Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas for Shacktown



The thirties seen through the eyes of the fifties. Or rather, the dramatisation of a particular social phenomenon – extreme economic inequality – fashioned after the war according to the tropes and the iconography of the Depression, for reasons that are as much aesthetic as narrative.

Disney’s world of ducks had come into being in the thirties, and its archetypal character, Donald, was established early on as a pauper, in the tradition of the great characters of vaudeville and comic cinema. But it was a poverty that would have taken on a sharper contour in that ghastly decade.


Carl Barks’ ‘A Christmas for Shacktown’, first published in March of 1951, opens in the slums of Duckburg as Huey, Dewey and Louie briefly witness the daily troubles of ‘the people who are down on their luck’. People is what Aunt Daisy calls them, but it’s not terribly clear what they are. Certainly not ducks. Mostly mice, by the looks, with the odd pig thrown in.

There are faint, sinister echoes here of Art Spiegelman’s casting of the animals in Maus, decades later. But this is 1951, and Barks’ is a much lighter and less overtly allegorical parable. Nonetheless, the style of representation of the citizens of Shacktown is interesting: androginous Dickensian children dressed in rags and gray-looking, defeated mothers sweeping the dust off their rickety porches. A hopeless poverty outside of time.



The three eager, do-gooder ducklings, racked with guilt for what little they have compared to their slum-dwelling peers, decide that the children of Shacktown will get to have a proper Christmas, and start raising the necessary funds with the help of Aunt Daisy and her women’s club, while Uncle Donald is put in charge of securing the ‘last’ $50 for turkey and an electric toy train. Having all of $5 to his name, Donald has no choice but turn to his own uncle, Scrooge McDuck, whose predicament is just the opposite: he has too much money.


Scrooge was Barks’ great creation, as well as the character that went on to define him. At this time, just before achieving his own masthead, he was still somewhat in flux, not having entirely shed the cantankerous recluse persona of his debut on Bear Mountain (‘Everybody hates me, and I hate everybody’), nor having completed the slow transformation into the energetic, adventure-seeking philanthropist he would become over the years. What marked him above all in the stories from this period was an intense physical attachment to his money, and two attendant problems: how to store the money, and how to protect the money from being stolen.

Through the character of Scrooge McDuck, Barks showed us money as a thing: tangible, real – in the way of a natural resource, as opposed to a token of symbolic exchange – immune to the kind of financial transubstantiation that allows, for instance, to send funds over great distances without recourse to physical means of transportation. In simpler terms: when Scrooge needs to store his money, he does it in a building-sized armoured ‘bin’ (literally a giant safe) overlooking Duckburg; when he has to shift it, he uses convoys of trucks, as it if were gold bullion. Occasionally, attempts to solve the twin problems of storage and protection lead to cataclysmic events in which the money becomes one with the forces of nature.


The other side of this angst-ridden relationship is the libidinal attachment of the duck to his money. In ‘Only a Poor Old Man’, for instance, Scrooge is shown in his ‘money-struck’ phase, diving and swimming and frolicking in his money like a child in a paddling pool.


It is this infantile state, this regression, that marks the limited extent of Barks’ satire of ill wealth: Scrooge has a use for money that other people don’t have, but it’s entirely narcissistic and self-obsessed. Moreover, while he is willing to set aside $25 so that the children of Shacktown might have turkey, Scrooge refuses to give the $25 for the electric train, not seeing any point in child’s play when carried out by actual children, or with toys instead of money.

The story loses its focus somewhat, making you almost forget what it’s about. Donald resorts to begging, hopelessly, but seeing that someone dropped a silver dollar into his hat, Scrooge muscles in on his spot, unable to resist the lure of monetary gain. Still looking for a way to make some cash, Donald bumps into his cousin Gladstone, who thanks to his famous luck ‘finds’ him $25 and a quarter. On his way home, Donald drops the quarter into Scrooge’s otherwise empty top hat. Scrooge pockets the charity (call it his bailout money), and goes to put it in his bin, but it won’t fit through any of the bulging doors. He climbs the roof, to drop it from the skylight. Then a mighty rumble. The floor of the bin has given way, plunging all of Scrooge’s fortune through a colossal sinkhole.



This is how the rich man of a fantasy set in the Depression era might lose everything, instantly, and without safety or insurance. A man with none of the influence and connections that come with enormous wealth, and who owned no assets or shares in any business. Only the money-thing.

Scrooge is now penniless. The money cannot be retrieved with earth-digging machinery, as it sits on a thin crust above a giant deposit of quicksand. Two more plot twists, and a system is found: the electric train that the ducks had managed to gift to the children of Shacktown can be put to this use, and retrieve Scrooge’s fortune, a bundle of notes at a time.


If the story were part of a continuity, Scrooge would still be there today, unloading the train and waiting for it to make its way back through the tunnel, knowing that it would take several more centuries to regain his fortune, yet unable to leave the bedside of his ailing money, as if in some sort of Dantesque torment; while, outside, the children of Shacktown would still be partying with their small share of the toy train’s labours, never seeking to improve their station.


The thirties seen through the eyes of the fifties: a primitive capitalism without prosperity, or a social order: just immense wealth and immense poverty. Compare it to our attempts to grasp the almost unfathomable abyss of global inequality. Scrooge’s ‘five hundred triplicatillion, multipludillion quadruplicatillion, centrifgulallion dollars and sixteen cents’ don’t sound so comical when seen against those graphs about what the one percent, or the five percent, or the ten percent owns. Which is to say, everything.

Notice, too, the depiction of poverty in a comic book, along with the idea that the pursuit of wealth might be partially to blame for it. Barks was no socialist, but there are shades of Frank Capra’s brand of piety in some of the stories from this period. As for Scrooge, he would soon cease to be a villain of this mould, and turn with youthful energy to the continuing accumulation of wealth, as opposed to its anxious protection, in a manner more befitting of post-war optimism.

This strange, convoluted, brilliant story might have been the last one to draw from the source of the Scrooge story – the rich man who sees ghosts.

Carl Barks never set foot again in Shacktown.



Monday, December 16, 2013

The kiss



She kissed him on a cold November day. The gesture was captured by a photographer, and it looked tender. She kissed the visor of his helmet. He appeared to squirm, as if repulsed or perturbed by that unwanted attention.

She kissed him in the mountain town of Susa, the permanent theatre of a two-decade long protest, in the valley that bears the same name, where they’re laying the tracks and digging the tunnels for the high-speed train that one day will connect Turin, Italy, to Lyon, France, another stitch in the patchwork quilt of Europe.

She kissed him on the visor of his helmet, but it wasn’t a peaceful gesture, nor was it tender. It was a provocation. The kisser – a student by the name of Nina, who comes from my home town – said that she was thinking of another protester, Marta, from Pisa, who was molested and beaten by the cops earlier this year. After kissing the visor, she wet two fingers with saliva and reached for the cop’s lips, but failed to connect.

Now Nina faces two charges. The first one is for the very Italian crime of ‘causing offence to a public officer’.

The second charge is sexual assault.


Federico Aldrovandi, 18, was set upon and killed by four cops on the streets of Bologna in 2005. They beat him so hard that two of their batons broke in half. In July of this year, after the jail sentences against their colleagues were confirmed in the final appeal, the Police Officers’ Union staged a protest sit-in underneath the office in which Aldrovandi’s mother worked. Not even the Mayor could persuade them to move fifty metres down the road. So the mother came down and stood by the protesters, holding the enlarged picture that had been shown in court of her son lying dead on the side of the road after the beating. The cops, in response, turned their back on her.

This is the same union that is laying charges of sexual assault against the young female student from Milan. As the union's secretary-general has explained to the media, it was a decision motivated by the logic of reciprocity and an elementary sense of justice. ‘If a male police officer had done that to a random female protester, can you imagine? The third world war would break out if we so much as touched someone with a flower.’

Effects of the violent application of flowers

In 2001, the riot cop whom Nina kissed on the visor was 13 years old. He bears therefore no personal responsibility for the raid on a high school where anti-globalisation activists were spending the night during the G8 summit in Genoa. The operation was carried out by some 350 policemen, while 150 carabinieri encircled the building. Over 200 protesters were transferred to the Bolzaneto barracks, where they were tortured and forced to sing songs of cheer to Mussolini and Pinochet. Of the 93 eventual arrests, 65 people had to be hospitalised. Three were in a coma. None of the cops were injured.

It took weeks for the investigation to begin, whereupon amateur footage of the attack was sent by the detectives to Switzerland and Germany, ostensibly so that it could be transferred onto DVD, and never came back. The two Molotov cocktails seized elsewhere in the city and smuggled by the cops inside the school to justify the ferocity of the assault also disappeared from the evidence store-room in mysterious circumstances. After a five-year trial in which prosecutors tried in vain to wrangle charges of torture from the meanders of our penal code, short prison sentences were given to twenty-five mostly high-ranking officers. All the other cops walked free, largely due to the fact that no attempt had been made in the aftermath of the raid to ascertain who had done what, and no confessions or testimonies were forthcoming. For instance, in the case of British journalist Mark Covell, who was assailed outside the school and left in a coma, some officers were sentenced to pay him 4,000 Euros in compensation for having defamed him, but none of his attackers were ever identified, let alone tried.

This is the backdrop to the kiss. It’s barely history – the Aldrovandi trial ended this year, while civil suits for the raid on the Armando Diaz school are still pending. There are international echoes, too, in the attacks on the right to protest in Britain and elsewhere, or in the successful attempt to seek damages by the cop who pepper sprayed a group of sitting protesters at UC Davis, as well as countless other stories in which the agents of repression try to pass as helpless victims. Like when a cop in the Diaz raid ripped his own Kevlar jacket, to prove that someone had tried to stab him – a sham that not even his colleagues could stomach supporting. Besides, it was easier and safer to claim not to know, not to have seen or have taken part in anything, while their superiors took turns to blame prefect of police Arnaldo La Barbera – who in the meantime had very conveniently died of cancer – for the lies and the early attempts to pervert the course of justice.

And so, now, this charge of sexual assault for miming a kiss and daring to tease a riot cop, which nonetheless follows a precise logic: that of solidarity to powerful, and of mobilising in its name the institutions that are supposed to defend the weak. Like the cops who demonstrated against the mother of a victim of police brutality, as if pursuing a grotesque retribution.

To turn your back on the picture of a young man lying in his own blood. To call rape a gesture of defiance. These are themselves acts of violence, and their own kind of brutality. They signify our times.







Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reversing our commitment to exclusion


The text of the speech I gave at the forum on public education organised last week at Parliament by Metiria Turei and Catherine Delahunty.

Our daughter Lucia has what is sometimes referred to as classical autism. She’s verbal, although she has trouble using language to communicate beyond a very basic level. While she doesn’t present with some of the disruptive behaviours that other children at her end of the spectrum can exhibit, her learning and social needs are very significant. I want to talk about what it means for our local school to have her on its roll, and about the many incentives in our education system for excluding children like her.

Lucia gets targeted funding under the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS). The funding is now openly referred by the ministry as a contribution, as opposed to a provision, and leaves a shortfall of between $5,000 and $10,000 in the school budget for each child on the scheme. A school that does a good job with children with very high needs will often attract a disproportionate amount of students on the scheme, thereby increasing the strain on the school’s financial viability even further. This strain could potentially be alleviated by the other source of funding in this area, the Special Education Grant. This, however, is allocated to schools based on the roll alone, irrespective of the number of children with special needs they actually have. Given the lack of accountability on how the grant is spent (a case hit the news some years ago about a school that used it to build netball courts), this provides another significant incentive against enrolling children with high needs.

But the incentives are broader than the flawed funding model alone. When the National Government introduced National Standards, Lucia was initially exempt, but since 2011 the law says that she must be assessed against those standards every year, and of course she is always found to be failing. However, when the school reports those results to the Ministry and the community, it is not allowed to make a special allowance for her learning needs. Consequently, the school’s public National Standards data are dragged down by Lucia’s results without any explanation or context. Our child has become a blip.

The directive to measure children with special needs against the national norm is in direct contradiction with Section 16 of the Education Amendment Act, introduced in June of this year, which states that the function of school boards is ‘to ensure that every student at the school is able to attain his or her highest possible standard in educational achievement.’ Note: his or her standard. Not that of a typical child that faces none of her challenges. As an aside, parents and advocates are used to being told that it’s inescapable resource constraints that prevent our education system from being truly inclusive. Disinclined as I am to ever accept this excuse, it certainly doesn’t apply here: there is no fiscal motivation for using National Standards to brand our students with the highest needs as failures. It’s discrimination we get for free.

Consider again how schools that are good at inclusion tend to become magnets, thus compounding the effect on league tables without so much as a footnote alerting parents as to why the school appears to have such a high number of students well below the National Standards. In an education system like ours, which is predicated on competition between public schools, this is another very strong incentive not to enrol children like our daughter.

Competition and the myth of choice are the enemies of equity and inclusion. As a parent of a child with special needs, you come against it even before enrolment at primary school. As soon as it becomes apparent that admission into the scheme is the outcome of a competition, you have no choice but to try to win. It is a demoralising and humiliating process (I’ve described our experience in detail here) in which you have to focus on all the things that are wrong with your child, and none of her qualities. Each application takes on average 35 hours to complete – you may want to think of the resources that this entails – and we’ve known since a Victoria University School of Law review made in 2000 that it discriminates against families who lack the cultural and economic means to compete.

The Ongoing Resourcing Scheme is the blueprint for school inclusion in New Zealand: it is distributed arbitrarily, capped under a strict budget and moderated so that children won’t receive too much.

The moderation process is another demoralising feature of the scheme. We happen to have a younger son with diabetes and he goes to clinics periodically to review his care package. If they find that his haemoglobin levels are good, they don’t suggest cutting down on his very expensive insulin, on the grounds that it would be, you know, utterly deranged. Yet this is precisely how the ORS moderation process works. If a child on the scheme has made progress because of supports that were put in place, that support will be cut. This highlights how intellectually as well as ethically bankrupt the provision is: for there is in fact no direct, straightforward relationship between the severity of a student’s disability and the level of learning support that she needs. What might have happened since the previous review is that you finally got the child to a point where she can tolerate being in the classroom. She can now finally be taught. So naturally at this time the Ministry ensures her financial support is reduced even further.

All of these perverse incentives against inclusion have the effect of punishing the schools who work so hard to give a full education to children like Lucia. On this point, some people may not realise is how easy it is not to enrol children with special needs. You don’t need to refuse entrance, which is illegal and is sometimes reported to the Ministry. All you need to do is not do a very good job. Practice the art of benign neglect. Be less than totally welcoming at the pre-enrolment interview, or complain about the lack of funding. Parents of children with special needs are quick to pick up signals and will look someplace else. This is sold to us as choice, but it’s just the opposite. It’s the denial of a child’s right to attend their local school.

This being the case, the temptation would be to blame the schools that turn away children like Lucia or that don’t do a very good job with them, and conversely, to take the schools that do a good job and present them as the models for everyone else to follow. I suspect that this is what the Ministry thinks – that it can just take the good stories and replicate them. To be sure, we all have a lot to learn from successful programmes and educators. But the best schools are also likely to have characteristics that make them unique and difficult to imitate: a community that shares a very strong set of values, and prizes solidarity over achievement alone; a principal or leadership team driven by an uncommon personal commitment to inclusion; above all, the willingness and the strength to struggle in order to protect those values against the constant threat of an unsympathetic bureaucracy and a central administration that views the right to learn of some of our children as an extravagance to be contained or discouraged.

In other words, the problem is structural, and won’t be solved until the system of incentives that drive schools to exclude children with special needs – all of which we have known about for a number of years – are removed once and for all. Then and only then will the Ministry of Education be true to its often stated commitment to inclusion.

So here’s a provocative challenge: until we have solved school inclusion in this country, parents like us are the only ones who should be given the choice of where to send their children. Conversely, schools should fall over themselves to enrol children like Lucia, instead of the predictable high achievers. They should fall over themselves because they trust that the Ministry will reward them instead of punishing them, and that by becoming inclusive they will benefit all students. This is what our school has found is the reward you get for doing right by children like our daughter: you create an entire culture centred around everyone’s right to learn. We should settle for nothing less.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A family bestiary


It’s hard work, catching a pidrüs. You must go out at night, at the end of the year, when it is coldest. And because the animal has a most acute sense of smell, you must travel with a soaking wet sack-cloth draped over your shoulders, to mask your scent. It takes patience, too. Your best course of action is to crouch in a frozen ditch, making as little movement as you can. Then you wait.

The pidrüs

The pidrüs – a creature with ‘the snout of a pig, the head of a cow, the ears of a horse and the eyes of a cat’ – symbolised credulity. It was a ruse designed to induce the simple-minded to spend a night out in the dead of winter with a soaking wet sack-cloth draped over their shoulders. I heard stories about these expeditions occurring within living memory, although I doubt that they are true: such legends (rural, as opposed to urban) are best nurtured with just the right amount of apocryphal facts.

Of the creatures of fantasy that populated the imaginary of my mother’s native village, few were spoken about by the time I was born, and even those few mostly in proverbs, or as figures of speech. My grandmother, for instance, might have cautioned me once or twice about venturing out at dark by suggesting I might fall prey to the babau, or that the gosa might lurk in shallow waters, and I should therefore keep away from ditches, drains and canals, but did so out of an old reflex, without making any great attempts to persuade me that those dangers were real. Those were never therefore for me creatures of fear, and I didn’t bother to imagine or piece together what they might look like. I encountered them only later, in a book that catalogued that ancestral bestiary, just as some of those creatures found a new life in papier-mâché‎ form at country festivals as part of a revival of interest in local folklore. I still have the book, which was published by a rural bank in a single print run. It’s the source of the pictures in this post.

The babau

The gosa

All of the beasts were pre-Christian, or rather, they ran parallel to the Christian lore, which was also in flux by the time I was a child. When my sister was little, for instance, the December festival when the children got presents was still the feast of Santa Lucia, the poor martyred girl who was robbed of her eyes, who would come visiting on a cart pulled by a donkey on the night of the twelfth of the month. And later, for Christmas, if you got any presents, it was the Child Jesus who brought them (how, it was never quite made clear to me). Whereas by the time I was little, only a few years later, Santa Lucia had been phased out, and Santa Claus was beginning to replace the prodigal infant, as it already had in the big cities.

That flattening of the shared imaginary mirrored the shift towards a homogenous and mass-mediated national culture which had little regard for the local dialects and customs, much less for local fables of dubious didactic value. In fact what strikes me as I leaf through the bestiary of Poggio Rusco and its immediate environs is not that it is especially delightful or inventive, but rather that those creatures inhabited such a small territory: a handful of villages, situated on a square parcel of the Lombard plain that measures a mere ten miles on each side. Outside of that square – in spite of the uniformity of the landscape and seeming lack of natural barriers or historical political boundaries – you’ll find other tales and different beasts, cautionary or otherwise.

The löf: a starving wolf that allegorises atavic human hunger 
Somebody asked me recently what it is that I miss of home and it occurred to me perhaps for the first time that I miss this: the remarkable density of the culture along the axes of both history and space. How I could hop on a train from Milan and travel to Bergamo, 50 kilometres away, and if I spoke my dialect and they spoke theirs, we’d struggle to find a single word in common, for that town had been for centuries the last bastion of the Venetian Republic, and had been isolated by politics and geography at many other times in its history from the surrounding region. To be sure not all aspects of this density are benign or desirable – another, more common word for it is parochialism – but I confess to feeling a degree of sympathy and admiration, sometimes in spite of myself, for how large parts of the country have managed to resist being assimilated into the idea of a modern, unified Italy that was forged in the big centres of industry and commerce and imposed everywhere else through the national school system and the mass media.

The dormalora
When I look at my bestiary, then, I see this, too: ghosts of a past that won’t let itself be forgotten; a past that, like the dormalora, or shadesleeper, knows that a mix of indolence and quiet stubbornness can take you far, even into an unlikely future.



Stefano Scansani and Mario Setti. Bestiario Podiense. Poggio Rusco: Banca Popolare Agricola di Poggio Rusco, 1984.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The business of free speech


Rape apologists do nothing to inform and educate the public so I applaud the stand made by many to get those mouths metaphorically taped. Besides, they’ve all had their damaging turns for far too long. And we need to do more taping of mouths.

(Marama Davidson)



For a start, Voltaire never actually said ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.’ It was an English writer at the beginning of the last century, presuming to capture the thought of that 150 years-dead philosopher. What’s also lost to the people who abuse the phrase, is that it’s supposed to have referred – had he actually said it, that is – to an act of violent censorship, namely the state-ordered burning of a treatise on natural science by one of Voltaire’s contemporaries.


The Voltaire non-quote has been thrown at me quite a bit this past week, by people who seem about as unlikely to self-immolate as he was. And the notion of free speech, in its liberal, post-Enlightenment understanding, has been brought up by a number of commentators to lament the fate suffered by Willie Jackson and John Tamihere following their disgraceful treatment of a young female guest who dared to challenge the conduct of rapists. Bryce Edwards gave these great prominence on his Friday round-up of the ‘30 things to read for the week’, possibly feeling that it wasn’t up to him – a mere political scientist – to critique the claims of the likes of Chris Trotter, Mark Blackham and Karl du Fresne concerning what freedom of speech actually means.

And so it’s up to me – an English graduate – to state the bloody obvious.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of speech. Freedom of speech is not a protection against people telling you that your views are hateful. Freedom of speech doesn’t oblige other people or organizations to support you in your privileged position as a broadcaster, or journalist, or blogger. Freedom of speech isn’t a guarantee of permanent employment when the thing you are selling is your opinion (well put, Keith), nor does freedom of speech compel the public to buy said opinion from you.

Freedom of speech is the right not to be persecuted for your beliefs: not to suffer state harassment or censorship, or be fired from a position with which your beliefs do not interfere.

Oh, and another thing, Karl du Fresne: mobs actually lynch people. They don’t force them to take an early Christmas break on full pay.


Karl du Fresne thinks that rape culture is due to our society being ‘drenched with sex’, because in spite of being – if I had to guess from his writings – roughly one thousand years old, he appears convinced that rape didn’t happen, or happened less, in the old days.

Trotter’s first argument, in an astonishing (for him) foray into cultural relativism, features the deeply offensive suggestion that Jackson and Tamihere are culturally predisposed to hold retrograde views concerning sex and consent. Then, challenged by Martyn Bradbury (the debates between these two always have a curious Escherian quality, whereby each is somehow wronger than the other), he launches into a turgid 1,000-worder, a veritable tower of bullshit mobilising the Cathars, Arnald-Amalric, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Stalin’s purges to prove that we were too darn mean to his radio host friends.

The more prosaic truth is that sponsor boycotts, far from leading directly to gulags and the mass murder of heretics, are a very limited tool that is available to us in the circumstances – likely to be most rare – when events call for it, and most specifically when the issue that is being campaigned around relates to the consumption of hate speech. One of the key aspects that made the Amy interview stand out to the extent that it did is that it was packaged as a podcast, so that the people who didn’t listen to the show would be able to access it, and was even included that evening in promos for the show scheduled for the next day (on this point, and the blame that pertains to RadioLive, see Matt McCarten’s column). So, far from being something that just happened in the natural course of strong opinions being voiced, and that the station regretted, the segment immediately became a product for sale. It is only at that point that it made sense to attempt to disrupt the commercial side of the arrangement, even if it meant enlisting the help of a bunch of PR departments.


There is a broader issue, here, which also happens to be the flip-side of the freedom of speech argument: namely, that the chain of events that led to the Willie & JT show coming off the air highlighted the mechanisms whereby such shows – and the dispiritingly narrow range of views that they promote – get on the air in the first place. Our information industry is shaped by New Right ideas that are anathema to public service broadcasting. Everyone but Maori Television and Radio New Zealand exists to make a profit, and even the kinds of shows that public funding body NZ On Air was set up to help create often cannot be shown simply because commercial broadcasters – both state and private – refuse to screen them, on the grounds that they are not profitable enough.

This is the waste land that neoliberalism built. And it’s in this waste land that free-speech enthusiasts like Karl du Fresne fulminate every other day against left-wing bias on RNZ. Not content with having destroyed the very possibility of critical perspectives in the vast majority of our media, the free market’s little helpers go after the very few spaces that maintain a (very limited) degree of independence from its imperatives.



Chris Trotter, for his part, is worried about the precedent. What if the Right is going to use these methods against progressive left-wing commentators? Except Danyl is right: there are none of those. Instead, ‘we're doomed to be hectored and talked down to by droves of reactionary bewildered old men’. This is what strict competition in the marketplace of ideas has got us. And this is the state of mainstream free speech in New Zealand: under the near-total control of private corporate interest. But if just once you dare interfere with this mechanism for the delivery of conservative opinion, expect a backlash in the name of liberty and the souls of those slain Cathar children.



All the pictures are from Wellington pavements the day after Saturday's march against rape culture.


Monday, November 11, 2013

A surge in the tide



I hope you’ll allow me not to change the subject quite yet, if only because it would be a little ungracious of me, as if I were the kind of person who is able to take sudden public attention in his stride. What follows, however, are some fairly disorganised observations. My more serious attempt to think the issues through is the one I wrote for Overland. The general background of the events is well covered by The New Zealand Herald here and here. And I feel very well represented by the interview I did on Friday with oh my dear God is that Mary Wilson I’m talking to?

So, then.

If you have the good fortune to become associated with a successful campaign, you don’t argue – you thank people. I have received a number of incredibly generous messages of support over the last few days, and I appreciate all of them. The ones written by survivors meant even more, and moved me profoundly. On Friday night we came home from the opening of Justine’s exhibition to a gift of beer and wine, and a donation in my name to Wellington Rape Crisis. This wasn’t my typical week.


The media attention is a privilege, too, and when they call you, you don’t quibble – you do the interviews. Try to muster something useful to say. See if you can help keep the issues in the news a little longer, and explain why it matters.

That said, I think it’s important to counter the impression – helped along by the bias of the media, both mainstream and social – that the RadioLive sponsor boycott had very much to do with the actions of an individual, much less a bloke (as if we had forgotten how much easier it is for a man to speak out against rape, and just why that is). All I did was write a bunch of emails. They weren’t persuasive emails, as I’m generally of the cynical view that you cannot persuade businesses to do anything other than act in their own best interest. They weren’t even the product of a savvy social activist’s reading of the prevailing mood. Truth be told, I thought nothing would come of them, other than my collecting a series of fudging statements about why the advertisers would continue to support the Willie and JT show, which might constitute an interesting document, and nothing more.

Unsurprisingly, it was the professional PR people, rather than the blogger, who read the prevailing mood correctly. They operated in a tight feedback loop. First, Freeview got in touch to say that they didn’t sponsor the show as such, but rather placed orders with the station which then chose in which slot to schedule the ads. Would you seek to discriminate in the future and avoid the slot?, I asked them. They said they would get back to me. Then AA Insurance said they would pull the ads from the show. Then Yellow announced they were going to withdraw advertising from the station altogether. I had to read the email twice to make sure I got it right. After that, the bar was set. Freeview wrote back to say they would pull the ads after all. Countdown’s initial polite ‘no thanks’ was turned around in a matter of hours after targeted pressure on social media, especially by the Misogyny Busters group. Everyone else who got in touch (including The Finance Marshall, who rather endearingly asked ‘not be mentioned in blogs’. Hi guys.) did it to say that they would abandon the show or Radio Live. Of the ones that didn’t respond, some I assume contacted the station directly, since the Willie and JT slot will be commercial-free until the end of the week.

I can only conclude that all of these businesses fell into line under so little pressure because they could read the signs. This had nothing to do with the emails and the tweets, and everything to do with the public outrage over the serial rapes committed and bragged about by a group of young men, the inaction and the lies of the police, and the nauseating behaviour of selected members of the media. From a concrete, political viewpoint, that measurable outrage – and not the boycott that resulted from it – is the only thing that has any value to us. Because really, who cares that some advertising budgets got shuffled around? And whilst Radio New Zealand didn’t exactly misquote me last Friday when it claimed I wanted to see Jackson and Tamihere sacked (I said something to the effect that I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t please me), I didn’t actually care very much whether or not it would end up happening, except insofar as it would be a measure of just how strong the tide against rape culture in New Zealand actually is. You could place a mark next to it on the sea-wall. ‘The day when Willie and JT got canned’.

That sentiment, in turn, didn’t come to us fully formed by virtue of some natural human inclination toward social progress, but derives from a very precise set of ideas about gender, sex and consent that have been campaigned upon by feminists for decades. We may just have reached a turning point in which enough people have been persuaded for the entire societal compass to be abruptly reoriented. The vile questioning of Amy, in this respect, was as much a part of the story as the crimes that are, finally, being investigated. It was the thing that also had to be rejected, against which we also needed to say: ‘enough is enough’.

A corollary of the above, is that we shouldn’t over-emphasise the degree in which the advertiser boycott was the result of a social media campaign. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be tremendously useful tools to agitate and to amplify political and social messages. But it was a television journalist who brought the story to light, and rape prevention and counselling organizations and feminist writers who gave it a strong framing after the report aired on TV3, insisting that the police version be questioned, first, and calling out the rape apologists, second. Social media is useful only if it can draw upon the patient and inevitably much slower work carried out by strong militant organizations and committed activists in the background. That’s what makes the outrage coherent, hence possible to mobilise.

A picture from the Misogyny Busters Facebook page, supplied by Gina Giordani – whom I also thank very much for her counsel this week

Whatever the successes of the last few days in pressuring the police and the media as institutions, any triumphalism would be misplaced. Michele A’Court put it best of all, for mine, in her piece in the Sunday papers: ‘It was a tough week to be a woman, or someone who loves them.’ But, she concluded, ‘I'd like to think we can start making the next weeks tougher for people who hate women.’

Let’s do just that, Michele.




New phase of the campaign: to get the boycotters to give money to Rape Prevention Education. Telecom has pledged $10,000. Let's get the others on board - updated spreadsheet here.

The petition to put pressure on John Key at change.org is up to nearly 75,000 signatures. The more, the better.

The wonderful (and Tiso-employing) literary journal Overland is having a Subscriberthon, which is due to end tomorrow. With prizes and everything. (Prizes other than the ones that can only be enjoyed in Australia will be shipped to New Zealand.)

The new issues of the 4th Floor Journal is out and look! Our resident poet!

My partner, Justine Fletcher, has an exhibition on at the National Academy of Fine Arts until November 26. It’s an installation connected to this photograph of the inaugural Council of Women (1896), and - quite by coincidence - half of what she makes will go to Wellington Rape Crisis.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The map vs. the territory


The location of the Sistine Chapel, next to Saint Peter's
Revelations that the NSA spied on the conclave that elected Pope Francis. According to the report by weekly magazine Panorama, the information collected was categorised under four general topics: ‘Leadership intentions’, ‘Threats to financial system’, ‘Foreign policy objectives’, ‘Human rights’. All of them are intriguing. What’s even more intriguing, is that the spies of the great power would want to go there, inside that building, where 109 old men from what was once a great power deliberated on who should lead them for the next few months or years.

Back when it was a great power, the Church used to have its own network of spies. In 1593, they renditioned Giordano Bruno to Rome, where he was to stand trial for believing that the universe worked in a certain way. When he refused to say different, they burned him alive, after clamping his tongue to make sure that he couldn’t address the crowd.

Campo de' Fiori, Rome
For a time, Giordano Bruno had enjoyed the protection of the English court. He also lived in France, Switzerland. Germany. There was no other continent for him to be back then. The world was smaller. So he moved to Venice, in the hope that he would be safe there. He wasn’t.

Moscow's Domodovo Airport
Edward Snowden’s world is larger, but it’s also more densely patrolled. When they thought he had boarded a plane headed for Bolivia, they forced the plane to land. They denied him use of the sky. Except he wasn’t even on the plane. Snowden is a heretic, as is Julian Assange. Intelligence gathering is the expression of the modern will to knowledge and information. The closest thing we have to a secular religion.

If the National Security Agency really intended to spy on the conclave – and there is some doubt that they actually did, as we have but a single report to go by – then it would be an expression not just of extreme paranoia, but also of that will to knowledge; a desire to listen in to every conversation, even the ones involving archaic organisations and conducted in low-tech fashion according to pre-Information Age protocols. If we could get into that room, without being cardinals or relying on gossip, then there would truly be no place barred to us. That’s reason enough.

***

Much is constantly written about those mapping tools that have successfully embedded themselves into everyday life, more so now that we have smart phones and touch screens. Most of us are familiar with Google Earth, yet for me personally the smoothness of its operation is still a source of amazement. How you can zoom in onto the map or the aerial picture until it becomes blurred and grainy, only for the image to switch to the first-person, immersive Street View. From then on the operation becomes slow and clumsy, but bloody hell. It seems forever since we could do this, yet it is one of those innovations that changes the way you understand the world around you.

As a couple of comedians have remarked: what do we do, when we first come across one of these tools? We ‘visit’ our house. Then our childhood neighbourhoods. But there is no gag here: it is the perfectly normal, reasonable, human thing to do. To view the places you know best from a new vantage point. To model, manipulate and remake that intimate geography.

I go on these tours often, armed with sentimentalism and the migrant experience. I do it also to reassure myself that I still know my way around. Or to check if any of the images have been updated. Early on, with Google Earth, entire chunks of Lombardy, especially down towards Mum’s old village, were blanketed with fog. Gradually they were replaced with pictures taken on clear days, leading to a neat patchworks of large rectangles, some 30 kilometres or more across, a clear one sitting next to another of uniform milky white. Or there would be a tract of countryside in summer next to one still stuck in autumn or winter. (This still happens.) Then sometimes you would zoom in and at the next level of detail, the image would be clear, as if you’d broken through clouds.

These days, it’s always sunny on Google Earth.

Checking if the images have been updated during the initial roll-out served another purpose: to see if a familiar place was now shown at a higher resolution. The other world got gradually clearer.

***

Yesterday I tried Bing’s 3D Maps for the first time. Bing’s world is still very patchy, with large areas at a low resolution, and a very limited availability of the Street View feature (which Microsoft has dubbed ‘Streetside’. Bless them.) But the maps aren’t altogether inferior to Google Earth’s. The 3D view is in fact remarkably good. It hit me, again, that feeling of seeing for the first time the places with which I’m most intimately, almost pre-consciously familiar. There’s the house in which I was born.


There’s my old school.


They appear to me, in perfect relief, almost hyperreal. If I rotate an image, this will modify the perspective and return a different image taken at a different time of the day, or the year.


Clearly, this goes well beyond functional representation. It’s that will to total knowledge, again. The desire to be everywhere at once, as is the internet, which is fundamentally a will to control. Yet I spend hours looking at the images, feeling that a different place and time are within my grasp. Nothing is more vivid than these electronic ghosts.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One hundred years alive, ten days dead


It’s about trying to understand why this story still matters. A very old man, aged one hundred, still imprisoned – albeit under comfortable house arrest, at the residence of his lawyer – for a crime he committed a lifetime ago, on 24 March 1944. The man dies. You might think it’s the end of the story, or you might hope for some closure. But immediately another story begins: how are we to dispose of his body? What rites are to be afforded to this man – what kind of comfort in death?

The man’s name was Erich Priebke. For the neonazis that three months ago, when he turned one hundred, painted his name on the walls of Rome, he was ‘the captain’. They wrote Happy birthday, Priebke. And Honour to the hero Priebke.


Priebke’s crime, beside the many likely ones that haven’t been documented, was to have taken part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre at the time of the German occupation of Rome. The order came directly from Hitler, who had asked initially for an even bloodier reprisal. Not ten, but fifty dead Italians for every German, and the destruction of an entire suburb of the capital.

The day before, a group of communist partisans had carried out a daring attack at Via Rasella, killing 32 soldiers of an Italian military police corps attached to the SS. It was eventually decreed that 320 Italians would have to die, then 330, when one of the survivors died in hospital that evening. The designated victims were partisans who had been imprisoned and tortured in the infamous Gestapo headquarters of Via Tasso, 57 Jews who hadn’t yet been deported, and the balance to be comprised of common criminals, all of whom Captain Priebke had helped to select. The men were taken to the remnants of ancient catacombs along the via Ardeatina, on the outskirts of the city, made to kneel and killed with a single shot each at the base of the skull. Then the caves were sealed with explosives, to conceal the bodies and make sure there wouldn’t be any unlikely survivors.

The memorial at the Fosse Ardeatine
This was the hero Priebke. Second in command to Marshall Kesserling, he helped oversee this cowardly massacre, which was besides more an act of bureaucracy than a military action. And an atrociously clumsy one at that: once they reached the caves, the officers realised they had rounded up five men too many, but judged it too late to release them. Thus the final number of victims was 335.

Then, at war’s end, like a hero, Priebke fled. For nearly 50 years he lived as a free man in Argentina, where he became a respected member of the community of Bariloche. The director of the German cultural association, no less. Until 1994, when reporters from the American television station ABC tracked him down. They approached him in the street, in broad daylight. When they asked him if he was Erich Priebke, he didn’t try to deny it.

The next year he was extradited. Then, the trial. Or rather, a series of trials, as customary in the Italian system, one of which ended in an acquittal followed by the besieging of the Tribunal by protesters. Finally, in 1998, a definitive sentence to life imprisonment. Whatever life he had left.


Somebody always asks, at times such as those, what good could it possible do to put an 85 year old man in jail. The rest of Priebke’s far-too-long existence, as well as the ten days that he has spent dead thus far, offer an exemplary justification.

In life, he never repented. Maybe that’s what makes him a hero to the neofascists and the neonazis, although he hasn’t expressed defiant pride either, just the old, trite justification that he was following orders, and never wished to Jewish people or anyone else any harm. As if – quite aside from anything else – an officer of the SS were a common German soldier, and not an elite member of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. Equally ambiguous and strident was his habit of describing his job under Kesserling as that of ‘dealing with terrorists’, and indeed his supporters even now grotesquely blame the reprisal on the partisans’ action.

As a matter of fact, there was never an explicit public warning that the killing of German soldiers would provoke such reaction. Kesserling’s communiqué that contained that edict – ‘10 Italians will be killed for every German’ – was issued the day after the massacre, and ended with the words ‘the order has already been executed’.

That emblematic phrase, which was chosen by Alessandro Portelli as the title of his book on the Fosse Ardeatine, exemplifies the self-serving logic to which Priebke remained faithful until the very end. So now we have a video-testament, of which some excerpts have been released. More excuses, no doubt the casting of a very indulgent light on the atrocities of Nazism and Fascism. Another ‘document’ with to enrich the libraries of Casa Pound and the other far Right organizations across Europe. Another text to be quoted. ‘As Captain Priebke said…’


But there is still a bit of reckoning left for Erich Priebke. No sooner did he die, that the Mayor of Rome ordered that he not be accorded a civil funeral by the city, a prohibition that the prefect extended to the whole province. In a surprise gesture – this new Pope has given us a few of those – the Pontifical Vicar of Rome denied him the right to a Catholic funeral (Priebke had converted in 1946, whilst escaping the country with the help of the Vatican’s Ratline). After days of impasse, the Society of Saint Pius X – the ultra-conservative schismatic fraternity that includes Holocaust denier bishop Richard Williamson, and that Pope Benedict XVI seemed determined for a while to bring back into the fold – offered to celebrate his funeral at their priory in Albano Laziale, a town on the Alban hills which was a centre of partisan resistance during the war. But neither the heavy police escort nor a group of twenty or so neonazis managed to overcome the opposition of the protesters, so the funeral was not held.

Priebke’s remains will likely end up, if not as one of those purposefully, ritually misplaced bodies, as an exile in death, at least for some time. A heart surgeon in the northern city of Brescia offered it sanctuary in his family crypt, only to be swiftly denied by the local Mayor. Now his lawyer and chief supporter, Paolo Giachini, claims that a secret burial place has been found, ‘either in Germany or in Italy’. Perhaps. But it will still have to get there.


Expect more battles over this piece of old flesh. In the meantime, we have to ask why it still matters. Why we won’t let him be.

Bodies and rites are powerful symbols, and it was a surprising show of unity for our chief civic and religious institutions to come together to deny those rites to that particular body. I welcome their stance, and stand in solidarity with the protestors. But it’s a curious thing for the society in which Mussolini memorabilia are sold at every second newsstand, and that just last year was dedicating a monument to the butcher of Ethiopia, Rodolfo Graziani, to be so stark in its condemnation of the foreign villain alone. For that historic, misplaced indulgence towards our own, we are still called upon to account.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Sixteen tales of information technology in education, 1991-2013


A guest post by Megan Clayton


1.
It was not compulsory. My father, a technician and audio engineer, belonged to an Apple Computer Users’ Group and read print publications – magazines – about computing. The resource closet adjacent to his workroom was stocked floor to ceiling with used audiocassettes, loosely classified by course code.

2.
It was not compulsory. Each office of part-time tutors had one networked computer, part of a suite of Macintosh Classics that had been replaced, in the lecturers’ offices, with more recent models. The screen was small enough that a typewriter was the more practical option for word-processing.

The internal mail was still preferred for communication since while technically it was not faster, it was delivered twice a day and regularly checked by all.

3.
It was not compulsory. The technician on the floor brought me a length of cable to connect to the campus Ethernet and I plugged in my laptop. Behind the copy of ClarisWorks in which I was writing my thesis I ran Usenet, checking my groups throughout the day.

4.
It was not compulsory. The new students used it differently; those who came from abroad were willing to spend their home currency on things teachers considered wasteful and expensive, like international mobile phone calls.

One student faced off a test supervisor in mutual bewilderment after he left the room to take a business call and was not allowed back in.

5.
It was obligatory. The hastily-composed rule to switch off phones in the classroom brought distress and rebellion. Without that signal, without that availability to communicants near and far, how could life in this little room, this little town, be tolerated?

The calls into class continued, sometimes from classmates in other lecture theatres, sometimes from family if a phone call to the administrator had proved unsatisfactory, sometimes from creditors, debtors, suitors.


6.
It was obligatory. The students who were tired first thing in the morning had almost invariably been up late at night on instant messaging, keeping the connection that brought the balm of home into the hair-shirt of here. They made pillows on their desks out of coats, scarves and books and slept fitfully through the lecture. Some on arrival unpacked only those accoutrements necessary to make these mini-beds.

7.
It was obligatory. My first class of domestic preparatory students was lively. Many of them belonged to the same surf lifesaving club and brought the camaraderie of the team. All had modest mobile phones that they held just below their desks, to exchange text messages continuously throughout our shared hours.

“But Megan,” they said, in response to one of my chidings, “we’re texting about the lecture! And about you! And we only ever say nice things!”

8.
It was obligatory. A widespread rumour was that a colleague whose role was made redundant had been targeted because of a refusal to use email, or any technology other than the photocopier.

Another colleague brought long handwritten essays to meetings from which to read counterarguments to whatever was under discussion. There was only ever one copy available.

9.
It was fragmentary. The colleagues with responsibility for teaching computing had also the unofficial job of standardising staff practice. All successes were partial. A repeated plea for date footers and page numbering on documents became socially awkward. Who would want to search electronically a document once it had been used? Far simpler to print out, label and file.

10.
It was fragmentary. There was a growing sense that staff should try to learn about some of the communication technologies their students were using. A colleague gave a presentation on how teachers might want to make use of a new site called Twitter.

Why would anyone want to share their life on the Internet, said another, where any stranger could read it? Why not just think one’s own thoughts privately and talk to friends, talk to students, face-to-face?


11.
It was fragmentary. Students in the computer workrooms kept Facebook open under tabbed browsing, scheduled their plans and narrated their weekends at the same time as advancing, line by cold line, through prescribed assignments.

I composed a brief rubric: Thank you for your Friend request, but I will need to wait until the end of the course and the release of results before I accept it.

I searched the site for the names of former students, to keep balance between memory and the present.

12.
It was fragmentary. A student, young and perpetually dazed, came into the office to ask for weeks-old course materials, explanations of content, assignment extensions. Haven’t you read the weekly emails on what you have to do? I asked. Oh, I don’t really check my email, said the student. Too many messages.

13.
It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

All notices go on the Intranet. Since we know most of you don’t go on the Intranet, here are the week’s most relevant notices by email.

I don’t want to work on this project if it involves so many emails. They are extra work on top of what I am actually here to do.

A few funny cats to brighten your day: email them to everyone who needs a laugh TGIF!

14.
It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

You can give course notices on your phone.

I only use my phone for emergencies, like in the earthquake.

The hard shell of the open laptop, raised like a drawbridge to deflect, to disconnect.

I don’t want to put a comment in the learning forum because it might be wrong and then I’ll feel dumb.

Is this for homeworks, teacher, on the Internet? Will you give us a grade?

15.
It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The research shows that. Here’s a link about what we could be doing here.

Write it out in longhand and give it to the administrator to type.

Can you send that to me again; I can’t open .docx at home.

Remember to say your name in any text you send me or I won’t know how to answer the information you need.


16.
It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The contact hours in the classroom and the sporadic access in between, the logs that show who has completed the readings and who is offline.

The copyright notices at the photocopier and the ghost-stacks of extracts that chafe at the ten percent limit.

The professional futurists whose utopias will not be mocked, except through the limits of budget proposals.

The noise, the compliance, the surveillance.

The light in the cracks.


Monday, October 7, 2013

No one knows where you are




‘An ad for drowning.’ This is what Jennifer Mills called the video that Jeff Sparrow posted on Overland last Monday, and that has haunted me ever since. She was right, too: it is an ad for drowning, as opposed to the appeal to beware of people smugglers that it purports to be, for it presents drowning as a consumer choice, albeit catastrophic, which the prospective migrant should refuse to make. In between ‘Where the bloody hell are you’ and ‘No one knows where you are’ takes place, as Jeff alluded to, the construction of two Australias to be marketed to two radically different kinds of foreign audiences: one for the affluent and mobile (sunny, available, sexy); the other for the poor and desperate (dark, inaccessible, deadly).

This week I was going to post about the miners’ strike at Nuraxi Figus, Sardinia – a story that takes place four hundreds metres underground, and involves a group of workers threatening to detonate themselves and their workplace – but now I’m stuck on this one, which concerns thousands of people making another, even more desperate gamble. For all its intolerable fake piety and cruelty, the opening line of the video captures the horror of the migrants who die at sea, undocumented and unseen, often unreported, the water that closes above them already a kind of forgetting.

A great many of these deaths occur a short distance from Nuraxi Figus, in what is alternatively known as the Strait of Sicily, the Kelibia Channel and a few other names. As little as ninety miles separate Europe from Africa in that patch of the Mediterranean, yet it has been calculated that over 2,000 migrants died trying to make the crossing in 2011 alone.

For the last twenty-five years, the question has been the same: how is it even possible to lose so many people in such a small and densely trafficked and patrolled area? Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has recently cited as a significant contributing factor the muddled rules on liability that discourage commercial vessels from responding to distress signals, for fear of repercussions including – unbelievably – being charged with aiding illegal immigration. It is but one of the ways in which this ongoing massacre is backed by the politicians of what journalist Gabriele Del Grande calls ‘Fortress Europe’. And of course, in order for the issue to remain all but invisible, it is essential that the victims be faceless and nameless to the European public, as it is nearly always the case.

But there are some exceptions. This, we think, is one of the dead.


Samia Yusuf Omar ran in the 200 metres at the Beijing Olympics and was featured back then in stories about athletes overcoming great adversity to compete at the games. She then returned to Somalia where, according to a report by Al Jazeera, she faced harassment by Islamist militia goups, before moving first to Sudan, then to Libya and finally trying to reach Europe, possibly in order to train there in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. Reports on what happened next aren’t conclusive, but it seems that the boat that carried Omar ran out of petrol and she was amongst the eight passengers who died trying to board an Italian navy ship. The news of her death however didn’t reach the athletics community until five months later, when Somali Olympic great Abdi Bile brought it up at a talk.

The closest source for the exact circumstances of Omar’s death is her sister, Hodan Yusuf Omar, who lives in Finland and spoke from there in Somali via phone to the BBC. This is how news travel before and after these tragedies: across great distances, often in translation and wrapped in uncertainty as to the date of the voyage, whether the loved one was actually on the boat, and most importantly what happened to them. This is not the world of instant communication via social media, of Twitter and Skype: it is a world of broken phone connections and messages that are laboriously passed on; of your family having to wonder for weeks, if not months or years, sometimes never knowing for sure, and rarely if ever with the comfort of a body to bury and care for.

For six years now Del Grande has been keeping a register of the reported drownings over a span of the last twenty-plus years, but it consists of dates and numbers only. There are no names to match those numbers to, let alone faces or histories. It is also, by the author’s own admission, a very partial list. There is so much that we don’t know, and that we barely seek to know.


Between the 1st and the 29th of March of 2011, four boats left Tunisia carrying a total of 250 young men. There is some evidence that all of the boats reached their destination. Some of the men were recognised by relatives from the brief footage in the news media. There were a few phone calls, or reports of phone calls, on the days of each arrival. ‘We got here, they are about to transfer us to Caltanissetta’. Then nothing. Fifteen months later, the whereabouts of all of these migrants are unknown. Some, like Gabriele Del Grande, doubt that the boats ever arrived. How could they have all failed to contact their families this long, he opines. This many people don’t disappear like that. But the mystery remains: did they drown at sea, or drown on land? Did they choose to go missing, taking advantage of the difficulties that the authorities had in the hectic days of the Arab Spring to document all of the arrivals? Italy has a law that makes clandestine immigration a crime punishable with incarceration, should you to try to re-enter the country after the initial expulsion, and so there is something to be gained in slipping through and not letting the police obtain your name and fingerprints. But still no one knows where these men are.

Now some of the families have got together and travelled to Rome to demand to know the truth. They are mothers, in the majority, and so the images of their campaign further fuel the inevitable, near-automatic analogy with the fate of the desaparecidos. They want to know what happened to their sons.


This is the only thing that is unusual about this story, the subject this week of a report by Italian newspaper La Repubblica: not that 250 men may have died trying to scale the wall of the European fortress, but that there are families demanding that it not end there, with the collation of yet another statistic; who want the faces and names of their sons and husbands to be part of the public record, and for there to be answers, a reckoning. All of the things that we don’t demand of ourselves.

Non-update

The above is a post I wrote for Overland this time last year, offered this week in lieu of writing a new one because I have nothing to add. Last week’s dead are the same people as last year’s disappeared (whose fate is still unknown) and last year's dead. The massacre continues, and I really don’t know how chroniclers like Del Grande do it: how they keep telling the same story; how they keep adding to the macabre roll of the dead or vanished at sea, against the same, unchanging backdrop of criminal indifference.

This is the front page of last Friday’s Il manifesto. The headline reads: Murder Victims.


I see that some campaigners are calling for a European day of mourning for the victims of Lampedusa. It comes with a very tentative list of demands for change, but my first reaction when I was forwarded the petition was that Europe shouldn’t be granted the comfort of mourning. We don’t deserve it.


Monday, September 30, 2013

The struggle for democracy



Short of social structures collapsing completely, you don’t stop teaching children just because there’s a war. My father’s time at primary school, for instance, coincided almost to the day with the Italian involvement in the Second World War, and continued when he had to leave Milan during the bombings. He would have been taught notions not vastly dissimilar to these. I wonder how the lessons changed in 1943, when we switched sides.

In April of 1944, Cadbury Brothers Limited of Bourneville produced, and the University of London Press distributed, a book for use in British schools. This one.


The struggle for democracy is not a topic that my parents would have had the opportunity to learn about, but this small book is not just a document of the ideological conflict in Europe at the time. Set against the current discourse around inequality, it also provides a historical link to some key contemporary ideas and rhetorical strategies

The most striking and appealing aspect of the book is what the author – one W.E. Brown – calls 'its visual method'. I’d argue that the main instrument of persuasion of today’s anti-inequality campaigners is a similarly didactic graphical presentation of statistics. While he may not be the originator of this style, I associate this approach particularly with Robert Reich, notably in his video The truth about the economy (with a strong local echo in this presentation featuring David Cunliffe).


The Struggle for Democracy was written on the eve of what Reich calls The Great Prosperity, albeit in a different country – the author laments in fact how ‘every country in the world wants to buy from America’, portending to economic troubles down the line. That’s the other element of historical interest: the snapshot of social democracy as an idea at the moment of its greatest promise, yet tinged with scepticism concerning how far this idea could go in perfecting society and curing it of its ills.

But first there’s the myth of origin. In spite of the book’s title, it seems that it took very little struggle to achieve democracy in Britain. Only two specific incidents of repression are mentioned: the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and the transportation to Australia of the ‘Tolpuddle martyrs’, six Dorset farm Labourers guilty of joining the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1834.


Elsewhere, police intervention is implicitly presented as the natural State response to sedition. We learn for instance that all but the ‘sober working-men leaders’ of the Chartist movement ‘followed an excitable Irishman named Feargus O’Connor, who encouraged them to strike and riot’ (leading to hundreds of arrests), and that ‘the most violent supporters of [the women’s Suffrage] movement, the Sufragettes… had many bitter encounters with the law.’ But it was jobs for women in the Great War that made their demand for the vote irresistible, and so too every piece of social reform – from the extensions of the franchise to the introduction of social services – is attributed to enlightened politicians or wealthy reformers: Robert Owen, Jeremy Bentham, Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Beveridge. The British working class was never an agent of its own destiny.

The struggle for democracy is therefore primarily a struggle of reason, and for reason, and the British model of social democracy itself is presented as a technology for improving society as much as a system of government inspired by a set of humanistic principles. ‘Practical idealists improve housing, but better planning of housing must follow,’ proclaims the author, pitting the urban squalor of Dickens’ Hard Times against a modern planned ‘garden city’.



It is the rational reorganization of municipal councils that allows the citizens’ representatives to manage and improve the nation's cities.


But nowhere is democratic progress more measurable than in the area of social services. In this table, included in the 1950 revised edition of the book, every bit of social spending is carefully laid out. Each symbol represents 10 million pounds sterling of expenditure in education, health, housing and so forth, and a transparent, proportionally large benefit to the collective.

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This is the high point. When this table was drawn, the New Zealand Labour Social Security Minister had not long since declared to an audience including WB Sutch that ‘everything was done’, meaning that all the social progress that it might be possible to wish for or imagine had been achieved. It was, if not the end of history, perhaps the end of politics – certainly of emancipatory politics.

The Struggle for Democracy devotes to this high point its boldest page. According to its design, the aim of the welfare state is defeat the five chief enemies of society as identified by William Beveridge – Idleness, Want, Disease, Ignorance and Squalor – via the application of (respectively) full employment, social insurance, health services, education acts and town planning.

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But then, in perplexing fashion, a page directly follows, not glossing but in fact questioning this design. The heading is ‘The problems of the welfare state’. Of these, some are economic and not entirely unreasonable – balance of payment issues and dependence on the Marshall plan; reduced competition among businesses; inflation resulting from excessive bargaining power of a fully employed workforce – whereas one, with which we are all too familiar, is moral: do we think carefully enough ‘before helping ourselves to the benefits provided by the State?’ Do others? Will a society that has reached true social security still be motivated to work hard?


Of social democracy, nowadays, there remains but a husk. Robert Reich will continue to measure the staggering growth in wealth inequality in the United States between 1980 and today as if 1980 were a time to be nostalgic for; a time of social justice. Whereas in New Zealand, the Labour Party will continue to preach full employment as a workable solution in a post-Keynesian world, and leave unanswered the question of what to do with the people who won’t be able to work all those ghost jobs. They’ll likely remain ‘a moral problem’, and continue to be punished so that everyone else may be motivated to work hard. As for those who might aspire to a more radical kind of justice, ‘socialism is not a word I would use’, and ‘the “revolution” is the accumulation of the progressive choices that left-wing people of goodwill make every minute of every day’. These are the carefully patrolled limits of our politics.

The strange struggle without strife of this little book captures well our singular paradox: of living the day after the best of all possible worlds, wishing to recapture that which we never really had; or that, even if we thought had it, we always knew it wouldn’t last.





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