Friday, December 07, 2012

Bully For Me

Attack (2010) Kodakotype by Pants

I thought I'd end on a real downer this year - everyone is far too cheerful in December. Right now I'm enjoying a blissful beach holiday but my year, my real year that is, was not what you'd call textbook marvellous. Below I publish in full an essay chronicling my real-life experience. It is all-too-common in the world of work. 

That's So Pants will be back in 2013. 

Bully For Me
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffster sidekick Xander asks, ‘How? What? How?’ when confronted with yet another routine implausibility occasioned by their unfortunate luck in living over a Hellmouth. Token adult Giles responds, ‘three excellent questions.’ And then they run. Sometimes running is the right thing to do.

For thirteen awful months, it appeared I too had moved to a pretty location concealing a Hellmouth. I was the victim of workplace bullying – not something I really expected at the age of 57 and entering into a job I thought of as a gateway to retirement. I’d moved from the thick-of-it atmosphere of community development work in some of the most troubled and disadvantaged parts of Central London to an area of country Victoria renowned for its natural beauty, laidback lifestyle and decided absence of burnt-out cars, crack houses and crumbling council estates.

Recently, the Hellmouth rose up and spat me out again, without warning or ceremony. I was ‘made redundant’, spuriously. I didn’t fight it – I didn’t want to take the chance that I’d win. I walked. No, I ran.

Now that the dust has ceased to swirl, I’m left to expand upon and ponder Xander’s three excellent questions. How did this happen? What exactly did happen? How do I make sense of it in a context which appears to make no sense? I keep thinking about the definition of a Hellmouth - ‘from beneath you, it devours.’

Let’s start with the ‘what’. I moved from the Olympic borough of Hackney, East London, which had been my home for twenty-five or so years to country Victoria in 2008. It was mostly because of the Olympics that I chose to return to the birth-mother country. My flat was opposite the Olympic site. It was a good time to sell for all the obvious reasons.

I had a few years of faffing around in the blogosphere, making bits of art and minding my own business when, quite out of the blue, a job came up in our local council which was a perfect match for my curriculum vitae. 

Right off I’ll admit a few things about myself. I hadn’t worked for three years and I was a bit feral. I’ve always been very self-contained and never had much patience with small talk. I was to learn that there is a very narrow definition of what a woman, especially an older woman, can be in some workplaces. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit bohemian but you must signify this by dressing in funky shoes and colourful scarves. I’ve never been one for conforming to stereotypes. That I was not easily categorised did not work in my favour.

For the first time in my working life, it was made obvious to me that I was, well, old. I didn’t connect particularly with anyone but that didn’t bother me. I was perfectly capable of enduring people prattling on about their children/grandchildren/dogs/bicycles for at least a couple of minutes a day and I endeavoured to do so cheerily. I’ve never relied on work to provide me with intellectual nourishment, although it’s always nice if you end up sharing an office with someone who’s got a PhD in Linguistics, as happened on my last job.

My boss and I were at loggerheads from the beginning. He was a standover man, with no capacity for restraint. It quickly became apparent that I was working in a place where rules of conduct were applied sporadically. If you were favoured, you could pretty much do as you pleased. Like many bullies, he was skilled at manipulation and could be charming when it suited. He was also like one of those cops who know where and how to hit so that the bruises don’t show. He was blessed with a ready patter and weak senior managers who were more than willing to gloss over any murky methods as long as they were delivered results.

The converse was also true. If they didn’t like you, they could and would do whatever it took to get rid of you. I won’t go into specific details. Suffice to say that all the standard tactics were deployed in my case. I received threats of dismissal that weren’t lawful. I was isolated and information that I needed to do my job was withheld from me. I was widely disparaged by my boss who ridiculed my ideas and practices at every opportunity, despite my many years of experience in my field. I was undermined at every turn. And, I was constantly accused of being strange and suicidal – that’s surprisingly common. I may be ‘strange’ by the narrow conventions of country Victoria, but I’m certainly not suicidal, even after this ordeal.

You’ll simply have to believe me on all this – I request an extension of trust from you, the reader. Many bullying victims must ask this of their fellow citizens as bullying is notoriously difficult to prove. Skilled bullies with willing allies can easily engineer a situation that leaves the victim without the backup of a witness. People can and will deny that things were said, if they are scared or if it serves their own interests to do so.

I don’t want to get all caught up in the relativism of degree. How bad was the bullying? How bad were the injuries? We either believe bullying of any kind is wrong or we don’t. Any concept of acceptable levels of bullying is vulnerable to exploitation. And yet, our bullying laws are focused on measuring actions and impact by increment. Employers have a duty of care to employees to protect each and every one from mistreatment. My experience is that, when an incidence of bullying occurs, the employer flips into damage-limitation mode and completely denies it’s happening.

In July 2012, The Federal Government launched an inquiry into workplace bullying with public hearings taking place in Melbourne. Hundreds of people made submissions about their personal experiences. Many believe that stronger laws are required. In Victoria we have ‘Brodie’s Law’, named for Brodie Panlock, a teenager who committed suicide in 2006 after being relentlessly terrorised at work in a Melbourne café. A convicted bully can receive a jail sentence of up to ten years, apparently. But no one has even been charged under this law.

My union paid for me to see a top Melbourne compensation lawyer. It turns out that the law is only of use to you if you are severely injured either mentally or physically and that this injury is not connected in any way to a pre-existing condition. The only other recourse through the law is to prove that you have been sexually harassed.

This explains the attempt to pin the ‘suicidal’ label on me. If an injury could be proven, my employer would need to create the impression that I had arrived damaged, so it set about meticulously building up a documentary picture of me as a dangerous oddball.

Another assumption is that victims won’t make a complaint against a bully for fear of being further humiliated and victimised. Having done it, I can tell you that this is exactly what happens.  Once I had made a complaint, I was put into a bogus ‘performance monitoring’ situation with a set of criteria that might have been written by Dr Phil. I was to demonstrate ‘active listening’ skills and I was not permitted to disagree with anyone. I was to ‘avoid making comments of a personal nature that might be perceived as reflecting a lack of self-confidence or motivation.’ Might be perceived? So, no more quoting Dorothy Parker, then.

I had to look up ‘active listening’. According to our Wiki friends, it is, ‘a communications technique that requires the listener to feed back what he hears to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what he has heard.’ What am I, a nine-year-old? Thanks a lot Dr Phil. Forgive me but I think even pre-schoolers are allowed to disagree with teacher these days.

The union complained. How were these criteria, er, measurable, exactly? The complaint was ignored. The performance monitoring stayed in place for the rest of my time there but it was never interactive. If I was being monitored against these criteria, the results were never shared with me. That wasn’t really the point. It was another pre-emptive strategy. You say you’ve been bullied and your employer says you need disciplined performance management. I should point out here that I was never once disciplined. If I wasn’t doing my job properly, my employer should have either sacked me or mentored me. It chose to do neither.

Research by the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission suggests that somewhere between $6 billion and $36 billion is squandered in lost productivity through workplace bullying every year. That there is such disparity in this estimated range is telling. No one really knows how widespread bullying is in our workplaces and just how badly it affects those directly and indirectly involved.

I can tell you something about my own situation. I found myself uncharacteristically ineffective at work. I’d had a fifteen-year work history with barely a sick day. In this job, I had nearly five weeks off work with stress. After I’d made the bullying complaint, I was dragged from process to process without result or even the sense that there was anything vaguely human about it. I became, to all involved, a set of unpleasant tasks comprising a case.

On my doctor’s advice, I made a WorkCover claim. It was rejected by my employer’s insurance company who ordered it not to settle. I applied to the Conciliation Service. A wodge of paper the size of the Sydney Telephone Book was delivered to my door. There were pages and pages of ‘evidence’ that was simply made up. I had disclosed very little about my personal life so, to make up for this shortfall, my colleagues were invited to fabricate one for me out of what little they thought they knew. In this way I acquired an imaginary cat and a fondness for a ‘Japanese form of yoga’.

It took weeks to wade through this guff. I had to explain to the union lawyer that ‘the imaginary cat called Barney’ was in fact a fictional character that I had invented along with two others for a blog narrative I had been running regularly for six years, long before I had returned to Australia and started the job. I must have mentioned it in passing at some point and the Chinese Whisperiser had whisked it into a pathological behaviour. Fiction writing is apparently taboo in country Victoria, along with being old and uncategorisable.

A process server delivered a letter to me at home that could have gone in the post. He said sheepishly, ‘sorry, I don’t read ‘em, I just deliver ‘em.’ Clearly, he thought me some kind of criminal. It was humiliating and deliberately done to intimidate.

The Conciliation Hearing I had spent weeks preparing for was cancelled at the last minute because my employer refused to conciliate. ‘They can do that?’ I gasped incredulously. They sure can. Who’s going to stop them? This is the weakness in the system – if one can even call it that. The employer can refuse to cooperate. It’s easily enough accomplished. They simply have to brass it out until you give up, and most people will.

For a situation like this to go on for so long without anyone once having a reality check requires high-level collusion. My boss was a vicious bully and his boss was weak and clueless. That they were in cahoots isn’t surprising – they were mutually dependent. But there were many others who saw what was happening and did not speak up. And there was a whole Human Resources team who co-conspired. Some of my colleagues approached me with a belated warning that the best way to get on in the organisation was to not make a fuss over anything and to attach yourself firmly to one of the favoured mover/shakers. That was not my way. I was not working in a fried chicken franchise, I was a public servant.

My now ex-employer was exceptionally well-practised in methods that are as crass as they are clichéd. ‘Classic bullying tactics,’ said the doctor. ‘These people are notorious,’ said the union. ‘We see this all the time,’ said the lawyer. But, it keeps happening. The ‘processes’ unravel like an infinite ball of wool unless there is willingness on both sides to find a solution. When nothing gets resolved, people end up just wanting it all to go away.

To return to Xander’s final ‘how’, my question is – how is it that no one is prepared to admit that something is wrong when it so obviously is? As the saying goes, ‘the only thing required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.’ I know that most of my colleagues weren’t bad people. Some of them felt sorry enough for me to sympathise but I’m pretty sure most of them felt I should have taken some responsibility for drawing attention to myself. Have we really not managed to evolve beyond blaming the victim? Are we not adult enough for genuine openness, transparency and debate?

If you truly believe someone under your supervision to be suicidal, is the correct response to taunt that person? Brodie Panlock was taunted to her death right here in Victoria six years ago. You’d think HR people would be fairly strict about that sort of thing, yet, a Human Resources Manager and a Director were present when my boss accused me of being suicidal. How come no one thought it was wrong? If you sincerely believe an employee has hallucinated a house pet is the correct response to write it down in their personnel file and not bother broaching the subject with that person? If someone had actually had the wit to ask me, the misunderstanding could have easily been cleared up.  The blog is open for all to see.

A culture has been allowed to fester in a large public sector organisation around a couple of personality types, and this is not appropriate in a multicultural society. I was used to an environment of immense cultural diversity. I’d worked with Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zoroastrians, Rastafarians, Catholics and even the odd Anglican. I’d had colleagues who were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender as well as some who were parents and grandparents. I’d shared offices with witches and druids and people who support West Ham. It was not considered polite to take a prurient interest in what your colleagues got up to out of hours, no matter how incredulous you might have been that anyone would support West Ham.

I was aware that I had moved to what amounted to a white-bread monoculture but I certainly wasn’t expecting the cultural fascism that confronted me. It was as if I had emigrated to the 1950s. And there seems no appetite for change. Those who survive it wear their legacy like a Purple Heart. It’s like a public school ritual where, having been abused yourself, you abuse the next lot. It felt like everyone was in a coma from which they’d no desire to be woken.

As in all horror stories, the end came abruptly. Firstly, the bullying boss up and left on suspiciously short notice. I was elated. I was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I couldn’t claim a direct hit, I felt my pain hadn’t been in vain. The Hellmouth had opened and swallowed the monster. My glee was not to last. Two weeks later a letter arrived on my desk. I was to be made redundant.

You could say it was a one-all draw.

The redundancy was completely bogus, of course. My employer hadn’t even bothered to mock up a chart to explain the ‘restructure’ that had rendered me obsolete. Union guy questioned it and was told by a visibly annoyed HRbot,

‘Well, we didn’t draw a picture or anything. We’re telling you now.’ It really is that simple. Union guy had been KO’d by the power of audacity. And that is precisely why no amount of new legislation will eliminate workplace bullying. My union was struck dumb by the intractability and sheer daring of my employer and could offer no effective response. It is quite frightening when you realise that people have suspended humanity on your account.

Where cooperation ceases, hostility begins. To eliminate bullying from the workplace, employers must scrutinise with scrupulous honesty their own moral behaviour. It took a collective effort of self-delusion to sanction what happened to me and I know that these people have done the same and worse to others. My ex-employer is certainly not the only one behaving badly, but it has a reputation stretching well beyond this shire of which it should rightly be ashamed.

After 57 years, my number had come up. The bully with my name attached appeared and deprived me of my right to employment free from harassment and victimisation, and no one did anything to stop it. I was outraged but my outrage proved impotent. My protestations were about as useful as a trying to fight a vampire with a black pudding. Like the residents of Sunnydale, CA. I’ve had to get used to the prevailing order.

Xander: This is just too much. I mean, yesterday my life’s like, ‘Uh-oh, pop quiz.’ Today it’s ‘Rain of Toads.’

Willow : I know. And everyone else thinks it’s just a normal day.

All Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotes from Wikiquote.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Music - a new play *REVIEW*

Image of Programme by Pants. Cover Photography by Marcel Aucer

I don't often review plays. By the time an international production makes it to Australia, most people have already seen it, forgotten it and subsequently died. Luckily for me, several new Australian plays of exceptional quality have turned up recently in Melbourne. I've previously seen Deborah Cheetham's sublime and moving opera Pecan Summer and Tim Winton's witty and waggish Rising Water. The Arts Centre, Melbourne has been playing a blinder when it comes to supporting Australian work lately.

Now, I find I have a been the recipient of an unusual experience with great thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Ann O'Dyne. I have witnessed a preview of the 'world' premiere of Music, a new play by stalwart of Australian theatre, Barry Oakley. That's about as first-cab-off-the-rank as it gets for me.

Plays about grumpy old academics are not rare. Plays about grumpy old dying academics are not even that rare. In fact, there is another play about a grumpy old dying academic currently on in a theatre close by (Wild Surmise - a stage adaptation of Dorothy Porter's verse poem). It takes chutzpah to turn the sod of a theatrical cliché as crusty as this and find something new to say. The upside is that pulling it off makes for a thrilling entertainment.

There is one advantage to familiar plots - a wealth of available shorthand. The main business is despatched quickly. Jack, a retired lecturer in English Literature has a brain tumour. His best friend Max, a doctor, must break the news. Max is the lover of Jack's wife Margie, a pianist and teacher at the 'Conservatorium'. They decide to tell Jack he has longer to live (3 months) than he really does (3 weeks). This all happens in the first few minutes, giving us ninety minutes to explore the way Jack chooses to confront his demise. The well-meaning white lie backfires unleashing a spectacular display of ill-humour and misbehaviour. Refusing all treatment, Jack decides instead to self-medicate with music, memories, morphine and malt whisky. 

A character with terminal illness in a play is obliged to die by the end, therefore the playwright must find another way of managing suspense. This is done effectively with a series of secrets that may or may not be revealed over the course of ninety very tense minutes. The secrets and pressures and personal frailties too are
clichés. Oakley plays us like a toy piano. Jack rails tepidly against the 'dumbing down' - yes he actually does say 'dumbing down' of English Lit. and its usurper, the odious 'cultural studies'. His brief rant is entirely absent of plausible conviction. He knows we've heard this all before.

Jack's 'early retirement' due to impropriety with a student; Margie's imminent ousting from the Conservatorium because she's too old; their under-fulfilled professional lives; their joint failure to grieve adequately for a dead child and each falling into inappropriate arms because of it - clichés all but perfectly placed. We absorb these people's backstories via a few scant sketches. 

And so to the main event - Jack's decline. And what a magnificent unravelling it is. Jack is played by Richard Piper who bears a striking resemblance to the late Peter Finch. Appearing throughout in a tatty plaid dressing gown, in meltdown he appears to be channelling Howard Beale. We see a man who is suddenly aware that he hasn't ever bothered to step outside the frame of sandstone conventionality. He's lived a life of minimal effort and now it's too late to pen that major scholarly work and be the good man he always expected himself to become.

The fourth person in the drama is Jack's estranged brother, Peter. A catholic priest, he is coincidentally visiting Melbourne from Sydney to attend a conference on eschatology - the study of 'last things'. Again, Oakley makes smart work of another cliché. Lost faith is the basis of the brothers' falling out. The filial tension requires little explanation giving us plenty of opportunity to soak up the sheer muscularity of it. And this is a very physical play, despite being about people in late middle age.

Oakley chooses to punctuate each dramatic milestone with a piece of music, hence the title, and this is the spine of the play. Jack relives moments of his life through a series of musical memories. The pieces are either played by Margie on the upstage grand piano which is the centrepiece of the semi-circular performance area, or on a CD player placed downstage. Each piece of music advances the plot as it would in an opera or stage musical. More expertly wielded shorthand. As artists once used memento mori to symbolically illustrate the 'dance of death' in etchings and woodcuts, Oakley exploits the human capacity to animate the past with music. These accompany Jack's own dance of death. A sparse, cylcoramic set aids the physical flow and a few scattered accoutrements establish the social stratum - 1930s grand piano, early model CD player, piles of books and papers.

The way I've described it here, it sounds like a very complex drama, but it doesn't play that way. The shorthand is the key. We all know that baby boomers have always got to be protesting about something and never do attain that peskily out-of-reach state of personal nirvana, or manage to acquire every possible status object and are pathologically competitive, (Max and Margie have a running argument about whose forebears had the rougher time - her Viennese Jewish grandfather or his mother, widowed by the firebombing of Dresden). Boomers also don't believe they should die until they've reached at least 98 or feel the slightest obligation to grow up. And thanks for keeping all that fetishism for self-obsession alive by the way, Oprah. 

Here's a play that deals with someone coming to terms with the realisation that this is no way to live. Jack's decision to spurn any treatment is fundamentally a declaration of decency, an eleventh-hour maturing. He accepts finality, however reluctantly. Now that is radical.

I've gone on too long already I know but there's one more thing I want to say. I know I never stop blathering on about how tedious I find Australia's prolonged and utterly self-indulgent identity crisis and how it just poisons creativity but a play like this makes me realise how right I am. Australian writers are obliged to tell 'our stories'. This breaks down into even more constricting subsets. Indigenous writers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds are expected to write only about their own cultures. Hell, every time poor Peter Carey sets foot in this country someone has a go at him for writing a book set in America, where he's lived for over twenty years. No wonder he can't wait back to get back there. 

Music, (and yes I know I've just written a longish review of a play called 'Music' without mentioning any of the featured tunes - plenty of others will do that), is not an 'Australian story'. We assume it's set in Melbourne and Peter visits from Sydney but it could be located anywhere. And this is one reason for writing this review. It could be set in New York with Peter visiting from Boston. The two cities could be London and Liverpool and it would all work with just a few reference changes. This play has ambition. It has a passport. It wants to play on bigger stages. And I like that, very much.  Clever you, Mr Oakley, clever you.

Music is on at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne until 22 December.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Naughty is not the same as bad

Whipping Boy - from Pants Family Album, c 1900. All rights reserved

Two things are abundantly clear about the late 'Sir' Jimmy Savile - that he sexually assaulted hundreds of young people, mostly girls, over a forty-plus-year career as a national treasure and that a great many people either knew or strongly suspected that it was going on. The question of why so many colluded in this obvious cover-up isn't even that much of a mystery - everyone's afraid of powerful men. Savile was, apparently, so powerful that no one dared seriously broach the subject of his heinous, criminal activities until he had died. Cursory enquiries were seemingly easily satisfied with a jovial rebuff. That's some power.

One person embarrassingly taken in by Savile's subterfuge is his biographer, Alison Bellamy. Her book, How's About That, Then? named for one of his superficially innocuous catchphrases, had barely exited the presses before this whopper of a scandal blew up. Oh the irony of that title in the present context. Bellamy writes in this piece in her newspaper, The Yorkshire Evening Post,

'Around the time of his 80th birthday in 2006, I spent many days with him as I interviewed him for a series of features. It was then I first asked him about the rumours about his fondness for young girls. He reacted as expected and said with a well-rehearsed speech: “It goes with the territory.”

He was dismissive, as if what I was saying was ridiculous.

But he was always manipulative with the press and, even though he insisted he would always answer any question thrown at him, he would often change the subject or talk nonsense.'

At that point, none of his victims had broken through the wall of silence. A lot of people thought he was a bit odd, apparently. But stars are, aren't they?

Everyone's afraid of powerful mad people and of appearing to discriminate against powerful mad people.

Anthony Barnett writes on OurBeeb,

'How, then, did he get away with it?

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.'

Everyone's afraid of speaking out of turn about the powerful because it can rebound in nasty ways. The road to justice is paved with shot messengers.

Barnett also says this,

'Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement. It would be unbearable for him to represent the human race - and at some level all who saw him knew it.' 

Everyone's afraid of being called a class snob.

Andrew O'Hagan gives us some context in the London Review of Books.  He writes of a previous culture of paedophilia at the BBC that goes back a further generation to a post-war cohort of children's presenters and programmers who congregated around the popular Lionel Gamlin,

'Gamlin, in common with later youthquakers such as Jimmy Savile, never liked children, never had any, never wanted any, and on the whole couldn’t bear them, except on occasion to fuck. And, again like Savile, Gamlin managed all this quite brilliantly, hiding in plain sight as a youth presenter full of good sport but who didn’t really care for youth and all its pieties. This was in the days before ‘victims’ – days that our present media and their audiences find unimaginable – but it gives context and background to the idea of an eccentric presenter as a teasing anti-hero within the Corporation. Auntie was essentially being joshed by a child abuser posing as a child abuser.'

Everyone's afraid of messing with a system that works this well.

Savile had a whole wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility which allowed him so successfully to 'hide in plain sight'. It was all one big, audacious parcel of dares held together by the glue of threat. Exposure would have ended the cash flow he generated, so no one looked too hard for proof. Being so obviously mad and creepy worked as a defensive shield. In the same kind of twisted logic that allows crooked bankers to cheat the public and be rewarded for it, people reasoned, en masse, that someone who is so transparently transgressive, couldn't possibly be like that for real. Playing the fool was the perfect disguise. Savile was thought of as cheeky and naughty rather than perverted and bad.

This goes some way to explaining the seemingly inexplicable - that the stream of children who complained about being molested by him were ignored or punished for saying such awful things. There was a virtual cost/benefit ledger in play. Those who needed Savile made sure the books were cooked to protect their investment. He tended to prey on vulnerable girls in environments where he was generating a lot of funds and/or good deeds of his own. No one places much value on the vulnerable. We aren't talking about an opportunistic fiddle here. We are talking about a cynical, calculated crime spree perpetrated by a man who managed to exploit every self-conscious cultural neurosis imaginable to get what he wanted without conscience or nuance.

By chance, I happen to be reading Isabel Allende's memoir Paula. She talks about how long it took the Chilean people to understand the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship and why she thinks that is. Firstly, these sorts of things simply didn't happen in sophisticated, democratic Chile and, secondly, there just didn't seem to be a motive. Surely it wasn't necessary to kill a huge portion of the population and terrorise the rest to create order in society, was it? She writes,

'I knew so little about the workings of terror that I was slow to perceive the warning signs: nothing indicated that a parallel world existed in the shadows, a cruel dimension of reality.'

And this is the parallel world into which Savile's victims fell. It was a world that others simply did not believe existed or, if they did afford it some credence, imbued it with a sense that those who ended up there did so at the behest of fate. They must, themselves, be bad. The 'good' kept themselves from harm by suspending their disbelief and swallowing the line that bad things happened only to bad people.

In mathematics, if you make one mistake in a calculation, everything you do afterwards simply compounds that mistake, making it impossible to arrive at a correct solution. This is how logic works. Our fundamental error is that we may say that human rights are extended to all equally, but we don't really mean it. We don't mean it when it applies to women, or to black people or to people with a disability or to the vulnerable elderly. And we certainly don't mean it when it comes to children, who are still often dehumanised and reduced to the status of a chattel or a 'case' in the event of family breakdown.

Andrew Barnett talks about British society being in thrall to eccentric scallywags who can 'get away with it'. He invites us to observe the behaviour of London Mayor Boris Johnson who openly and obviously gets away with behaviour far more outrageous than would be acceptable in other, less popular politicians. Barnett does not equate the gravity of this behaviour with that of Savile. The comparison he makes is with the level of public awareness coupled with the incongruous suspension of criticism, for which Johnson's personal power, charisma and popularity can be the only excuse.

I would offer a different comparison - to the Australian photographer, Bill Henson. Likewise, I don't suggest any moral equivalence. There has never been an accusation of impropriety by any of his photographic subjects. But, Henson does photograph real underage children naked and display their pictures in public - an act for which others who omit to self-classify such images as 'art' might be sent to jail. I suggest that there is a similar collective failure of logic in play, one that somehow makes it acceptable for an adult male to photograph and display for personal profit photographs of children in the nude but not okay for parents to take snaps of their own clothed children at sports carnivals. The only way to accept this anomaly is to grant to Henson exceptional rights.

If we aspire to be a global society that is truly decent and honourable, we need to go back to the place where we made our initial error of logic and fix it. We need to ditch the some-are-more-equal mentality and extend genuine equal rights to all, even the ones who don't have any money or talent. If we tell children that the law protects them from bad men and that they should report it if a man does or tries to do something to them that feels wrong, we must not then tell them that the law does not apply to all bad men and the protection does not apply to all children so they must go away and reflect on why they tell dreadful lies about powerful people. To paraphrase another of our heroes, who may or may not have been a paedophile, we should say what we mean and mean what we say.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Biffo Nation

Kanga biffo (2012) by Pants

When I returned to the birth-mother country four years ago, after spending nearly three decades in Europe, I had a mission. That mission was personal reconciliation. I left Australia in 1982. I fled with a bad case of cultural cringe congesting my emotional well-being. I was ashamed of my country in the way one might be ashamed of a dishevelled, racist uncle who had a bad habit of exposing himself. It seemed to me that Barry Humphries' self-styling as 'Sir' Les Patterson was closer to gritty realism than comic satire. 

Repatriating with some optimism, I was determined to make peace with this country. Having been born of it, I reasoned that I contained something of its crude brutality within me. Rather like infecting oneself with a small dose of smallpox to create immunity to the disease, I plunged headlong into a kill or cure experiment. It hasn't gone well. All the things that made me cringe about Australia in my youth were not only still resolutely there but amplified. It seemed a hideous parody constructed out of jaded travelogue clichés, with a population colluding in the fantasy via comatose self-delusion, believing itself to be a paradise of egalitarianism and the originator of everything worthwhile. In short, a bastion of innovation and jolly-goodfellowness. Events of the last couple of weeks render this delusion untenable.

You frequently hear the self-generated claim, 'Australia punches above its weight'. Australia punches nothing except itself. It should hang its self-harming, punch-drunk head in shame. Julia Gillard's latent world fame as the Prime Minister who finally stood up to the narcissistic idiot-bully who heads Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition should not inspire pride. Today, one's adored Guardian praises her in editorial for the delivery of the long overdue slap. I'm glad she did it too. It's certainly better than doing nothing. But let's not call it great. 

Great would have been if Julia Gillard had defeated her opponent with a convincing and reasoned argument instead of a mad-as-hell rant. I understand that debating a half-witted megalomaniac is not the easiest thing to do, but he's not the only audience. A prime minister should address herself beyond the benches and beyond the press gallery. She should be talking to all of us and not just the bonehead opposite her. I'm sorry that she's never thought to do this because, if she did, she'd destroy him. Sadly, the only way she felt she could get the better of him was to descend to the level of a brawling banshee so that she could at least give him a taste of his own name-calling medicine in doses that make sense to a blood-lusting populace. In that, she managed a technical KO.

The event that set this ball a-rolling, the vile comments by the Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones about the PM's recently deceased father having 'died of shame' due to her supposed lies, seems to have inadvertently advanced his target. Jones, who has his own issues, was thought to be invincible. And yet, a petition initiated by demanding that Jones be sacked has already succeeded in persuading many advertisers to pull away. Radio station 2GB, of which Jones is part-owner, has instituted the damage-control strategy of putting the show to air minus ads. It will be interesting to see how long they can keep that revenue-losing position going. You can help save the dignity of our nation by signing the petition. 

Despite the Neanderthal grunts that have brought us to this place, I can't help detecting a chink of light. Is it possible that the so-far invisible 'decent' Australians have finally had enough? I had previously believed that Australians were interested only in the appearance of decency, not its actuality. I suspected that there were many who would feign outrage at Jones and his ilk for 'going too far' while quietly believing that these rabid, self-serving attack dogs were what was needed to keep those untrustworthy bastards, which they'd incidentally elected via a free-and-fair voting system, honest.

And now there's some new pressure on Alan Jones via  a social media campaign demanding that he read this pledge on his radio show,

'I want an Australia where girls and women, where men and boys, can take part in our society without enduring discrimination, sexism and violence.'

'I want an Australia where we respect each other; an Australia where no person experiences hate because of their gender, race, religion or sexuality.'

International readers may not be aware that the man in question is a gay man who is 'out' to everyone but himself. 'Elephant in the room' seems inadequate to describe what goes on here. His racist, misogynist and even homophobic outbursts are often perceived as self-deprecating, given the 'big secret' that everyone knows about. And he's managed to appear harmless in his buffoonery, much like a certain little Austrian corporal in denial of his Jewishness did a few years ago. A man whose own life is based on a lie is not fit to be lecturing the rest of us on how to live a good life. Yet, somehow his poison has been not only been accepted into our cultural vacuum, but welcomed. 

In a country where only a few big fish get to thrive in a very small, stagnant pond, I'm hoping that the oxygen Alan Jones monopolises will be denied him. I'm also hoping that Julia Gillard will seize the tank at last and give us all some much-needed fresh air.  

There have been plenty of times, especially in the last year, when I've wanted to pack up and head off back to Europe. I've despaired, thinking I'll never come to grips with the damage here. But, amazingly, in this bottom-trawl of a sequence of human events, I find hope. Surely, the only direction from here can be up? I'm in for my bent penny now. I'll stick around for a bit and see how it works out. Wish me luck...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Consumerism and its complexities (abridged)

Ban the Barcode (2012) Kodakotype by Pants

I half-heard an item on the radio recently about the possibility that Australia might dispense with coins entirely in the near future. The problem is that few people now pay in cash, even for a couple of supermarket items or a coffee. The Australian Mint is teetering on the cusp of viability. It may be reduced to producing coins for other nearby countries and collectible limited editions for the local market. No wonder ads for these seem to be showing up in my letterbox rather a lot lately.

We've already lost the 1c and 2c coins and prices are 'rounded' if you're paying in cash. The 'rounding' is a bit strange, calling to mind a couple of memories. On my first trip to Italy in the early 1980s, the nation was in the grip of that strange phenomenon of the period, stagflation. The lira denominations were all in thousands and hundreds of thousands. You sure had to keep an eye on the number of noughts on your notes. I actually don't remember any coins, but surely there had to have been some. Rome without coins would be like a movie without popcorn. I do remember handing over a fistful of notes in the supermarket and receiving a couple of boiled sweets as change.

The other memory I have from around the same time, and this really speaks to my general distrust of the mechanisation of human transactions, is that there was a celebrated case in Britain of a bank employee who diverted fractions of interest-earned pennies that would normally go to the bank into his own account. Because there is no such thing as 'a bit of a penny', the bank didn't miss what it didn't think it had. That fractions of a unit that is fixed and finite can add and multiply was just too weird to trust at the time. That was the eighties and this is now. People are making fortunes on any number of things that don't exist.

I like cash. I like to pay in cash. I budget even when I don't need to. This is very likely a self-delusional game that I play to convince myself that I am pious and spartan when, in fact, I could have anything I want within the scope of middle-class reason. But, then again, for someone with a work history for which 'chequered' would appear to be a supreme compliment, I seem to have rather a sound asset base. I must be doing something right. I suspect that something might be a parsimony that frequently topples into meanness.

Not everyone who pays by card instead of cash is doing so to incur debt. A lot of people who could pay with cash use their cards for the 'rewards'. The price paid in lost privacy for a minuscule discount seems absurdly high to me. But I'm one of those people who thinks that someone, somewhere will find a way to use all that data in ways that are contrary to the common good. In my mind, it's entirely possible that, in the future, decisions may be made about a person's entitlement to care or treatment based on this kind of data. 

Paranoid? Very likely. But, market-based economies don't tend to tolerate loss-making activity. Already Australians are beginning to fret about how all those baby boomers are going to be looked after once they stop contributing to the tax base. You see the logic deficit? That's what worries me. I'm at the tail end of that demographic. By the time I reach old age, believe me, they'll be looking for reasons not to care. They won't find them in my credit card bills.

But that's not why I like coins. I have a fair collection of foreign coins, many of them no longer in circulation. I like them as objects. I sometimes use them in artworks, most notably in my only piece of 'public art' back in 2007. Coins are the bones of antiquity and the precious metal of childhood. Oh the joy of filling a Commonwealth Bank money box! It was all so much more seemly when wealth could be weighed.

There is nothing that pleases me more than to spend the last couple of dollars in my purse on something worthwhile, like a second-hand book. When I lived in London I often used to empty all the coins left in my purse in a piece of our shared garden where the children played and listen for their glee as they found them.

In a nation obsessed with an individual's net worth, I make it a point not to care about mine or anyone else's. In any case, one's true wealth is measured in small change.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Go fish

Larrikin's End Pilchard Catch by Pants

For days I've been thinking 'must write something on the blog'. And then, this morning, I woke up with a notion to write about fish - a subject about which I know nothing. That's okay because no one else in Australia does either.

In the last twenty-four breathless hours, our government has conjured a hasty plan to prevent a newly arrived super-trawler formerly known as the Margiris from operating in our waters for up to two years. If successful, the moratorium will, presumably, give everyone time to get a firm fix on the bleedin' obvious, i.e. that it's not a terribly good idea to invite the world to dinner if you haven't done a stocktake on the larder yet. At the time of writing, the matter is still being squabbled over in Parliament.

The Margiris has now been renamed the Abel Tasman after one of our venerable explorers, presumably to make it sound like it's giving rather than taking. This giant Dyson of the seas, which set a course for our fisheries some seven years ago, suddenly appeared as if via apparition, and was greeted with the sort of warmth we normally reserve for asylum-seekers. We specialise in panic politics in this country.

As always with these things, it's not easy to get a fix on the governing 'science' so I'm not going to bother. There's a reasonable round-up of the various opinions here. Instead, I'm going to talk about my own town of Larrikin's End which is, as luck would ordain, a fishing town.

The Larrikin's End fleet operates as a co-operative with around a hundred boats fishing Bass Strait. Our area is part of the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery, a constituency that covers roughly a third of Australia's coastline. The new super-trawler would be operating in these waters too. The Co-op itself has around 80 full and part-time employees and runs a processing plant, fishing supply and equipment business, (which includes the sale of fuel), as well as a fresh fish market and takeaway chippie. I would guess that the fishing industry supports ten per cent or more of local jobs, depending on the season. Most of the catch is exported but there is still a plentiful supply of cheap seafood for restaurants, residents and tourists.

Local gossip has it that the Co-op is not particularly well run. For reasons that have never made any sense to me, the usual reaction to a community-owned business that is 'not particularly well run' is to replace it with an offshore, multinational Godzilla rather than call in a management consultant or TV programme to help it sort out its 'issues'. Not that I'm saying that such action has ever been on the cards here, mind, but it does seem obvious that if a giant floating fish factory shows up, it would tend to raise the question of whether or not there are enough fish in the sea, so to speak, to support both industry models. You can imagine the sort of scenario that might play out, given a fair wind and the usual menu of worn clichés if push came to shove.

Australians are obsessed with the concept of 'food security' which, given that we waste roughly half of the food we buy, is something of an irony. Even more peculiar is that our paranoia is much more likely to be focused on land-based production, (which we can obviously control), rather than offshore capacity, which is clearly vulnerable to covert exploitation. Bordering on the absurd, is the argument that the perceived solution to this imagined 'food security problem' is more likely to involve the participation of an agri-leviathan than it is small, locally owned and run community businesses. Despite the Government's rushed proposal bearing the hallmark of a panic attack, legislation to prevent the possibility that the oceans might be emptied by stealth while everyone is watching a football final one Saturday afternoon seems like a reasonably good idea.

Here in Larrikin's End, food security isn't something we talk about a lot. It is probably the most food-secure place on the planet. In addition to our varied fish stocks, we are surrounded by dairy and beef cattle, sheep and poultry farms, fruit and vegetable growers and, crucially, wineries. Most of these are co-operatives and/or family-owned enterprises. Even Seat of Pants has a credible vegetable patch. But do you hear about these successes? You do not. You hear only that we will all starve without bio-monsters to feed us. Oh, and we also have a very visible population of the kind of cuddly marine mammals that often end up in super-trawler nets along with the charmless creatures destined for a future as fish fingers, i.e. dolphins and seals. To us, a super-trawler is about as welcome as a vegan at a barbecue.

Another of our national obsessions is something we call 'stainabiliddy'. We do not know what it is but, by crikey, we are scared of it, or the loss of it, or whatever. Now, I cannot advise on who one should believe when it comes to information about whether or not our fish stocks are 'stainable'. It's clearly difficult to verify because fish are a bit hard to count. I do, however,  know that it is quite easy to tell when there are none left. By then, of course, it's too late to do anything about it. One can hardly start protesting while a super-trawler steams away with its giant belly bulging, leaving us with only a semaphore message reading, 'so long and thanks for all the fish'.

For purely practical reasons, I would suggest that local fishers are always a more reliable source of accurate information. They and their antecedents have been fishing their waters for generations and have the means and motivation to compare fish numbers from year to year. Their vested interest lies in leaving some fish in the ocean for future catch. The owners of a super-trawler have no such incentive. If they deplete fish stocks, (as the Margiris apparently has done in northern waters according to Greenpeace), they can simply up anchor and move on to another piece of ocean without the bother of having to explain to their neighbours why and how they have managed to fuck the forseeable future.

At the moment, all is conjecture but it seems to me absurd to be living in a country where officials are constantly banging on about 'maintaining biodiversity' and 'protecting fragile ecosystems' and thinking that only means safeguarding platypus habitats and encouraging people to grow kangaroo paw in their gardens instead of English roses. Here in Larrikin's End, we do have a 'stainable' fishery with many inter-related industries, all built on local expertise and tradition. This town's identity and strength is fish and fishing and it supports a wide web of professional and recreational activity. And it's owned and controlled by local people with local knowledge and local interests. 

I'm not concluding that the future of our town is necessarily threatened by the presence of one super-trawler in our hemisphere. I'm merely suggesting that an understanding of the value of accumulated local knowledge and expertise and the basic human desire for autonomy and co-operation doesn't seem to be factored in to the cost/benefit analyses that appear to be influencing our politicians when it comes to helping us to work out how to live. I agree that it's terribly important that world leaders concern themselves with making sure that there is enough food for everyone. The solution, I venture, lies in tackling what is not working rather than fucking up what is...