secretagoo

writing on politics and culture

The Trouble with Compassion

by Anastasia Kanjere

This essay was shortlisted for Overland and the NUW’s Fair Australia Prize. You can check out the rest of the shortlist here and read the winning essay ‘On setting yourself on fire’ (it’s really very very good) here.

 

When Duncan Storrar went on Q&A in May of this year to ask a question he was making a political intervention, a pointed questioning of the justice or otherwise of an economic and a social system. He spoke emphatically. He used his life circumstances as an example: a mobilisation of his own story that was entirely political, intended to make his point resonate.

Unfortunately, what some heard in that political intervention was a cry for compassion. A kickstarter fund was launched; donations started rolling in. First they rolled, then they flooded. Incensed by the sudden fame and positive public sentiment Storrar was enjoying, the right wing press started to dig up what skeletons they could find or invent about him. The Australian was roundly, rightly excoriated for its vicious character assassination of a man who, after all, pays no less tax than it does. But I would argue that Storrar’s political intervention was silenced not by the backlash but by the crowdfunding. Asking for change, Storrar instead got charity.

The trouble with compassion is that it is not always evenly distributed. In order to receive compassion, you had better conform to certain criteria. Better to be white, better not be poor – or, if you must be, better try to be one of those ‘deserving poor’ whose poverty can be forgiven. Supporters of Lynette Daley, the Aboriginal woman murdered under horrific circumstances by two white men, were fundraising for her family at the same time: they noticed with some bitterness that they struggled to attract $500 dollars while the coffers for Storrar were exceeding one hundred times that figure. Compassion isn’t fair, it doesn’t even always pretend to be. Along with the obvious categories that seem to attract more compassion than others, compassion also has an element of random luck – the ‘wild card,’ as political commentator Shakira Hussein called it at the time, of ‘whether or not your cri de coeur happens to get broadcast on national television’.

But compassion as a basis for politics has another fault, and that was revealed in what happened to Storrar next. The thing is, we want something back for our charity. Charity catapulted Storrar into the spotlight – not as a political actor with a question to ask, as hundreds of ordinary people do on Q&A every year without incident, but as an object of compassion: a life to examine and approve of – or not. Once a recipient of compassion, Storrar’s personal history and predilections became fair game. Was this a man, we asked ourselves, who deserved our kindness?

Never mind that he hadn’t asked for it (as many pointed out). Never mind that he shouldn’t have had to ask for it in the first place. A politics of compassion requires a subject: blameless, needy, deserving and grateful. A politics of compassion says that it matters what I think of how Storrar treated or didn’t treat his ex-partner. A politics of compassion says that it matters ‘how the money will be managed’ (this discourse came even from Storrar’s ostensible supporters) – as if the many millions of dollars more wasted on the very tax-breaks he was critiquing are managed well. A politics of compassion makes it, always, our business.

Such scrutiny is, of course, impossible to always live up to. Who could forget the outrage when images emerged of Syrian refugees charging (relatively) expensive smart phones at roadside cafes? Some prescribed more compassion as the cure to this crisis of compassion – pointing out that a smart phone isn’t, after all, so expensive any more, and that at a time of fear and displacement contact is more important than ever. They were probably right. But this kind of argument permits a dangerous logic whereby maybe if someone had just bought the phone to impress their friends, if they had foregone a more sensible purchase to afford it, if they were only using it to play Candy Crush Saga, that this might somehow put their right to flee a terrible war under question.

In her introduction to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, feminist writer Andrea Smith lays out a critical history of the formation of charitable ‘foundations’ as a means for addressing social ills. Such organisations ‘assist those seen to be “deserving” of assistance,’ she writes; they ‘did not campaign for higher wages… but worked to ameliorate the impact of low wages on communities.’ Some charitable foundations have gone so far as to actively work to break strikes and quiet political unrest, under the rationale that ‘while individual workers deserved social relief, organised works in the form of unions were a threat to society.’ This tendency is crystallised in US taxation law, which prohibits non-profits from direct involvement in political advocacy if they are to retain their charitable status. Charity has sought from its inception, she writes, to ‘ameliorate social issues – in a manner, however, that [does] not challenge capitalism.’

But successful political activism must challenge the status quo, if that status quo is unjust; and it must do so drawing on precisely the collectivism that the non-profit industry has so often worked against.  2016 has seen the development of an inspiring example in the occupation by housing activists of dozens of houses in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (The houses were left standing, incidentally, as a result of another activist victory against the East-West Tunnel for which purpose they were acquired). Loosely grouped around the already-established Homeless Persons Union of Victoria, the group of activists have engaged in publicity stunts, conducted community events and, of course, provided housing to many who would otherwise go without. Despite this service, the group could by no means be described as a ‘charity’: this for many reasons, perhaps most pertinent among them the fact that many of the organisers are, themselves, currently experiencing homelessness.

This situation is obviously one that causes some confusion amongst those who are accustomed to people experiencing homelessness being a demographic which they speak about rather than speak to. The silencing of the political voices of the homeless was highlighted by activist Turei of the HPUV, in his article responding to the director of housing’s demand that he and fellow activists vacate the occupied houses. The director had sought to differentiate, in his letter, between ‘homeless people’ and ‘protestors’ – as if the former could not possibly be at the forefront of a successful political campaign.  ‘Apparently homeless people aren’t able to participate in democracy, to exercise our right to protest,’ Turei wrote. ‘I’m not sure who the director thinks the members of the homeless persons union are, but if he needs a clue, there might be one in the name.’

This is another limit to the politics of compassion: it presumes always that those who see, act, and decide – those who feel the compassion or don’t – are not those for whom the compassion is felt. Compassion flows from the powerful to the needy: it should be accepted with gratitude or with silence. That the needy might speak back is unthinkable, provoking consternation in some and outright aggression in others. When activists from the HPUV gate-crashed the mis-named Vinnies CEO ‘Sleepout’ (actually the CEOs sleep in a large shed next to the Melbourne Convention Centre), they were met with hostility. They had to gate-crash because they weren’t invited: homeless people were supposed to be the silent and grateful recipients of this performative display of charity, not political actors who might have their own suggestions and solutions. Eventually the police were called to forcibly remove them; one CEO snickered audibly as a time for leaving was negotiated that time must mean nothing to the protestors as ‘they’ve got no jobs’. Actually, had he bothered to do any reading at all on homelessness before the event he could have learnt that as wages fall and housing prices rise so too does the phenomenon of the employed homeless. Alternatively he could have summoned the compassion necessary to empathise with the twin miseries of unemployment and homelessness. But it would seem that not everyone had heeded the event organisers’ imperative to ‘Rethink. Relate. Respond.’ A politics of compassion invites these kind of performative displays of charity on the basis of a care that is wafer-thin and fragile.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stoops to put a $5 note into a paper cup in front of a man sitting on the footpath. Note the roll of $50s tucked unobtrusively away in his other hand.

‘We must look beyond the figures and see the people living in this desperate and soul-destroying situation,’ declares the event’s promotional website. Responding uncharitably, I would like to ask: why? Why do we need to look beyond the figures? (They are bad enough). Why do we need to see the people? I don’t need to know anything at all about someone in order to be opposed to their being homeless. And as the activists pointed out, homelessness has no need of increased visibility (another one of the event’s stated aims). Anyone who has spent any time at all in Melbourne’s CBD of late has surely witnessed the fact that many sleep rough each night. In fact, just weeks before the ‘sleepout,’ The Age reported on a surge in hostility and violence towards homeless people after a negative media campaign targeting allegations of aggressive pan-handling. Visibility doesn’t always mean greater protection or support. It is in particular an odd aim for an organisation that works against homelessness, since one of the many privations that the situation entails is a lack of privacy. But the point is: visibility is rendered necessary by a logic of compassion. We have to see – to witness – in order to be able to care. It is precisely this process that catapulted the private details of Storrar’s life onto the front pages of national newspapers: the need to scrutinise the recipients of our charity. Unlike justice, compassion has no pretensions of being blind.

To critique a politics of compassion becomes more necessary than ever when we come face to face with precariousness as the new normal of work and life – even for some of the most privileged of workers. Writing in Overland, NUW national secretary Tim Kennedy reports that in Australia, an estimated 40% of the workforce is in precarious employment. While his union has worked to expose the particular exploitation of low-wage workers in precarious conditions – in industries such as agriculture, food production and ware-housing and distribution – he adds that ‘… it would be a mistake to think that unlawful treatment and the general indignity of precarious employment is isolated to particularly low-skilled and vulnerable environments.’ Freelancing, contracting, short-term work and never-ending rounds of redundancies and lay-offs are also commonplace in all but the very most privileged tier of workers – if you’re not a CEO, you’re probably affected.

When work is so precarious, life becomes precarious. The phenomenon of widespread personal and household debt – which has grown alongside the precarity of labour – also contributes to a reality of life as deeply insecure. In his 2013 book The Making of Indebted Man, sociologist and philosopher Mauricio Lazzarato writes that debt structures our contemporary lives to the extent that its absence becomes unimaginable. We are homo economicus, indebted humans: constructed by our relationship to debt. This has practical outcomes in terms of our economic and political decisions, but it also affects our emotional selves. Debt creates us as insecure subjects: guilt-ridden, imagining ourselves as always already indebted and in thrall to our debt.

Lazzarato draws on Nietzsche, who writes that the debt relation ethic relies on a notion of guilt – observing the similarity between the German words Schulden (debts) and Schuld (guilt). The logic of debt resituates the precarity of life under neoliberal late capitalism onto the fault of the individual, who is guilty of owing, guilty of spending beyond her means, guilty of insufficient flexibility to survive in the debt economy. Under this logic, risk is privatised as debt; which is in turn individualised as guilt.

Imaginings of compassion can act as a relief from the guilt ethic of the debt relation. The rhetoric of care, generosity and worthy vulnerability is soothing to the all-pervasive sense of guilt that Lazzarato describes as endemic to late capitalism. Compassion works as a sweetener to this world of precarity and debt and the insecurity, uncertainty and guilt they entail. The logic of compassion allows us to imagine a fairer, kinder world that is just within reach. We don’t need to worry, the politics of compassion reassures us, about the fact that CEOs earn almost 100 times the wage of the average worker – or many more times that again of most of the 30,000 people experiencing homelessness on any night in Melbourne. Those CEOs are attending sleepouts to raise funds and awareness: look! They really care.

Actually, by the way, they don’t sleep ‘out’. They sleep in a shed, protected by fences, in expensive sleeping bags, wearing expensive camping gear. They don’t invite police to wake and harass them, nor drunken private school students to bash and steal from them. The extent to which they are actually replicating the experience of homelessness is nothing but insulting.

Lest I be criticised for my unkindness here: I know that Melbourne winters are very cold. I know that being rained on would turn a rough night into a really awful one. And I know that of course no-one wants to be hassled by drunks or by police. I absolutely understand all of those things. But here’s the kicker: the fact that I understand all of those things is the same reason that an event like this is completely self-indulgent and unnecessary. Of course no-one needs to actually sleep in an unheated space to appreciate the fact that cold is cold (the Bureau of Meteorology provides us with this information on a 24-hour basis, no self-mortification required). Of course no-one actually needs to be rained on to understand that rain is wet. Of course no one actually needs to be woken in the middle of the night by people who mean you harm and against whom you have little to no recourse to comprehend that such would be a nightmarish experience. And, in fact, no-one even needs to be persuaded of any of these things; because after all, all we need to do to verify that homelessness is, in fact, a problem is to listen to homeless people – very few of whom recommend the experience.

So what the politics of compassion is not is a politics of justice. A politics of compassion says that maybe – if we are presentable and relatable and blameless enough, if the right people hear about our plight, if we can market ourselves and our histories right – maybe we will be rescued from poverty and precarity by the kindness of others. A politics of compassion says that inequality is something we should all feel sad about, because the people who suffer from it are human beings: look at this example A smiling for the camera and this example B who has been through this and this and that and loves dogs and is only 21. A politics of compassion says that ‘we should all do more,’ but doesn’t say who we are, or what we could do, or what we are already doing to perpetuate the circumstances we are bemoaning. A politics of compassion refrains from pointing out that if several hundred very wealthy and powerful people really wanted to do something about homelessness, they could probably come up with something much more effective than snoozing in rows in a large shed and tweeting a lot about the experience.

A politics of justice, on the other hand, says that we should be angry. Our response to the outrageous and growing rates of homelessness in an extremely wealthy country should not be sadness – as if homelessness were a bolt of lightning that came out of nowhere to hurt some people and leave others unscathed. It should be anger. A politics of justice would allow us to say: I don’t care how old you are or what your hobbies are or if you’d be someone I would get along with. I don’t need to know your life story or have you smile wanly into a camera. I believe you deserve shelter. I believe you deserve a minimum wage, a life of dignity, access to medical care. I believe you are owed it and I know that society can afford it. I don’t think these things need to be bestowed on you on an ad hoc basis by charitable organisations pocketing substantial government cheques in return for their ‘kindness’.

Without such a politics of justice it is difficult to argue for the things we need as things we deserve: secure employment, affordable housing, freedom from debt. Embroiled for too long in the logic of neoliberal late capital – a vice barely sweetened by its kinder face of occasional, contingent compassion – even the left-leaning among us need to be reminded of the possibility that huge, wealthy employers might owe some consideration to the workers they have left without work. We need a politics of justice to allow us to see the inequalities of wealth and power as not right; and attempts to rectify them as struggles for rightness, rather than for kindness or beneficence. We need a politics of justice to see solidarity in our struggles – to resist the tendency of a politics of compassion to define us by our charitable status: by whether giving ought flow from or towards us.

Without a politics of justice we can’t fight. Without a politics of justice we are all Duncan Storrar: a begging bowl to be evaluated for worthiness, our subjectivities suspect, our histories fair game, our questions – no matter their salience – unheard.

 

While this piece was sitting in the Submittable queue, Ann Deslandes published an excellent piece in Overland called “Against Empathy”. Great minds, etc, etc – but her piece is wonderful and you should read it.

 

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Fascism, Anti-fascism, and a coffee shop full of white liberals

by GeorgeK

If you have been following what’s been going with the fash over the past year, you might want to skip to the paragraph under the image of the Herald Scum. Otherwise, read on:

Over the past few years there has been increase in the number of nationalist and fascist organizations in Australia. Currently their main unifying mantra is a hatred of Islam and a paranoia that Muslims, via the sale of Halal products and the building of Mosques, are enacting a massive conspiracy to impose Sharia Law on honest and simple “Aussies”. In a ham-fisted attempt at sleight-of-hand these groups claim that they are not racist because “Islam is not a race”. Groups such as the United Patriots Front, Reclaim Australia, True Blue Crew, Party For Freedom, and the Australian Liberty Alliance are trying to capitalize on the fertile ground prepared by the LNP and the Labor Party’s racist policies, most notably in their willingness to use refugees’ lives as political footballs. Many people have heard of these groups but believe them to be trivial entities, however, one only needs to visit their social media pages to see that even in their current state they are a serious threat to public safety, particularly to people of color and women. Calls for assault, rape and murder of Muslims, First Nations Peoples, Africans, anyone that you care to mention that is not white/Anglo/European and in agreeance, are commonplace.

Let’s be clear here: this is not simply freedom of speech that fascist groups are exercising. It is racist misogynist hate speech, it is an incitement to violence against minorities, and it is illegal. Not that police or federal agencies seem too concerned. Aside from the horrific long-term aims of these far right groups, the possibility of individuals carrying out US-style killings is certainly not out of the question. If and when something like this does happen, we will wonder how on earth it was not prevented when the intent was clearly and publicly declared for all and sundry.

Allowing these groups to organize themselves, to publicly and freely gather, is to allow them to reaffirm each other in their beliefs, and therefore to strengthen and grow. They do not simply exhaust themselves if the public pays them no attention: no one was paying attention when on 5th April 2015 they managed to organize simultaneous rallies across Australia, many of which went largely unchallenged. In fact, unless there is violent clash between anti-fascist activists and the far-right the media does not pay any attention, but these groups still grow.  They have subsequently held other rallies around the country, most notably in Melbourne and Bendigo. This year they have stepped up their activities by not only holding their own rallies, but going and disrupting peaceful anti-racist rallies, as well as other gatherings such as a Halal food festival in Melbourne. As of today they have planned at least two more events in the next month. Neither the police nor any major political party has taken any steps to prevent these actions – they have merely washed their hands of the whole situation, apart from a concerted effort to increase police powers to limit the rights of protestors. The only group of people who have identified the far-right fascist threat and have organized to directly confront it are anti-fascist and anti-racist individuals and organizations, many of whom were in Coburg last Saturday.

The counter protesters who go to prevent these gatherings understand that this is the nascence of a fascist movement. The idea that these right-wing groups will simply exhaust themselves and disappear is clearly unfounded, and deeply irresponsible, particularly considering the current political climate. Successive Australian governments are systematically abusing the human rights of political prisoners to such an extent that is inspiring the far right even in Europe (for example British UKIP and German NDP). Australian fascist groups are capitalizing on this and pushing for what are essentially White Australia policies.

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fascists and anti-fascists are equal in the eyes of The ‘Scum

Given this context, the response by commentators and the corporate and national media has been a disgraceful combination of deliberate obscuration of the facts and smug, white complacency. Consider the fact that the vast majority of reports focus solely on the fact that there was a brawl and that police used capsicum spray to quell “extremists from both sides”.  It is reprehensible to call both neo-Nazis and the people opposing them “extremists”: they are simply not equivalent. The idea that in the absence of the counter-protestors the Nazis would have simply gone home is laughable if it wasn’t such a strong indication of the naivety of people who are relied upon to provide intelligent  commentary.

Indeed, some people have tried to blame Councilor Sue Bolton, who organized the initial “Moreland Says No To Racism” rally, as the effective instigator of the fight that took place on Bell St. Think about that a little: the reason there was violence in Coburg was because people organized to peacefully speak out against racism. Never mind that it was the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew who decided to bus in flag-waving meatheads in from Bendigo and Melton to cause trouble.  And in a small measure they did succeed in this aim by causing the Greens Councilor and Wills candidate Samantha Ratnam to not participate.

If the idea of opposing racist fascists is more distasteful than the fascists themselves then your conception of being anti-racist and anti-fascist is severely warped. Taking the moral high ground by doing exactly nothing about the growth of extreme right-wing ideology is having your cake and eating too, and it is not on . The much abused corpses of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King have been wheeled out in order remind us that “dialogue” and “true compromise” are what stops single-minded racist ideologies – by people who do no such thing.  This public performance of appalled outrage also involved a performed dewy-eyed innocence of foundational (and ever present) Australian racism: it’s as if genocide has never been committed here, and we have all lived in glorious harmony until the riff-raff mucked it up.

Armchair expert Ben Birchall was much more concerned that “discourse will not be any richer” following the Saturday clash than the fact that there would be a large gathering of neo-Nazis in his local park. He then curses the people putting themselves on the line while he strolls off to have a coffee (a multicultural coffee and za’atar, because see how he’s being anti-racist?).

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Darren Gray’s  article didn’t even mention fascism or Nazis: its main point of this article was how “surreal” Coburg felt on the day. Thrilling! Emily Wood’s article detailed how residents didn’t want racism in their neighborhood, but then somehow failed to mention that one side of the “racially fueled brawl” were neo-Nazis. Other pieces, such as this one by Bianca Hall, were more concerned about the unseemly nature of the brawl rather than the truly threatening ideology of the UPF and TBC. Her article also used people of color as currency to validate her own perspective while actually erasing the many people of color and Coburg locals who had the courage to get out on the street and eject the fascist intrusion.

I imagine these people think of themselves as anti-racist, but, as a person of color who turned up to chase those bigots out of town, they are symptomatic of the worth placed on words and not actions. They disgust me. People who do not do any anti-racist or anti-fascist activism do not suddenly get to loftily dictate strategy or morality to the people who are actually affected by racism and/or who do the hard work of anti-racism. Retweets don’t count.

You can bet that they will not say a word against what I predict will be the increasingly racist coverage of future clashes between fascist and antifascist supporters: only last Monday the Herald Sun front-page had a completely decontextualized photo (image uploaded soon) of Coburg locals, people of color, standing in front of police and yelling. Out of the frame of view are the fascists, but what editors wanted the public to see and react to were young Muslim men shouting while standing in front of riot police. There is already talk of a ban on face masks at rallies restarting the niqab/burka arguments, affecting Muslim women and their fundamental right to exist on the street.

And in future, as more people of color gain courage and start to take to the streets in response to fascist groups, expect to see the focus move from “masked vigilantes” to “riotous migrants who have failed to integrate”. And where will these commentators be? In a warm coffee shop, on Twitter, congratulating each other on their high moral standards.

 

 

 

What I Missed on Gendered Violence: More on Border Politics, Race and Feminism

by calendulate

[This article is a long way of saying that my previous piece on race and gendered violence had missed some important issues and that Celeste Liddle’s recent article does a much better job of discussing those intersections. If you only have time to read the one thing, it would probably be smart to make it hers.]

Gendered and domestic violence has been in the news a lot lately. Activist group GetUp has released a statement celebrating their victory in a campaign to have pop singer Chris Brown denied a visa to Australia on the basis of his history of intimate partner violence. Newly appointed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a $100 million package targeting domestic violence, commenting that “real men don’t hit women” (you can read Shakira Hussein’s critique of this posturing here). Yet more horrifying news has emerged about rapes on Nauru. Barnaby Joyce ventured his own marvellous notions on how to solve violence against women on Q&A. Online campaign group Destroy the Joint (with others) have announced their own ‘deny a visa’ campaign – this time against hardline anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman. A man punched a woman in the crowd at an AFL match in Fremantle to a racist internet response. And on the other side of the country, a brave young woman wept as she recalled her own story of experiencing abuse in her home to a Palm Island court.

… And Miranda Devine wrote an opinion piece. After my own blog post was published – critiquing the racism and tactical failure of GetUp’s campaign – a few people commented that the piece paid inadequate attention to the intersection of race and gender (these three tweets were helpful to me) in relation to gendered and domestic violence. Other pieces were published that did not rectify my mistake: despite the fact that one even contained the heading “Intersections of Race and Gender” it did not, in fact, contain any analysis that could have been termed intersectional. This was a significant failure on all of our parts, in particular because one of the most seminal feminist texts to introduce intersectionality as a notion – Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1991 Stanford Law Review articleMapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’ – explicitly deals with the issue of violence against women as it relates to intersectionality. So it sat uncomfortably with me. But it wasn’t until Devine’s truly exemplary racism that I felt that I had to write about this issue again.

Writing about GetUp’s Chris Brown campaign – and about earlier, similar campaigns by purportedly feminist group Collective Shout against boxer Floyd Mayweather and rapper Tyler, the Creator – I missed a very important point. I wrote:

Let there be no mistake about it: these are racist campaigns. The discourse of the gentle white Australia as needing ‘protection’ from these men is racist; the fact that it is only black men who work in industries coded as ‘thuggish’ who attract this kind of attention is racist; and the reification of the border as the mechanism by which we might ‘send a message’ against misogyny is racist.

All of these things are true. But what I didn’t say, and what I really should have said, is that these campaigns are also racist because they posit a feminism that is exclusionary of and actively harmful to women of colour. The racist construction of men of colour as especially violent makes the women who partner them frightened of using police to protect themselves in incidences of violence for fear of police brutality. The reification of the border likewise puts undocumented women or women in relationships with undocumented partners in a terrible position with regards to access to services to escape or protect themselves from violence. A ‘law and order’ type approach to domestic and gendered violence always disproportionately impacts on communities of colour: leaving women of colour to cope without financial and other parenting support. This story that has just emerged from Palm Island – in which a young woman was told to expect no support from police if she experienced violence from her partner, in retaliation for her perceived support for protests against the death in custody of a man from her community – is a particularly chilling example of how racism directly impacts on the experience of family violence for Aboriginal women.

What is also important to point out – which is what Devine’s piece illustrates so extraordinarily well – is that the racism (and incidentally, the classism, which I have made no moves to adequately address here) of these ways of constructing violence against women always ends up rebounding on the affected women themselves. Devine’s piece, for example, begins by diagnosing ‘poverty’ – that ‘desperate chaos of the underclass’ – as the ‘cause’ of domestic violence (no, she is not troubled by the plethora of evidence to the contrary); limiting its impact to ‘dysfunctional remote indigenous communities and public housing estates’. Having begun by maligning the poor men and men of colour whom she has characterised as uniquely abusive among men, however, she immediately turns her vitriol to the women who partner (and reproduce with) them: the ‘unsuitable women’ now of Twitter fame. The implication is clear. Men who abuse are ‘feckless’: irresponsible, flighty. The women who experience their abuse are unsuitable – a much more profound and vicious condemnation.

Writing in Daily Life, commentator Celeste Liddle (of Black Feminist Ranter renown – I’ve written about my admiration for her work on this blog before) addresses Devine’s sanguine cretinism with thoughtful and well-researched clarity. Liddle achieves an infinitely more subtle account of the intersection of poverty, race and domestic violence: acknowledging the ways in which disadvantage can function as an exacerbating factor whilst also noting the coexistence of family violence and affluence. She writes:

Rates of violence may be higher in rural and impoverished areas but they clearly do not negate the fact that fourteen women per week are running for their lives in the midst of leafy privilege.

In this sense, using the high rates of domestic violence experienced by impoverished Aboriginal women as a way to dismiss the far-reaching nature of the crime is reprehensible. I additionally resent the insinuation that remote Aboriginal women, being more likely to be impoverished, are perhaps the most “unsuitable women” of all, particularly in light of how often bureaucracies have attempted to control the reproductive capacity of Aboriginal women over the years.

As Liddle points out, racist constructions of gendered violence lead directly to misogynist attacks on the reproductive rights of the women who, according to Devine, ‘keep having children to a string of feckless men’ and are thus characterised as promiscuous and reproductively irresponsible as well as responsible for their abuse. The racist and misogynist control of the reproductive capacity of Aboriginal women has a long and ugly history in Australian governmental history (and not only Australian: I found this book by Native American scholar Andrea Smith particularly useful in learning to understand the intersections of race and reproductive rights). Thus an unintersecional accounting of family violence against fits seamlessly into the racist discourses that facilitate state violence against women of colour. It’s also worth noticing that intimate or domestic forms of violence – in both this the other examples of reproductive violence I cited in my previous article, as well as the incident mentioned above in which activist Lex Wotton’s daughter was terrorised by armed police in a bedroom in her family home – does not have to come from within the family.

It’s for this reason that the existence of pro-border campaigns against international visits by white misogynists (Julien Blanc, Dan Bilzerian, Troy Newman) do not defend these campaigns from the critiques I outlined in my original article. ‘Feminist’ work that benefits only privileged white women (as I argued, only putatively in this case) is not just ‘not inclusive’. It is profoundly damaging. Feminist scholar bell hooks once wrote that she prefers to say that she ‘advocates feminism’ than to declare herself a feminist. If feminism is a quest for the liberation of women then one cannot advocate for it through channels that actively hurt women. As I write this news has just broken that Newman’s visa has been revoked, presumably under recourse to Section 116 (i) of the Migration Act that protects against risks to ‘the health, safety or good order of the Australian community or a segment of the Australian community’. Let us please not read a victory for women into anything that comes out of this sinister document, not least its positing of an ‘Australian community’ that is both constructed and delineated by violence.

With warm thanks to all those who helped me to see the limitations of my earlier article, not all of whom wish to be named.

Scary Black Men and Nationalist White Feminists; Or Why White Women Actually Really Need Anti-Racism

by calendulate

GetUp recently released a call to its members to sign a petition against the granting of a visa to pop artist Chris Brown on the grounds of his history of domestic violence, most notably in the much-publicized attack on his then-partner Rihanna.

No, Chris Brown. You’re not welcome in Australia” proclaims the petition. There is an unmistakable echo here of a campaign in 2013 and again earlier this year by Christian feminist group Collective Shout against a tour by musician ‘Tyler, the Creator’ (Tyler Gregory Okonma) on the grounds that his lyrics and on-stage persona are misogynist. Collective Shout ran yet another anti-visa campaign against US boxer Floyd Mayweather in February this year, which was also successful. “This victory sends an important message not only to Floyd Mayweather but to Australia and the US – it doesn’t matter how wealthy and popular you are, domestic violence is inexcusable and we will not tolerate it,” Collective Shout’s victory statement reads.

For those of you following along at home, there is more than misogynist violence or attitudes that links these three men. Each are African-American; each has achieved fame and wealth in fields of endeavour that are heavily racialized and classed (hip-hop and boxing); each is fairly politically marginal and each is subject to the border. Collective Shout’s boasting of its impartiality and willingness to attack the wealthy and the powerful, therefore, would not seem to be borne out. The referencing by both GetUp and Collective Shout of the laws and statements of the terrifyingly racist Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection is a sinister indictment of both ‘activist’ groups’ willingness to work within the logics of a border regime which has committed far, far more violence against women than Okonma, Mayweather and Brown combined could even dream of.

This is not, by the way, in any way an attempt to defend Brown or Mayweather, both of whose behaviours I find appalling. Okonma’s case is more complicated: I would notice that he has not, in fact, been accused of actually enacting the violence he is said to endorse. There are interesting discussions to be had in relation to concerns about Okonma’s work about artistic expression, the use of alter ego and fractured identity in storytelling and the problems of using misogynist violence as metaphor or dramatic punctuation. These discussions, however, are peripheral to the core problem with these campaigns of denying visas to black men on the basis of their alleged misogyny which is, quite simply, that they are racist.

Let there be no mistake about it: these are racist campaigns. The discourse of the gentle white Australia as needing ‘protection’ from these men is racist; the fact that it is only black men who work in industries coded as ‘thuggish’ who attract this kind of attention is racist; and the reification of the border as the mechanism by which we might ‘send a message’ against misogyny is racist. (See in particular these articles for a critique of the language of ‘welcome’ which GetUp’s petition utilises.)

Finer minds than mine have done wonderful work on the imbrication of ‘feminist’ discourses and racist practises of border control, imperialism and institutional brutality (you could start with reading this and this and this and this if you are interested). What I also want to note, however, is that the white feminist strategy of appealing to racism in its focus on the misogynist violence of men of colour in particular is simply not effective. White women, in fact, need anti-racism – not just because without anti-racism our feminism is bullshit – but because the structures of misogyny share the same basis as the structures of racism; they will stand or fall together.

When George and I were first talking about this blog, I came across this article and immediately knew I wanted to write about it. The story is of a young white South African woman Jayde Panayiotou who was abducted and murdered earlier this year. The first suspect identified by police was a 31 year old black man Luthando Siyoli; a Facebook group was immediately established calling for is execution by death penalty. Panayiotou’s white husband was subsequently arrested on suspicion of having hired Siyoli and another man to kill her, upon which the Facebook group abruptly changed its name to the much more oblique “Justice for Jayde Panayiotou – Change for South Africa”.

The moral of the story is not a defence of the death penalty for the murderers of women. Rather, it serves as a poignant reminder that white women cannot rely on racialized outrage to focus public attention on the violence that they (we) experience, for the simple reason that it is in the vast majority of cases white men who perpetrate that violence. White women are overwhelmingly more likely to be beaten, raped and murdered by white men: in particular the white men who in the majority of cases are their partners and ex-partners. They are more likely to be groped, sexually harassed, emotionally abused and financially exploited by the white men who overwhelmingly make up their bosses, co-workers and male relatives. And they are most likely to see language and practices of misogyny legitimised in the halls of actual power (as opposed to the fairly marginal influence of a washed-up rapper) by the phalanx of white men known as politicians.

The white patriarchy that may or may not deign to deny a visa to one particular black man on the basis of our pleading is the same white patriarchy that oversees our reproductive exploitation, our relative poverty and our experiences of both institutionalised and personal gendered violence. As white women, we can appeal to racism for help getting attention for the misogyny we experience, but that attention will always be occasional, conditional – and focused on the men who hurt us most rarely anyway.

I’m not afraid of Chris Brown. I think he’s a gross, misogynist abuser whose music sucks. But his coming to Australia and subjecting a few stadiums full of people to his radical mediocrity in music will be like a drop in the ocean of misogyny in this country. And if you think he’s a gross, misogynist abuser, can I introduce you to the Department of Immigration of Border Protection whose litany of abuses of women – rape, psychological abuse and reproductive violence just the first that spring to mind – are on a scale of systemic horror far beyond anything Brown has or ever will do, and should immediately disqualify this kind of tactic from any organisation claiming to be motivated by feminist principles. Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

With thanks to Reza Yarahmadi, Sanmati Verma and Sam Wallman.

Edited to add:

Thanks to those who noticed that an important point missing from this article is the fact that racist, pro-border, law and order-style moves against gendered violence posit a ‘feminism’ that is exclusionary and actively harmful to women of colour; a point that I’ve tried to address in more detail here.

On Flag Appropriation and Other Problems with the Greens

by calendulate


Early in August, Greens MLA for Melbourne Ellen Sandell tweeted her plans for a campaign to push for the Victorian Parliament house to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian one. The image that accompanied the tweet (and was posted also to Facebook) was of the Aboriginal flag, defaced – as one Twitter user put it – by the Greens logo which was superimposed in white over the lower part of the flag.

The social media response was fairly immediate, led in particular by actor and comic Nakkiah Lui who proceeded to school the Greens representative on cultural appropriation with firmness, patience and iconic wit. “Thought I was wearing my Aboriginal Flag cossie for cultural pride,” she tweeted, over a picture of a cute, pony-tailed girl in an Aboriginal flag-print one piece riding a bicycle. “Actually, I was a young @Greens supporter #auspol” and “Aboriginal Flag colours stand for: BLACK is the colour of our skin, YELLOW is the sun & RED… for The Greens #auspol”.  Lui’s timeline over the few days following the incident is a piquant opportunity to watch a lucid intelligence under pressure from some of the most foolish and entitled white nonsense that this country has to offer. “Ppl defending @Greens branding of Aboriginal flag w/ reasoning “*other political party* did it” are further disempowering Aboriginal ppl ½,” she wrote, “Youre using Aboriginal people as a commodity. Youre not an ally if you defend our disempowerment. We shouldnt have to settle for scraps 2/2”. Her acumen drew ire from some, who saw it as “pathetic”. “It’s a Greens advert they put their logo on all adverts. Greens do most for indigenous [sic]” tweeted one user, as if – even if this extraordinary statement were true – it would entitle the party to colonising symbols of Indigeneity. “No,” Lui shot back swiftly, “Aboriginal people do the most for Aboriginal people. This is our flag, not an advert.”

The Greens made no official response to the public concern, but deleted the photo from social media in what a appeared to be an attempt to hush the whole thing up (Labor staffers boasted with glee of having screen-capped the post; their time would perhaps have been better spent addressing their own party’s rather considerable race-fail). A couple of days later, Sandell’s Facebook page posted a victory message: a photograph of the Aboriginal and Australian flags flying over Parliament House (the image in fact came from NAIDOC celebrations) and claiming that such a sight would soon become a regular appearance. Buried within the self-congratulation was an equally fatuous nonpology:

(Note: after feedback today on our original Facebook square including the Greens logo, we have decided to take it down. We acknowledge the Aboriginal flag is an incredibly important symbol of heritage and culture, and should be deeply respected by all members of our society, which is why we are so happy with the outcome today and why we’ve taken down the original post.)

The post then hastily returned to a few more pats on the back for all involved – stating that an acknowledgement of country will now be read before each parliamentary sitting, the level of credit for which the Greens claim remaining unclear – and the page returned to its regular programming. (As a side note, I attended an action commemorating the death in custody of Yamatji woman Julieka Dhu on the steps of Parliament House a few weeks after this post and there was no sign of the flag).

The whole incident was rather unremarkably dispiriting: the Australian political mainstream are wont to inflict similar cruelties and transgressions against First Nations people in this country as a matter of fairly regular course – in fact absent Lui’s poised engagement the incident would not be particularly memorable. But appropriation of the flag aside, the whole affair was exemplary of the vacuous and facile nature of the Greens’ engagement with Aboriginal Australia and their fundamental inability to come to any kind of terms with issues of historical and continuing colonisation and genocide. Blogger Celeste Liddle wrote at the time that she was offended not so much by the appropriation of the flag by the Greens logo but the appropriative nature of flying it over a house of Parliament that occupies stolen land, does not represent Aboriginal people and in fact often openly inflicts violence against them.

Frankly, until we are living in a post-treaty society, I don’t really care about seeing an Aboriginal flag flying outside the parliament house. I am sick to death of continual symbolic gestures undertaken by the various levels of Australian government. To see such a symbol of our resistance flying outside the very buildings within which much of our oppression has been devised is a hollow, and almost offensive, gesture. Rather than thinking how we can be included, perhaps it’s time for some wrongs to be properly rectified. I want them to earn the right to fly our flag, and surely, they have not done this.

Even if one disagrees with Liddle (and I am sure many Aboriginal people do, Liddle herself is the first to remind us of the diversity of views that exists amongst Indigenous people), the flying of the flag is at best a symbolic gesture of inclusion. It is the only time that Aboriginal Australia has been mentioned since by Sandell since, and the last mention (at a very generous interpretation) was also about a flag – in May she posted a picture of herself with a primary school student in Kensington and the Aboriginal and Australian flags she had provided him with to replace his school’s ‘tatty’ old ones.

This is a party whose Victorian policy platform makes no mention of police brutality, incarceration rates, deaths in custody or the removal of children from families (which continues now at a rate that outstrips that of the Stolen Generations). The national platform is only marginally better, in that it at least makes mention of deaths in custody and perhaps at a stretch child removals in a kind of laundry list of National Inquiry recommendations that should be implemented; no further detail is ventured, however, on what the commissions say or how what they recommend might be realised. What the policies focus on instead are the more comfortable issues of reconciliation and Constitutional recognition, watered-down acknowledgements of “spiritual connection” to “traditional lands,” and a repetitious assertion that various services ought be “culturally appropriate” – whatever that might mean. (Dr. Gary Foley of Victoria University offers very accessible critiques of both reconciliation and recognition; Celeste Liddle has also written insightfully on the question of recognition on her blog and for the Guardian). The Greens have so far shown themselves to be completely incapable of engaging with the substantial resistance amongst Aboriginal people to Constitutional recognition, instead choosing to celebrate their support for the measure as if it were somehow revolutionary.

Rendering the Greens multiple failures of policy and engagement with Indigenous issues even less palatable is their apparent belief that they are the party of Aboriginal advancement (recall Lui’s interlocutor’s temerity in asserting that the Greens have “done the most for Indigenous,” a declaration that was probably made in all sincerity). Even this embittered ex-member can’t deny that of the major parties in Australian politics at the moment they are certainly the least egregious. But ‘least worst’ is a long, long way from ‘best’ – and the Greens appear to suffer under the unfortunate delusion that they are the best. At a memorial earlier this year for Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, two Aboriginal freedom fighters who were the first people to be hanged in Melbourne and are believed to be buried at what now forms a part of the Queen Victoria Market, Sandell and her Melbourne Council counterpart Cathy Oke spoke about their efforts to have a monument erected to the two men. Their chance at the microphone came directly after an address by activist Robbie Thorpe – a seasoned and deeply insightful speaker and a hard act to follow at the best of times. But his impassioned, illuminating and total rejection of colonial Australia – a “crime scene” as he often points out – appeared to embarrass the two Greens representatives not at all, as they gaily recounted their heroic efforts towards the monument – efforts that take place within a system of government rendered completely illegitimate by Thorpe’s critique.

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Sandell made another attempt at sharing a microphone with Thorpe on invasion day only a few days later: George snapped this picture of her as she appears to attempt to edge towards the speaking platform on the steps of Parliament house. Organisers from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and First Nations Liberation had been unequivocal in their designation of only Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander speakers that day: it was hours later, when the whole contingent had marched through the city (disrupting the “Australia day” parade in a moment of strategic brilliance: Pekeri Ruska’s inspiring behind the scenes account from the day in Black Nations Rising here comes highly recommended) and to Birrarung Marr that first Indigenous peoples from countries other than Australia and then – only then – non-Indigenous people were invited to speak. By then, of course, Sandell was nowhere to be seen. Read that as allegorical if you will.

Adam Goodes and that Special Racism

by GeorgeK

Once again, white Australia has been plunged into a racial clusterfuck, this time about Indigenous football player Adam Goodes. Responses both in support of and deriding Adam Goodes are revealing of Australia’s denial of its deep historical racism. That there is a “debate” about whether or not the booing of Goodes was racist, and whether he has acted “appropriately” in response, is telling of how far the proverbial Australian head is up the proverbial Australian arse. Clowns who call themselves journalists are running around asking white experts such as James Packer, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones, Jason Akermanis, and the mother of the girl who called Goodes an ape to pass judgement on the appropriateness an Aboriginal person’s response to racism.
The procession of articles wondering, “Is it racist? Can Australians be racist!?” would be amusing if it did not have real impacts on all People of Colour in this country. Seeing as we aren’t asked about it, I’m just going to go ahead and say: booing Adam Goodes is racist.

  1. If you don’t like Goodes because he is Indigenous, then this is what I call being a Mickey Mouse racist. This is the type of racist that white people think about when they think of racism. The kind of mean person that would berate someone on a train.
  2. If you apparently “don’t like the way he plays”, “don’t like how he plays for free kicks”, or whatever stupid reason, that’s racist too. Why? Presuming you aren’t just someone from the first category who is trying to be sly (and there are many, many of these depressingly obvious people), then what this means is that you are happy to knowingly boo alongside racist boos. The airing of your personal (read: pathetic) grievances against this Indigenous player is more important than declining to participate in an overtly racist activity. The fact that you are happy to ignore the context of a stadium of white people booing a black player (because, of course, your boos are legit boos) – this reveals the violent white bubble in which you sit, a bubble from which you perform and perpetuate racism. The failure to recognise this bubble, or the willingness to ignore it, this is racism.

It reminds me of a time I had a fruitless argument with a white person who argued that it was possible to support Apartheid South Africa while not being racist. The personal beliefs and motivations of a white person transcend the real life situations of People of Colour.

By calling out what is a mass manifestation of a festering Australian disease (that special racism reserved for Indigenous people), Goodes is getting blamed for his own situation (because, you know, racism doesn’t actually exist until someone points it out). Racial harmony means white comfort, and disturbing white comfort is literally reverse racism. Andrew Bolt has the audacity to say that Goodes would be lauded as a “hero” if he had not said anything to that girl; instead he is a bully who should be ashamed of himself. Of course no one points out that he had not been lauded as a hero up until that point, despite racial abuse he had withstood beforehand. Alan Jones has said that racism doesn’t exist because Indigenous people are actually allowed to play AFL. They’re even allowed to play tennis, for fuck’s sake. So shame on them for being greedy.

But if the bar is low for Bolt, Jones and their fans, it is not that much higher for the “progressive” people now trumpeting “I stand with Adam Goodes”. It is all well and good to “stand with Adam”, but what does that really mean? It means: when it is safe to do so, (i.e. when there are enough people already doing so, when the issue itself is not systemic, will not ripple further), “progressive” white people will say the right things, tut-tut the bogans, use the right hashtags, and tick the right boxes.

Forgive me if I don’t get teary eyed and feel better because I know that, really, there are good white people too. This movement against a manifestation of Australian racism is just that – a quashing of the manifestation. The cause, the core, that allows people to boo Goodes in a football stadium also results in police killing Aboriginal people with impunity. It results in the continuing Stolen Generations, and mass incarceration. Where were these good white people when Julieka Dhu got murdered by the police over unpaid fines? Where were they when TJ Hickey got impaled on a fence after being chased by the police? Australia incarcerates Indigenous people at world record levels – who has said anything about that? But they Stand With Adam! Hell, we even have the co-captains of Team Australia, Tony Shorten saying he “Stands with Adam Goodes” and Bill Abbott decrying anything that “smacks of racism”. Yet these two leaders, leaders that Australians vote in, the elected representatives, preside over the cutting of services to Indigenous people, the continuation of the NT Intervention, and the forced closures of Aboriginal communities.

Adam Goodes has become (through no fault of his own) a vehicle for the emancipation of the white soul. Editorials roundly condemning the booing simultaneously attribute it to an errant few, exempting the rest who also participate in the racist Australian system. And so “progressives” wash their hands of Mickey Mouse racism and give each other pats on the back, meanwhile carrying on with the systemic racism, the real racism, which they are party to by virtue of being witnesses and participating in the political, economic and cultural system. So pardon me if I am not glad.