Monday, March 26, 2012

The Empty Fortress

There are books that, more than others, carry legible traces of their history. This one is well-worn and shows signs of successive repairs. During one of these repairs, the original paperback cover was cut out and glued onto a sturdier one made of cardboard, preserving what was left of the image of a child pensively holding a doll. There is no tenderness on either of those faces – the child or the doll’s – just a sort of detached seriousness.

Because it comes from a library, this book includes a borrowing record, although there is no way to tell if it is exhaustive. The earliest stamp on the sheet affixed inside the back cover is dated 27 May 1982.

Who are you, who read the book at that time? Was it you who underlined in pencil the description of disabled children as ‘self-contained, narcissistic and empty’, or the part about the causes of their ‘emotional and intellectual death’? And what was your connection to those statements – did you evaluate them dispassionately or did they touch you personally? Were you sceptical or did you believe?

It’s thirty years later and the book still sits on its shelf at the library of my university, on the same floor as the letters of Antonio Gramsci, whose history it mirrors in reverse: one is an unlikely collection of writings by a man whom the state had tried, but failed, to extinguish intellectually; the other a work of bad scholarship whose popular appeal and institutional backing made invulnerable to criticism. One symbolises struggle and testimony; the other the persistence of an error. At Victoria’s library, both books have survived a number of cullings and cutbacks. Both books, as objects, carry material yet elusive signs of their successive encounters with their readers.

The Empty Fortress was first published in 1967 and is generally regarded as the text that either originated or popularised the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory of autism (neither charge is entirely correct, as I’m going to discuss later). The book’s author, Bruno Bettelheim, was an Austrian concentration camp survivor most famous in the field of psychology for a 1943 paper on the effects on the psyche of what he called ‘extreme situations’. The paper – one of the earliest attempts to document life in the Nazi camps – was largely based on Bettelheim’s own observations.

By 1967, Bettelheim had been for over twenty years professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children. It was in this setting that he engaged in the study of autism, a developmental disorder first (and independently) described by Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner in the early 1940s. One especially strong factor that drew Bettelheim to this condition was the resemblance of some autistic behaviours to what he had observed at Birkenau amongst the prisoners who exhibited extreme emotional withdrawal and a seemingly passive resignation to their fate – those that in the argot of the camp were called “moslems”. The book’s intent is therefore twofold: firstly, to argue that these two kinds of autism are manifestations of the same condition, in children and adults respectively; and secondly, that their common psychogenic origin points to psychoanalysis as the only effective form of treatment.

The latter hypothesis shaped the understanding of autism not only amongst laypeople but also in large parts of the scientific community for decades to come, and still enjoys considerable favour in some countries in spite of having been comprehensively discredited. However the larger issues is how it could possibly have been credited in the first place. Bettelheim’s book is so riddled with fallacies and circular reasoning, so devoid of scientifically falsifiable evidence – save for the results that he claimed to have achieved with the children treated by the school (it was decades before the data from his small and likely misrepresented sample was found to be unreliable) – as to beggar belief that it was ever taken seriously. In their study of the fortune of Bettelheim's ideas, Katherine DeMaria Severson, James Arnt Anne and Denise Jodlowski attribute this success to a conjunction of factors, namely
Post-war fascination with Freud and the Holocaust; his careful management of his public image; his careful attention to writing for a popular audience; and a generalized anxiety about the family in 1950s and 1960s America (Autism and Representation, 68).
The first and the last of these factors seem particularly relevant in the context of the persistent tendency to consider autism as a cultural condition, irrespective of its psychological, neurological and social specificity. When contemporary reviewer Eliot Fremont-Smith wrote in The New York Times that ‘The Empty Fortress is […] as much a philosophical and political book as it is a scientific one’ – a statement which he intended as praise and was duly recycled on the jacket of later editions of the book – he unwittingly emphasised one of the most damning and at the most time seductive aspects of Bettelheim’s rhetorical strategy, which consists in making statements of cultural as opposed to logical or scientific appeal.

To this we must add, in Bettelheim’s partial defence, that for contemporary audiences the contention – advanced by both Kanner and Asperger – that autism likely had a primarily organic (we would say genetic) origin was tantamount to denying that the life of the people who suffered from it could be improved. Belief in psychoanalytic treatment could therefore be perceived as the humane option, and in a sense it was: the prescription of conventional psychiatry and medicine at this time was long-term institutionalisation, frequently coupled with electroconvulsive therapy. Psychotherapy wasn’t the only alternative, but it was an alternative nonetheless. However in order for this option to be open at all, in adherence to Freudian theory it first of all had to be postulated (rather than argued or demonstrated) that autism had psychological causes that could be reversed by means of psychotherapy. The origin of autism had therefore to reside in severe psychological trauma analogous, in Bettelheim’s view, to the kind that made some concentration camp prisoners revert to a similar state as adults.

Enter the theory of the refrigerator mother, which wasn’t of Bettelheim’s own coinage but originated in comments that Kanner himself made at the time of his initial studies, when he observed that ‘emotional refrigeration’ was a common feature of the families of autistic children. Later he suggested that the condition might be related to ‘genuine lack of maternal warmth’. Bettelheim took this idea and put it at the centre of his theory of autism. However in so doing he also made it considerably more sophisticated and cruel.

Firstly we must note that the book is highly contradictory on this subject, in spite of its being absolutely central to Bettelheim’s entire thesis. Thus the author protests that ‘it serves no good purpose to make the parents of autistic children feel guilty as having caused the disturbance’ (403), and warns against the ‘myth of the perfect, all-giving mother we all wish we had had’ (28), or even goes as far as suggest that the mother’s role wouldn’t be so central (therefore so catastrophic when she proves to be inadequate) if the raising of infants wasn’t almost solely devolved to her for socio-historical reasons. However these few scattered comments do nothing to blunt the sustained attack mounted in the book against the parents – and most especially the mothers – of autistic children, an attack which admits no possible defence.

In light of the analogy with the concentration camp explicitly drawn by Bettelheim, we might expect him to trace the cause of autism to some comparably severe form of abuse or neglect, but of course that would clash against the observable fact that this is very seldom the case. The author’s only recourse therefore is to posit that there are critical times in the life of an infant when she must develop a deep bonding with her mother based on the carefully balanced and timely exchange of emotional signals. A mother that nurses her baby at fixed times, or who responds either too promptly or not promptly enough to the baby’s various demands, or allows the child to experience the world as frustrating at a particularly vulnerable time, might trigger the autistic Anlage and the inexorable onset of the condition. So it is not simply a case of a mother being ‘cold’ or ‘distant’ – for this too might not chime with real-world experience and call the hypothesis into question. The only way to lock in the Freudian approach is therefore to propose that even a warm or at any rate ostensibly warm mother could fail to read the signals correctly or read them but fail to respond correctly. In one of the book’s most chilling passages, Bettelheim observes:
A mother may be experienced as rejecting by the infant for a multitude of different reasons, connected with either her conscious or unconscious attitudes, her bodily or mental defects, her physical presence or absence, her unavoidable libidinal preoccupations, her aggressions, her anxieties, etc. (69)
In other words: there is no recipe to being a good mother, but if your child develops autism then it means you’ve been a bad mother. And in case the above passage might suggest to you – as the author himself seems inclined to provisionally conclude – that the ‘perception of rejection’ may derive from the child’s own neurosis and not constitute evidence of actual rejection, in the closing chapters Bettelheim shuts that particular door when he writes that ‘the background of all autistic children’ is that they are ‘utterly unacceptable to their parents for one reason or another.’ (355)

That is the indictment, finally: that while the behaviour of parents (by which again we mean mostly mothers) may vary widely, and even appear to be affectionate, the psychological injury stems from genuine rejection. And if a mother protests that she loves her child and seem convinced and convincing in doing so, it will be a simple matter of informing her that she harbours unconscious feelings of rejection.

There are many more examples in the book of such circular thinking, although few of them are quite as callous or as central to its argument. Bettelheim duly reinforced this core premise by selecting for his case studies three children from highly dysfunctional if not downright abusive families, and indeed it’s been speculated that he might have favoured children from that particular kind of circumstances for the institution’s very limited intake, which was of no more than seven or eight patients at a time.

Image via the Center for Social Media

By refining and expanding the refrigerator mother theory with the armoury of Freudian psychology, Bettelheim ensured it would speak to an audience that was culturally predisposed to hear such arguments, thus ensuring the popular legitimisation of his work, the vast increase of his personal prestige and a steady flow of benefactors and funds. Of course nowadays the appeal of pseudo-scientific hypotheses on the grounds that they fit in with dominant beliefs about causation is hardly diminished: so not only are Bettelheim’s ideas still in vogue in some countries, notably France and South Korea, but the equally disproved vaccination theory continues to enjoy significant support, causing unnecessary anguish and diverting resources from the investigation and treatment of autism.

In both instances we are dealing – and in a way that resonates with the autistic experience itself – with the problem of how we respond when faced with the limits of our knowledge. There is so much about the proximal causes and most importantly the dynamics of autism that remains mysterious to us, at the same time as we continue to seek better treatments and more effective ways to improve the lives of people on the spectrum, an effort that turns us increasingly towards treating society and questioning the notion of normalcy. But to acknowledge the mystery means to acknowledge the person. So this strikes me now as the single most enduringly offensive aspect of Bettelheim’s work: that cover, that full title, with its implication – that the fortress is empty, that the self with whom we are unable to communicate has no feeling and does not exist. This is the idea that more than any other we are still called upon to reject.

Bruno Bettelheim. The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self. New York: The Free Press, 1972.

This seems like the right place to recommend Hilary Stace’s doctoral thesis on autism policy in New Zealand, which you can read about and access from here

For a critique of the psychoanalitic approach to curing autism still prevalent in France, see – and consider supporting – Sophie Robert's corageous documentary Le Mur ou la psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’autisme, available here with English subtitles.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Finlands of the Mind

Kiwi Foo is a private gathering that takes place every year at Mahurangi College in Warkworth. It has no entry fee. The event is run on the model of the unconference, with a fluid agenda and topics for discussion selected by participants as they go along. Invitations are extended primarily to technology industry people and policy makers. 

Mauricio Freitas was there in 2008. He looked around and saw ‘technologists, developers, thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs’. David Farrar was first invited in 2009. He thought that the first great thing about it was that there were no stupid people there. Stephen Judd went this year and wrote this lovely post about Luddism and tools of conviviality.

Well-known invitees of past editions include Finance Minister Bill English, broadcaster Kim Hill, Labour Minister David Cunliffe and his colleague Judith Tizard, Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, journalists Rod Oram and Bernard Hickey. Collectively, the organisers describe the type of the Kiwi Foo participant as ‘doing interesting work in fields such as neuroscience, Internet applications, psychology, open source programming, art, business, physics, politics, and all manner of interesting science and technology’.  So you get the idea: we’re talking about a crowd consisting mainly of prominent urban professionals – la crème of the technocracy – interacting with politicians and colleagues and generally mucking about for a couple of days. Nothing untoward there, or even particularly noteworthy if you don’t happen to move in those circles.

Possibly more surprising, however, at least to me, was the revelation in this post by Russell Brown that proceedings this year included a long session led by David Shearer with the object of discussing the ideas in his opening speech as Labour leader. In fact I confess that the first time I read the post, my brain possibly occupied by something else Russell wrote about the welfare section of the speech not being as bad as some of his gloomier friends had predicted (I flatter myself that I might be one of those glooms), it didn’t even register. It did a couple of days later, when he added further details in the comments, including this:
I actually have a picture of the room: David Shearer and David Farrar are sitting next to each other!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exclamation mark used more appropriately. But let’s pause to survey the scene for a moment.

Elevated to the leadership of Labour in early December by the right wing of the party, Mr Shearer spent the first three months in his new job dodging questions about major industrial disputes, cautioning against ‘politicising Christchurch’ and sending signals through the press that he was going to move the party closer to the centre (or, in standard English, ‘the right’), most notably on welfare. This generated quite some trepidation amongst the least neoliberal-friendly elements in the party and the political Left more generally, but growing questions about the new leader’s selective silence – for he somehow found the time to out-xenophobe the Tories on the subject of farm sales to the Chinese – were met with the reassurance that he was busy strategising and preparing his first speech, which wouldn’t disappoint. It turns out that there was obviously some truth to that, because here is in mid-February, two months into the process, soliciting ideas for his first major speech as Labour leader at a refreshingly non-partisan gathering of elite knowledge economy workers, sitting side by side with one of the country’s principal conservative political commentators as well as director of National Party pollster Curia.

I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know what it is that they talked about. I know people who were, and I could ask them, but I'm not interested in the actual contents of the conversation ­– it's not where I'm going with this. Perhaps Shearer wanted to sound them out primarily on ICT issues, as his rival for the leadership, David Cunliffe, had done when he held that portfolio. However Kiwi Foo aims to offer more than just tech industry expertise. Tim O'Reilly, the co-creator of the original Foo Camp, describes the goal of his company as ‘changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators’. This is the intellectual milieu, and that is one of the keywords of Shearer’s speech: innovation. Now of course if you want innovation you lock yourself up in a room with forty of the best and brightest at Kiwi Foo. Those are your innovators. Whereas there would be no point in talking to, say, unionists, or the Alternative Welfare Working Group, because those people are awfully political, and besides what innovations could possibly come from them?

So this would be my question: as his public silence became a media story and the rumblings within his own party were mounting, whom, if anyone, did David Shearer listen to besides those forty people in Warkworth? And what ideas did he get, in Warkworth or elsewhere, other than that of being willing to listen to more ideas, wherever they come from, but only accept the best of them, and to question the comfortable assumptions we make, in order to be ready on Day One – it’s really written like that in the speech, with capitals – to forge a new New Zealand? For that was the only concrete commitment in the eventual breaking of that silence, the closest thing to a policy platform in his opening statement. David Shearer: he’s all ears. 

Let's do it again some time

To put it another way, the question is just whom is David Shearer prepared to listen to, therefore not so much an issue of where he has been – in this instance we have a confirmed sighting, at Kiwi Foo – but also where he hasn’t, the crowds he won't mix with, and what this rhetoric about listening means and the kind of politics that it produces.

For an initial assessment it seems reasonable to look at the first concrete manifestation of this strategy, that is to say the speech he finally gave last week, and here, even before being confronted with the actual content, one is compelled to note – as my esteemed colleague QoT and others have done – that it is a terrible piece of writing, and in ways that are themselves revealing. This particular non sequitur has stood out the most amongst bloggers, tweeters and such
A vision is a marvellous thing, but it's a bit like Excalibur. You have to know what you're doing with it.
But uncannily the next sentence is even worse, and mixes the metaphor for good measure:
It's overused, it's often misused, and for a politician, it can be one of those "kick me" signs that you tape to your back.
Who writes like this? Unless theirs is a clumsy, condescending attempt to appear folksy and plain spoken, like when they write of a future that is 'hugely doubtful' or invite the nation to 'bite the bullet' (but not 'the magic bullet', because we dont believe in those. Except wait, we just said that education was kind of like a magic bullet. Oh, nevermind!).

And then, besides the embarrassing fluff about a 'new New Zealand' that, as Shearer himself has to grace to admit, we've all heard before, there is the Finland thing. Really, what’s up with that? Did some brilliant mind at Kiwi Foo say ‘we should be more like Finland’? I doubt it, those are smart people. And besides Shearer didn’t even just say Finland in broad policy or economic terms, no, he explicitly compared himself to Esko Aho, the one term leader of a centre-right coalition who responded with austerity measures to the financial crisis that hit the country in the early Nineties, and was promptly voted out of office at the next election. That’s his model, that’s his inspiration. And here’s the part where I get genuinely impatient with some of my friends in Labour when they suggest that the speech didn’t signal a shift to the right. Of course it did. When Shearer says that the party will be ‘thrifty’, he means that it will prioritise balancing the budget over social spending or stimulating the economy. When he says that he will reassess the fiscal proposals that Labour took into the last election according to whether they fit within his vision of a future-oriented New Zealand, he’s ruling out any redistributive reform of the tax system on the grounds that it would lack a strategic focus on growth.

This blurry man could be your next Finance Minister
Then there is the section on welfare. It wasn’t so bad, right? Shearer said this:
We all have an instinctive sense in New Zealand that everyone deserves a go, and that everyone needs to pull their weight and contribute.

Labour believes that. It always has.

Don't let anyone tell you different.

We say two things:

Number one: our community must take care of the needy. They deserve a share of the pie.

And if people fall on hard times, we will help.

But equally importantly, number two: everyone who can help to make that pie needs to be involved, and fairly rewarded for doing it.

Now for a bit of comparison, when John Key gave this exact same speech, by which I mean his first as leader of the opposition, he said this:  
I have said before that I believe in the welfare state and that I will never turn my back on it.

We should be proud to be a country that looks after its most vulnerable citizens. We should be proud to be a country that supports people when they can't find work, are ill, or aren't able to work.

But we should be ashamed that others remain on a benefit for years even though work is available to them. That is no way forward for them and it is no way forward for New Zealand.

Have you spotted the difference yet? No? That’s because there isn’t any. Both want to reassure the voters that they are not extremists. Both blame need squarely on the needy, rather than on a economic system that renders some citizens unable to fully participate in society and that in fact even at the best of times demands that a reserve of unemployed people be maintained in order to keep wage inflation down. Both evoke the mythical figure of the bludger (‘those not meeting their side of the contract’ and who therefore need a ‘nudge’, says Shearer, the dog whistle firmly between his lips). But actually there is one significant difference: Key gave that speech at a relatively benign time for beneficiaries, whereas Shearer reprised it during the worst series of attacks on the welfare state since the time of Ruth Richardson, a circumstance that ought to have called for solidarity and forceful support from the leader of a party that insists, against all evidence to the contrary, to label itself progressive.

But the gutless opportunism isn’t the worst part. The worst part are the rationalisations, the endless string of ‘this is smart politics’ from the Labour supporters who are handier with a keyboard. Of course Labour knows that helping families on benefits is a priority, it’s just that the country won’t hear of it. And besides you should wait for the actual policies, why are you so impatient? As if the rhetoric of this moment didn’t matter; as if Shearer’s speech wasn’t defining, wasn’t political; as if it didn’t signal what’s to come (in which case it would be an even more inept speech than it already is, almost unaccountably so); or as if abandoning all opposition to the Tories’ new round of radical reforms didn’t give the game away, four months into the new election cycle. As if it didn’t set the stage for three years of even greater pain.

The reality, you see, is that people like the reforms. And to be fair there is some evidence for this, for instance in this poll from last year indicating that as many as one in four Labour and Green voter supported National’s policies in this area – this at a time when centre-left support was at a historical low, suggesting that the actual proportion come the hoped-for upswing might be even greater. But this fact is hardly neutral. It comes on the back of a quarter of a century of neoliberal consensus amongst the two main parties. It comes on the back of Labour having long since stopped to even talk about the structural causes of social injustice, let alone address them, and labelling ‘haters and wreckers’ those who do. This is what the abdication of leadership – both political and moral – will achieve over time.

And of course another effect of saying that people like the reforms is to conceal the politics and displace the blame. The people – those bastards! But not us. Because the ethos of Labour’s bourgeois support could best summed up with the motto ‘middle class liberals being kind to each other’. So you don’t want to suggest that their motivation might be anything less than pure, their love and concern for the poor anything less than total. Or that they might be looking after themselves, and at the expense of somebody else. They’ll get pissy at best, or at worst come up with more technocratic objections: extending Working for Families to beneficiaries is the wrong mechanism; cutting GST on fruit and vegetables would make the tax less simple to administer; making the first $5,000 tax free is a tax cut for the wealthy (yeah, that one’s also stupid). So let’s continue doing nothing instead. Or let’s give the poor education, so they can move into the middle class and then we can look out for them by continuing to look out for us, since we seem to be doing that pretty well.

But self-interested faux pragmatism alone doesn't quite explain why the leadership of the party and a substantial number of its supporters go along with measures against the less privileged that are petty and vindictive. It’s as if middle class liberals hadn’t yet forgiven the working class for Rogenormics, as if they hadn’t forgotten what they forced them do to save their own skin during the great crisis. Unmoor them from society, cast them off like that. It must have been horrible – and I don’t mean for the actual victims of the reforms, but for the self-image of the liberals, for their consuming need to see themselves as fundamentally decent and fair-minded folks.

This political neurosis, which is shared by a sector of the conservative public, produces strange monsters and bizarre dreams of escaping the island. Forget innovation: that is what Shearer’s Finland of the mind is all about. There is a darkness in New Zealand that we cannot process or deal with, so let’s close our eyes and pretend that we were somewhere else. For John Key it’s Australia in 2025. For David Shearer it’s Finland in 1991. For Phil Goff it was a mythical, edenic pre-Rogernomics New Zealand. These aren’t just refuges from the staggering lack of imagination of two generations of New Zealand politicians; they are also places to rewrite our personal histories and mend our sense of self. They are like retreats where we meet a range of interesting, well-connected people and discuss new ideas, except the ideas aren’t really new, or if they are it doesn’t matter because then we’ll turn around and say old, tried things about rights with responsibility, about fiscal restraint, about the need for bold leadership and investing in the nation’s future.

A politics that is about listening instead of saying and doing. An interminable, non-partisan, informal conversation, perfect for the age of social media. We can probably sell that.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ten Twenty-Five

This might as well be the story of a clock. It is a clock that stopped at ten twenty-five in the morning of August 2, 1980, and then again some time in 1995, and then again in August of last year. Always it returns to that time: ten twenty-five.

It is the clock on the top right corner of this picture. You can’t tell from a photograph if a clock has stopped, and since it looks undamaged you may think it fixes the time when the photograph was taken. But it does not. It fixes the time when the bomb went off.

23 kilograms of nitro-glycerine, T4 and Compound B stuffed in a suitcase abandoned in the second class waiting room of the west wing of the train station at Bologna. A bomb designed to have the maximum impact, not only on the building – the entire wing was destroyed in the blast, along with the Ancona-Chiasso train waiting to depart by the nearest platform – but also in terms of the number of victims. A Saturday morning at the beginning of the holiday month in one of the busiest railroad hubs in the country, and the second-class waiting room, where you would find the highest concentration of people. The bomb killed 85 of them and maimed or wounded more than 200. Such was the force of the blast that of one of the victims, Maria Fresu, no remains were found. She had been travelling with friends, whose bodies were recovered. So was her three-year old daughter’s. But all that was left of Maria Fresu were a handful of scattered fragments. She had been disintegrated.

Clearly this isn’t the story of the clock that stopped at ten twenty-five on the morning of August 2, 1980, as if it too was in shock. It’s the story of the people involved: those inside the train station when the bomb went off; those who came in to join the rescuers, outnumbered and unprepared; those who assembled the bomb and those who planted the bomb (who aren’t necessarily the same people); and later those who fabricated the evidence to derail the investigation, and then the investigators who slowly and laboriously sifted through the evidence, both actual and fabricated, and eventually found some but not all of the culprits. Because finally this is a most Italian story: a story of obfuscation, deception and collusion, a story of institutions parallel to the State or hidden within the State whose job was to ensure that the truth, the whole truth, would never be known. And without truth, without justice – as was said in the first anniversary of the bombing – history itself is rendered meaningless.

It took fifteen years to secure the convinctions of two of the three people who materially carried out the bombing – neofascist terrorists Giusva Fioravanti and Francesca Mambro – along with operatives of the military intelligence service and the leader of the Masonic lodge P2 responsible for a series of progressively more elaborate and, in the final analysis, successful smokescreen operations. It is thanks in no small part to those efforts that we know who and we know how, but we still don’t know on whose orders and why. The Bologna bombing is in this respect the culmination of what chroniclers and historians call the strategy of tension, but also its most perplexing and horrific example. This was not 1969, the year when the strategy was inaugurated. By 1980, the Italian state appeared no longer vulnerable, and the need to strike fear into the population in order to placate revolutionary movements and workers’ struggles on the one hand, and foster the demand for authoritarian measures on the other, had lost almost all of its urgency. Yet it was at this time that the largest scale mass murder was committed. The Bologna station bombing killed more people than those of Piazza Fontana, the Milan police headquarters, Gioia Tauro, the Italicus and Piazza della Loggia put together. It was the atrocity that contained all other atrocities, and yet lacked their political motivation, that is to say a connection – however deranged, however criminal and appalling – with the present.

Murder for murder’s sake: that is perhaps the only form of terrorism deserving of the name. And this above all else I remember of those years. Is there anything more profoundly unsettling for a child than to see fear on the faces of his parents, of the adults in his life? I was nine years old when the Bologna bombing took place. We were holidaying in Yugoslavia with friends. We got hold of an Italian newspaper, perhaps it wasn’t even the next day but the one after that. But the consternation and the fear of my parents and the others, I remember them well.

This is not the story of a clock. It couldn’t be. It’s the story of Maria Fresu, who at ten twenty-five of August 2, 1980 simply ceased to exist, and we may never know why. It’s the story of her three year old daughter and of the other victims and of the wounded and of their loved ones, who for over three decades have fought and continue to fight for the truth and justice that they were denied. The association of the families of the victims of the Bologna station bombing is a microcosm of the Italian society of those years, formed by people whose commitment arose not out of a shared political or ideological background but in the most tragic and random of circumstances (almost literally any of us could have passed through that station on that day). And out of those circumstances grew the determination not to let the bastards get away with it, to pile the pressure on in those early years when the investigation had came close to being abandoned, and then again after the grotesque verdict of acquittal of 1990, which the Court of Cassation judges who ordered the re-trial later called ‘illogical and incoherent’. But still there is so much that we don’t know about that massacre, as well the ones that preceded it. Almost the only thing that has been established to a forensic certainty is the involvement of sectors of the State in the cover-ups and the sidetrackings. So perhaps that is the closest thing we have to a motive. Raison d'état. For the good of the State.

And so this might as well be the story of that clock, for if you must imagine that for the members of the association time really stopped at ten twenty-five of August 2, 1980, then perhaps the same can be said for our democratic institutions. Not that it was always that way for that clock itself. A few months after the bombing it was fixed, yet most people thought that it hadn’t – this is where the story gets a little peculiar – and the station administrators kept being asked to set it at ten twenty-five so that pictures could be taken or for the commemorations, which apparently was a rather difficult business, so that when the mechanism broke down, in 1995, the opportunity was taken not to fix it, and the hands were put back at ten and five, where they remained until August of last year. It was then that the clock was fixed a second time. Somebody had complained, although there have always been complaints: there is no plaque underneath it and so some people quite understandably trust the clock, and occasionally they miss their train. But this time the administration relented and so the clock was put back into service, which generated even more complaints from the association of the families of the victims and from all the people who thought that it shouldn’t have been, and so about a month later the hands were put back at ten and five one more time, and there they remain. At least for now.

The clock is a reluctant, accidental memorial, thus a fitting metaphor for the manner in which these crimes of our history are remembered: that is to say intermittently, hesitantly, and so long as it isn’t too inconvenient. Fioravanti and Mambro – who even before the events of August 2, 1980, had already been directly responsible between them for a dozen murders and for ordering the assassination of investigative magistrate Mario Amato – are out of prison and live very respectable lives, writing books and working for the NGO Hands off Cain, which opposes torture and the death penalty. They never admitted their role in the bombing, let alone named its instigators, and served sixteen years in prison plus 10 more on probation each out of a sentence of 8 consecutive life sentences plus 134 years and 8 months of detention (Fioravanti) and 9 consecutive life sentences plus 84 years and 8 months of detention (Mambro). These almost comically hyperbolic convictions, too, and the gap with the actual time spent behind bars, suggest a most elastic notion of time on the part of our justice system. The clock above the west wing of the train station at Bologna is not the only one that operates in fits and starts.

But I’m not upset that these two loyal foot-soldiers walk freely, not as such. The far greater outrage is that the historical and political conclusions were never drawn from all that bloodshed, and that what we all knew, what we had ample evidence for, was never officially acknowledged: namely, that there were some in positions of power who saw those murders as necessary for the preservation of the State; and that therefore our public institutions as they exist today can be said to be founded no longer on the principles of anti-fascism, nor on a civic, democratic response to the left- and right-wing terrorism of the Seventies, but rather on a series of acts of repression and state-sponsored murder designed to protect and cement the existing structures of power. The bombing of the train station at Bologna was the last and most spectacular of these acts, it was the final object lesson in the brutality that is demanded in order to maintain the peace. Eighty-four bodies had to be mangled, crushed or torn to pieces. The eighty-fifth had to be disintegrated. A blast. A freeze-frame. For all those lives, and in our history, it is always, it will always be ten twenty-five.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Being a Great Dad for Dummies

He’s an amazing creature, the modern father. Possessing in equal part confidence, creativity, endurance, optimism, passion, patience and presence, he has thrown away the shackles of his oppressed forebears and reclaimed the prerogatives of his role. To those who doubt him, he has only one thing to say: I can do this, I will do this.

This is the modern father. No, better: the modern dad, for they are not quite the same thing. The father is authoritarian, backward-looking, distant and uncaring, whereas the dad is authoritative, meaning that when it comes to instruction and correction he sets boundaries without punishing, choosing instead to lead by example and with a clear mind; while in all other child-related things he gets involved, he mucks in and, most importantly of all, he cares.

I doubt you could find a better guide to the modern dad than Being a Great Dad for Dummies, the brain child of the three Wellington-based entrepreneurs – Stefan Korn, Scott Lancaster and Eric Mooj – who launched the website after recognising ‘the need for social innovation in the fathering space’. It is on this website that you’ll be able to follow what the modern dad gets up to on a day-to-day basis and be informed on the risk of having friends of the opposite sex, read daddy’s rules for dating his teenage daughter or fantasise in melancholy fashion about a world without dads. (Without dads, we are informed by the author of this piece, there would be nobody to take the sons to the games, or show off daughters with pride. You get the gist.) However, absorbing as the website is, the guidebook is an altogether different object, and fixes in time the essential qualities of dadhood in a superbly coherent and concise way.

As is the case for most superheroes, Great Dad is defined by his origins, that is to say the circumstances in which he acquired his powers. Now you might think that these circumstances might in some way be related to the women’s liberation movement. Not so. Echoing a remarkably widespread rhetoric concerning modern fatherhood in the Western world, he is said instead to be the product of a ‘quiet’ or ‘peaceful revolution… among men who want to become more involved in the upbringing of their children’. Armed with the conviction – also in no way related to fem-lib – that ‘dads can do everything mums do except give birth and breastfeed’, and that ‘staying home looking after the kids is no longer a reason to hand in your man card’, Great Dad swats aside all the misgivings of his partner and of society at large in order to answer his calling. As a matter of fact, seeing that, if anything, it is mum who holds him back – as she may ‘have a tendency to 'take over' and secretly or unconsciously harbour the belief that dads are somewhat inadequate when it comes to dealing with babies’ – by overcoming these obstacles, perhaps even to the point of ‘sending mum back to the workforce’, Great Dad is able to do her feminism for her. Just one of his many surprising talents.

The elision of feminism as a historical phenomenon fits within the book’s benign and staggeringly under-theorised essentialism. Being inducted into the dad club means becoming nothing less than ‘a bona fide member of the human race, a piece in a puzzle that has been put together over millions of years’, but there is no triumphalism in this statement, nor does it follow that one should practice an old-fashioned therefore syllogistically more natural or correct brand of fatherhood. On the contrary, the book is relatively enlightened in some of its advice, notably when it comes to supporting the choices of the partner during pregnancy and labour, and in its rejection of smacking children as a legitimate form of discipline. Great Dad is a liberal dad, in other words, and with something of the well-adjusted about him. More to the point, however, his being modern and progressive is not the result of a historical process, much less the outcome of a historical conflict between different social actors. Rather it’s a spontaneous coming to terms, the realisation of a latent potential. Repressed for far too long by social prejudice and mum’s overbearingness, the dad within is finally able to shine.

This myth of origin out of the way, a proper analysis of the book would have to be based on what is and isn’t written, what is and isn’t included. But one would be remiss not to comment briefly on the language, which is not quite straight out of the usual style sheet for a For Dummies guide. If you get past the relentless cuteness and somehow stop yourself from hurling the book out the window after the fiftieth use of the phrase ‘your little champ’, you will note a most curiously passé prudish reticence, the kind that makes the authors exclaim, on the business of getting pregnant, that ‘there aren't many projects in life that start with a little nooky with your best girl!’ or advise, should the diminished sex after the birth be a problem, to ‘take cold showers and do plenty of exercise if need be’. Odder still is the suggestion that in high-stress arguments with a toddler, dad may want to take a deep breath and sing a song to himself, ‘perhaps Incy Wincy Spider’ – surely a scene that has never been played out on this planet.

There is in the book a tendency, in other words, to infantilise Great Dad, to talk down to him at the same time as he’s encouraged to take on a fully adult role. But this too fits within a more important aspect of the design: namely, the fact that Being a Great Dad turns out to be a manual for early fatherhood only, up to the little champ’s first day at school. But if the tantrums of a three year old are enough to launch Great Dad into a self-soothing rendition of Incy Wincy Spider, one might well wonder what issues might arise later on, and if he has been properly briefed on how to deal with them.

More fundamentally, a preschooler poses no meaningful challenge to parental authority. It is therefore relatively easy to design a working and workable theory of fatherhood revolving around setting the kinds of boundaries that would equip a child to function amongst their peers in a playgroup or kindergarten setting – a tricky time, to be sure, but rather less challenging, in every sense of the word, than, say, adolescence. Or adulthood. Thus even before we get to the observation that every theory of parenthood is also implicitly a theory of society, and ask what kind of social model underpins the book, we find that the theory itself is incomplete, or rather, that it is the product of its limitations: meaning not only the fact that it stops at five years of age, but also that it does not conceive of families other than the nuclear kind (whether intact or broken), or of fathers except of the heterosexual variety. Utterly unsurprising omissions, these last two, if you are familiar with the genre, but which nonetheless underscore how normative and oppressive the soft, cuddly patriarchy of the Great Dad actually is.

Still, we may feel that we can speculate about how Great Dad may behave with older children, and reason that based on the caring model of the early years he won’t be the kind of father who fires nine hollow-point 45-calibre bullets into his daughter’s laptop because of something she wrote on the internet. That kind of violence – physical, psychological, existential – seems quite incompatible with the gentle prescriptions of Being a Great Dad. And it probably is, but I think it’s just not possible to be sure. Not without filling those blanks. How you go about relinquishing that early first-teacher role; how you respond to actual challenges to your authority, up to and including your daughter writing stuff about you on the internet; how you allow for possibilities other than your children being the best they can be, because personal development is not that linear or neutral, nor is it the fulfilment of a promise; finally, whom you not only help them but also allow them to be, is what determines the kind of father, the kind of parent you are. And in this respect too fatherhood as it is currently conceived, even in its more ostensibly progressive forms, strikes me as an imprint of society at large, therefore a deeply flawed thing.

Stefan Korn, Scott Lancaster and Eric Mooj. Being a Great Dad for Dummies. Milton: Wiley Publishing, 2011.

Right, I haven’t run one of these for a while, so here’s a Survivor-style competition with a pertinent literary prize. All you have to do is watch the video below in its entirety to be in to win a copy of Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, lovingly sent to you by me.

The video is over a year old and many of you will be aware of the Conscious Men, which are a curious complement to the Great Dad movement in that they are all about apologising for past wrongdoings, making the history of gender politics into a great cosmic struggle and at the same time suggesting the possibility of a utopian conclusion. For those who don’t know them, the clip is only 8 minutes and 22 seconds long but I fear you might be tempted to cheat or even poke your eyes out partway through so I’ve designed a little test to demonstrate that the proper attention has been paid. Kindly complete it and send the answers to me via email by, let’s say the end, of Sunday March 11, New Zealand time. I’ll pick a winner on Monday. If you just can’t do it post how far you got in the comments and if nobody else reaches the end I’ll declare them the winner.

Fill in the blanks or answer as appropriate

1. We want to apologise and make amends for those actions today, so that we can move forward together in a new era of ____
2. Many of the men who have oppressed or abused you are no longer _____
3. When we worship each other through our bodies with awareness and devotion, there are no boundaries to _____
4. Please indicate which of the Conscious Men is clearly just taking the piss.
5. I know that by forgetting about the past and joining hands in the present ____

Update: Out of the qualifying entries (pretty much everyone got everything right) I have picked out of a digital hat the name of loyal reader James Butler. Yay James. Please send me your postal address.

For question 4 James answered "cat-picture-guy, although piled-dreadlock-guy might be playing the long game", but I would have accepted pretty much any answer because let's face it any one of these people could have been taking the piss. But not all of them.