Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Gender Card

After finishing David Marr’s Quarterly Essay on George Pell (QE 51 - September 2013), I went searching for the previous edition. Titled Unfinished Business – Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, writer Anna Goldsworthy explores the modern world for women in Quarterly Essay (QE50, June 2013).

Starting with Prime Minister Gillard’s famous speech from October 2012, when she passionately exclaimed that “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man” in reference to then opposition leader Tony Abbott. The speech reverberated around the globe as she spelled out how she was offended by Abbott’s continual sexist attacks. With over 2 million views on YouTube, Gillard’s speech was spoken about in office corridors and homes, as she vocalised what many girls and women had felt but never voiced.

Goldsworthy uses Gillard’s speech as a springboard to talk about what it means to be a woman in modern Australia. At the time of publication, Gillard was Prime Minister, a female Governor General, a female Speaker in parliament, and a large number of talented women on the front bench. So it would seem that Australian women are in a remarkable position.  However, now a mere five months later, Abbott is in government with only one woman in his cabinet. It is small concession that he has appointed a woman as Speaker. Women have been back-benched and sidelined.

Over the course of the essay Goldsworthy issues four cautionary tales: the politician (Gillard), the miner (Gina Rinehart), the scholar (Mary Beard) and the novelist (Hilary Mantel). She then turns to popular culture (Mad Men, 59 Shades of Grey, Twilight, Girls, Lady Gaga) and what this tells us about women. She talks about shame and subjectivity, the narcissism of the Facebook age, and about the increasing violence in gonzo porn. Goldsworthy questions what world our daughters will grow up in, where they are subjectively judged and held up to unrealistic and unattainable standards of what it means to be a woman.

As a feminist keenly attuned to the issues in this essay, I found Goldsworthy’s article an interesting and important read. I had wanted and expected it to be more about politics, however, and the arguments she made would have benefited from contributions from some of the other women in Parliament – such as the so-called ‘handbag hit squad’ of women on Gillard’s front bench about allegations of 'playing the gender card'. This was a missed opportunity. While I didn’t agree with everything Goldsworthy had to say, I enjoyed her perspective and her contribution to this necessary discussion.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Year of Dangerous Reading

Each year one of the events I most look forward to is the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, put together by the Sydney Opera House and the St James Ethics Society. This year's Festival, held 2-4 November 2013, featured brave thinkers from around the world. I enjoy hearing them debate provocative ideas and pose alternative futures. While I may not always agree with them, they always get me thinking and keen to learn more. After each Festival, I tend to add to my ever growing To Be Read pile as I am keen to read their works.

One of the panels I attended was talking about crime and the problems of prisons. It was a fascinating discussion with Erwin James, convicted murderer turned Guardian journalist. James is the author of two books that seem quite intriguing: A Life Inside: A Prisoner’s Notebook (2003) and The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole (2005) which I would like to read. He had an interesting view about 'rehabilitation' and the need to address the failings of those imprisoned to provide them with skills and therapy to assist them when they leave jail.

Former Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon presented a really reasoned approach to policing. She made particular mention of the need to look differently at juvenile justice and aboriginal incarceration rates, as these are two areas we are failing in. Her autobiography Fair Cop (2011) highlights her interesting career. She has always been an interesting figure and I have a lot of admiration for her - particularly her support of the LGBT community, advocacy for victims of domestic violence.

Former Baltimore police officer, now professor of sociology, Peter Moskos was In Defense of Flogging (2011) discussing his controversial idea to reduce incarceration rates by giving the convicted a choice between corporal punishment and a jail sentence, the subject of his book.  While his thesis is intriguing, I don't have a real interest in reading this title. He is also the author of  Cop in the Hood: My year policing Baltimore’s Eastern District (2008).

The final panelist was David Simon, journalist and TV producer, who is the creator of my all-time favourite show The Wire. Simon spoke passionately about the failings of the war on drugs, the ridiculousness of mandatory sentencing, three-strikes-your-out policies, and the outsourcing of prisons to the private sector. I am keen to read Simon's book Homicide: A year on the killing streets (1991) and The Corner: A year in the life of an inner-city neighborhood (1997). Simon spoke about the many costs of incarceration and the futility of 'life' sentences.

Another speaker I enjoyed at the Festival was Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian writer and researcher about the implications of technology. I am keen to read some of his books, in particular: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011) and To Save Everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism (2013). He has some interesting views on society's over-reliance on mobile phones and other devices. He made it very clear that we cannot rely on apps for everything.

I also attended a panel with the subject The World is Not Ready for Women in Power. Hosted by journalist Julia Baird, the panel featured four dynamic women with different views on this subject. 

Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: and the rise of women (2010) stated that it doesn't matter if anyone is ready. She said that ten years ago America wasn't ready for an African-American President but then along came Obama. She reckons Hillary Clinton has a pretty good shot. I have read some of Rosin's magazine articles but have not yet read her book, but it sounds really interesting.

Environmental activist and anti-globalisation author Vandana Shiva was a delight. The author of Ecofeminism (1993), Stolen Harvest (2000), Making Peace with the Earth (2013) and many more titles, she had a lot to say about the rise of corporations. Shiva said one of the best things women can do to make the world ready for women in power is to raise their sons well. 

Australian feminist Anne Summers spoke about Julia Gillard and noted that many countries have had a woman leader, but very few countries have done it more than once - viewing the female leader as an experiment that didn't work. She spoke about misogyny and the difficulty women have in Australian politics. Summers is the author of feminist classic Damned Whores and God's Police (1975), The End of Equality (2003) and most recently The Misogyny Factor (2013). I have never read Damned Whores and will seek it out. 

The final member of the panel was American sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She has written a number of books that I am keen to read. In particular The Outsourced Self: What happens when we pay others to live our lives for us (2012), The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling (1983) and The Second Shift: Working families and the revolution at home (1989). Hochschild spoke about the second wave of feminism and the need for a new grassroots campaign. I am looking forward to The Outsourced Self

Another festival speaker with a book I want to read is Australian John Safran. His latest publication is Murder in Mississippi (2013), about the killing of a white supremacist in the Deep South by an African-American. Safran spent time unravelling this case and documenting it in this true crime book. Sounds a bit like one of my favourite books, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Those who know me well know that I am a huge fan of the late Christopher Hitchens. His brother, journalist Peter Hitchens,  was at the Festival discussing his book, The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs (2013). He discusses how drugs have become increasingly socially acceptable and governments have done little to stop it. Peter Hitchens is a far too conservative for my liking, so despite the interesting topic, I am unlikely to read this book. After seeing Hitchens on Q&A, it has become very clear his views on the world don't interest me.

The other person I was fortunate to see was Dan Savage, American gay activist. Savage writes a lot from personal experience, and his books look at his life with partner, now husband, and the adoption of their son. He is a passionate advocate, and spoke well about the fallacy of conservative notions of love, marriage, sex and intimacy. His books, like American Savage (2013) don't really appeal to me, but I am glad to have heard him speak on Q&A.

So that was my Festival for 2013 and I have plenty of good reading to do which will keep me busy until next year!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Between the lines

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (1995) is a bestselling novel made even more popular by the award winning film adaptation in 2008. The story is now largely familiar, but I will recap below with a warning of spoilers.

Narrated by Michael Berg, a lawyer recollecting on his past, the story is told in three parts. The first features a 15-year-old Michael as he began a relationship with Hanna Schmidt in post-WWII Germany. Hanna is a much older woman who reveals very little of herself to Michael. There is tenderness in their relationship, and the two spend much of their time together with Michael reading classic novels aloud to her. Then, Hanna suddenly leaves and Michael is left wondering what happened to her. All his subsequent relationships are tarnished by the memory of Hanna.

Years go by and the second part shows Michael at university studying law. The Nazi war crimes trials are being held and Michael discovers that Hanna is on trial for her role as a concentration camp guard.  Michael realises that he never really knew Hanna.  Is she guilty or was she too a victim? Did she really understand what she was part of it? Can she atone for crimes? Michael grapples with these questions and struggles with his feelings.

The third part is much later with Michael corresponding to an imprisoned, older Hanna. He is trying to reconcile the love he had for her in his youth and his hatred of the evils she committed.

Schlink has an easy style, gently unfolding the tale in layers.  The story is complex, raising deeply moral questions, and yet is a quick, accessible read. It is effectively a study in guilt and atonement, using the Holocaust as the catalyst to reflect on generational responsibility and the legacy of what came before. Innocence is lost, secrets are revealed and judgments are made.

The character of Hanna is difficult to reconcile. She used a young man, committed horrible atrocities so the reader can see her as a war criminal and a paedophile. And yet the reader can feel empathy for her tragic life. Faced with the dilemma of self-preservation or resistance, Hanna made a fateful choice. As she asks the judge in her trial “What would you have done?” This question leaves readers wondering what they would have done in her shoes.

The film version of this novel was directed by Stephen Daldry and starred Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael and Kate Winslet as Hanna. Winslet was excellent in the role, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress.  I thought the film was very good but lacked the punch of the novel, in some ways glossing over the complexities I found in the book. It is still very much worth watching, but I would encourage reading the book first.