16 April 2010

Future Schlock


Recently I imagined how it would be if my eleven year old self could travel through time and visit me to see what life is like in 2010. Frankly I don't think she would be very impressed. The glorious technological future we were promised never arrived.

Consider commercial air travel. With the execption of personal entertainment, air travel hasn't really changed in forty years - the planes are the same, the airports are the same, the delays are the same. (Security screening takes longer). It takes pretty much the same amount of time to fly from Sydney to London now as it did in 1970 when the 747 came into widespread use. Every few years you see a news story about how in five years or so, there will be aircraft that can fly to London in four hours, but nothing ever comes of it (in fact, I think I remember seeing the first of these stories when I was about eleven).

It's not just air travel. Nothing predicted by The Jetsons, or our imaginations, came to pass. We never went back to the moon and now lack the technology to get humans out of the Earth's orbit. Car still drive on roads, using petrol - instead of flying, or a mag-lev system, or any other futuristic delights. Our houses don't have Holly style computers, let alone robot maids (I really want a robot maid!). It now takes longer to travel between Sydney and Newcastle by train than it did in the 1930s. Some of changes that failed to eventuate have been a blessing - we still eat actual food rather than taking nutrition in pill form, and wear clothes instead of silver jumpsuits. and I am eternally grateful that we shower instead of using any sonic cleaning booth system. But still - I think we should lift our game here. It will be embarrassing when time travellers from the past arrive expecting the First Mall of the Moon and all we can offer them is an iPad. (Wasn't time travel supposed to be a reality by now as well?)

12 April 2010

F Club


Over the weekend, I attended the F Conference, the first major feminist conference held in Australia in many years (no one seemed to agree just how many). It was enriching and inspiring. It was also confusing, perplexing and briefly infuriating. I consider myself a feminist but good grief, half the time I had no idea what these people were talking about. The conference seemed to divide between the older, second wave feminists active through the 1960s, 70s and 80s (who received a deserved round of applause in the opening session) and the fresh young feminists leading the charge now. I felt quite out of touch - someone in between age-wise, who considers herself a feminist but has mostly been in the corporate world for the past many years and has done something between very little and bugger all for the feminist movement.

So I spent much of the conference struggling to comprehend the language, the vocabulary, the nuances. There was the usual mix of panels and workshops that these events offer. The panels featured some well-known and not-so-known but fascinating and inspiring speakers, such as Catherine Lumby, Eva Cox, Anne Summers and Larissa Behrendt. In general, I found the ever so slightly older feminists ideas presented in a more accessible way. It was the younger feminists who left me rather bewildered - being so caught in nuance, so fearful of anything they say possibly giving offence to anyone, that left their words with little to offer a mainstream audience. The problem with some of these women is they operate in a closed system. They attend meetings with other feminists; read works by other feminists; then they write papers and blog posts on feminism which are read and commented on by other feminists.

There was some discussion on the weekend of the (ridiculous) idea that feminism is "dead", but I think the problem may not be one of relevance but accessibility. I was thinking of some friends of mine, lovely strong women, who haven't been to university, don't live in inner Sydney, don't read leftist works. Although the changes proposed at the feminist conference, and the work done by feminists past and present, is to their benefit, I'm not sure if they'd see any relevance in discussions of "the patriarchy and gender-neutral frameworks". How can feminism engage with these women? If feminism has an image problem it may well be of elitism rather than irrelevance. There was much anguished discussion of the history of feminism as a white movement, and how that can be remedied in the future. That is vital and all to the good. But feminism also needs to lose its status as an academic movement.

Much is being done to make feminism more inclusive of Indigenous Australians and women from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. The conference opened with a panel discussion of Indigenous women sharing their knowledge and how it applies to feminism. It was informative and inspiring. Sadly it wasn't all so uplifting. One panel featured a woman named Candy Bowers, a self described "Blasian" (Black and Asian) woman who is a poet, comedian, hip hop artist and co-ordinator for the Sydney Theatre company. At first I was really enjoying what she had to say about the lack of ethnic diversity in the Australian arts scene and growing up in Campbelltown. Then she stated "To Indigenous people I respect and admire you; to non-white people I support you; and to white people, I am here to challenge you". I felt my face grow red. How dare she suggest because I, or anyone else, am white, I am somehow complacent, or powerful, or wealthy? For a start I am Irish, and I think the Irish people can say a little something about oppression (my great-grandmother may have been arrested during the 1916 uprising -the family history is fuzzy). But even if I am not claiming any special status - which is often where the problems start - such sweeping assumptions as Ms Bowers made don't help anyone.

The workshops were more enjoyable. There was several mentions at the conference of modern feminism being consumed by the rise of raunch culture, so perhaps as a deliberate decision raunch culture was not a workshop topic. I can't otherwise fault the diversity of workshop topics, from Sex Work, Children's Services and Poverty, along with the more expected topics such as Domestic Violence, Consent, FGM and Plastic Surgery. Among others I attended a wonderful supportive discussion on home birth and birthrape - the unnecessary medicalisation of normal birth. All else being equal, an epidural automatically turns a low-risk into a high-risk birth yet it is presented as safe, and Nicola Roxon has made homebirth in Australia almost impossible to obtain (eerily similar to difficulties obtaining abortion in previous years- you have to go underground and it can be very expensive). I think I'll get involved with this, as well as with the ASU's Fair Pay case - but that is for another post!

Generally though, I left the conference with a sense of being unsure what to do with all this. There were times over the weekend when I felt like I had no voice, although I understand that with 400+ participants it would be fairly impossible to let everyone have a say. There were hopeful messages and things to grow on, but I truly believe feminism the movement (not just feminist principles) needs to reach out to women from all walks of life if it is to capture their passion.

I'll leave you here with some quotes from the weekend. These were scribbled in my notebook on the spot so may not be verbatim, but the spirit is there.

"You can't use one experience to paint the whole story" - Dixie Link Gordon

"Feminism - you think you don't need it, until youneed it; when you bang your head up against the patriarchy" - unrecorded

"Without the ability to be economically independent and control our fertility,we have nothing" - Anne Summers

"A woman is not sad, or lesser, or missing out, if she doesn't have children" - Anne Summers

"While women are excluded from positions of economic power in this country they will be excluded everywhere" - Elizabeth Broderick

"We think if we are nice to the bastards they will let us into their club" - Eva Cox, exhorting feminists not to play nice

"Grassroots work won't change the basic policies that are screwing women" - Eva Cox

and finally...

"When women are taught to have orgasms, they are empowered to change the world" - Pat, an 89 year old feminist.

Who could argue?

06 April 2010

A Thing Of The Past?


Back in 2004, when I heard of the death of Thomas "TJ" Hickey, the young Aboriginal man who died after crashing his bike and being impaled on a fence following a police chase through Redfern, I thought it was just an accident, and anyway why was he running if he hadn't done anything wrong?

I'm ashamed of my ignorance when I look back now. But I thought police racism and brutality were things of the past. I was really, really wrong. There was an outstanding warrant for TJ's arrest at the time of his death, and when he saw a police car in the area, he assumed it was seeking him. (Police later admitted they were in fact chasing him). So he fled. I'm not making any statements as to Mr Hickey's innocence or guilt, for either way he had good reason to run; the continuing harassment of Aboriginal people - especially young men - in inner Sydney.

The general public has no idea; I know I didn't. The allegations here, of police behaviour immediately following TJ's death, are truly horrifying. The stories abound; kids in Glebe threatened with arrest for being on the streets at night, even if they were returning home from visiting their grandmother; a group of fifteen year old girls stopped and searched for drugs three times by three separate police patrols during a short walk to a party in Waterloo; children who have their bicycles confiscated until they can go the the police station with proof their bikes weren't stolen. (It's not just the police, either. One couple successfully settled with the Broadway shopping centre for harassment after they were repeatedly questioned, then followed, by security guards when they were unable to produce proof that the pram they were pushing their baby in was not stolen. How many people carry the receipt for their baby's pram months after purchase?!?).

And of course it doesn't end with mere harassment. Punches are thrown, arrests are made without cause, evidence is planted. So no wonder TJ Hickey had something to fear. As his aunt said after his death, "If you are black and you see the cops, you run". We have a culture in the police that says if a person is black, they're likely up to no good, and an uniformed public who thinks that if the police take action, the Aboriginal person must have done something wrong - thanks to a media which is silent on this issue and right wing commentators who seem to think being Aboriginal today is a ticket to easy street.

Meanwhile, six years after his death and still without the answers she needs, TJ's mother Gail Hickey has lodged a Submission of Communication to the UN's Human Rights Committee seeking a fresh inquiry into the death of her son. She shouldn't have to - it's terribly sad that she cannot trust the Australian justice system for the truth. After all, if the police have nothing to hide, why wouldn't they welcome a full judicial inquiry into the death of TJ Hickey, to finally uncover the truth after all these years?