal way to cut government expense and further prove the merits of liberalised economics Baroness Thatcher spearheaded.’
In the Guardian, Sunny Hundal applauds the move. ‘Surely the serious point behind this petition is to ask how far ideologues are willing go. Wouldn’t Thatcher prefer the first privatised funeral instead of a state one? After all, why go out on a state subsidy?’
In fact, Thatcher will be given a ceremonial funeral, one step below a state one (and the same level as that given to Princess Diana).
The Guardian takes a balanced look at her legacy, and five areas in which she imprinted her personal legacy most: the Falklands war of 1982, the dethroning of trade union power, economic policy and the New Right, the poll tax, and her ‘strident’ relationship with Europe.
The paper’s editorial concludes:
She was an exceptionally consequential leader, in many ways a very great woman. There should be no dancing on her grave but it is right there is no state funeral either. Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.
Respected conservative political commentator Andrew O’Sullivan says that he owes his ‘entire political obsession’ to Thatcher, the one person in British politics who refused to accept an ‘insane’, largely government-run, Britain that he likens to ‘the dark side of the moon’ in its gloom and decay.
I was a teenage Thatcherite, an uber-politics nerd who loved her for her utter lack of apology for who she was. I sensed in her, as others did, a final rebuke to the collectivist, egalitarian oppression of the individual produced by socialism and the stultifying privileges and caste identities of the class system.
Sullivan’s university classmate John Cassidy has written his take on growing up in Thatcher’s Britain for the New Yorker. ‘To Britons of my generation, she wasn’t merely a famous Conservative politician, a champion of the free market, and a vocal supporter of Ronald Reagan: she was part of our mental furniture, and always will be.’
‘Every few months, I’d go down to London to protest,’ he writes. ‘Walking around Hyde Park and bellowing “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out! Out! Out!” was good for the spirit, but it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference.’
When we think about cities of the future, we think about edgy architecture and technological breakthroughs. But what we should be thinking about is how to plan for a Melbourne that seems likely to be four degrees warmer by 2080. Unfortunately, Victoria – along with Brisbane and New South Wales – has weakened controls on planning for climate change, even in the face of recent fires and floods.
‘If we don’t prepare well, people will die,’ writes Michael Green in this sobering report. ‘At the moment, we are not planning well.’
By Michael Green
The sky was black on February 4, 2011, and by late afternoon, Melbourne was teeming with rain. Over the clatter of the storm, John Richardson noticed the wail of car alarms and sirens.
Richardson – who leads Red Cross’s disaster preparedness program – had only just returned from Brisbane, where he’d been doing recovery work in the aftermath of the devastating floods. He had returned to his home in Elwood so he could drop off his daughters that morning, the first day of school.
At 7.30 pm, Richardson and his family walked into their street, which runs parallel to the Elwood Canal, and saw water rising toward them, up the road. They learned from a neighbour that high tide was due at 2 am, and that more thunderstorms were predicted before then.
They decided to evacuate. Richardson asked his daughters what they wanted to take: his older daughter chose a blanket she’d had since she was a baby, the younger one picked her skateboard and a giant teddy bear. As they were leaving, she burst into tears and asked, ‘Are we going to see our house again?’
Forget driverless electric vehicles, forget telecommuting from arty cafes, forget idyllic renderings by landscape architects. Forget vertical gardens.
In 2080, Melbourne’s future is in Leeton, western New South Wales.
Leeton is 550 kilometres west of Sydney, and the climate there is hot and dry – it’s about four degrees hotter than Melbourne on average, and it receives a third less rain.
This is CSIRO’s ‘analogue township model’: a way for people to understand immediately how our climate could change. But the analogy only goes so far. Lower rainfall and hotter days are just the unpleasant backdrops for the biggest risks we face: droughts, heat waves and bushfires; floods, storm surges and rising tides.
Last December, the state Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Professor Kate Auty, issued her Climate Change Foundation Paper, in preparation for the State of the Environment Report, to be released this year.
Here are a few points: global emissions are tracking higher than the worst-case scenario in the last IPCC report; each decade since the 1950s has been warmer than the last; and disaster relief and recovery cost Victorians nearly five times as much between 2009 and 2012 than it did a decade earlier.
‘In Australia we are vulnerable,’ Auty concluded. ‘In Victoria our seaboard, our biodiversity, our infrastructure are all at risk. Native species and agricultural production are both exposed. The risk of extreme events is elevated.’
‘Impacts cascade and compound … To read them is to be deeply concerned.’
An intense storm can cut off communications, release sewage, and damage roads and houses. And in turn, it can send businesses broke, and render people sick and stuck at home. During heat waves, we can lose power – and therefore, air conditioning, refrigeration and phones – and that causes food spoilage, heat stroke and premature deaths.
The paper notes that if ‘the Eureka Tower in Melbourne lasts as long as the Royal Exhibition Building (1880) has already, it will have to deal with the climate of the year 2144’.
Planning for a city’s future involves many interconnected things: our food, water, power, waste and transport, our offices, homes, parks and gardens. Most broadly, it considers health and equity – the distribution of our ghettos and our Grollos.
It is not possible anymore to consider these things – to consider the present or future – without considering climate change. If we don’t prepare well, people will die. At the moment, we are not preparing well.
The Victorian government last year scrapped a requirement to plan for 0.8 metres sea level rise by the end of the century (except for new ‘greenfields’ developments). The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, described his measure as ‘based on common sense’.
The previous government’s ‘extreme controls’ had ‘locked many towns out of being able to grow sensibly,’ he said.
Professor Barbara Norman, chair of urban and regional planning at University of Canberra, says all three eastern states have weakened their controls on planning for climate change.
‘If you have flexibility in policy and flexibility in process then you really don’t have planning at all,’ she says. ‘In the context of climate change, it means you open the door too widely for development on land that could be subject to environmental risks: to coastal inundation, extreme fire risk and floods.’
One of the biggest risks, Norman says, is a ‘coincidence of events’. In this year’s Brisbane flood, rising rivers combined with a king tide to create a disastrous inundation.
‘We are not managing the impacts of current weather now, let alone being prepared for what climate change might bring,’ she says.
‘We need better discussions between scientists, planners and the emergency services to analyse those scenarios. What could be the consequences? What does that mean for planning today, and the next five years?’
Within the next two weeks, the Victorian government will table its climate adaptation plan in parliament. If its update on climate science – released in March 2012 – is any guide, we shouldn’t expect much. That document devoted only two-and-a-half pages to climate modelling and to the state’s future climate, and drew largely on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s now outdated 2007 report.
A more up-to-date appraisal would have looked like the World Bank’s report from late last year, called Turn down the heat, which combined a review of recent climate science with analysis of the likely risks and impacts.
It stated that even if all nations fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions, we’re still on track for 3.5 to 4˚C warming by the end of the century. ‘The longer those pledges go unmet, the more likely a 4˚C world becomes’, it said.
And exactly what does a 4˚C world mean? ‘Extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.’ All of which adds up to this: ‘there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible’.
For citizens and governments alike, mitigating global warming – reducing carbon dioxide emissions – is inseparable from adaptation, because adaptation alone is not feasible. ‘The focus absolutely has to be on mitigation,’ Norman says, ‘because we are not going to be able to survive in a four-degree world, so far as I can tell’.
And yet, Minister Guy’s 111-page discussion paper Melbourne – let’s talk about the future includes the word ‘climate’ only four times. It refers vaguely to ‘a changing climate’, but not to climate change. This document will feed into the new metropolitan planning strategy.
‘In Victoria, climate change is missing in action,’ Norman says. ‘Whatever your views are, the solution is not to sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with it, and we have to plan for it.’
Good planning, she adds, requires transparency and accountability, but also, a link to budgets. Given the seriousness of the issue – one where many lives are at stake, here and now – a good adaptation plan will include specific measures, costings and timelines. It will set about strengthening natural barriers, investing intelligently in engineered systems, buying back the land most at risk, and educating citizens to deal with some risks themselves.
It will focus on measures that mitigate climate change while also adapting: low-energy retrofits for low-income households; expanded public transport for the outer suburbs; more shade and open spaces to reduce the heat trapped in our city.
It will steer away from maladaptations, such as desalination plants and the spread of air conditioning, which give temporary comfort at the cost of future pain. And it will do these things immediately.
If only we could rely on the Minister’s common sense.
On the night of February 4, 2011, the forecast second wave of thunderstorms passed by Melbourne. The floodwaters receded before they reached the Richardsons’ home. While thousands of other residents weren’t so lucky, the full coincidence of events, as Norman puts it, did not coincide – this time.
Even so, the storm resulted in insurance claims of $384 million across the city. This year, after another summer of flooding and extreme weather, insurers have hiked their Australian premiums, driven by higher costs for reinsurance. Last week, the Age reported ‘some residents of Frankston, bordering Carrum Swamp to the east, have been asked to pay at least $5000 more for flood coverage’.
Elwood was built on the Southern Swamp. The construction of the canal began in 1889, but before long, the developers’ dreams of a Venetian waterway had been replaced by a muddy, smelly ‘plague canal’.
If the tide is coming in, a rush of water has no place to go. The land is low-lying – vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flash flooding.
It is also vulnerable to infill development and poor planning. ‘In the past when it has flooded, the catchment has been fairly permeable,’ Richardson says. ‘Now as more and more houses are bowled over and flats and apartments put on them, that is decreasing the permeability. And that only increases the potential for flooding.’
On the night of the floods, once his wife and daughters had evacuated, Richardson went out into the street. He checked on his neighbour Pat, who is in her eighties. ‘It’s a reasonably tight-knit community – we run street parties and stuff like that – which is really good because we knew who was here and who might need some help,’ he says.
The next day, he went door-to-door and handed out information on flood recovery. A few weeks later, he and his neighbours held a barbecue for people from surrounding streets. In the months that followed, residents established the Elwood Floods Action Group. The members meet once a month at the St Kilda RSL. They held a large community forum and attend local fetes. The group’s website includes local history and safety information, as well as a compilation of citizens’ suggestions for flood mitigation. There is a map with projections of the flooding risk associated with sea level rise and storm surges.
If our governments were to take climate adaptation seriously, this is the kind of neighbourhood they would be encouraging. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg studied the impacts of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago – the natural disaster that has killed the most people in the country’s history. In a recent article for the New Yorker, he described Englewood and Auburn Gresham, adjacent suburbs on the ‘hyper-segregated South Side of Chicago’. Both had similar proportions of elderly residents and high rates of poverty, crime and unemployment. But during the heat wave Englewood had one of the highest death rates, and Auburn Gresham, one of the lowest.
Auburn Gresham, it turned out, was the kind of place where ‘residents walked to diners and grocery stores. They knew their neighbours. They participated in block clubs and church groups.’ As the heat wore on, people knocked on each other’s doors. In Englewood, older people were apprehensive about leaving home.
‘During the severe heat waves that are likely to hit Chicago and other cities in the near future,’ Klinenberg said, ‘living in a neighbourhood like Auburn Gresham is the rough equivalent of having a working air-conditioner in every room.’
Richardson says many Elwood locals have been calling for new infrastructure investment, to cope with more intense deluges. ‘That’s all well and good for the long term. But what happens if it floods again tomorrow?’
We are already experiencing weather extremes more often, and on a warming planet, they will only get worse. Left alone, this is the future of Melbourne. If our urban planning system does anything at all, it should be doing something about this.
‘We’re looking at a completely new climate paradigm,’ Richardson says. ‘We used to seriously flood here once every 25 years. If that’s changing, what does that mean for people?’
This is the last in a three-part series of articles by Michael Green, exploring Ideas for Melbourne in three hot-button areas: homelessness, racism, and this week, planning for the city of the future.
Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age, where he writes on sustainable living.
Our Ideas for Melbourne events web series, by journalist Michael Green, explores three topics that loom large in local debates, each Wednesday for three weeks. Last week he explored homelessness through the lens of a life-changing response to a Big Issue article.
Today, Michael reports on the investigation into the death of a young Ethiopian man whose body was retrieved from the Maribyrnong River a year and a half ago, just over a day after being released from police custody. Though the assistant police commissioner and the homicide squad had declared the investigation ‘very thorough’ and ‘first class’ at the time, last week it was revealed as woefully inadequate, at best.
Michael also delves into allegations of constant police harassment of African-Australian men – and this week’s settlement of a racial discrimination case with Victoria Police, lodged by six young men when they were teenagers. ‘It’s not about one police officer,’ said one of the men, Daniel Haile-Michael, ‘it’s about changing a whole system’.
By Michael Green
Last week, the State Coroner began an inquest into the death of a young man whose body was found in the Maribyrnong River. The hearing didn’t make it halfway.
On Friday the coroner, Ian Gray, suspended it, directed police to reinvestigate on his behalf, and requested that a more senior detective lead that search.
It is already over a year-and-a-half since Michael Atakelt disappeared. It will be many months yet before his family and friends learn more about what happened to him. After a week of public evidence, only one thing was apparent: the investigation by the Footscray police was woefully inadequate, at best.
Atakelt was 22 years old when he went missing on a Sunday evening, June 26, 2011. His body was spotted by a fisherman, and retrieved from the Maribyrnong River in Ascot Vale, eleven days later.
Overland Journal contacted me in early August 2011 and asked me to write about the case. The editor said that while the details were unclear, Atakelt seemed ‘to have died either in, or directly after being released from, police custody’.
Before long, I learned the situation is not so simple, the institutional violence not so overt. In the early hours of the Saturday morning – more than a day before he disappeared – Atakelt was held in the Melbourne Custody Centre for drunkenness and then released without incident.
But the facts are still far from clear. The coroner heard from crucial witnesses who had not previously been interviewed, and about whole avenues of enquiry that were not followed. The most glaring error was this: the police brief said Atakelt had likely entered the Maribyrnong River near Smithfield Bridge, approximately four kilometres downstream from where his body was recovered.
On the fourth day of the inquest, Sergeant George Dixon from the water police gave evidence that it was ‘very unlikely’ Atakelt’s body had entered the river near Smithfield Bridge. He said that although the river is tidal in its lower reaches, the body could only have entered the river ‘a very short distance’ downstream from where it was found; it was more likely to have entered the river upstream, possibly as far as two kilometres.
Dixon has been in the water police since 1986 and he gave evidence for almost a whole day, about currents, tides, water flows and body recovery. Yet the investigator, Detective Senior Constable Tim McKerracher, had not spoken to him before the hearing began.
It was an extraordinary omission. But even so, you shouldn’t need three decades working on the water to form a hunch on which way a river flows. The Footscray police had not looked into the possibility that Atakelt entered the river upstream of where he was found.
The sergeant’s evidence cut the previous investigation adrift. The barristers clutched at improbable new theories until it became clear that there was no sure footing from which to continue at all.
Atakelt arrived in Australia in 2006, from Ethiopia. He was from the Tigray ethnic group, who live in the country’s north and in Eritrea.
A week after his body was found, over 250 people from several African-Australian communities attended a public meeting in North Melbourne. It was fronted by assistant commissioner Stephen Fontana, who was then responsible for the north-west metro area.
Among the speakers he heard that day were many young men who complained of constant harassment by police; and Atakelt’s mother, Askalu Tela, who said Footscray police hadn’t taken her missing person report for three days, despite repeated visits and phone calls.
Shortly afterwards, several young people started a group called Imara Advocacy, to help them speak out on issues such as racialised policing. When the inquest was suspended, one of the founders, Reem Yehdego said the community had been ‘demanding an independent and comprehensive investigation from the moment Michael Atakelt’s body was found’.
On Monday, I joined a swarm of journalists outside the Federal Court, where six young men had just settled a racial discrimination case with Victoria Police. It is five years since they first lodged the claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission, when they were all teenagers. They say the police regularly stopped them around Flemington and North Melbourne for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted them.
Despite the settlement, Victoria Police denies the allegations and maintains that the teens were stopped for legitimate policing reasons. But it has agreed to a public review of its cross-cultural training and the way officers deal with ‘field contacts’.
It also agreed to release documents prepared for the case. One document – statistical evidence based on police data – shows that young African-Australian men in the area were policed out of all proportion: they were two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they committed relatively fewer crimes than young men of other ethnic backgrounds. Before the cameras, one of the men, Daniel Haile-Michael, said the courts alone wouldn’t be sufficient to put an end to racial profiling. ‘It’s going to take all Australians and the media and huge community support to get these changes to happen.’
An ABC journalist pressed him on why he’d settled the case, if police had really assaulted him. ‘I myself have been beaten up,’ he said, ‘but it’s not a personal thing. We understand it’s a systemic issue and that’s why we’re trying to address it in a systemic way. It’s not about one police officer, it’s about changing a whole system.’
In the police force, the system starts at the top. Chief Commissioner Ken Lay had been subpoenaed to give evidence in the racial discrimination case, but when it settled, he was excused. ‘The Police Commissioner is off the hook,’ said Justice Shane Marshall, to the amusement of the court.
Later, despite the statistics, Lay dismissed the idea that racial profiling is a problem within the force. He told the Age: ‘I do not believe our members would identify people and harass or continually check them simply because of their ethnicity.’
The case of Michael Atakelt goes just as high. In December 2011, Assistant Commissioner Fontana attended a second public meeting in North Melbourne. He assured the large gathering that the brief prepared for the coroner was ‘a very thorough investigation’ and that he had ‘total confidence’ in the officer who prepared it.
At the same meeting, Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon, from the homicide squad, said he had overseen the investigation and that it was ‘first class’ and ‘all possible leads have been explored’. Later that month, Fontana repeated the same claim to me, over the phone: ‘We have had closer oversight of this particular case than we have of others,’ he said. ‘The homicide squad were involved all the way through, in terms of a very close supervision, as were the Ethical Standards [Department].’
At the inquest, as I watched the police investigation unravel, it was difficult to believe those words could have been true – or if so, to accept what it implied about the quality of our detectives.
Worst of all, it was difficult to believe the investigation would have been so poor if it were me who had disappeared instead.
Something has gone badly wrong, whether wilfully or negligently. And because of that, Atakelt’s family and friends may never find out how and why he died.
Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland, who first asked him to cover the Michael Atakelt case, a year and a half ago. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age.**
Next week, Michael Green will explore urban planning and Melbourne’s future.
He’s pretty popular.
And he currently predicts a nine-in-ten chance of an Obama victory.
A former sports statistician, Silver accurately predicted the outcome of 49 of the 50 states and all 35 senate races in the 2008 election – using pure numbers as his tools.
In his final estimate, he gave Obama a 91 percent chance of winning, estimating the Electoral College tally at 313-225 and the popular vote at 51-48 Obama.
Silver argued on The Colbert Report recently that his methodology is really quite simple. ‘People treat it like it’s Galileo, something heretical,’ he said. ‘There are many things that are much more complicated than looking at the polls and taking an average and counting to 270, right?’
Silver’s huge hit rate isn’t explained just by his followers, though. (And by the way, some of those followers have admitted that they’re not simply seduced by his way with numbers, but are Obama supporters, comforted by his consistent predictions that their man will win.) Silver’s critics read his blog religiously too. Some claim that his model is wrong, while other believe that you can’t predict an election by math alone.
‘I do understand that math can be ironclad,’ said Jonah Goldberg at the LA Times. ‘But I like to think that people are different, more open to reason, and that the soul – particularly when multiplied into the complexity of a society – is not so easily number-crunched.’
It’s a clash between those who believe that numbers don’t lie – and can tell the full story – and others who believe that numbers don’t allow for the twists, turns and inconsistencies of human nature. And that’s why some are calling this ‘the Moneyball election’.
‘In a way this is a perfect test case of the Michael Lewis Moneyball hypothesis,’ said James Fallows at the Atlantic. ‘Apart from Silver’s own background as a sports-stats analyst, we have an exceptionally clear instance of people judging from their experience, their ‘bones’, their personal instinct, etc that things are going one way (like veteran scouts saying that a prospect ‘looks like a Big Leaguer’), while data (on-base efficiencies in one case, swing-state polls in another) point in the opposite direction.’
Today, Adam Gopnik continued on the theme for the New Yorker’s blog, clearly outlining the pro and anti Silver arguments.
‘What [Silver and co are] saying is that you can look at much, much less evidence, but be confident in what it tells you just because you are confident that the future will be like the past – that polling averages, properly adjusted, are a nearly infallible guide to the results of elections. The pro-pundit class is saying, echoing those scouts and pros, that there are just too many variables – too much uncertainty with tens of millions of individuals acting according to the whims and moods and strictures of the moment – to think that this is so. As with ballplayers, so with politicians, the pros say: only a seasoned and practiced eye can suss out, exactly, the tools of each campaign – who they reach, what they say, how they react – and get the right answer. It’s a gut-level thing, they say, and they point, not unreasonably, to the many cases where polls are wrong, missing the point that, on the whole, they’re right.
There’s a lot riding on this election – for America and the world, yes, but also for the way that elections are reported on and predicted. If Nate Silver’s predictions prove accurate once again, that will surely have an impact on future elections, as well as minting his own career. But if they fail, he’ll become, as some pundits have predicted, a ‘one-election analyst’. If your career is built on accuracy, you’d better be right.
‘One thing you’d rather not have happen when you’re seeking to make a forecast is to influence the attitudes of the people whose behavior you are trying to predict,’ Silver told BuzzFeed. ‘It’s clearly a very close election and conservatives and liberals who are concerned about the outcome probably ought to channel their angst by making sure that they vote, rather than either demonizing or deifying a blogger with a statistical model.’
With the US presidential election held next week, we thought we’d share five of the most amusing, clever or simply interesting celebrity endorsements for the two presidential candidates. (Not including Clint Eastwood’s Chair Moment.) Enjoy!
The quick-witted Buffy creator and aficionado of all things sci-fi has come out with an endorsement for Obama that predicts a zombie-ruled apocalypse if Romney takes the reins. Stock up on canned goods, y'all!
It’s a very different world now, and Mitt Romney is a very different candidate — one with the vision and determination to cut through business-as-usual politics and finally put this country back on the path to the zombie apocalypse.
Girls creator Lena Dunham aims at getting her fellow twentysomethings to vote (and while they’re there, vote Obama) with this quirky – and hugely controversial – recommendation that other girls follow her lead, and pop their voting cherry for Obama. Some conservative commentators have suggested that the ad ‘degrades the highest office in the country’.
Meat Loaf has been an object of derision in Australia since his universally panned AFL Grand Final performance. Now, he’s taken the stage for an important national event in his home country. Watch him serenading Romney with America the Beautiful, in a performance described by Gawker as sounding ‘as if it were emanating from a dying cat that just had its tail stomped on’‘.
Action star Chuck Norris and his wife Gena have made a video urgently arguing for the election of Mitt Romney, and against the ‘socialism’ of President Obama. ‘Our great country and freedom are under attack,’ says Norris. Gena quotes former president Ronald Regan:
‘'You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into 1,000 years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.’
Samuel L. Jackson offers a new slant on his viral recording of the satirical storybook Go the F**k to Sleep with this video, Wake the F**k Up for Obama, imagining a new version of the book’s bedtime story, where a little girl galvanises her family to campaign for Obama’s re-election.
With the US presidential election just a week away, some of Australia’s savviest political writers and commentators gathered at the Wheeler Centre – with a packed and engaged crowd – to talk about how it’s playing out. Fifth Estate host Sally Warhaft was joined by seasoned journalist George Negus, the ABC’s Eleanor Hall and former speechwriter Don Watson.
Download the podcast: mp3
George Negus was in the US for the election of Barack Obama four years ago. ‘The whole country felt like it had a hangover,’ he said. ‘But there was a backlash straight away.’
Eleanor Hall says that while we assumed the 2008 election was about Americans voting for a black president, she spoke to a prominent pollster who said that his race had in fact been a disadvantage – it had pulled him back ‘about three percentage points’.
While (of course) people don’t directly say that they wouldn’t vote for a black president, if you ask other questions, it becomes clear that many Americans would never vote for, or celebrate, having a black president.
Don Watson mentioned that this year’s Republican convention was ‘the whitest and most deliberately white Republican convention anywhere’. He described Mitt Romney as ‘very white’ and his wife as ‘even whiter’.
‘The first debate really turned it around,’ said Eleanor Hall, who described Obama’s performance in that first debate, which he so spectacularly lost to Mitt Romney, as ‘very petulant’.
The smallest details can make a difference in these debates, she said. For example, Clinton used to colour his hair greyer for the foreign policy debate and browner for the domestic policy debate.
‘The debates weren’t meant to be important, but Obama made them important.’
‘Everyone thought Romney was wooden and hopeless, but he came out and did what Obama normally does – he started telling stories. He sounded like a warm human being.’
Host Sally Warhaft said that the high point of the campaign speeches so far has been Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention.
‘The election has been content-free,’ said Don Watson. ‘Americans now revert so quickly to the grand narrative. There is something grand about American narrative, but a good speech does need content.’
‘If the candidates keep saying America is the greatest country in the world, the hollowing out of America is quickly forgotten, including by the hollowed out.’
He described being at one of the early Tea Party rallies, with people who ‘wouldn’t know a tea party from a tea bag’. Some of them, he said, had guns stuffed down their tracksuit pants.
‘People underestimate how hollow American society is in the middle. In all sorts of ways – educationally and nutritionally – America is way down the bottom.’
‘It’s a paradox from beginning to end,’ said George Negus. ‘The best of it is the best and the worst is unbelievable.’
‘Americans have a funny idea of the middle class,’ said Don Watson. ‘They never use the term working class anymore.’
The Tea Party people are not middle-class, but what we’d call working-class people – people who have not done well in contemporary America, and have adopted a ferociously conservative view of the world in response.
‘If I was a middle-class American before 25 years ago, I would have voted Republican,’ he said. ‘The Republican Party is not what it used to be. It’s fallen into dangerous hands.’
‘If Mark Twain walked into the Republican Party now, he’d be thrown out.’
Eleanor Hall agrees with this idea. ‘Genuinely intelligent Republicans are being knocked off,’ she said. ‘Tea Party people like Paul Ryan rule the joint.’
While in the US recently, she asked an analyst which Romney we’ll see if he’s elected president: the relatively small ‘l’ liberal Massachusetts governor, or a Romney who reflects the platform of the contemporary Republican Party. (‘Netanyahu running foreign policy and the Tea Party running the economy.’)
‘We’re not going to get the Massachusetts governor,’ was the response.
The panellists agreed that the hurricane and ongoing bad weather may affect voter turnout. Don Watson said this could be a problem for the Democrats. ‘If it’s bad weather, it’s the Democrats who don’t turn up.’
On the other hand, the fact that Obama is the incumbent during this time of crisis for so many Americans will work in his favour. ‘He can look presidential.’
Both candidates have called off campaigning for a few days.
‘This storm is massive,’ said Eleanor Hall. ‘It’s even going to affect Ohio.’
George Negus believes Obama will win another four years as president.
‘It’s strange they should even be considering someone as inappropriate as Romney,’ he said.
‘Romney unfortunately is not only the face of American politics, but of the world. We’ll be living in a western world where people won’t be doing much, they’ll just be doing deals. That’s all Romney knows about.’
Eleanor Hall thinks Obama will win, too. ‘He really only needs to win those key states and I think he’s poured enough money into Ohio and the car industry to win them. I don’t think Romney is charismatic enough to win them over.’
George Negus said that Barrie Cassidy, host of ABC1’s Insiders, recently shared his opinion that Obama will get 290 electoral college votes. He needs 270 to win.
Don Watson thinks Romney will win. ‘I might be trying to cover myself against despair,’ he said. ‘I didn’t think Bush could win in 2004 or 2000.’
He believes that the immense amount of money the Republicans have accessed for this campaign will make the difference. While last time, Obama outspent his Republican opponent John Cain by far, in this campaign that spending has been reversed.
‘The consequences will be pretty terrible for America and the world,’ he said. ‘More conservatives on the Supreme Court, the end of Rose versus Wade [meaning abortion would become criminalised], Iran, and foreign policy would go back to the Bush era.’
As we gear up for the final showdown between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, in the form of the final debate, you might like to distract yourself with this less conventional (spoof) version: an epic rap battle.
Watch the Epic Rap Battle version of Obama versus Romney – with Abraham Lincoln thrown into the mix.
Best lines include:
‘I’m not going to let this battle be dictated by facts.’ (Fake Romney)
‘Raw rhymes/stronger than my jawline.’ (Fake Romney)
‘So rich and white it’s like I’m running against a cheesecake.’ (Fake Obama)
‘Don’t talk about change, just do it/I fought for what was on my brain until a bullet went through it.’ (Fake Abraham Lincoln – don’t ask, you’ll see how he comes into it.)
Our next Fifth Estate will focus on the circus of the presidential campaign, and how it reflects American culture. Don Watson, George Negus and the ABC’s Eleanor Hall (just back from covering the first presidential debate) will be talking to Sally Warhaft.
This free event will be held at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 30 October at 6.15pm. Bookings are open now.
During this week’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney answered an audience question about creating opportunities for women in an unfortunate way.
‘We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks?” and they brought us whole binders full of women.’
The nonpartisan group who assembled the ‘binders full of women’ (Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus) are now saying that they presented the binders to Romney on their own initiative.
The moment in the debate where Romney unwittingly created an internet meme.
Ironically, while Democrats have jumped on the phrasing to highlight Romney’s ‘woman problem’, it should have been a strong point for Romney. He initially filled 42 percent of senior-level appointments with women, which was the highest number in the country. Just 25% of President Obama’s initial cabinet appointees were women.
Here are five of our favourite ‘binder’ memes.
Our next Fifth Estate will focus on the circus of the presidential campaign, and how it reflects American culture. Don Watson, George Negus and the ABC’s Eleanor Hall (just back from covering the first presidential debate) will be talking to Sally Warhaft.
This free event will be held at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 30 October at 6.15pm. Bookings are open now.
We share some of our favourite links and articles found on the internet this week.
The US presidential campaign has taken another bizarre pop culture twist in the past week. First, there was Clint Eastwood and the chair. Now, Sesame Street’s Big Bird has reluctantly taken the stage. In the first presidential debate (which Obama thoroughly lost), Mitt Romney stated that he would cut subsidies to PBS. ‘I love Big Bird,’ Romney said. ‘But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.’
The Obama campaign responded with a funny (though dubiously useful) ad that jumped on the Big Bird statement. ‘Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.’
‘You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,’ Romney told an Iowa crowd this week. And most media commentators (including The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) think he has a point. On his show last night, Stewart showed a clip of Will.i.am addressing a university crowd with Obama, grinning and playing the Sesame Street song. The Children’s Television Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have asked the Obama campaign to remove the ad.
The Atlantic has a slideshow of images created by the internet to mark this pop cultural moment.
It was Banned Book Week recently in the US, and to commemorate the occasion, Lawrence Public Library commissioned a set of seven Banned Book trading cards, with artwork submitted by local artists and facts about why the books were banned, and how they affected the artists' lives. The titles chosen included Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (banned in Tennesee from 1925 to 1967) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (banned in Soviet Russia for its political theories, banned in the US for its political theories, banned in the United Arab Emirates for imagery contradicting Islamic values).
As western culture becomes ever more food-obsessed, elevating chefs like Jamie Oliver and critics like Matt Preston to the status of artists or rock stars, a discomfort with our culinary worship is starting to creep in for many. Steven Poole’s new book, You Aren’t What You Eat is a clever and often funny skewering (pun intended) of the cult of foodism. A lengthy and fascinating extract in the Guardian will give you a taste.
It should be obvious that a steak is not like a symphony, a pie not like a passaglia, foie gras not like a fugue; that the “composition” of a menu is not like the composition of a requiem; that the cook heating things in the kitchen and arranging them on a plate is not the artistic equal of Charlie Parker.
If you’ve ever ironically tweeted or complained about ‘first world problems’ (and how many of us haven’t?), this ingenious ad campaign will make you feel a little ashamed and a lot lucky. Created by relief organisation Water For Life, this one-minute video feature Haitians standing in front of their houses, in ruins or among pigs and chickens, reading ‘complaints’ like ‘I hate it when my neighbors block their wifi’ and ‘I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they give me pickles’. Moving and thought-provoking.
In a beautiful and inspiring essay, Maria Tumarkin considers the afterlife of books – how they touch readers' lives and what they can mean for the individuals who connect with them. Some of the books she looks at are Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, Anthony Macris’s When Horse Became Saw and Maggie Mackellar’s When it Rains. She asks the question:
What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
We look at the aftermath of an extraordinary week in politics, talking to Ben Eltham, national affairs correspondent of New Matilda, Stephanie Convery of Overland, feminist writer Alison Croggon and philosopher Damon Young – and drawing on the week’s news coverage.
Julia Gillard’s parliamentary attack on Tony Abbott, calling him out for various cited instances of sexism and misogyny, has dominated headlines for the past two days. But the coverage has been wildly divergent: between the Australian mainstream media and the world media, and between the mainstream media and social media. It’s almost as if different versions of the same event were viewed in different places.
‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,’ Gillard said, responding to Abbott’s call for Peter Slipper to be fired as Speaker, argung that his private texts comparing women’s genitalia to ‘mussel meat’ make him unfit to hold office. ‘If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia,’ Gillard continued, of Abbott, ‘he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.’ She supported her argument by quoting comments by Abbott on abortion being ‘the easy way out’, his appeal to the ironing housewives of Australia, and his implicit support of protestors calling her a ‘witch’ and ‘a man’s bitch’.
International reactions ranged from US feminist website Jezebel’s admiring of Gillard as a ‘bad-ass mother**ker’ and commentators at the New Yorker and Salon wishing they could ‘borrow’ Gillard to call out notorious US politicians like Todd Akin (who believes women’s bodies shut down to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape), to the UK Telegraph’s acknowledgement that Gillard’s failure to condemn Slipper could cost her politically, while admiring her ‘political nous’, ‘aplomb’ and ‘composure’ in deflecting attention onto Abbott.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the mainstream media seemed to respond more slowly to the event than the international media, and more critically. Michelle Grattan’s comments in the Age were typical of the Canberra press gallery reaction: ‘The Prime Minister threw everything into her argument, which revolved around trying to pin the “misogynist'” label on the Opposition Leader. It was perhaps the only weapon available to her, but it sounded more desperate than convincing.’ In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher called her speech a refusal to stand up for respect for women, saying, ‘The Prime Minister gained nothing and lost a great deal.’
Why were the local and international media reactions so different? New Matilda national correspondent Ben Eltham told the Wheeler Centre that he thinks it’s partly due to the Australian political media being too close to the story, and thus missing its broader significance.
‘Perhaps it’s because overseas journalists don’t have the baggage that comes with domestic politics,’ concurs philosopher and writer Damon Young. ‘They’re not privy to the Machiavellian machinations, but they also lack the prejudices and biases. In Gillard’s televised speech, foreign journalists simply see the most obvious thing: a strong woman attacking sexism and hypocrisy.’
‘The Australian media often misses the story,’ says feminist writer Alison Croggon. ‘In this case, it really exposed how badly they can miss it … It baffled me how the press gallery, in unison, could be so blind to the significance of that speech. Whatever you think of Gillard – and I have serious criticisms of many aspects of her policies as PM – this was a stunningly successful political moment.’
Today, feminist commentator Clementine Ford questioned just how offensive Slipper’s comments are. ‘The vast majority of women I’ve canvassed about the issue are either wholly unmoved or merely embarrassed for him at having such a naff approach to courtship,’ she said. She suggested that perhaps ‘people are so uncomfortable with talk of vaginas that they can’t help but assume any mention of them at all is depraved and unseemly’.
John Birmingham, on the other hand, believes that Slipper’s texts are evidence of ‘a much deeper problem with women than the Leader of the Opposition’; a view that seems to be shared by the majority of writers published on the subject.
‘It was great political rhetoric and I’m sure it will be much remembered, but it was also done for political reasons,’ Overland blogger Stephanie Convery told the Wheeler Centre. ‘This wasn’t done to make a point about how abhorrent sexism is – even though that’s how it will be remembered. It was made in the context of a broader political struggle – one that has everything to do with the increasingly rightward-moving Labor Party’s bad polling and the very real prospect of them losing the next election, and very little to do with women’s rights.’
Convery was just one feminist to voiced her concern that, ironically, Gillard’s policies did not match her rhetoric yesterday, when she helped pass legislation that will move 100,000 single parents (mostly women) off the Parenting Payment and onto NewStart, reducing their already miniscule incomes by $100 per week.
‘Abbott got the serve he has so richly deserved for so long, and I was riveted to every second,’ said Shakira Hussein, in Crikey. ‘But at the end of the day, I will not be lectured on sexism or misogyny by Julia Gillard on the very day that she has driven so many women deeper into poverty.’
‘I thought it was her most important speech as prime minister,’ says Ben Eltham. ‘Ordinary punters care little for the internal tactics of parliamentary politics,‘ he wrote on New Matilda. 'In contrast, many Australians care deeply about the increasingly nasty tone of the attacks on Julia Gillard as a woman.’
He cites a recent poll that shows a 19 point gap between men and women on perceptions that Gillard has been subject to more personal criticism than a male prime minister would be (61% of women agree, though only 42% of men). Feminism is a growing force as a social movement in Australia right now, he believes, and yesterday’s events will only underline that.
‘The most powerful politician in Australia has stood up and made her views count. That will matter, whatever the press gallery thinks.’
Philosopher Damon Young believes that having a female prime minister makes the issue of feminism and the treatment of women ‘harder to ignore’.
But Stephanie Convery says ‘it would be unwise to think that, on its own, [the speech] will make much material difference for women. It’s our response that will make the difference.’
One reason that many women have responded so passionately (and positively) to the speech is that Gillard openly addressed an issue that has been brewing beneath the surface, or as a subtext, of political life for some time.
Indeed, since she became prime minister (and before that), she has been attacked for her childlessness, her lack of domesticity (the famous empty fruit bowl), her unmarried status and her wardrobe (the last, by Australia’s most famous feminist, Germaine Greer) – not to mention the more sinister gendered insults such as ‘Bob Brown’s bitch’, and, just last week, attacks on a Facebook forum ostensibly to discuss education policy that called her a ‘slut’, among other things.
Alison Croggon believes that the speech was embraced for its ‘strong public statement that clarified some of the toxic debate about misogyny that’s been fouling the political air recently’. She says it was ‘a genuine defence of the right of women to exist in public life’.
One aspect of the debates that has some commentators uncomfortable is the conflation of sexism (prejudice or discrimination based on gender) and misogyny (hatred of women). There is the question of whether it is fair to call Tony Abbott sexist, but even if that case can be proven – is it fair to extend that to misogyny?
‘It muddies the debate considerably,’ says Alison Croggon. ‘If Tony Abbott is accused of being a misogynist – a hater of women – that’s a serious personal accusation that can sincerely be addressed by, for example, his wife, who can quite rightly say, well, I know Tony, and he doesn’t hate women.’
‘However, he is clearly sexist, which is not about whether or not you like women (or men), but whether your attitudes and actions towards people are prejudiced and filtered by gender. That is clearly the case with Abbott, and that sexism is what can be properly addressed and criticised.’ ‘I’ve seen no evidence that Tony Abbott feels hatred towards women,’ says Damon Young. ‘I have seen evidence of sexism in Tony Abbott’s statements. For example, in 1988 Abbott questioned whether under-representation of women in power was a “bad thing”.’
Ben Eltham believes that sexism and misogyny ‘shade into one another in a spectrum-like manner’.
‘I don’t think Tony Abbott is a misogynist is the way that Alan Jones is. I do however think that Tony Abbott has done far too little to combat the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in conservative politics in Australia; indeed, he has stoked that misogyny for his own political purposes.’
In the aftermath of the speech, Abbott has called for Gillard and Labor to ‘stop playing the gender card’, and promised to keep up his criticism of Gillard ‘when she does the wrong thing’.
For her part, Gillard has vowed to continue to ‘call out sexism and misogyny’ wherever she sees it.
Join us for our event discussing Gillard, Abbott, politics and feminism, Destroying the Joint, held in partnership with Overland. The event is at the Wheeler Centre on Friday 12 October, 6.15pm; entry is free.
By Clementine Ford
In this edited version of her Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Clementine Ford asks why men like Alan Jones think women are ‘destroying the joint’, exposes how Hollywood contributes to assumptions that the default gender is male, and presents some damning statistics to prove that we’re not, in fact, all equal now.
To be a woman at the close of the 20th century. What good fortune. That’s what we keep hearing, anyway. The barricades have fallen, politicians assure us. Women have ‘made it’, the style pages cheer. Women’s fight for equality has ‘largely been won’, Time magazine announces. Enrol at any university, join any law firm, apply for credit at any bank. Women have so many opportunities now corporate leaders say, that we don’t really need equal opportunity policies. Women are so equal now, lawmakers say, that we no longer need equal rights legislation.
So begins Susan Faludi’s Backlash. The backlash she spoke of manifested the idea that women had been somehow damaged by all that equality. That the reality of being equal had somehow made them miserable – that newspapers fretted about how women were coping with the infertility crisis, the man shortage, the betrayal of being told they could ‘have it all’ and, once getting there, realising that having it all was bloody hard work.
Backlash was published in 1991. And 20 years later, the backlash continues. My feminist peers and I, scrapping for our minute share of the media pie, are, in amongst the anonymous abuse, the repeated accusations of misandry and the violent threats of rape, constantly instructed that ‘equality has been achieved, so shut your mouths you hairy-armpitted feminazis!’
I mean, God. Even the insults are carbon dated.
Let’s have a look at how equal we are, here in 2012. This year alone, prominent US republicans have coined phrases like ‘legitimate rape’, voted to further diminish women’s reprodutive rights, including legislating in some states to subject women seeking abortions to an internal ultrasound (which is not legitimate rape, because rather than a man in a balaclava in a park and a woman out jogging, it involves state legislators and sluts who should have kept their legs shut). And they’ve called women sluts on the radio because they didn’t like them running off their mouths about state-funded birth control. At every turn, they have frozen women out of the conversation about their own bodies and reproductive health, because, as powerful white men elected to government, they are apparently more entitled and qualified to speak on these matters than those who their decisions will affect.
Our own radio shock jocks in Australia call women ‘sluts’ and ‘fat slags’ on air when discussing pack rape scenarios involving famous sporting ‘heroes’ or women who’ve given them bad reviews – recently, Alan Jones went on an on-air tirade about how disgusting it was for Australia to provide aid to Pacific nations in order to empower more women to become legislators and business leaders: ‘She [the prime minister] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating,’ he told listeners.
‘Women are destroying the joint!’
Our own prime minister has endured a campaign of sexist abuse ever since she took office, demonstrated most insidiously by people’s belief that they’re entitled to refer to her by her first name. To those for whom equality has not just been granted (as if it was theirs to give), but has been done so grudgingly, Gillard’s status as PM is sufficient evidence that feminism has succeeded and feminism’s continued campaign for more ‘equality’ is simply greed. The subtext is clear: ‘What more do you want?’
Now, aggrieved men’s rights activists are growing in numbers, and they still insist that women – all of whom have apparently achieved not just equality but actual superiority – are trying to destroy men. That in a mere 40 years, women have not just managed to quell the tide of gender oppression that has for thousands of years seen them be the victims of sexual assault, violence, forced marriage, financial dependence, sex trafficking and a general silencing of their voices, but reversed it to the point where men have now become the abused chattel, the dismissed, the voiceless.
Thousands of years of oppression. Reversed and redirected. In 40 years. Who knew it was so easy?
Of course, such a thing is ridiculous. Because the problem with the idea of equality is how difficult it is to measure. When people say, ‘equality has been reached’, what they really mean is that it is now (mostly) illegal to directly legislate in a way that disadvantages women over men. It is illegal to say that a woman can’t be made CEO of a Fortune 500 company – but does that mean she will be? No, because now we have insidious indicators of sexism. And every woman who takes on a role previously legislated (whether officially or socially) to belong to a man will now be seen by some to have stolen that ‘right’ away from men in general. To men fearful of feminism, equality is so tied up in their idea of their own rights to power that to share it can only mean relinquishing some of the things that they feel belong to them.
In Peggy Orenstein’s book Girlhood, on the matter of girls’ education, she recounts the tale of a teacher who, convinced she didn’t prioritise boys over girls like some studies suggested, tracked the number of times she called on boys to answer questions. She was astonished to see that, despite her fervent belief otherwise, she subconsciously favoured boys when it came to seeking answers and opinions. She immediately set out to rectify this, creating a system whereby she could visually track a fair alternation of the girls and boys she called on.
Within a couple of days, boys in the teacher’s class approached her to complain about the new system. They accused her of being unfair – they saw it as girls being given more at the expense of the boys, even though they were at last getting exactly the same.
The conclusion is simple, and very worrying. For these boys, Orenstein writes, equality was perceived as a loss.
Such little boys grow up to be the kind of men who believe women’s liberation comes at the expense of their own power; that for them to respect it, support it or even acknowledge it, it must prioritise the needs of men first and foremost, and ensure they never have to give anything up. Essentially, to the men’s rights activists, the only legitimate form of women’s liberation is one that has no affect on them at all because it happens in a realm peripheral to men – much like the concerns and lives of women in general.
Frankly, there is so much evidence to offer in favour of the idea that equality is still merely an illusion. I could talk about the still-horrifying rates of rape and sexual assault, both the actual experience of it and the social impetus to provide excuses for it. I could tell you about the female judge who, in sentencing an off-duty police officer to probation for the sexual assault of a woman in a bar, told the woman that she’d hoped she’d learned a valuable lesson – that if she hadn’t have been there, this would never have happened – that if women would take more care of themselves, and not dress like sluts, drink in public, run their mouths off, then men wouldn’t be forced to rape them. I could talk about the 11-year-old girl who, after being gang raped in Texas, had the New York Times run a story suggesting she may have ‘dressed older’ and questioned why her mother wasn’t watching her.
I could question the fact that of all the approximately 30 AFL players ever accused of sexual assault, not one has been convicted. I could mention the pay gap, which is well documented and consistently ignored by people who refuse to see any gender disparity in the workplace, and like to argue in favour of a merit system – as if the majority of people being given promotions and high-paying jobs and who also just happen to be men are just naturally more meritorious than women.
I could talk about the beauty industry and the empowerment industry, and how the two have joined forces in an unholy marriage to try and convince women the world over that the most liberating choice they can make is to rid their vaginas of hair. I could talk about the co-opting of empowerment in general, and how calling every choice a woman makes ‘empowering’ by virtue of the fact she’s been allowed to make it just shows how very far we have to go.
But today, I want to demonstrate how women, in all this mass of equality we’re enjoying, are only allowed to lay claim to a certain percentage of the public space. That for most people, equality means things not being quite as bad as they were before. Women may only hold 17% of positions of public office, but don’t we know that the job of prime minister has ten magic points? We’re destroying the joint, remember.
The Global Media Monitoring Project recently produced a report called Who Makes the News? The report assessed the breakdown of gender across international news outlets – radio, print, TV and the internet. Specifically, the percentages of stories that focused on women or men as their subjects. The research covered just under 17,000 news items, just over 20,000 news personnel (announcers, presenters and reporters) and just over 35,000 total news subjects, i.e. people interviewed in the news and those whom the news was about. Basically, this was no simple Daily Mail UK study about women preferring shoes to sex.
Here are some facts:
In 1995, only 17% of news stories featured a woman as their subject.
In 2010, when women are equal, that figure had limped ahead to a pathetic 24% – a mere 7% jump in 15 years. Overall, the analysis showed that men were overwhelmingly more likely to be the subjects of media focus – three to one in fact – and that when women WERE the subjects of a news story, they were more likely to be presented as victims, to have their family status mentioned or to simply be photographed.
But the stats get more depressing when you examine how women function within these stories. Their greatest contribution, at 44% of exposure on the news, is to represent ‘popular opinion’, compared to men’s 56% contribution in this area.
So, in the area where men’s voices are LEAST sought out, they still dominate the space where women have been given the MOST opportunity to speak.
Women feature least in news stories as official spokespersons or experts, at 19% and 20% respectively. Compare this to stats of men’s representation in these areas: when called on as a spokesperson or expert, men feature in at a whopping 81% and 80%, their highest showing.
I realise that sounds like a lot of numbers, but put simply, this is what it means. That in 2010, when men and women have supposedly achieved equality, where women’s voices are supposedly considered equal to those of men, where women who dispute this are told to shut up because feminism’s over, and to go and burn some more bras, the very essence of what drives our public dialogue – the news cycle – is not only dominated by stories about men by 3:1 but that four fifths of people sought after to speak as experts on issues of national and international interest are men. Four fifths. 80%. I’m going to repeat that, because it goes to the heart of how equality is a lie. Eighty per cent of spokespeople and experts sought after to speak in the media and the news are men.
If you are uncritically consuming the news, as most people do, how can you possibly not internalise the idea that men’s voices carry more weight and authority simply because they are the ones you hear the most? How can you fail to link the idea that men are more trustworthy, because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t ask for their opinions so often? On any given week, Q and A will feature four men (including host Tony Jones) and two women. This is considered gender parity – any more is the ABC ‘pandering’ to political correctness, sacrificing expert voices to satisfy feminist banshees.
Equality is perceived as a loss.
How can we expect children, who consume and internalise the messages of media in frightening levels, not to assume that public dialogue and space belongs to men when we demonstrate that to them on a daily basis?
And speaking of children, let’s talk about the world girls and boys learn about on screen. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is instrumental in spearheading groundbreaking research into the representations of girls and women on screen, particularly in family-centric films. As the centre says, we live by the myth that family films are a kind of ‘haven’ for girls – that in a world of sexualisation gone mad and gender inequality, girls can at least find solace in seeking out Strong Female Characters (and more on that later) in the films and media they consume.
In fact, the institute interviewed 108 content creators from the leading box office family films made between 2006 and 2009, and questioned them about female representation in these films. They confirmed their own findings: that of all the speaking roles in these films, only around 29.2% of them were female. To put that into more context, for every female who was allowed to speak in a leading box office family film made between 2006 and 2009, there were 2.42 male characters given voices.
Is this the fault of the creators? Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1565 content creators (at the time of research), only 7% of directors are female. Only 13% of writers are female. Only 20% of producers are female. As the Institute says, this translates to 4.8 working males behind-the-scenes to every one female – a fact that may explain why, in these same leading box office films, only 19.5% of characters with jobs were females. The other 80.5% was taken up by men, who, as I’ve already pointed out, were given two thirds more opportunity to speak.
A friend of mine, Emily Maguire, last year wrote an article called Girls on Film in which she recalled some of the attitudes of children in the writing workshops she facilitates. Emily talks about one of her eight-year-old students – a girl – who wrote a story about a fierce but heroic pirate called Jessica. ‘Pirates aren’t girls!’ one of her classmates protested, and several others agreed.
‘What about Anamaria in Pirates of the Caribbean,’ the writer shot back. ‘She’s not a main one,’ came the reply. ‘The main pirates are all boys.’
The main pirates are all boys, Emily writes. So are the main robots, monsters, bugs, soldiers, toys, cars, trains, rats and lions.
You’re allowed to include a girl in your motley group of ragtag heroes – but she’ll never be one of the main ones.
One of my favourite indicators for gender bias in the study of films is the Bechdel test. Named after Alison Bechdel, the wonderful cartoonist and author of cult classic Dykes to Watch Out For, the test is applied to a piece of pop culture and has to answer yes to the following three questions in order to pass.
When you apply the test, even to your favourite films, films you would swear blind were progressive and feminist and nuanced, it’s amazing how many fail. One of the most lucrative franchises of the past decade, Harry Potter, dismally fails the Bechdel test. Does this mean that we need to strike Potter off the reading list, do away with him in a book burning frenzy, lead a feminist charge against him? Of course not. It’s a wonderful tale about good versus evil, morality, friendship and the quest to try and do what is right rather than what is easy. But because it features an eponymous hero who is male – and this is key – there would never have been any question of its universal appeal.
Harry Potter can be read by all people, because his gender is irrelevant. He can tell a universal tale, because the tales of men are seen to be universally interesting. Unlike stories about women, you don’t need to have any kind of special qualification to read about men. You don’t need any niche experience, or interest in the peripheral affairs of some strange subset of humans whose stories would probably hold very little interest for you given you don’t have their weird genetic makeup.
If Rowling – an author who abbreviated her name in part to remove the stigma of connecting the idea of femaleness to a book that was supposed to be for everyone – had written a book about Harriet Potter, a witch who saved the world, would it have had anywhere near as much universal appeal?
Of course not. Everyone knows that the main pirates are all boys.
Of the 12 films to win Academy Awards for Best Picture since 2000, only two pass the Bechdel Test. Our culture is so little interested in women’s participation that we fail to see the problem with rewarding art about the breadth and depth of the human experience that doesn’t even feature them.
When Jennifer Kessler, founder of the website The Hathor Legacy, a discussion of women in print and film, wrote the following about studying script writing at UCLA:
‘My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, my lecturers explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”’
You might argue that this is oversensitivity on mine and Kessler’s part, that we’re trying to see things that aren’t there.
Well, we’re certainly expecting little kids to see things that aren’t there to save us from having to show them. In 2011, Disney Pixar released a movie about a girl trapped in a tower for 18 years with only 70 feet of golden hair to keep her company. Everyone knows this story. Everyone knows that it’s called Rapunzel. But Disney Pixar announced early on that it would be changing the title of the story to the less female-centric Tangled. Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation Studios, said, ‘We did not want to be put in a box. Some people might assume it’s a fairytale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.’
Equality is perceived as a loss.
What Catmull’s saying here is that if you make people think it’s a movie about a girl, they’ll think it’s a movie only FOR girls. Because why would boys be interested in watching a story that has nothing to do with them? The marketing campaign for Tangled emphasised the role of the male lead as sharing the spotlight with Rapunzel.
In their research, the Institute found that films with more than one woman working in a position of director of resulted featured significantly more women in speaking roles than films with a heavy male production quota. But of the 13 senior crew working on Tangled – the directors, the writers, the producers, the music composer and the film editor – only one was a woman, Aimee Scribner, an associate producer. And consider this: Tangled, one of the few films across any target bracket whose protagonist was a girl (in 2011, women accounted for only 11% of lead protagonists in mainstream cinema, DOWN 5% from a decade earlier) also features 35 other speaking roles. Of those total 36 speaking roles, only 12 are female. Of the ten speaking roles with actual names, only two are female.
And Disney was so concerned that this film would appear too female-centric that they not only changed the title, but repackaged the marketing to assure boys that there would be something in it for them.
When you are shown repeatedly that you are only worth taking up a certain amount of space in the cultural dialogue, you’ll start to believe that you have no right to ask for more. To have real equality, we need to be equally represented. Our opinions need to be thought of as equally important. Our expertise needs to be equally sought out as worthy and meaningful.
Equality? Hardly. Everyone knows that all the main pirates are boys. And equality is perceived as a loss.
In this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox, From Prim to Poledance, Michelle Smith will look at girls, sex and popular culture. Take your lunch break at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, from 12.45pm to 1.15pm.
In the tradition of the Ryan Gosling ‘Hey Girl’ meme, lovestruck conservative ladies have started a tribute Tumblr dedicated to blue-eyed Catholic boy Paul Ryan, aka the Republican vice-presidential candidate. No matter which side of the political divide you fall on, you have to admit it’s pretty funny.
In last night’s event, we asked, Has America Finally Gone Mad? Here’s some evidence that it has – and that we’re actually pretty lucky to have our compulsory voting system, which makes it tough to edge anyone out of the process, with suspicious loopholes like the one Sarah Silverman points out (in typically hilarious style) in the below video. (Language warning applies.)
It seems that laws in some states require voter ID with a photograph and an address (like a driver’s license) before someone can vote. Student IDs, veteran cards and senior cards are often ineligible – though gun licenses are perfectly valid. (Hence, the argument for getting Nana a gun.)
To mark the release of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, Brainpickings has republished her ten rules of writing. There are some gems in there, including this one:
Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page
The Philippines has a population of 92 million people but fewer than 700 public libraries. And despite a 1994 act pledging ‘reading centres around the country’, books are a luxury few can afford. Enter 60-year-old Guanlao, who operates a ‘no rules’ library out of his Manila home. Eager readers can borrow or keep the books from his collection of thousands, which ranges from crime paperbacks to technical manuals and fashion magazines. Guanlao takes books into other neighbourhoods on a specially adapted bike and has helped friends set up similar schemes in ten other neighbourhoods.
The new film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, by UK filmmaker Andrea Arnold, has cast black actor James Howson in the role of ultimate romantic hero Heathcliff, described in the book as ‘a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect’. This is clearly not a departure from the 1847 novel, though the casting is a departure from previous film versions, where Heathcliff has been played by actors like Ralph Fiennes and Laurence Olivier. Arnold says, ‘I think it’s very clear that he wasn’t white. I think his difference was certainly very important in my story and very important in the book.’
Here’s a novel literary take on the American elections – Martin Amis talks to Daily Beast TV about the Republican National Convention.
‘Conventions have been the scenes of incredible dramas and power grabs, blocks and manoeuvrings,’ he said. ‘But now they’re cosmetic events. An infomercial – that’s what they’re there for.’
Of course, they can also deliver high theatre, when things go wrong – as with Clint Eastwood’s chair speech.
Amis mused about the lost opportunity of Condoleeza Rice running as vice-president, rather than Mitt Romney’s actual choice of Tea Party candidate Paul Ryan.
‘She got the biggest welcome there,’ he said, ruminating that Romney-Rice would have been ‘a terrifying ticket for a Democrat’, as Rice would have ticked three important boxes: ‘women, colour and foreign policy’.
Amis was scathing about the language ‘of rich people as job creators’ that he heard on the convention stage.
‘They want to be honoured, they want to be revered, they want a kind of public recognition, when in fact their reputation has never been lower.’
‘After they socialised the debt that accrued during that period of incredible greed, and it fell to every American family to pay back that debt, you’d think that would create humility.’
He sums up the Republican message as follows:
Obama might or might not have inherited a difficult situation (and Democrats, at least, will remember George W. Bush’s historic warning in 2008: ‘This sucker could go down’); but he hasn’t fixed it, so let’s try Romney, who’s a businessman, not a socialist.
He is similarly sceptical (to put it mildly) about the wisdom or effectiveness of the Republicans’ leading policy prescription of tax cuts, particularly for the rich – and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s stirring, but error-riddled, convention speech (‘very largely a pack of lies’).
Henry James once said that America is more like a world than a country. And for the last 70 years, the world, the globe, has been shaped by the example, and the gravitational force, of the American idea.
‘America shapes the world,’ he concludes in the Daily Beast video. ‘It would be nice if the world could vote.’
It’s pretty obvious who Amis thinks the world would choose.
The Wheeler Centre’s AMERICA events series concludes this week.
Join us tomorrow night, Tuesday 25 September, at 6.30pm for our Intelligence Squared Debate, Western Civilisation is in Terminal Decline.
On Friday night, we’ll talk elections with the Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, a former speechwriter for ex-president Jimmy Carter.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is negotiating a major campaign obstacle, after a secret video was released of his candid remarks to a donor gathering, who he told that it’s not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who vote for Obama. The Obama camp is already finding all kinds of ways to use this slip-up against him, including with this clever graphic.
This week at the Wheeler Centre, we talked about our love of American television as part of our ongoing AMERICA series. For those of you who share that love, here’s a little treat for you – a sneak peek at Lena Dunham’s Girls Season 2 (which will premiere in 2013).
The search for ‘authentic’ Mexican food may seem like a new fad, localised in the hipster enclaves of Brunswick and St Kilda – but in fact, it’s been going on for centuries. While people have been eating corn tortillas wrapped around meat or beans for more than a millennium, the idea of ‘tacos’ is a twentieth century one, and it’s deeply bound up in the messy history of American colonisation and globalism.
Italian artist Federico Pietrella has found a novel use for library date stamps: he uses them in his paintings, made from thousands of densely stamped ink dates. ‘In his enormous ink artworks Pietrella always stamps the current date, thus each of his pieces contains a clear timeline of the days he worked on it, often spanning two months.’
The latest classic to get a graphic novel adaptation is the much-loved YA novel, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle. Take a peek at Hope Larson’s striking interpretation.
Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, is politely labelled ‘critically contested’. While it’s been lambasted for sexism, general awkwardness, smugness (and dodgy use of Coldplay), it also has its prominent defenders, who cite Sorkin’s idealism, intelligence and screwball romance.
The Newsroom is another in Sorkin’s series of television shows about the making of television shows. (Following Sports Night, his first foray into television, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, set behind the scenes of a comedy show much like Saturday Night Live.) There are also comparisons to The West Wing; both shows present idealised versions of institutional workplaces where, in reality, cynicism rules. And in both shows, the men at the helm prioritise ethics over politics or personal gain.
The Newsroom’s first episode opens with self-described ‘affable’ news anchor Will Macavoy (Jeff Daniels) snapping during a journalism school panel. Asked by a bright-eyed young student to explain why American is the greatest country in the world, he instead delivers a scathing, articulate rant on why it’s not. His outburst makes news headlines – and prompts his boss (Sam Waterson) to co-opt him on a crusade to make a ‘good’ news show, based on facts rather than sensationalism. The kicker? The producer hired to do the job, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is Will’s ex-girlfriend, just back from Iraq, setting the scene for a romantic sub-plot that runs parallel to the show’s workplace-based quest for truth in journalism.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum set the tone for the critical response early on. ‘Clever people take turns admiring one another,’ she wrote, criticising its talkiness as ‘artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter’. Nussbaum’s colleague, film critic David Denby, offered a defence on the New Yorker’s blog.
‘Life may not work this way in the real world,’ he wrote, ‘but Sorkin’s complaint about America is that intelligence is in a semi-apologetic retreat, while emotionalism and stupidity are on the rise – in public policy and in the media. He’s setting up an ideal.’
Sorkin himself places The Newsroom in ‘that place of wish fulfilment’.
Some have compared The Newsroom’s fictional show-within-a-show to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It’s a comparison Stewart would probably quibble with. In an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace last year, he was careful to emphasise the difference between his show and news programs. ‘I’m a comedian first. My comedy is formed by an ideological background,’ he said. ‘The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment the public has with what the news media does.’
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart goes head-to-head with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, in a thoughtful and surprisingly serious interview about modern news values.
Stewart’s job description may be distinct, but his views are not dissimilar to Sorkin’s (or the fictional Will McEvoy’s). ‘My agenda is at times liberal and at times conservative. It’s about absurdity and it’s about corruption. And that is the agenda we push. It is an anti-corruption, anti lack of authority, it’s anti contrivance and if I see what in one area more than the other, well then.’
Stewart derides the mainstream media’s bias ‘towards sensationalism and laziness’, preferring gossipy stories like the release of Sarah Palin’s emails or the Anthony Weiner sex scandal to policy-based stories on jobs, the economy or healthcare.
One of the themes of The Newsroom is the media’s false bias towards balance. The show’s news division president Charlie Skinner says, at one point, ‘the facts are the balance’.
In an interview with USA Today, Aaron Sorkin said, ‘Most of us have been raised to believe that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And that’s simply not always the case. Sometimes there are five sides to a story, but sometimes there’s just one. Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle, it lies squarely on one side or the other. But you’ll never hear the word ‘lie’ on network news when something is plainly a lie.’
Things seem to be changing, at least a little, during this election campaign, with the media seemingly rallying against the statement from Mitt Romney’s campaign that ‘We will not allow this campaign to be dictated by fact-checkers’. James Fallows is just one of those who have been collecting and celebrating examples of reporters calling out falsehoods.
Given that The Newsroom’s news stories are taken from life (with an 18 month delay) and that the show has been renewed for a second season, it will be interested to see whether this new trend makes its way onto the screen.
The Wheeler Centre will be focusing on the US over the next fortnight, with our special AMERICA events series. Guests will include the Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, a former speechwriter for ex-president Jimmy Carter.
Join us next Tuesday 25 September at 6.30pm for our Intelligence Squared Debate, Western Civilisation is in Terminal Decline.
Private remarks made by Mitt Romney to a small group of wealthy campaign donors have been made public today, in a secret video that commentators are already saying may cost him the presidency.
He candidly dismissed nearly half of the American people as ‘victims’ who don’t pay income tax and take no personal responsibility for their lives. It’s not his job, he said, to worry about those people.
Discussing the voters who support President Obama, he said:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.
Romney went on: ‘[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.’
The video was published by left-wing publication Mother Jones – and was uncovered by researcher James Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter.
‘If you’re cutting Obama ads, this is as good as it gets,’ writes Alex Altman at Time magazine. He compares the remarks to Obama’s infamous statement during the 2008 election, that rural voters ‘get bitter, they cling to their guns and religion’. This, too, was made to a private donor audience and leaked to the public.
‘Four years ago, a lot of people felt they got a glimpse of the real Obama … People will react the same way when they see this Romney tape.’
Both the Obama and Romney camps have been quick to react to the revelations from the tape – the former using it as an opportunity to emphasise their message that Romney will govern for the wealthy, the latter going into awkward damage control.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina had this to say:
It’s shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims’, entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to ‘take personal responsibility’ for their lives. It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.
The Romney campaign’s communications director, Gail Gitcho, issued the following statement:
Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy. As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney’s plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.
These revelations would never be good news, but the timing is particularly bad, coming on the heels of controversy over Romney’s definition of ‘middle-income’ families as those earning $200,000 to $250,000 per year. The latest Census Bureau report defines the median household income as just over $50,000.
It has been argued, with some validation, that Obama has implicitly made the same definition: he plans to extend tax cuts ‘for the middle class’ for households earning $250,000 and less.
‘Pass a bill extending the tax cuts for the middle class, I will sign it tomorrow,’ Obama said in July. ‘I just believe that anybody making over $250,000 should go back to the income tax rates we were paying under Bill Clinton.’
Romney wants these tax cuts to apply to everyone, regardless of income.
The Wheeler Centre will be focusing on the US over the next fortnight, with our special AMERICA events series. Guests will include the Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows, a former speechwriter for ex-president Jimmy Carter.
Join us next Tuesday 25 September at 6.30pm for our Intelligence Squared Debate, Western Civilisation is in Terminal Decline.
A new book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, gives a fascinating peek at how famous writers were packaged and pitched to the reading public – before they were famous.
And on the topic of writerly nostalgia, we stumbled on this deliciously gossipy, luxuriously long article from New York magazine on the links and friendships between American writers like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and David Foster Wallace before they were famous. There’s some great writing and little-known facts in here.
Did you know David Foster Wallace had Mary Karr’s name tattooed on his arm and once threw a coffee table at her? Or that the first time Jonathan Franzen heard from a peer was when DFW wrote to praise his first novel? ‘I was desperate for friends,’ Franzen later recalled.
New research shows that ‘fearless dominance associated with psychopathy’ could be an important predictor of how well a president performs. The analysis drew on personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush.
‘Fearless dominance, linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness, correlates with better-rated presidential performance for leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional relations,’ concluded lead author Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.
In the Mad Men-era, women at Newsweek were told that ‘women don’t write here’, even though they had been through the same college educations as their male colleagues. Women like Nora Ephron and Susan Brownmiller escaped to more welcoming environments. But in 1970, 46 women sued for gender discrimination, in the first lawsuit of its kind.
When the rest of us saw that guys who graduated from the same schools without any professional experience got hired as reporters and writers over us, that’s when we decided to do something. But we were so insecure and so intimidated about trying out as writers that we asked a few guys to teach a writing course for women.
Times changed, of course. Next Thursday, Julia Baird, former deputy editor of Newsweek, will be at the Wheeler Centre to talk about media and politics in America, with Richard Fidler, Siobhan Heanue and chair Sophie Black.
Are you polishing off a story, ready to send out to magazines and journals? Well, if you are, take a look at this Indiana Review article – which has been doing the rounds of the local literary internet this week – first. Does it fit one of the three categories that make it unlikely to get past the first hurdle?
They are: ‘The Sad Garage Sale’ (Carver already did this one, better than you’re likely to), stories of epiphanies around a sick bed, and ‘Scholars Misbehaving’ (unless you’re Michael Chabon writing The Wonder Boys).
This month, our AMERICA series features a whole host of great events focusing on the US, just as the world watches the ailing superpower as it heads into a presidential election. This week, we collect some of our favourite links and articles from around the internet on America.
Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang and Moneyball, is one of the most compulsively readable non-fiction writers working today; he writes with a blend of intelligence, reflection and sheer style. In the current issue of Vanity Fair (where he is contributing editor), he has published a profile of Obama based on months of interviews and intimate access.
‘Starting in January (and continuing through mid-August), he was allowed to sit up front with the president on Air Force One and ride with him in the presidential limousine. Lewis joined Obama on visits to foreign countries and several states, toured the White House residence with him, and even played basketball with him in one of his regular, highly competitive pickup games.’ Here’s a taste.
This month, we’re excited to be hosting an event where our guests will be geeking out on their love of American TV. One of the best TV programmes of recent years is Breaking Bad, a series that is coming to a definitive close next year. The last episode of this year’s run aired in the US last week, prompting a slew of interviews with creator Vince Gilligan.
Don’t read those interviews if you haven’t watched recent episodes (major spoiler alert), but if you know nothing about the series and are curious to know more, this Guardian profile is a great introduction to this series about an ordinary high school teacher who starts cooking meth after being diagnosed with cancer, then transforms, in the words of Vince Gilligan, ‘from Mr Chips into Scarface’. And if you’re interested in the science of the show, take a look at this interview with chemistry professor Donna Nelson, the show’s leading ‘meth consultant’.
An organisation called Patriot Update has created an anti-Obama You Tube video starring a six-year-old. The young boy gives ten reasons not to vote for Obama, including that he ‘wants to take guns away from good guys’, ‘doesn’t want Americans to drill for oil or mine for coal’, and ‘takes money from people who work hard and gives it to people who don’t work at all’.
Political junkies will want to book tickets fast to hear James Fallows, the Atlantic’s national correspondent (and former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter when he was president) give his take on the US election. He’s currently in the thick of covering it for the Atlantic, with many of his pieces appearing online.
Recently, he’s written about how the mainstream press is adjusting to ‘the realities of post-truth politics’. This includes calling out political parties for deliberately misrepresenting what their opponents have said – taking comments out of context – in order to discredit them. He’s also welcomed the way Paul Ryan’s factually shaky convention speech was reported. ‘They’re not simply quoting “critics” about things Ryan made up. They are outright saying that he is telling lies.’
Slate reports that for the first time, the Democrats are seeing gay rights as a potential political vote winner during a presidential election. More than a dozen speakers mentioned LGBT equality during the Democratic National Convention, including Michelle Obama, who said, ‘If proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.’
Meanwhile, here in Australia, commentators like Michelle Grattan are saying that Julia Gillard did the right thing in boycotting the national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby, where she was to be a guest speaker, following Jim Wallace’s comparisons of the ‘health risks’ of a ‘gay lifestyle’ to smoking.
Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood gave a memorable performance at the Republican convention last Thursday. But he was thoroughly upstaged by his co-star: an empty chair.
Eastwood spoke to the chair – and an imaginary Obama – for much of his speech. ‘Obama’ seemed in a cantankerous mood: he told Eastwood to shut up more than once and, it seems, asked him to tell Mitt Romney to perform sexual acts on himself.
Eastwood’s message (when not bantering with the chair) was that, with 23 million people unemployed, ‘possibly it may be time for someone else to come along and solve the problem’. Bizarrely, he suggested that lawyers shouldn’t be presidents. ‘It’s time for maybe a businessman.’ Perhaps he forgot that Romney has a law degree.
‘Politicians are employees of ours,’ he said. ‘When somebody does not do the job, we’ve got to let them go.’
The internet has exploded in response to the speech: #eastwooding has become a trending topic on Twitter, with thousands tweeting photos of themselves with (or berating) empty chairs. Even Obama himself got in on the action, tweeting a photo of himself in a chair with ‘This seat’s taken’.
Obama was unfussed by Eastwood’s speech; he says he’s still a fan. ‘He is a great actor, and an even better director.’ Asked if he was offended, he said, ‘One thing about being president or running for president – if you’re easily offended, you should probably choose another profession.’
It’s fair to say that while the Romney campaign was delighted to have the support and endorsement of such an icon (one who was a politician himself – Eastwood was mayor of Carmel, California for two years) – it didn’t quite work out as they’d hoped. But while the star’s performance met with mostly ridicule and amusement, it won’t hurt people’s perceptions of Romney and it’s unlikely to hurt him.
The big misstep of Eastwood’s chair act is the way it dominated coverage of the Republican convention and completely overshadowed Romney’s speech.
The most retweeted tweet of the campaign was Obama’s ‘This chair’s taken’, at 51,400 times. Romney’s top tweet of the convention was, ‘Our economy runs on freedom, not government. It’s time we put our faith back in the American people’, retweeted about about 4,800 times.
Left-wing comedian Bill Maher, a financial supporter of Obama, gave props to Eastwood for his performance. ‘As a performer, as a stand-up comedian for 30 years who knows how hard it is to get laughs, excuse me, he went up there … without a net, on a tightrope. There was no teleprompter. He did a bit with just an empty chair and killed,’ he said. ‘He committed to it, it was consistent and it worked.’
Roger Ebert, long-time film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, also defended Eastwood, in a fascinating column. ‘It takes brass balls to ad-lib for 12 minutes in front of 30 million people on live TV, just working with yourself and an empty chair.’
After watching the Eastwood speech several times, I believe that what we saw was a combination of two speeches: (1) Clint delivering what was intended as ironic wit, and (2) his half-hearted attempt to recycle some of the “talking points” we now know the GOP staff pumped him with backstage. Speech One was a miscalculation and Speech Two contained some of the right words floating in a muddled void.
At the end of the speech, Eastwood says, Okay, you want to make my day? in an offhand manner, teasing the crowd with his famous punchline. ‘I’ll start it, you finish it,’ he says. ‘Go ahead …’
And they chant, as one, MAKE MY DAY.
Clint Eastwood has made a lot of people’s day recently. But, just possibly, he hasn’t had the best couple of days himself. He’s not giving interviews and has said that the next interview he gives will be about his forthcoming film – that, and nothing else.
This week’s Friday High Five brings together a selection of our favourite recent links and stories from around the internet.
This spectacular political interview from The 7.30 Report has been doing the rounds of social media over the past day or so, generating much discussion of the state of political journalism in this country – and why we don’t more often see interviews like this, that rigorously hold our leaders to account. Beautifully done, right from Leigh’s opening salvo: ‘ You were pretty loose with the truth today, weren’t you, when you said that BHP’s decision to put the Olympic Dam project on hold was partly due to the Federal Government’s new taxes?’
The 80s Brat Pack seems to be moving into a new realm: publishing. Molly Ringwald, teen muse for John Hughes and star of iconic movies like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, has just published her first work of fiction, When it Happens to You, a collection of interlinked short stories. She says her favourite thing to do is write characters – it’s apparently not all that different to inhabiting characters as an actor. And her Pretty in Pink co-star Andrew McCarthy has released a travel memoir this month, Cold Feat. An extract is published in the New York Times.
Molly Ringwald talking books, Twitter and John Hughes on Daily Beast TV
National Geographic has a terrific (and terrifying) article on the links between wild weather and global warming that outlines what’s happening and why – and what we can expect as the century bears on. ‘By the end of the century the average world temperature could rise anywhere from three to eight degrees Fahrenheit—depending in part on how much carbon we emit between now and then. Scientists expect the weather to change substantially.’
Amazon has just introduced a heat map of the political books sold in the US. You can click on a state and find out which way its political book sales are leaning – red (Republican) or blue (Democrat). And the reds are winning, even in ‘reliably blue’ states like California. Only six states are selling more liberal than conservative titles.
Publishing industry analyst Michael Norris told Wired that this may be as much about the publishing industry as it is about politics. ‘I can tell you that there are conservative imprints and conservative publishers that are just brilliant at figuring out what kind of books their audience wants to read.’
Rape has been one of the most discussed subjects in the western world this week, with front-page news made by debates around the Assange case (and whether the sex offences he’s being extradited to Sweden to answer charges of constitute ‘real’ rape) and the bizarre claim by Republican senator Todd Akin that in cases of ‘legitimate rape’ the female body mysteriously acts to prevent pregnancy.
On the tentative plus side, there’s obviously a lot of ignorance out there that’s been flushed to the surface, offering opportunities for logical and sympathetic discussions of what constitutes rape and how it impacts on victims. On Salon, a rape victim who got pregnant writes about her experience and her abortion, putting Akin’s comments in horrific real-life context. Karen Pickering has a terrific article on ABC’s The Drum about how rape is being used as a tool for political crusades. Stephanie Convery writes on Overland about rape, Julian Assange and the left-wing response:
‘I do not think it is inconsistent to hold the view that these particular charges in this particular circumstance may well stem from harmful instances of sexual assault deserving of some kind of justice, while simultaneously holding the position that the extradition orders should be fought.’
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