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.