Thursday, May 5, 2011

Recent observations in The Age

Some politics- just a change- early May 2011.

I met somebody new over the weekend and had a look at his blog which was fairly political- with Wikileaks, that sort of thing. It got me thinking that politics is something I don’t touch on much, but I find it fascinating and it does take up a lot of my thinking time. I felt some political urges emerge after reading the paper on the way home on the bus last night, and in bed later.

Obviously the main news of the day was the apparent killing of Osama Bin Laden. It is almost ten years that his name became a household word after September 11, 2001. I was teaching in a crappy school in Mansfield UK near Nottingham, last lesson, when the twin towers were smashed into. This time, teaching again, just before last lesson when one of the students strolled into the room and let me know.

I had a vague feeling about it all afterwards. Neither jubilant or sad, or moved in any way, just vague and uncertain. The only strong reaction I did experience shortly afterwards was when I saw footage of the excited crowds, huge grins on their faces, pumping their arms, celebrating like America had won the World Cup, or it was suddenly discovered that Elvis was alive after all. For some reason the excessive cheering made me feel sick. Was it because the crowd feels suddenly safer now? Or was it because they were sucking in a feeling of revenge? Or was it just mob delirium? We all know how horrible a mob of any kind is.

Next I read an article by Robert Manne that offered an overview of the way Federal politics is going, and how much things have become worse over the last decade and a half, after the election for the first time of John Howard. Worse, in the sense that as a nation we are less generous, more suspicious of ‘outsiders.’ Initially we rejected the notion of ‘White Australia’ and the 1970’s was full of hope with new arrivals coming to Australia and helpfully bringing with them their own exotic culture. Some excerpts from his article:

“In the quarter century between the election of Gough Whitlam and the fall of Paul Keating, Australia experienced a genuine cultural revolution where profound questions about the nation were asked and apparently solid values overturned.

In part, this revolution was general. Throughout the West, millennial certainties concerning race and gender, authority and sexuality, crumbled. But in part the revolution was particular, coloured by the histories of each country where its impact was felt.

In Australia, the revolution focused especially on questions of ethnicity and race. For the first time, at least in large numbers, Australians grasped the unspeakable tragedy visited upon the original inhabitants of the continent; the ugly racism implicit in the white Australia policy; and the arrogance that required postwar European immigrants to abandon their cultures if they wished to be regarded as truly Australian. As a consequence of this revolution, Australia became involved in a process of trying to reinvent itself.

In place of what W. E. H. Stanner had called ''the great Australian silence'' on the question of the Aboriginal tragedy, all Australian governments in that quarter century sought a future based on reconciliation and indigenous self-determination. In place of the white Australia policy, they committed themselves to a policy of racially non-discriminatory immigration. In place of the idea of the migrant assimilation to the Australian cultural norm, they sought to refashion the relation between ''Australians'' and those of ''ethnic'' origin according to the ideas of multiculturalism.

What was interesting was that the era of probing self-criticism was associated not with pessimism and paralysis but with optimism and creativity. During this quarter century a distinctive Australian style emerged in the popular arts - exuberant, quirky, vibrant, and self-consciously innocent and naive.”

Then when Howard was elected, the mood for some of us turned sour and culturally we spiralled backwards:

“From the mid-1990s, the period of reinvention and self-criticism began to falter.

The deep hope for reconciliation was gradually abandoned. The always utopian ideal of Aboriginal self-determination was replaced in the public mind by the all too obvious dystopian reality of dysfunctional remote Aboriginal communities.

The critique of the racism implicit in the idea of white Australia was replaced by an increasing hysteria about the supposed threat to border security posed by the arrival of mainly Muslim refugees by boat from central Asia and the Middle East.

The belief that relations between the old Australian population and migrants should be governed by the ideal of multiculturalism was threatened by a growing conviction that one or other of the religious-ethnic groups - ''Asians'' first, then after Tampa and September 11, ''Muslims'' - posed a threat to national cohesion. Because of the influence of a crass new cohort of right-wing commentators - Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen - the cultural struggle against old patterns of racism was reinterpreted as the arrogant attempt of self-appointed thought police to impose their elitist values on the commonsense virtues of ordinary people.

The greatest enemy of Australian self-criticism and reinvention was the man elected PM in 1996. John Howard was disdainful of what he called the perpetual symposium on national identity. During his prime ministership, self-criticism gradually became confused with un-Australian self-hatred.

Howard sought to reduce the shame of the indigenous dispossession to a blemish on the otherwise glorious pages of Australian history. Under his influence, Australians were encouraged to take pride in the success of the post war migration program but to resist the divisive ideology of multiculturalism. Under his influence, the national imagination was militarised, with Gallipoli increasingly unchallengeable as Australia's sacred soil.

Yet the political and cultural complacency that gradually overtook the nation was more insidious than this. Having demonstrated their political and moral superiority in their defeat of the totalitarian Soviet state, the United States and some of its closest anglophone allies, including Australia, managed to convince themselves that they could do no serious political and moral wrong.

The most striking instance of this conviction came in the case of the invasion of Iraq. Although Iraq was invaded against the will of the UN Security Council; although the invasion was justified on the basis of fraudulent intelligence and immediately plunged Iraq into years of astonishing chaos in which more than 100,000 civilians were killed and millions more forced to flee their homes - the three leaders who had mounted the invasion were handsomely voted back to power in the following elections. Howard increased his 2001 majority in the election of 2004. For his role in the illegal and humanly catastrophic invasion of Iraq, there was no price to pay."

Then came great new hope with the election of the Rudd government, and it was soon discovered that he took on far too much, all at once, making wild promises, but at the same time encouraging us to cling to this hope that things will be better, that the image of Australia, and the will to be better will improve much to the relief of us all.

"Despite the early hopes the arrival of the Rudd government excited and its one transcendental moment - the apology to the stolen generations - what was most instructive about its 2½ years of office was how little it was able to transform the spirit of the political culture of conservative populism it inherited. By early 2010 the Rudd government lost its way in hopeless policy confusion, in particular on issues that had assumed symbolic resonance during the Howard years, such as asylum seeker policy and climate change.

The knife-edge election of 2010 may eventually be seen to be one of Australia's more important. What it revealed was that in the immediate future at least there is simply no prospect of Labor returning to power without an overwhelming proportion of Greens preferences. What it also revealed was that as long as the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate there is no prospect of Labor governing effectively without a legislative program making concessions on issues of greatest significance to the Greens.

This is an inherently unstable political situation. A battle for the future of Australia - on one side Labor and the Greens, the partners of a tense, forced marriage; on the other an increasingly strident populist conservative Coalition under the leadership of Tony Abbott - will be fought out over the next two years.

The issues of the battle will most likely include not only the management of the economy but also Muslims and multiculturalism, asylum seeker policy, the referendum to acknowledge indigenous Australians in the constitution and, above all else, climate change and the carbon tax."

His article concludes with the grimmest thought of all:

"Unless the mood of national complacency is successfully challenged, the victor in this battle seems certain to be Tony Abbott."

After reading Manne’s article and feeling somewhat cheered that I haven’t been alone with these thoughts, I found another article in the same edition that gladdened my heart further. Sally Tonkin writes about an organisation called St Kilda Gatehouse that we can all be thankful for. It recognises, unlike many people in society, that street sex workers are real people, with real needs and emotions, too.

"Think, if you will, of the simple joys. Holding someone you love. Being held. A safe place to call home. Space to think, to just exist calmly. A feeling that you matter, that you somehow count for something. Confidence that tomorrow will probably be a pleasure, too. Security.

So many of us have this. For most, it's the result of hard work and, maybe, some good luck. We're aware it is impermanent and under constant threat from malevolent fortune. So we protect it with a primal passion. We don't take it for granted.

Now, imagine a life bereft of such universal, precious things. Imagine a life of pain, of struggle, of abuse in all its forms, and where the smile of a stranger is as rare as an angel. And imagine having arrived at such a destination without having bought a ticket.

Some of the most marginalised people in our community are also some of our most misunderstood. Street sex workers are not standing on those corners because they want to be there. They are not weak - on the contrary. Yes, some have made mistakes. Many of us do. Many teeter on the edge, but have the support to pull back, to be given that second go.

The vast majority of women working on the street are there through misfortune, mongrel circumstance. They are people deserving some sympathy and much help. Yet so often they receive malice and worse.

''A lot of people maybe don't ask the questions behind why they are there on the street corner. But going by how we can see how some of them are treated, we can assume that they are viewed as, I guess, scum - that would be the word that comes to mind - of very low worth, on a low rung in our society. They are abused by both the people who buy their services and also by general society.

''People don't understand that they are wives and sisters and someone's friend. I guess people aren't seeing the human side of who these women are. They see the issue. Some people just see the outcome of street sex work - the nuisance, the noise, and the issues that go along with it.''

The St Kilda Gatehouse, then, is a safe haven for these women to go to when they need support and services. And the support needed is widespread and confronting as you can imagine- childhood sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness, a lack of care and support throughout childhood, addicted parents, shattered homes, the awful scourge of heroin:

''Addiction plays a huge role. Many of the women we see have some common paths that they follow into street sex work. Many came from abusive homes, didn't have the traditional social supports that a lot of us have - family, friends - and things just unravelled in their lives.

Gatehouse has volunteers and donors. ''The way that we build a relationship with the women is through being there for them in their needs, whether it's crisis care or just everyday things. So, food, clothes, jewellery, cosmetics. Being able to have those things means that they come in and they get to know us and we build up a relationship with them. All those items are donated. So, [if you are] cleaning out your wardrobe, half-used lipstick, whatever, we'll take it.''

There's a barbecue every Monday night, with food provided by SecondBite and FareShare. It often becomes a bit of a brainstorming session. One Monday night, the idea of a netball team emerged. A melange of sex workers and volunteers and friends and Gatehouse staff, the team is set for its third season in the local league.

''No one's introduced as a volunteer or a sex worker, we're just all one; you're a wing attack or a goal shooter. We're not this special netball team. We are actually playing in a legit competition. It was pretty scary to put it out there for all of us. We had no idea how this was going to go. But it's been wonderful.''

Isn’t it great that places like this exist? And I’m glad I came across in the back pages of The Age travelling home last week.

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