Sunday reads

A few pieces that caught my eye this week.

Mark Brown: If you’re asking ‘What real poor person could be at Glastonbury?’ you’ve never been poor

Culture makes your world bigger. Beauty makes your world bigger. A night out, a cream cake, a trip to the cinema, a something that is yours and yours alone. Having things you love now makes it easier to live in a world that tells you it doesn’t love you. They make the days differ from each other. They make you feel alive. Being poor is a struggle to feel alive, to feel part of the world and all of the things it has to offer.

When you are poor you feel you are continually trying to steal and get ownership of culture that you can’t quite afford, knowing that eventually you’ll have to go back to where you came from and to the struggles you face. You have to blag and graft and save and sneak into culture when you’re poor. It takes years to feel like you have any right. You can never quite afford it but you do it anyway because otherwise is a kind of death. You scrimp, you save you blow your money because if you don’t you are only what they say you are: an animal that just eats and shits and wants only a place to sleep.

Katelyn Burns: The Strange, Sad Case Of Laci Green — Feminist Hero Turned Anti-Feminist Defender

[Content note: discussion of online harassment, trolling, misogyny, transmisogyny]

… that someone so influential in the progressive online space could make such a complete 180 has shaken the social justice community to its core. How could a defender of equality change so much, so quickly? And what does it mean for those who had come to trust Green’s safe space online?

The answers to these questions are chillingly incomplete — and raise questions anew about the safety of online spaces for those who routinely face harassment.

Katelyn is also well worth a follow on Twitter.

 

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.

Cranium’s Christmas sign: why is mainstream Kiwi culture so unfunny?

[Content note: transphobia, insincere apologies]

I’ve posted before about the paradox which occurs when privileged types – usually middle-aged white dudes – tell incredibly unfunny, bigoted jokes, and then whinge that the people who point out that their jokes are unfunny and bigoted “don’t have a sense of humour”.

And here we are again, with a hilaaaaaaaaaarious Christmas billboard from Cranium, a signage company in Auckland. Featuring a ripped-off photo of Caitlyn Jenner, briefly posted to their Facebook page (and greeted with multiple “joke” comments calling Caitlyn Jenner a man) and then deleted as soon as the bad publicity started to hit, but immortalised for all time in screenshots because the internet doesn’t forget:

My response at the time was:

And I figured that was the end of it. Another in an eternal chain of thoughtless dudebros punching down with incredibly unoriginal “humour” getting a moment in the spotlight and then fading away.

But as always happens these days – because New Zealand Twitter is simultaneously an echo-chamber of toxic Wellington lefties and also a major source of clickbait for the mainstream media – the story hasn’t died there. Cranium made an incredibly insincere, self-justifying “apology” for the sign, in which company director Phillip Garratt whined

“I was referring to a Santa sack and your sick mind is the problem.”

doge apology

Here’s the thing.

I just don’t get it. What do people like Phillip Garratt think they’ll achieve by pretending that they weren’t making the only joke they could possibly have been making? The same kind of joke (obnoxious, unoriginal) people have been making since the moment they heard the name “Caitlyn Jenner”?

The alternative is that someone presented him with the design and he found the concept of an empty Santa sack so hilarious that he was laughing too hard to ask “so what’s Caitlyn Jenner got to do with it?” And I kinda doubt that.

jon stewart caitlyn jenner

It was a cheap joke which reinforces a set of really harmful ideas we have about trans women. That they’re not really women. That they’re damaged or inferior un-men because they’ve had a particular type of surgery. That we have a right to know what surgery they’ve had or to wonder what their genitals look like or to ask how they have sex or demand to know their “real” name.

And it was put on a billboard on a road in Auckland by a company trying to market itself. This is what we treat as “normal” humour. As something appropriate to joke about in an advertisement.

And then we act surprised when trans women are incarcerated in men’s prisons and subjected to horrific abuse, and we act confused when trans people are overwhelmingly victims of violence, and it’s a total shock to us when trans people routinely commit self-harm.

We don’t need to “get a sense of humour.” If companies like Cranium are so inconsiderate and insincere that their director is literally going to say it was “just a joke” but also “it wasn’t even a joke about Caitlyn Jenner”, then it should be very clear where the problem lies, and who the villains are, and what needs to change.

Women of #nzpol Twitter: on the incarceration of trans women in male prisons

The “Women of #nzpol Twitter roundup” is brought to you in the interests of amplifying women’s voices in the political debate and also because:

beauty and the beast misandry

[Content note: transphobia, sexual assault, corrections]

It was reported on the weekend that a prisoner at the Serco-run prison in Wiri had been physically and sexually assaulted. But that wasn’t the whole story.

Unfortunately, the fact that the prisoner is a trans woman was initially missed from media reports – and the story then became about Serco, not all the other concerns about where trans women are incarcerated.

@cannibality posted a great set of tweets about the wider issues of incarceration – and why we shouldn’t just blame Serco – starting here (click the timestamp to see the whole thread):

I feel a bit sorry for Jacinda Ardern, who copped a lot of the frustration from people – because no other political party said boo about the story. But there are some good grounds for criticism in Labour’s past treatment of issues affecting trans people, and erasing the fact that this case involved a trans woman in a men’s prison – an issue which covers all correctional facilities in NZ – felt like opportunism to some tweeters.

Another great thread from @cannibality begins here:

It’s easy enough to say “oh well, realpolitik, the story is easier to sell when it’s about Serco being vile” or “let’s focus on one issue at a time” – if you’re not trans and this is thus a problem you get to treat as abstract.

We can think of more than one thing at a time. We can condemn Serco for their horrific mismanagement and criticise the government for pursuing a privatisation agenda and agree that it’s simply inhumane and demeaning to incarcerate trans women with cis men.

The thing we (cis people) shouldn’t do is think our options are to either remain silent or ignore the serious issues at hand in order to push a different agenda.

No Pride in Prisons are holding a rally against Serco’s actions and Corrections’ lack of transparency about its treatment of trans prisoners, this Saturday at noon in Auckland. Please go and support them.

Improve your lexicon: have some balls

I’m on a never-ending quest to improve my vocabulary – both by expanding it, and by getting rid of some of the more objectionable, oppressive language which we all use without thinking.

But change can be difficult. The best solution I’ve found is to brainstorm alternative words in advance and think good and hard about them. Hence, these posts – as much a tool for me as for anyone else!

This was inspired by a friend on Twitter a while back, who asked if it were “too PC” to object to the term “having balls” as a code for being brave.

Well … it probably is “too PC” to the kinds of people who believe thinking about the words you use and the effects they might have on other people is bad.

It’s simple patriarchal masculine-centric thinking. Your balls, nuts, cojones or stones are the source of bravery and courage; these characteristics are associated with being manly or masculine; in contrast, things coded as womanly or feminine are weak and helpless. I’m not down with that for obvious reasons.

On another level, well, not all men have testicles. Even cisgender men. And not everyone with testicles is a guy.

There’s an argument that “having some balls” – like referring to a mixed-gender group of people as “guys” – has come to mean something neutral, divorced from stereotypes about bodies and the gender attached to them to the mainstream. But there are many people who don’t find it so easy to shrug and ignore the obvious implications of gendered, body-based language. There are many people whose identities and gender and bodies are a significant, front-row part of their daily existence. They might have bodies that don’t fit, and the fact that our language makes casual, “neutral” assumptions about things like dudes-have-balls-and-are-brave is a part of what makes their lives way more difficult than mine.

Besides, as with all judgey oppressive language, there are plenty of alternatives, so why not use those instead?

Alternatives to telling people to “have some balls”:

be brave, be bold, show courage, defend yourself,
show some principle, have some guts, back yourself up,
do better, take a stand, stop being gutless