Monthly Archives: October 2007

Pollies’ lives aren’t private

There’s a meme around in New Zealand media and blogs, that politicians’ private lives should be private. They are out of bounds, not up for discussion in the media (widely construed, including blogs).

I disagree.

I certainly don’t think that every aspect of a politician’s private life should be up for public inspection. In fact, very little of a politician’s life should be fair game for public discussion. But where a politician’s private life intersects with his or her public life, then I think it’s worthy of public discussion.

So, for example, if a Prime Minister has an affair, then, well, it’s not really public business. The only people who should be concerned about it are the PM, his or her lover, and his or her spouse. However, if that PM has an affair with, for example, his speech writer, then given the extent to which the speech writer can affect public policy, then the affair might be a matter for public discussion.

Another example – if a Leader of the Opposition has an affair, then, well, it’s not really public business. The only people who should be concerned about it are the Leader of the Opposition, his or her lover, and his or her spouse. However, if the Leader of the Opposition has an affair with, for example, a member of a major lobby group, then given the extent to which the lobby group might fund the opposition, or might influence public discussion, then the affair might be a matter for public discussion.

You can see where I am going with this, no doubt. In each case, the charge is not having an affair, but having an affair with someone who might thereby have undue influence on the politician’s public business.

And even then, it still a matter of judgement as to whether the possible influence is sufficiently serious that the affair should be revealed, and the politician held to account for it.

Bear with me while I go through another set of examples where politicians’ private lives might be a matter for public discussion.

If a politician has an affair, and at the same time comments, negatively, on the state of other politicians’ marriages, then that’s a matter for public discussion. If a politician has what could reasonably be described as deviant, or at least very unusual, sexual practices, and at the same time holds him or herself out as a family person, upholding family values, then that’s a matter for public discussion. But the matter that’s up for public discussion is hypocrisy, not the actual affair or sexual practices. I don’t give a damn whether you have sex with one, two, three or more people at one time, of the same or different genders, whether you dress up in a maid’s dress or leathers, whether you happily have casual sexual encounters with any woman or man who offers (‘though I would like to know where you find the energy to do it). All with the gold standard consenting adults caveat, of course. I just don’t want to know, or even speculate about what you get up to in your private time, and in your private relationships. I’m not interested in the prurient details, and I have no respect for people who go around digging them out.

However I do give a damn if you say one thing in public, and do something else in private, especially if you hold yourself out to the electorate as a person who believes in marriage, and upholds “family values”, whatever those might be.

Given this, I think that our media has taken the easy route by buying into the “politicians’ private lives are totally private” meme. It means that they don’t have to make judgements about whether a particular aspect of a particular politician’s private life is in fact a public matter. No need to worry the public with details about whether or not a certain MP is being hypocritical – it’s a private matter. No need to try to make a judgement – just follow the rule, and don’t even try to think about the issues.

I want to see the New Zealand media exercising a little more judgement with respect to politicians’ private lives. I have no problem with journalists erring on the side of caution – there’s no need to open a Pandora’s box of impossible standards and prurience here. However the media are an important part of the checks and balances through which we restrain the powerful, and in this respect at least, they are letting the powerful get away with unethical behaviour.

Of course, a journalist who exposes too much about politicians’ private lives will soon lose access to the corridors of power. So there would be some constraints on journos who step over the line, and report far too much about what an MP has been doing.

Just to be sure I am being clear about where I stand on this, notice that I have used “unethical” rather than “immoral” – it’s undue influence and hypocrisy that concern me, not tawdry details about who is sleeping with who, and what they are doing there. And we need our media to expose undue influence and hypocrisy, not hide behind a handy little heuristic.

Image vs reality

As I am finding it hard to post anything of constructive length, I offer you instead this continuing project cataloguing the promise and the reality of fast food.

The link came from Pharyngula.

No post

Moving.

House. Buy? Sell? Rent?

Movers. Which ones?

Six weeks for our furniture to get there. Where to live while that happens?

Cat. Daughter’s cat, so can’t be re-homed. Must go with us. Cattery, pet movers, vet, co-ordinating them all.

School. Can we take children out of school one week, two weeks, three weeks before school year ends?

New school. Which one?

Trying to see friends and family before we go.

Christmas. Here? There?

Stress. STRESS. STRESS!

No post.

Coca Cola in my trolley

I’m white, middle-class, educated, I had my children in my thirties, and all that, so I am smack-bang in the demographic of people who might be concerned about food choices. My shopping trolley is usually pretty healthy – wheatmeal or wholegrain bread, trim milk, olive oil spreads, fruit and vegies, plain cereals, baking ingredients rather than processed products.

But on Friday, I sullied my trolley with a bottle of Coke. Caffeine-free, diet Coke, to be precise, but Coca Cola nevertheless. This was because we had very dear friends coming to stay, and while he enjoys a few beers, and a glass or two of wine, she prefers Kahlua and coke. So Friday night, we packed the children off to bed, and stayed up late, talking, laughing, playing 500, and getting trollied. Lots of fun.

letter.jpgBy coincidence, Mr Coca Cola wrote to me this weekend. It’s a very slick marketing effort – a letter, addressed to me, using my preferred title. (That’s “Ms”, by the way.)

The letter from The Coca Cola Company told me about the efforts they are making to people make “the best choices for your family.” So, they don’t advertise to children aged under 12, they are labelling all their packaging to show the sugar content, they are “helping to bust the myths about sweeteners”, and they are committed to offering a choice.

Those last two are interesting.

We’re helping bust the myths about sweeteners
It’s been claimed the sweeteners used in many diet foods and drinks can be linked to adverse health effects. The weight of scientific evidence simply doesn’t support that. All reputable food safety agencies around the world have approved the safety of the sweeteners we use.

I don’t see how busting myths helps parental choice. It might relieve some parental anxieties, but it doesn’t actually increase choices. So in the guise of “helping”, The Coca Cola company is taking the opportunity do a little marketing – “Look, our products are safe!” Further, if they are helping to bust myths, what they are really doing is ensuring there are less barriers to consumers purchasing their products. So this isn’t about helping parents at all.

We’re committed to offering choice
We offer a range of drinks including sugar-free and low energy options to ensure there is something to suit the individual needs of every family member.

Along the bottom of the letter is a line-up of the products they offer, including various diet drinks, fruit juices, and water. Whether or not diet drinks are any better for you is a moot point, and I have already talked about their alternative sweeteners claim. Fruit juice is high in sugar, so offering it as a “choice” doesn’t make much of a difference. As for bottled water – tap water is perfectly potable in New Zealand, so unless you are halfway between Taihape and Turangi on a long car trip, there’s no real need to buy bottled water.

Then there’s the logo at the top of the letter. “The Coca Cola Company – make every drop matter.” Excellent! Either it’s good for you, so every drop matters, adding to your physical presence, or every drop has some sort of spiritual significance. Your life will have more meaning if you drink Coca Cola Company products.

And just to show how healthy Coca Cola Company products are, there’s a photo of some happy, healthy kids running along a beach. Skinny kids. That’s right, folks. Coca Cola Company products help you to stay skinny too.

kids.jpg

What I want to know is, where did they find clothes to fit those kids?

A proper apology

I hold no brief for Trevor Mallard. I don’t care for his seemingly overwhelming attachment to sports, I don’t like his pugnacious attitude, I remain unimpressed by his handling of the Auckland waterfront stadium proposal, and I am appalled by his lack of self-control in resorting to punching another man, even ‘though that man had been taunting him. If “she was asking for it” doesn’t excuse domestic violence, then it doesn’t excuse violence between grown men either.

However, he has done something very impressive in recent days. He has given a real apology. That is a very rare thing.

When I returned to university in my late twenties, I formed friendships with some of the younger students, but for the most part, I spent my time with other ‘mature age students’. There was a group of us who used to gather every day in the cafe, to drink coffee, gossip, and being the nerdy swots we were, do some study. One of our number was a lovely young woman, Kathy. Kathy was a nun, so we always tried to keep our language a little restrained around her. Until the days when one of my friends said something like, “I’m sorry that I did x, but…”, and Kathy interrupted with:

“Everything before ‘BUT’ is bullshit.”

Right. We all laughed, and after that we weren’t so careful about what we said around Kathy.

My friend gave a proper apology for whatever it was – I can’t remember now. And I have remembered Kathy’s words of wisdom ever since.

Listen to what people say, and what you say yourself, in apologising. The form, “Yadda yadda yadda BUT…” is not an apology. People excuse their behaviour, give reasons for it, and try to shift the responsibility for the behaviour to other people. It’s a weasel way of appearing to apologise, but not really doing so at all.

“I’m sorry that I upset you but…”
Translation: I was right to upset you and I would do it again, because my behaviour was justified.

“I’m sorry that you’re upset but…”
Translation: It’s your fault that you’re upset

“I’m sorry for hitting you but…”
Translation: I’m allowed to hit you if I think I have a good reason for it.

“I’m sorry for doing x but I have been under a lot of strain recently.”
Translation: I didn’t really do anything bad at all.

I’m sure you can find plenty more examples.

To Trevor Mallard’s credit, he didn’t take the “Yadda yadda yadda BUT…” option. He apologised properly. No excuses. No references to his personal life, which we all know has been difficult recently. No suggesting that it was really the other man’s fault. No trying to say that his behaviour was excusable at all. He simply said, “I’m sorry. I did something wrong, it was stupid, and I am ashamed.” (Or words to that effect.) It was a genuine apology.

Try it yourself sometime. It’s remarkably refreshing.

Friday Feminist – Dale Spender

Words such as biddy and tart have shifted dramatically in meaning since they were first used positively as terms of endearment. Tart meant a small pie or pastry and its metaphorical application was as a term of affection and warmth. Not surprisingly in a society where women are evaluated as sexual objects, the meaning shifted to that of a young woman who was sexually desirable, and then – of course – to a woman of careless morals. Finally and currently it refers to women of the street. Whore once meant a lover of either sex (and was not negative) and slut and slattern referred to ‘a person who is negligent of his appearance’.(1) Harlot was ‘a fellow of either sex’, and in Middle English the reference was more frequently to males, and wench was also ‘a child of either sex’.(2) Be they affectionate – or even neutral terms such as child – the crucial factor in determining whether they represent positive or negative values is sex.

The semantic derogation of women fulfils a dual function: it helps to construct female inferiority and it also helps to confirm it. The process is not a simple, linear one, but a more complex, interactive and dialectical one. In a society where women are devalued the words which refer to them – not surprisingly – assume negative connotations. But because the options for defining women are confined to negative terms, because their meanings are primarily those of minus male, women continue to be devalued. By such an interrelated process is the subordination of women in part created and sustained. It is a semantic contradiction to formulate representations of women’s autonomy or strength and so it remains unencoded and women are deprived of the opportunity to formulate positive representations of themselves.

It is unlikely that women were instrumental in achieving this end.

Dale Spender, Man Made Language, 1980

(1) Schultz, Muriel, 1975, ‘The semantic derogation of women’, in Barrie Thorne and Nancy Henley (eds), Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, Newbury House, Rowley, Mass., pp. 64 – 75.
(2) ibid.

Childbirth, breastfeeding, power and hypocrisy

As I said earlier today (about 2.30am actually – insomnia is so much fun), I was particularly taken by three posts on the 46th Carnival of Feminists, which are all about childbirth and maternity. I have been musing about the ideas all today, in between cups of coffee.

When I was first pregnant, my older brother, an anaesthetist, said something fascinating. By then he had been studying and working in medicine for about 15 years. “In my time in medicine,” he said, “I have seen power in childbirth pass from doctors to midwives. But it is still not where it should be, which is with the mother giving birth.”

Having been through two labours and three deliveries (how does a twin birth get counted?), I know that when my body was involved in the intense and difficult work of seeing my babies into the world, all I could manage to do was survive from moment to moment, and push. (I had difficult deliveries – posterior presentations all of them.) I was completely dependent on my partner, and my obstetricians and midwives. So in some senses, it’s reasonable for power to remain with professionals – I was in no position to make sensible judgements.

However, I wonder if the midwifery inspired mythology around labour and childbirth can be a disservice to women. From being told that labour and childbirth was a problem to be managed medically, we seem to have swung the other way, into believing that labour and childbirth is a natural, and therefore good and easy process. Somehow, we have forgotten that women and babies used to die, routinely, in childbirth. And in many developing countries, they still do. When a midwife prattles on about natural processes, and control over bodies, what they are doing is setting an impossible standard for many Western women.

I found it very difficult to find a midwife who would listen to me when it came to my deliveries. For the most part, they had their heads filled with some sort of spiritual naturalistic claptrap, and they didn’t seem to want to believe that all I wanted was my babies. I didn’t need a life-changing experience.

So maybe my brother was right about power still not being where it belongs in childbirth.

Then there’s breastfeeding. Anyone who thinks a woman and baby should not breastfeed in public can just go away. That’s not what’s irking me today.

What I am more concerned about is the Baby Friendly Hospital initiative. The aim of the initiative is to encourage women to breastfeed their babies.

Here’s what it takes to be certified as a baby friendly hospital.

1 Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
2 Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
3 Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
4 Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one half-hour of birth.
5 Show mothers how to breastfeed and maintain lactation, even if they should be separated from their infants.
6 Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated.
7 Practice rooming in – that is, allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
8 Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
9 Give no artificial teats or pacifiers (also called dummies or soothers) to breastfeeding infants.

Nice, isn’t it. The trouble is, I think it’s a women and family unfriendly initiative. It prioritises the baby, as all costs, even when that baby is going to be living in the social context of a family.

7 – Rooming in looks very nice, but there’s a big problem with it. Although it is phrased as “allow”, in practice, it becomes, “mothers and babies must be kept together”. So a woman who has been through an exhausting delivery will nevertheless not be given any chance to sleep, because the nursing staff won’t help her to settle her baby, and won’t consider taking the baby into a nursery even just for a while, to allow the mother to sleep. The baby can always be brought back to the mother when it wakes, so there’s no lack of breastfeeding. However, it does take staff time to manage a nursery. So babies must stay with mothers, even at the cost of the mother’s exhaustion. This is a worse problem if the mother is heading home to other children. Unless she has a partner who has time off work, or family nearby, she will be required to look after those children too. So her brief time in hospital really is the last chance she will have to get a decent rest for weeks, if not months. And surely, that must have a bad effect on babies.

And I just don’t see how any hospital which encourages new mothers to leave after just two or three days could possibly be described as a “baby friendly” hospital. Breastfeeding is a learned skill. Some women and babies find it very, very easy, but others don’t, at all. They need help and support, especially in those early few days, when they are tired from the processes of giving birth and being born. By about day three, a new mother’s milk will be coming in, so she and her baby will be getting used to an entirely new process, but that’s almost exactly when hospitals kick mothers out the door. New mothers need to be able to stay in hospital, where they can rest, and where they can get help, for more than just a few days. To my mind, to deserve the title, “Baby Friendly”, a hospital needs to encourage women to stay for five or six or even more days after birth, if that’s what they need. And in order for that to happen, hospitals need to be properly funded. Otherwise the Baby Friendly Hospital initiative is just so much hot air.