Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996, Alhalkere, NT, Australia)

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Alhalkere (also known as Utopia), located more than 200km north-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territories of Australia, is home to an Aboriginal community. In 1977, women in the community attended an adult education workshop on the technique of batik, producing art using silks, dyes and wax. One of the attendees was 67-year-old Emily Kame Kngwarreye and she soon helped set up the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kngwarreye was an elder of the Anmatyerre people, whose ancestral lands made up Alhalkere. In the 1920s, when lands were annexed for pastoral leases by the colonists, she had been forced to work for the Europeans, looking after domestic animals on a cattle station, leading a camel train and even working in a mine. However, she was also active in the indigenous land rights movement and, in 1979, after the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission brought about the Northern Territory Act, the 2000 square kilometre Utopia cattle station was returned to her people. As an elder, Kngwarreye was a custodian of the women’s Dreaming sites of her people and she performed roles in many of the traditional ceremonies. The Dreaming explains the creation of land formations, the earth, animals, people and plants, with customs, knowledge and codes of conduct passed on in songs, dances, designs and rituals. Kngwarreye’s role included the painting of bodies for rituals, with designs reflecting the natural world around them, and it was many of these themes that she carried into her batik work.

In the 1980s, she had the opportunity to learn how to use acrylics on canvas and thereafter she worked prolifically. In the eight years prior to her death in 1996, aged 86, she produced around 3000 works. Her abstract pieces reflect her homeland, inspired by the physical features, weather, animals, grasses, seeds and tracks of Alhalkere. After her work was displayed in an exhibition in Sydney in 1989, she gained attention and a growing demand from collectors. Various art critics compared her work to that of Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Today, her name may not be as familiar as those, but her paintings can still be found in galleries across Australia, as well as in New Zealand, the US, the Netherlands and Italy. In 1997, her work was posthumously exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Bibliography

University of Canberra – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, Awelye” https://www.canberra.edu.au/about-uc/art-collection/the-art-collection/emily-kame-kngwarreye,-untitled,-awelye

National Gallery of Australia – “Emily Kam Kngwarray, Alhalkere, Paintings from Utopia” https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/kngwarray/teachers.cfm

National Museum of Australia – “Emily Kame Kngwarreye” https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/utopia_the_genius_of_emily_kame_kngwarreye/emily_kame_kngwarreye

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Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…

Mary Prince (b. 1788 , Bermuda)

“Oh the horrors of slavery!—How the thought of it pains my heart! But the truth ought to be told of it; and what my eyes have seen I think it is my duty to relate; for few people in England know what slavery is. I have been a slave—I have felt what a slave feels, and I know what a slave knows; and I would have all the good people in England to know it too, that they may break our chains, and set us free.” – Mary Prince, 1831

From 1791, anti-slavery activists petitioned the British parliament to bring the slave trade to an end. In 1792 alone, 519 petitions were presented, driven in many cases by the stories coming out of the colonies from the slaves themselves. Political progress was slow however, and when the Abolition Act passed in 1807, banning the slave trade in the UK, the use of slaves in the colonies remained legal. Parliamentary petitions continued and, for the first time ever in 1829, one was presented by a woman, arguing for basic human rights for slaves. That woman was a Bermudan slave named Mary Prince.

Mary (also Molly) Prince, was born into slavery in Bermuda in 1788. She remained with her family for 12 years before being separated from them, sold to a different master. After 5 years of brutal treatment, including regular whippings, she was sent to another master on Turks Island where she worked in the salt ponds there for the next 10 years, resulting in the rheumatism that pained her for the rest of her life. In 1815, she was sold to yet another new master in Antigua. Mr John Wood, together with his wife, subjected her to more beatings and floggings, which had become a repeated feature of her life. During this time, she began attending the Moravian Church, where she learned to read, and she married a free man, Daniel James, in 1826. Her husband offered to buy her freedom, but the Woods refused, seemingly for no other reason than to punish her further.

In 1828, Mary was taken by the Woods to London as a servant, as slavery was illegal in Britain, but their hostile treatment of her continued. She was able to leave their service but she had no means, and returning to the West Indies would have resulted in a return to her status as a slave. She gained the assistance of the Moravian Church in London and obtained paid work with the family of Thomas Pringle, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. Several attempts were made by these organisations to buy or negotiate her manumission from John Wood, but he stubbornly and repeatedly refused to do so while questioning her character and honesty.

Mary’s attempts to gain her freedom from the Woods and her petition to parliament did not succeed, but in 1831 she published her story for the world to see. Her vivid, brutal descriptions of the physical and mental horrors of slavery caught the attention of the public and the book was reprinted twice in the first year. She forced the British population to examine their own complicity in slavery, asking;

“Did one of the many by-standers, who were looking at us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman and her young ones? No, no! They were not all bad, I dare say; but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief—though their light words fell like cayenne on the fresh wounds of our hearts.”

Some thought Mary’s experiences were too brutal to be true, and two libel actions were taken against the book, including one by her master Mr Wood. However, Mary defended herself and her history, testifying twice in court to its veracity.

In 1831, Mary wrote,

“I still live in the hope that God will find a way to give me my liberty, and give me back to my husband. I endeavour to keep down my fretting, and to leave all to Him, for he knows what is good for me better than I know myself. Yet, I must confess, I find it a hard and heavy task to do so.”

Two years later, the British Parliament finally placed a total ban on slavery. Mary’s testimony in the libel cases that year is the last record we have of her and it is not known if she died in the UK or was able to return home to her husband as a free woman. However, it is clear that her contribution to the fight against slavery eventually enabled others to experience the freedom that she was cruelly denied for so many years.

June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Bibliography

“The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave” by Mary Prince, Edited by Sara Salih (1831)

The Abolition Project – Petitioning and Lobbying Parliament http://abolition.e2bn.org/campaign_16.html

The Guardian – “They bought me as a butcher would a calf or a lamb’” https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Boys’ Toys: Tech and Sexual Objectification

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It’s a lucrative business model; a gallery owner makes millions selling art and can keep all the proceeds because he doesn’t have to pay the artist. At a time when creators are already struggling for fair remuneration for their work, is this the future? Meet Ai-Da, an AI robot developed by UK company Engineered Arts for gallery owner Aidan Meller. Using cameras in her eyes, Ai-Da is able to interact with her surroundings and produce original line drawings, and Meller has already made over $1 million selling her work. Yes, her work. Under her paint-smattered smock, Ai-Da’s body is all metallic parts, but her face is that of an attractive female (thanks to the team behind the ‘Westworld’ cyborgs) and she has a gentle, breathy voice to match. Named after 19th century mathematician and computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, the decision to make this technology female was deliberate. Meller says,“What we’re about today is really having everybody’s voice heard because that has not been traditional, especially in the art world. A female voice is needed more now than ever and we’re excited and proud of that.” There are so many questions raised by Ai-Da’s existence: Is it just a coincidence that Meller’s choice of name, supposedly honouring Ada Lovelace, is only one ‘n’ away from his own name, or is the self-aggrandisement deliberate?; Was Meller concerned about the optics of a successful, male gallery owner profiting from the work of an upcoming ‘female’ artist, or is exploitation the point?; Did Meller consider giving voice to a human female artist rather than to a robot, or did that never even cross his mind?

Which leads to the more general question of why so many of these, predominantly male-run, tech companies create ‘female’ robots. Putting aside the issue of specifically designed sexbots, there is an interesting discrepancy around which types of technology are presented as obvious robotics, such as Boston Dynamics’ dog-shaped and humanoid machines shown opening doors, climbing stairs and doing backflips, and those which are designed to look as human as possible, with skin and hair. The latter seem to frequently be female, with one such example being Sophia, who was developed by David Hansen of Hansen Robotics and modelled on Audrey Hepburn. Sophia was famously, and unironically, given citizenship in Saudi Arabia, a country where human women can’t work, study or travel without the permission of a male guardian. Hansen himself displayed an equally traditionalist view of the role of women in society when he explained that his aim is for Sophia to be of use in the healthcare, customer service, therapy and education sectors. It seems gender stereotypes are alive and well in the robot world, with ‘females’ performing the nurturing roles and the gentle arts best ‘suited’ to them.

We don’t need to dig deep into the psyches of such tech developers to find the sexual objectification of the female form together with a desire to create a breed of ‘women’ who can satisfy the need for attractive, sexy companions without the baggage of autonomy, opinions and the ability to say no. This seems to run parallel with a prudish distaste for anything that suggests female sexual desire and gratification. Last year’s case at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) highlighted the hypocrisy in this area, where sex tech to induce male pleasure had never been an issue but a female-targeted sex aid was deemed, immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA’s image by the Consumer Technology Association. This highlighted the misogynistic view that women are a means to male sexual pleasure, but that active female desire is unseemly and must be censored. The CTA have since reviewed what happened, explaining, We just identified some inconsistency is in our handling and our policies that we needed to go back in and address, The prize for the Osé Robotic Massager, which was revoked at the time, has now been reinstated, but the damage has been done and the image of tech as a protected male domain has been reinforced.

The sexual objectification of the female body is also the source of Facebook’s ongoing nipple issue. The company’s nudity moderation had resulted in works of art, historic photographs, content on breastfeeding and campaigns to raise awareness about breast cancer being removed from the platform. Users were also quick to point out the hypocrisy that female nipples were being banned but male nipples were deemed acceptable. Years on and Facebook are still trying to find a fix for their nipple problem, with their policies remaining opaque and questions being raised around how the company responds to images of trans-women and women after mastectomies. What it all points to is an inherent problem with their moderation, and with the algorithms being used to run it. These have been developed by men who see female breasts as merely sexual objects and who had not considered them in any other context. Their almost puritanical concealment of the female body shows that outdated but deep-seated, discriminatory ideas about the role of women in society are being transposed into the online world by powerful companies who are supposed to be at the forefront of the modern age.

Examples abound in the tech world of inequalities, sexual objectification and outright misogyny, from the low hiring rates of women and minorities to coordinated harassment by men who see tech as a male space and try to make it so uncomfortable and dangerous for women that they are forced out. All of this raises concerns over a general lack of diversity in the tech companies responsible for creating the world we increasingly live in. The algorithms which dictate so much of our online interactions today, from the recommendations and news we see to the moderation of content deemed inappropriate, are still predominantly written by white men, and the AI machine learning is based on content produced by even more white men. The danger is that the environment they create will share their views that women are nothing more than receptacles for their desires and not autonomous beings with an equal right to play an active role in that world.

18th June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

The Environmental Emergency: Beware the Responses

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The October 2018 IPCC report and recent UN Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystems Services report present a dire prognosis for life on Earth. Without swift and decisive action around the world, rising sea levels, extreme weather events of increasing frequency and severity, and the collapse of food security will endanger and displace millions of people, while 1 million species are under threat of extinction from humans. The flood of scientific data, as well as literal floods and other catastrophic events, have resulted in a swelling of public protests and demands which politicians can no longer ignore. However, there are still many in positions of power who see environmental regulations as an assault on the free market, and are desperate to maintain the status quo by protecting the industries causing the most damage. They have well-developed and coordinated methods to distract, deflect and muddy the waters, all allowing them to avoid or delay taking action. Here are four common techniques to be aware of:

Casting Doubt

Doubt has long been a tool of the science denier. The scientific method functions through questioning and continually reaffirming results. When 98% of scientists agree on something this is a clear scientific consensus but it leaves a tiny chink in the armour which can then be exploited by sceptics or those who wish to discredit the science for their own gain. In their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway detail how industry has repeatedly worked diligently to spread doubt on the science surrounding the dangers of tobacco and DDT, the causes of acid rain and the ozone hole, and anthropogenic climate change. In these case studies, it is often the same few scientists, such as physicist Fred Singer, who help provide theories opposing the consensus, driven by an ideology that sees environmentalism as a threat to capitalism, fearing regulation as the slippery slope to Communism. The voice of this small minority is then given credence and amplified by the media’s misguided attempt to present ‘balance’, creating false equivalence between ‘both sides’ of the science and meaning remedial action is delayed or avoided. Documents leaked in 2015 made it clear that companies including Exxon and Shell knew about the consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s but chose not to make the knowledge public, in spite of knowing it was “potentially catastrophic”. Instead, they spent millions of dollars on climate change denial think tanks and cast doubt on the growing consensus in science that fossil fuels were a danger to the future of the planet.

More insane attempts at changing the narrative around the science have included politicians bringing snowballs into the US Senate to ‘prove’ that the climate is not warming, and coal into the Australian parliament to show its not dangerous. Most of the public may not be misled by such blatant gaslighting but this is not always reflected in political outcomes, with the coal-brandishing Australian politician, Scott Morrison, now the country’s Prime Minister, winning re-election just this month.

Attacking the Messenger

When the science itself proves to be too strong to dispute, the attack turns to the motives and character of the scientist themselves.

In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson, warned of the dangers to the ecosystem posed by DDT used in pesticides. The chemical companies Du Pont and Velsicol threatened legal action against her publisher, but scientific peer review proved her conclusions to be accurate. This validation did not stop the personal attacks against Carson, even reaching the highest levels of politics, with former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson writing to President Eisenhower questioning why a “spinster” would be interested in genetics and concluding that she was “probably a Communist”. Carson’s work went on to inspire many in the burgeoning environmental protection movement, but accusations of Communism or Marxism have persisted as a repeated refrain, with environmentalism seen by some as a cover for anti-Capitalism and an attempt to bring down the free market through regulations.

Michael Mann is another example of a scientist who underwent years of personal and political attacks due to his work on climate change models. His 1998 ‘hockey stick graph’ clearly presented the link between the warming atmosphere and human activity. His work was met with leaked personal emails, accusations of falsification and manipulation of statistics, and the Attorney General of Virginia taking a legal battle for access to Mann’s personal records as far as the state’s Supreme Court. Ultimately, this was rejected as an abuse of power, Mann was cleared of all scientific wrongdoing, and the predictions he made have proven to be accurate. However, Mann himself has concerns that the harassment he underwent may deter other scientists in the field, and that that is exactly what was intended.

It is not only environmental scientists who are being attacked for their work, but also the activists working to raise public awareness and pressure governments into taking action. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes have seen young people taking to the streets all around the world, demanding that their governments secure their futures. Being a sixteen-year-old girl has not insulated Thunberg from attacks though. Political commentators and right-wing populists, including Germany’s AfD, have latched onto the fact that this eloquent, persuasive young women is on the autism spectrum, calling her, “weird” and “mentally challenged”, comparing her to “the Nazi youth”, and claiming she has a “psychosis”, is prone to “meltdowns”, and is “a patsy for scared and elitist adults”. In the face of such attacks, Greta has refused to back down, answering her critics head on and seeing the movement she has inspired continue to grow.

Attacking the Solutions

The environmental crisis is a global problem, with those on the frontline of the effects being at the mercy of the nations and industries causing the pollution while also having the capacity to halt the destruction. At a time when international cooperation on solutions is vital, the US announced in June 2017 their intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, as the global pact was not in line with their “America First” policy. So far, this has not led to any further fractures but some politicians in countries including Australia and Brazil have seen their own resistance to restrictions on the fossil fuel industry vindicated by the US’ actions and are also itching to have their nations withdraw.

In response to the IPPC’s 2018 warnings, Democrats in the US proposed solutions in their Green New Deal. It was an aspirational 14-page submission with a range of goals for environmental and social improvements: emissions reductions; infrastructure and transport investment and job creation; the retraining of workers to re-skill for renewable energy industries; clean water and air and healthy food for all; support for sustainable farming; the protection of ecosystems and public land and cooperation with indigenous people. Their jointly economic/ecologic solution runs counter to arguments that this is a zero sum situation and that taking action on the climate means an automatic loss of jobs and economic wellbeing. As a result, the responses from critics have been hyperbolic to say the least. Trump, who has never been a fan of wind turbines, railed against the Green New Deal’s proposed windmills by claiming they result in piles of dead bald eagles and that the noise they create gives you cancer. Both Trump Sr. and Jr., along with Senator Ted Cruz, have branded the “leftist crazy theory” as an attempt to ban pick-up trucks, planes and cows, leading to the end of hamburgers, and subjecting the country to Marxism.

This fear mongering that sustainable solutions to the environmental crisis mean losing the things we love, is not isolated to the US. In the lead up to the recent election in Australia, opposition leader Bill Shorten announced his party’s target for 50% of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030. In response, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that,“That’s the cheapest car Bill Shorten wants to make available to you to buy in the future, and I’ll tell you what — it’s not going to tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family”. He capitalised on the idea that, for many in the country, the thought of being deprived of their utes (utility vehicles), is a fate not to be countenanced.

Claiming There’s a Bright Side

Perhaps the most mindblowing response to the climate emergency is those arguing that there is no need to act as the environmental changes will have a net positive result, rather than negative. Back in the 1980s, when the fossil fuel industry’s own research predicted the coming climate catastrophe, they comforted themselves in the knowledge that this would not be as “significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine”.

More recently, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at last month’s Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting made no mention at all of climate change, while the US sought to remove climate references from the joint statement before finally refusing to sign it. Instead, Pompeo took a deep dive into the positive opportunities for exploration and new access to lucrative resources provided by the rapidly receding ice, giddy in his excitement that, “steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could come before — could [become] the 21st Century Suez and Panama Canals”.

Bringing us full circle from the “Merchants of Doubt” we come to the Heartland Institute. This is a conservative think tank, whose financial supporters have included Philip Morris and Exxon. Fred Singer is a director of their environmental policy and they have worked for years to discredit the science around the dangers of tobacco and to question the scientific consensus on climate change. They currently promote and work with, Gregory Wrightstone, a geologist -not a climate scientist – and consultant to the fracking industry. In Wrightstone’s self-published, non-peer-reviewed work, he argues, that yes, global temperatures and CO2 levels are increasing but that it is not as drastic as the predictions and indeed will be advantageous to humankind. He argues that increased CO2 will cause a greening of the planet, leading to increased agricultural yields and reduced wildfires, and that rising temperatures will result in fewer winter deaths in high latitudes. In spite of the lack of scientific weight behind his conclusions, his rosy view of the environmental emergency has been given a wide-reaching platform, from Fox News to Congressional committees.

29th May 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

The War on Women and the Non-Binary

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The 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has resonated widely and had a significant cultural impact, with the iconic red-cloaks and white, face-obscuring bonnets appearing in a range of protests around the world. The novel and this latest adaptation portray a patriarchal society in which women’s roles are reduced to those of submissive wife, exchangeable baby maker, or receptacle for male sexual desire. Meanwhile, female desire, control and independence are punishable by torture and death. That a tale written over thirty years ago, and set in a world that mirrors a puritanical society harking back centuries, should strike such an emotional chord today, says a lot about the state of current attitudes and legislation surrounding gender and sexuality, women’s rights and reproductive choices. Many of the gains made for women and the LGBTQI community in the past 50 years are now being chipped away, corroded or simply swept aside.

The 18th Century Age of Enlightenment saw the birth of ‘science’ as we know it today, and central to that was the attempt to explain, and contain, the complexity and diversity of the natural world through a system of classification into different species and suborders. Today we continue to categorise the world around us in order to understand and control it. We use the biological distinction between male and female sexes based on genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. However, research has also been carried out into the balance of influences on human development, between biological (nature) and learned behaviour from societal messages and pressure (nurture). This has given us the concept of ‘gender’ as a social construct of what is considered masculine and feminine, challenging the belief that ‘maleness’ and ‘femininity’ are ‘natural’ biological propensities. But even this is an oversimplification and there is in fact a diverse spectrum of biological and behavioural differences when it comes to assigned biological sex, psychological experience, sexual identity and sexual attraction, which do not fit into basic binary models. Central to many of the current regressive changes in legislation and attitudes is the desire to uphold a simpler binary notion, which sees women with a primary role as child bearer and keeper of home while men protect and go out and ‘do’. In this model, sexual intercourse is viewed as a means to procreate and so homosexuality is also demonised, and anything other than the binary concept of gender and sex is utterly rejected. Those who are made uncomfortable or feel threatened by those not conforming to these ‘traditional’ roles, are currently working to influence discussion and legislation around abortion, women’s rights and LGBTQI rights in order to suppress what they see as aberrant behaviour and to maintain control over other bodies and reproduction.

Examples abound, including changes in US policy under the current administration to reduce funding for women’s health initiatives and sex education, with budgets being cut from health clinics making referrals for abortions. Funds have also been diverted from education on pregnancy prevention through contraception towards programmes that emphasise abstinence. Legislation that has recently been passed includes religious freedom rules, allowing employers with moral objections to opt out of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act and doctors to deny treatment to women who have had abortions or to LGBTQI patients. Meanwhile, states such as Georgia have passed ‘heartbeat bills’, criminalising abortion after 6 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Much of this is in line with the wishes of Christian evangelicals, whose endorsement helped the current president into office. At the highest levels of Trump’s administration, figures such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are known for their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, a lack of concern for LGBTQI rights and a desire to see the end of abortion access. Meanwhile, both of Trump’s supreme court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsich, caused concern at their confirmation hearings by either equivocating or refusing to discuss whether they believe Roe v Wade (legal access to abortions) and Obergefell v Hodges (marriage equality) are settled law. A recent 5-4 decision by the court enabled the Trump administration to continue pursuing their attempts to overturn an Obama-era law and to prohibit transgender people from serving in the military.

The US’ dangerous and regressive stance has far-reaching international consequences. One of the Trump administration’s first moves was to enforce the Global Gag Rule, which has resulted in a denial of funds to NGOs giving advice on abortion services, damaging health provisions in developing countries and reducing the ability to treat other issues including TB and HIV. Then, last month at the United Nations, the US threatened to veto the latest update of the Women, Peace and Security resolution, which protects civilians from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. Their objection surrounded the language in the resolution, which was added in 2013, guaranteeing access to reproductive and sexual health services for victims of rape, and to the inclusion of the word “gender”. Their objection to that single word covers all UN documents, and is an attempt to undermine the rights of transgender people. The resolution in question only passed after the requested changes were made and the US voted in favour, while Russia and China abstained.

Restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQI are a global problem with countless examples around the world, many in nations with strong, autocratic, male leaders. In spite of the claims that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is having a liberalising influence in Saudi Arabia, numerous women’s rights activists are currently imprisoned, and have allegedly been tortured. The kingdom continues to resist any loosening of the guardianship laws, which prevent women from studying, working or travelling without male consent. Meanwhile legal abortions remain out of reach in many countries, domestic violence laws were recently weakened in Russia, and in Brazil’s October 2018 election, the country voted in a man who stated, “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.”  Homosexuality remains illegal in over 70 countries, and international condemnation was muted at best amidst recent crackdowns on gay rights in Tanzania, Russia and Chechnya. However, Brunei has backtracked a little on their recently announced plan to punish gay sex with stoning to death. A moratorium was called after high-profile figures called for a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the kingdom, showing the importance of publicity and influential allies in this issue.

There are, however, also powerful influencers working on the side of those who cling to fundamentalist readings of religious scriptures in order to restrict rights and choices. Pope Benedict recently resurfaced, 6 years after abdicating from the Holy See, in order to blame sexual abuse within the Catholic church on the sexual revolution. He explained in a letter that clerical abuses were due to the “all-out sexual freedom” of the 1960s, which led to a “dissolution” of morality in Catholicism, homosexuality and paedophilia. In the background of Benedict’s reappearance is Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor whose current mission is to unite nativist, far-right, populist movements in Europe. Part of Bannon’s effort has involved advising Italian interior minister Mario Salvini that Pope Francis is too liberal and an enemy who should be attacked, telling him, “[populism is] catching fire and the Pope is just dead wrong”. After meeting Bannon, Salvini wore a t-shirt that declared, “Benedict is my Pope”.

It is not only cisgender men who are driving the restrictions being placed on women and LGBTQI, but also some women acting as policy advocates, attacking other women and defending the actions of men who would erode the rights of those less privileged. One such example is US lobbyist Janet Porter, whose organisation Faith2Action supports gay conversion therapy. Such programmes, now banned in many states, attempt to pressure people to repress their true identities and have resulted in serious mental health issues and led to suicides. Porter, assisting GOP legislators, has also been instrumental in pushing for the ‘heartbeat bill’ (based on the false idea that a human heart is fully formed and beating by 6 weeks after conception) but wants to go further, advocating for a total ban on abortion and a legal definition of life as beginning from conception. This all in spite of the evidence that shows abortion bans place women’s lives at risk due to unregulated illegal procedures. Women are also complicit in much of the vitriol currently being directed against transgender people, with some feminists arguing against the inclusion of trans women in female spaces. Many refuse to see trans women as women and are resorting to some of the arguments that were used in the past against homosexuals, painting them as predators and paedophiles who are not to be trusted in bathrooms and changing rooms. However, there is no evidence of women or children being placed at risk by having trans women in female spaces, and while these trans-exclusionary feminists may believe they are supporting women’s rights, their stance is actually bolstering the essentialist binary agenda and aiding discriminatory messages and policy.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ may be dystopian fiction but there is a reason it doesn’t feel far-fetched right now. Worldwide, there are concerted, often co-ordinated, efforts to deny women and LGBTQI of their rights. It’s not just about misogynist, homophobic and transphobic trolling on social media. It’s not just about wolf whistles, name calling and discriminatory behaviour. This is a determined effort by those in power to reverse progress, through policies and legislation that disadvantage women and those who do not sit comfortably in a narrow, outdated definition of gender and sex. Many currently in positions of power scoff at ‘identity politics’ but their own policies often specifically target LGBTQI, women and minorities. This is a war on women and the non-binary. And what is required in response is an army. The reason the original LGB initials have grown over the years has been a recognition of all gender and sexual diversities, and of the need to work together as allies. We need cis men and women, trans men and women, lesbian, bi, gay, queer and intersex all to advocate for recognition of a full spectrum of identities with equal rights and full autonomy and agency over their bodies. We need to fight for the right to choose when and whether to have children, and to support parents in finding the balance between work and childcare that suits them. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI of colour and low socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately affected by restrictions on sexual health services. We need to challenge the binary modal whenever we are faced with it and to celebrate diversity. We need to demand that all people be safe to be themselves and live openly with whomever they choose, without fear of censure, discrimination or violence. We need to stand up for all people to have access to the career paths they choose and the healthcare outcomes they need. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI striving to reach positions of power in business, the media and politics, and to help them change attitudes and influence policy. Together we are powerful, we are a supermajority, and this is a war we need to win.

Jacqueline MacDonald

9th May 2019

Politics and Protest: Voices of Youth

Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:

  • in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
  • in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
  • in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
  • in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
  • starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring

Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.

Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.

Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″.  The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.

Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.

Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.

 

April 17th 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Temper Tantrums: Don’t Appease the Angry White Men

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We all recognise it. The red-faced fury, curled lip and stomped foot of the toddler tantrum. Their whole being overtaken by an unfathomable fury they can’t control, sometimes even causing them to lash out at those around them. The removal of a toy or refusal of a treat enough to reduce them to a mass of unbridled destructive emotions. Thankfully, as time passes, with guidance, the little ones learn how to express themselves rationally, how to control the negatives feelings rather than being controlled by them, and how to share the things they have with others rather than losing their minds. They become fully-functioning members of their communities and society.

It is becoming increasingly apparent however, that some little boys (and yes, I do mean boys) do not fully develop beyond the tantrum stage, and as adults that is proving to have truly horrifying consequences. And to make matters worse, there are others who suggest we pander to the angry demands of those who feel slighted rather than accepting none of their nonsense and stating firmly that they need to grow up and learn how to share.

One obvious example of a public display of privileged victimhood and resulting tantrum is Brett Kavanaugh. At a hearing in which he was supposed to exude the cool, level-headedness and rational thinking of a judge worthy of the US’s highest court, he instead became indignant that he was a victim of ‘a circus’ and ‘a calculated and orchestrated political hit’. This defensive anger and self-pity came in the face of credible and powerful accusations that he had committed sexual assault. His outrage was matched by other men on the confirmation committee, such as Senators Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, appalled that a man of Kavanaugh’s elevated position should be asked to address such accusations at all, calling it ‘a national disgrace’ and ‘hell’.(All the Angry Men of the Kavanaugh Hearings). Kavanaugh and his supporters argued that his reputation was endangered by a woman accusing him of sexual assault, that he was the real victim in the situation and therefore justified in his ire, merely lashing out in self-defence. Kavanaugh claimed that, ‘my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed’ and Cornyn reassured the judge that his tantrum was justified, telling him, ‘You’re right to be angry’. Of course, there are countless examples of men facing down accusations of sexual assault by claiming victimhood, equating damage to reputation with the mental and physical trauma suffered by sexual assault survivors. Whether it’s Weinstein, Ailes, Clinton or Trump, such men will do whatever it takes to protect the position in society they see as rightfully theirs; countering women who bravely come forward to recount the most painful experience of their lives with anger, verbal attacks, belittlement or the use of their power to silence them.

The theme of men protecting what they see as rightfully theirs is all-pervasive. Even on International Women’s Day, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could not entertain the idea of men relinquishing any power to aid women in their battle for equal rights and recognition. He made it clear in his, tone deaf at best, assertion that any societal progress made by women should in no way damage men’s status or position of privilege. “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse. We want everybody to do better, and we want to see the rise of women in this country be accelerated.”

This sense of male entitlement reaches a horrendous extreme in the cases of the killers self-identifying themselves as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates). In the dankest corners of the internet, the incels spew hatred towards women and the men that women choose to have sex with, in fact railing against anyone who prevents the incels from getting the sexual attention they feel they deserve. This has had deadly consequences, with six fatalities in an incel-perpetrated killing in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, which then in turn inspired the murder of ten people in Toronto Canada in 2018 by another man who saw himself as a footsoldier in the war against women who denied him what he wanted. Canadian psychology professor, YouTube philosopher and doyen of men’s rights activists, Jordan Peterson, explained that such violence was inevitable because, “the masculine spirit is under assault”. Peterson, who in most circumstances rejects any redistribution interventions as Marxist, seems to agree with the incels that enforced monogamy is required to ensure men’s success, stabilise society and prevent male violence. Speaking specifically about the murderer in Toronto, he explained; “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”

And it’s not just women that these dangerous men-children see as threats to their status. The President of the United States is indignant that the co-equal branches of government are able to conduct investigations into his election campaign, his potential profiteering from the highest office in the land, and potentially illegal activity by his business, his foundation and himself. Feeling cornered, he has been lashing out angrily at anyone he sees as a critic or a threat in a true adult tantrum. From petted-lip complaints about being picked on by comedians, to attacks on Congress, the media and the judiciary for investigating him, to veiled threats of political violence against opponents, the President seems to be having regular roll-around-on-the-floor moments of self-absorption. He has taken to justifying his behaviour in office and protecting his presidency by claiming that his removal would cause civil unrest;
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad”
and on being asked about his potential impeachment during an interview in the Oval Office, he said, “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”

This type of rhetoric, attempting to justify bad behaviour when people do not get their way, is dangerous. It has also been present in the UK, where Brexit negotiations have seriously faltered and a smooth exit from the EU is highly unlikely. As some call for politicians to realise the folly of the venture and return the final decision on a deal back to the people in a second referendum, those pushing for Brexit under any circumstances have argued that any other outcome will result in far-right violence and therefore Brexit-at-any-cost is required to appease them. Pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling caused controversy when he warned, “There’s already a nastiness and unpleasantness in our politics, more people with extreme views, more people willing to behave in an uncivilised way,” and cited the English Civil War. Blaming those who don’t give violent people what they demand rather than blaming the perpetrators of violence is a dangerous political road to take.

We cannot succumb to this kind of appeasement and justification of violence. An appalling example followed the terrorist attack in Christchurch, which specifically targeted Muslims during worship and was perpetrated by an Australian-born white man with connections to white supremacy groups. In Australia, Senator Fraser Anning, known for his inflammatory opinions on immigration, including a maiden speech calling for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration, sent tweets and released an official statement condemning the violence but blaming it on immigration rather than white nationalism: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. While Anning is one of the more extreme examples, politicians and media in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US have all stoked a fear of immigration and of Islam for political gain, ideas then reinforced in social media echo chambers. Anti-immigration messages have been used to drive support for Brexit, Trump and his border wall, and Australia’s off-shore detention centres, where asylum seekers, including children, are being held for years without hope. Politicians and powerful media figures have created, and capitalised on, concerns that any help and opportunities given to people trying to escape the world’s worst war zones, will result in a loss of opportunity and privilege for others. And this ‘othering’ of asylum seekers is also applied to all people of colour, including the indigenous peoples of those nations. The discrimination and attacks against them by white people are driven by an unjustified fear that advancement for the marginalised will somehow cause the white population to lose out, and perhaps, as the Christchurch terrorist believed, even be replaced. Rather than condemning these racist ideas, people like Anning resort instead to victim blaming in an attempt to justify white men’s uncontrollable anger when they feel they are being robbed of what is ‘rightfully theirs’, and of being ‘replaced’. And Christchurch is just the latest example of how deadly this appeasement of white supremacism can be.

For children younger than four, tantrums are common and a natural way to deal with the frustrations of being unable to communicate what they need. “However, if children have learned that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want or avoid what they do not want, tantrums may remain a significant problem for parents and teachers.” (National Association of School Psychologists). Pandering to an older child’s tantrums only leads to further selfish behaviour and a false sense of entitlement. “Giving the child what he or she wants will likely end the tantrum (much to the relief of parents and teachers) but will also teach the child that having a tantrum is an effective means of getting his or her way.” Similarly, we cannot appease the angry men, who perceive themselves as victims, trying to protect their position of privilege by denying opportunities to others. They cannot be allowed to justify their mistreatment, attacks on and murder of anyone they perceive to be a threat; be it women or other gender identities, people of colour and indigenous communities, or adherents to religions other than their own. We must ensure that such behaviour is never normalised, justified or accepted as a reasonable way for angry, violent white men to demand they be given everything they want.

22nd March 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald