Sunday reads

A few pieces that caught my eye this week.

Bec Shaw: Fat of the Furious

I couldn’t write about what happened at the time because I felt so despairing when Roxane Gay discussed how humiliated the incident made her feel. I despaired for her, but also for myself. Because selfishly, it made me realise it maybe actually doesn’t get better, like I thought it might. Sure, I am treated awfully, but surely once you are Roxane fucking Gay, it gets better. But no, just despair. Because it evidently doesn’t matter if you are a universally respected writer, someone being flown around the world to speak to adoring audiences. It doesn’t matter how beloved, how successful, how amazing you are — if you are a fat woman, you are first and foremost still just a fat woman.

Laura McGann: I believe Bill Cosby

This trend is deeply troubling. Even in the face of clear statements and corroborating evidence, we so often just don’t believe men when they say sexual assault is funny or when they say they’ve done it.

It’s time for us to start believing men.

And because at least three separate people sent this link to me for no apparent reason: This is what happens when you teach an AI to name guinea pigs

Earlier this week, research scientist Janelle Shane got a fantastically unusual request from the Portland Guinea Pig Rescue, asking if she could build a neural network for guinea pig names. The rescue facility needs to generate a large number of names quickly, as they frequently take in animals from hoarding situations. Portland Guinea Pig Rescue gave Shane a list of classic names, like “Snickers” or “Pumpkin,” in addition to just about every other name they could find on the internet. The rest is history.

I aten’t dead

April 2017: a hell of a month offline, so damned quiet around here. But I’ve managed to do a bit of writing elsewhere, so don’t fret!

Today at The Spinoff: Enough bullshit. After all these years the Pike River families deserve answers

Something you notice about with the Pike crew is how they speak in the abstract. “Our boys.” “Our men.” It’s a natural coping mechanism. No one could survive six years with no closure, no justice, and very little hope, feeling every bit of the grief you’re entitled to when your husband or son goes to work one day and never comes home. Fighting just to get a basic investigation of the crime scene where he died, and accountability from the people whose inaction or negligence or outright greed killed him.

I got involved early with Stand With Pike, by virtue of being the closest millennial to hand when the crew were trying to get the word out about their picket, battling West Coast cellphone drop-outs and Facebook’s clunky Page Manager app. Contrary to the fever-dreams of Matthew Hooton, I’m not paid for it. It’s just the right thing to do. Because it’s so counter to every value I hold, that after six years, no one has been really held to account for letting 29 men die. Anna and Sonya and Dean and the others should not still be fighting for answers and justice. They should never have had to fight for it at all.

And a few weeks back at Overland: In New Zealand, where abortion is still a crime

Today, getting an abortion in New Zealand can involve five separate medical appointments: the initial pregnancy test and referral to an abortion provider (if your doctor provides referrals), two appointments with certifying consultants (if they both approve you), an initial consultation at the abortion clinic, and the procedure itself. …

In the 1970s, the Sisters Overseas Service helped fly women who wanted an abortion to New South Wales. We like to think those days are behind us, but in 2013, a young woman from Wellington was reduced to crowdfunding $7,000 to fly to Melbourne for hers.

How have we let this go on?

Back to the keyboard …

Our unfortunate ignorance

I may have got a little ranty on The Spinoff’s Facebook page recently, after reading this excerpt from a new book on the “unfortunate experiment” at National Women’s Hospital. To wit:

I appreciate this is an excerpt from the book, but it rings a little callous that the line quoted above is literally from the last paragraph of it. The excerpt humanizes the doctors involved, and doesn’t even mention by name a single one of the women who were literally left to develop cancer due to wilful medical neglect.

Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s 1987 article in Metro gets only half a sentence – “It took the attention of feminists and a media response to highlight the tragedy …”

For people who have no idea what happened at National Women’s Hospital, this article will not be informative, either about the arrogance which led to up to 30 women dying of treatable cancer, or the significant impact it had on the way we think about informed consent and medical ethics. And that’s a shame.

As I say; I know it’s just an excerpt, from a book written by a doctor who had a significant role exposing the unfortunate experiment, with the clear intention of ensuring this horrific chapter in New Zealand’s medical history isn’t whitewashed. Per the Otago University Press statement (pdf) on its publication:

Since that time there have been attempts to cast Green’s work in a more generous light. This rewriting of history has spurred Ron Jones to set the record straight by telling his personal story: a story of the unnecessary suffering of countless women, a story of professional arrogance and misplaced loyalties, and a story of doctors in denial of the truth.

But that’s not what comes through in the foreword, where the doctors who wilfully experimented with women’s lives without their consent are humanized, where Herb Green’s initial work is described as “a major advance for New Zealand women” long before any mention of the fact his later work killed women, which erases a culture of medical superiority and sexism in favour of shrugging, “It’s difficult for an outsider to comprehend how this could have happened”. Fifty words are given to a 1950 FIGO determination on carcinoma-in-situ, and literally none to the names of the women harmed – not even “Ruth”, the central figure of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s groundbreaking article, whose determination to access her own medical records blew the lid of the experiment; not even Sandra Coney or Phillida Bunkle themselves – reduced simply to “feminists”.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think The Spinoff have done its readers a good service. And that’s a pity because this book deserves to be publicized. This chapter of our history needs to be better known. We should understand the complex issues and background around medical science, patriarchal arrogance, the dismissal of women’s safety and autonomy, and our understanding of informed consent which impacts people to this day.

~

Coney and Bunkle’s article (pdf) was published in 1987. I was three-and-a-half and not really paying attention. But Coney’s subsequent book of the same name was one of the volumes my mother unsuccessfully tried to sequester from the family bookshelves as I reached those dangerous pre-teen years of awkward questions and being able to read a little too far above my age grade.

I picked it because I liked the statue on the front cover (and it was in a cupboard I clearly wasn’t supposed to be able to reach). I didn’t even know what a cervix was. But I knew there was something terribly wrong when one man in a position of power was able to do things to people under his care – to women – without telling them what was happening, or what the risks were. And I learned how hierarchies of power protect their own even when terrible harm has been done, even when it should go against every principle their institution or profession is meant to stand for. How people in societies are sectioned off into groups which are deemed less intelligent or less worthy of information or autonomy – women, people of colour, incarcerated criminals – especially where the advancement of medical science has been concerned.

It’s probably no surprise I turned out to be a feminist who doesn’t go to male GPs and never misses a smear.

We don’t have to demonise the whole medical profession. After all, it was doctors like Ron Jones who exposed the real data from Green’s experiments in 1984, and who are still determined not to let us forget. But we must be aware of the potential for harm when so much trust and power and blind faith is put in the hands of any profession, when laypeople are presumed to have no right to input or information about their own treatment, and when it becomes simply instinctive for institutions to defend their own against criticism. We have to remember our history so we can make sure it never happens again.

Books like this are tremendously important. But there are better ways to tell their stories.

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

Who wouldn’t want ambulance drivers to be safe and healthy at work?

St John ambulance drivers aren’t asking for much: regular breaks, fair pay, and not being sent out on their own to deal with dangerous or violent patients.

But that’s apparently too much for St John – a charitable organisation whose values include “doing the right thing” and being “straight up” – who have not only taken legal steps to close down collective bargaining, but docked workers’ pay 10% for taking industrial action.

Let’s be really crystal clear here – we’re not talking about strike action. Ambulance drivers who are members of FIRST Union are still showing up to work on time and getting the job done. They’re just wearing a t-shirt that says “Healthy ambos save lives” while they do it.

Side note: what is with some employers and a kneejerk hatred of cool union t-shirts?

What’s struck me is the number of comments I see from people – “ordinary” New Zealanders, if you like; people who don’t spend nearly as much time as you or I nerding out about politics – asking how this is legal. This can’t be okay, surely? How can the boss take 10% of your pay just because you’re wearing a silly t-shirt?

Well … no one likes to hear “I told you so.” But here we are.

In 2013 the National-led government introduced the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Among other things, it included:

  • docking pay 10% for industrial action – if an employer couldn’t be bothered figuring out the proportion of work being affected by, say, an overtime ban (or, perhaps, just punishing workers for wearing t-shirts!)
  • making it easier for employers to walk away from collective bargaining and industry-wide agreements, which maintain basic standards of pay and conditions and stop cowboy operators undercutting everyone else by paying poverty wages
  • removing mandatory minimum rest breaks and giving almost all the power to the employer to decide what a “reasonable” break would look like
  • weakening protections for workers like cleaning and catering staff, whose jobs might get taken over by new contractors who want to pay them less
  • tightening the rules around strikes so bosses’ lawyers can tie unions up in legal action for months over a typo.

The law weakened the position of workers and their unions, and strengthened the ability for dirtbag employers to be dirtbags. That’s precisely what it was designed to do.

And of course there was resistance. Thousands of people rallied in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch against the bill. There were submissions, and op eds, and public speak-outs.

And National did what they have done so well for eight years: they dodged the issues. When unions pointed out that this law would remove the right to a rest break, Simon Bridges said “It’s about flexibility, we can’t have teachers and air traffic controllers just walking off the job to have a cup of tea, can we?” – as though this answered the question, as though this would ever happen. When unions pointed out people could be disadvantaged by not being on the collective agreement for the first 30 days in their new job, Michael Woodhouse said “It’s about fairness!” – as though it’s fair to expect someone new to the job and new to the company to know what to expect, what to negotiate for. As though 90% of employers bother to genuinely negotiate individual agreements with workers who don’t join the union.

Maybe unions could have done a better job talking about these issues. Maybe the media could have done a better job getting government ministers to actually answer the questions put to them (instead of, say, using a workers’ rally to attack Grant Robertson for being gay, as occurred in one particularly shameless piece).

The point now is that the industrial action being taken by people who do an incredibly important job, driving bloody ambulances, is making many people realise how broken employment relations are in New Zealand. Yes, folks: your employer can dock your pay 10% because you and your coworkers stand together and wear union t-shirts while doing your jobs. That’s not fair. That’s not about flexibility. That’s not something we like to think of happening in our country.

So tell St John. Tell every employer who tries to walk away from the bargaining table when they don’t like people taking a stand for health and safety and decent work: it’s not on. It’s not how we do things. And tell the politicians, too. Because laws change when we make them change.