Friday, March 22, 2019

A Christchurch reflection


Like many around the world, I have this week found myself in dismay-driven prayer, heartfelt hope for the world to be better, safer.

As a person of colour, it is deeply concerning that the alleged perpetrator in the Christchurch massacres is an Australian citizen espousing white-supremacy and publishing a manifesto of hate.

The rise of right-wing hate ideology is indisputable.

The Internet has helped the cause. Social media has made white-supremacists more visible and international (Why shouldn’t the forces for good, for love, be more greatly amplified by the world wide web?). In small, bizarre and accumulative ways, a fear of Muslims, that objectifies them, has shown its ugly head online.

Platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have not exercised as much moral authority as they should have. They have relied on pressure from individual governments, rather than being proactive from the get-go in self-managing and limiting hate-speech and the live-streaming of violence. I have long worried about social media’s hunger for gut-wrenching and gratuitous content; it is a giant performative space that invites and celebrates extremes. It also fits with a gaming culture that normalises violence. Several people told me they saw the mass shooting video and thought it was simulated; something out of an addictive online game.

In Germany there are clearer expectations and penalties of online platforms, says Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University in Wellington, a specialist in ultra-nationalist politics.

While reluctant to draw a causative line between comments by politicians and the extreme right Spoonley does finger them for creating an enabling environment; an environment which makes views (such as the Muslim world is swamping the white Western world) acceptable.

Populism around the world has seen parliamentarians engaged in dog-whistling politics, including here at the highest levels, with appeals to community politics of an extreme nature. Anti-immigration rhetoric has fuelled and normalised hate-speech. It has long infected debate about refugees and asylum seekers. It's not enough to call for an end to divisive tribalism while fanning it in subtle ways. Words matter.

Human Rights Watch said this week, that while Prime Minister Morrison strongly condemned the Christchurch attack and inflammatory statements by a far-right senator, his remarks appear insincere given his record as Immigration Minister and the record of senior Australian government officials in conflating Islam or refugees with terrorism for political gain.

Under pressure this federal election campaign to recognise that rhetoric can have a devastating impact - conservative parties, Labor and the unions are urged to put One Nation last on how to vote cards. One Nation's simplistic politics, that scapegoat Muslims for Australia's ills and elevate white people and nationalism, exploits voters' insecurities and hardens hearts.

What personally upsets me is that parliamentarians who have stirred the pot have used Christianity to justify their views and propaganda. They use religion when expressing religious intolerance. It represents such a betrayal of anything the gospel claims to be about - from the healing work and ministry of Jesus Christ and tales of his refugee family, to the imperative to love one's neighbour and stand with the most vulnerable.

Free-speech, let’s remember, is not hate-speech.

Compared to the UK and the US, the far-right is a modest group in New Zealand and Australia, but they are no doubt more active.

Spoonley says New Zealand authorities were so focused on Muslim terrorism, they were diverted from looking at the extreme right.

What's concerning is that in both countries across the Tasman there is no designated agency that publishes clear, annual data to know exactly who the white-supremacists are, and what they do. Authorities have thrown very few resources at the problem.

We live in a complicated world but it should not be hard to foster a political principle that expresses and embeds equal respect for all citizens and stresses that we have more in common than not. It begins with the imaginative capacity a creator God has given us all.

Image: Rage and Intimacy, 2018, Toni Hassan (Ink transfer and paint on board)
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Thursday, March 14, 2019

In the shadow of Neverland: a journey from fandom to pathos

Here’s the thing. A lot of people from Oprah down suspected Michael Jackson of pedophilia but he continued, while alive, to live with impunity. Finally two men have come forward to speak their truth and fulsomely.

Leaving Neverland,” the disturbing documentary that continues to make headlines around the world should surprise no one and yet Jackson’s tenacious fans will hold onto their version of the King of Pop, regardless. But there's no holding back the tide.

Like many of them, I grew up with Mowtown music. Thriller had been rocking the charts when, as a junior high school student, I celebrated my crush one school dress-up day. I wore a twist on the Billie Jean outfit; one white glove, a red jacket, a pair of shiny-fly glasses, white slacks and my mother's low-heeled leather loafers that promised to defy gravity on the dance floor. My hair was short, shiny and curly. My nose was itself.

Over the years I lost interest in the star. By the time the first case of alleged child molestation was before a US court, he was a slim cardboard cut-out, almost lifeless insomniac. Jackson's chubby brown cheeks had given way to a distorted mask; a chiseled chin and pale-face.

I covered the 2005 case against Jackson (for the ABC) brought by a teen cancer sufferer who told a jury that, when he was just 13, the singer providing him with alcohol (what he called ‘Jesus Juice’) and molested him at least twice.

Jackson was acquitted. But it was problematic. The magic was gone.

Accusations against Jackson continued to fly about as did more stories of multiple sleepovers with minors.

Then, a few years ago veteran journalist Randall Sullivan wrote his book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. I read it with macabre curiosity. Sullivan says Jackson died "a 50-year-old virgin"; that he yearned to be 'presexual'. Real adult intimacy was just too messy. There were details about his quest for perfection and something the author called sexual anorexia. Sullivan described a self-loathing star, haunted by the criticisms of a scavenging family.

No doubt he was a manipulated child-star. But as an adult, it appears beyond doubt, he went on to become a chief manipulator himself. The evidence is devastating. In separate accounts, Wade Robson and James Safechuck say Jackson sexually abused them for many years from boyhood to adolescence. The documentary is as uncomfortable to watch as it is compelling.

They describe a calculated pattern of grooming and exploitation. The abuser, in a position of power, set out to seduce. Jackson became an accepted member of each boys’ family. He isolated himself from scrutiny (creating the Neverland ranch, a vast and gated community). He then isolated the victims, from their families and from each other (Jackson lavished the children and their families with gifts, even paying for the families to go on holidays without Robson and Safechuck). Jackson turned the boys against their parents to inflate Jackson’s hero status. He claimed God was on his side. He told them they would go to jail if they told anyone. He even had them practice a routine should they be caught having sex.

Wade and Safechuck did not know the other’s story until they went public. Their experiences are very similar. They broke down when as fathers they recognised their proteges’ vulnerability and their own at the age the alleged abuse began. Wade and Safechuck live with shadows but have found catharsis.

Who may have helped Jackson in his web of deceit? Most likely, teams of people; people in paid positions, who worked behind the scenes to support his addiction and hide it. There is always an industry behind what is hidden, as we saw with Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, just as there was an industry around powerful men in entertainment alleged or found guilty of using sex for favours and women as playthings, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein. How does evil happen? When good people do nothing.

I’m not entirely without empathy for Jackson. You can both believe a victim and pity a perpetrator (continue to admire their talent, even with legacy up in the air); at least seek to understand what drives them and what environments create socially inappropriate impulses and actions unchecked.

The documentary adds to a growing sense that a generation or two have been growing up now with very little faith in institutions, in people they once looked up to and in elders they once may have trusted. The light that has shone on the darkness in Jackson’s life and those of other celebrities (and clerics) has left lots of people asking, ‘who and what can I trust?’

As a parent I wonder out loud about how the parents of Wade and Safechuck could have ever agreed to situations that clearly put their children at risk. But every day our children are exposed to risk and every day we way up risk factors, having confidence in our neighbours, schools and the clubs they join, while understanding that children too, have agency.

Then there’s the question, from what age should we broach issues from respectful relationships to consensual sex - especially with the rise and rise of smartphones and social media? I think the conversations must start young. Reluctance to talk about the complexities leaves society ill-equipped to recognize and handle child sexual abuse today. History professor Rachel Hope Cleves of Victoria University puts it well when she writes that, "A culture that is caught up in narratives that identify pedophiles as monsters has a hard time recognizing when beloved figures, like Michael Jackson, are molesting children right before its eyes."

Talking openly about good touch versus bad touch is essential. While carers might feel they need to protect their children from some information, the fact is that young people have a right to know about their bodies, about personal safety and who to talk to should they need to. Talking about adult power and responsibility, and about their own power might not eliminate risk but will support healthier relationships and hope.

(Image via YouTube)
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The one thing we have to fear is fear itself

The government’s trying to scare us, which is odd because the one thing that is truly frightening it keeps trying to tell us isn’t a problem - calamitous climate change.

There’s Medivac. Scary stuff! Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said our hospital waiting lists will be bumped out by refugees evacuated from offshore detention camps.

Then there was the problem of violence by African-Australians in Melbourne, also pointed to by Dutton and ministers including Greg Hunt. Never mind that you are much more likely to be attacked (and killed if you are Melbourne woman) by someone who is not African (In fact, every week in Australia, a woman is killed by a current or former partner).

Last week there was talk of recession. That’s what’s coming if Labor is elected. Ignore for the moment that figures released on Wednesday show we are already in a per-capita recession.

The Prime Minister says Labor’s extra taxes on negative-gearers and people who receive share dividends without paying tax could push us into a full-blown one. It’s impossible to say that it won’t happen, although it should be noted that, at least initially, Labor is offering much bigger personal income tax cuts than the Coalition, which ought to protect us from a recession.

All this scare-mongering mightn’t work. Long ago Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said success in arousing fear relies on the speaker making himself appear trustworthy. The government is devaluing that currency.

Research out last month showed that the level of satisfaction with Australia’s democracy had fallen from 86 percent in 2007 to just 41 per cent after four election cycles. If the trend continues, there won’t be much trust left.

“Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency,” said Mark Evans, professor of governance at Canberra University and the driver of a new initiative called Democracy 2025 at Old Parliament House.

Whoever is elected will also have to address a lack of faith in governments to arrest a more present and chilling reality.

Morrison was as conspicuously absent from the Victoria’s latest fire emergency as he was when Tasmania was threatened by dangerous fires over summer or when the Darling River’s Menindee Lakes were filling up with dead fish.

His environment minister Melissa Price keeps insisting that carbon emissions are falling, although she has conceded it is only over one quarter rather than a period of years. Meanwhile, the National’s Matt Canavan insists now is the time for more coal mines.

The problem with all these small and not so small lies is that it has normalised deceit. We have gotten used it to it, or worse, people are needlessly frightened because they are told to be so. Fear ultimately narrows human hearts.

Government ministers are not embarrassed by their tactics. When challenged, they show no or little remorse. For those of us who are appalled, we turn to social media only to find anger and anxiety on a road to nowhere.

Every government is culpable. Every election cycle is an opportunity to press the reset button.

Our best defence against more scaremongering is a fearless and independent media and a public that treasures truth. Valuing the welfare of the whole community over self-interest, vaccinates voters. The biggest porkies told are strategically aimed at our hip pockets and insecurities.

They are lies that inflate threats to personal wealth and safety over community wellbeing and environmental health. The lies almost always betray notions of the common good.


First published in The Canberra Times, March 11, 2019
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