Tag Archives: Citizenship

Shirley – a feminist text?

Cross post

I’ve just finished reading Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte. It’s a fascinating book, and I think one that can fairly be read as a feminist text. No doubt someone, somewhere, has written an analysis of Shirley, as part of her Honours or Masters or doctoral work, possibly in Women’s Studies, or possibly in English. If so, I haven’t read it, and I haven’t even looked for it. What follows is my own, untutored response to the book. I say ‘untutored’ because although I have studied through to doctoral level in my own discipline, I am sadly untrained in English Lit, and even in Feminist Theory and Women’s Studies. (I’m learning on the blog.)

Shirley was published in 1849, but it’s set during the Napoleonic wars, when manufacturing was beginning to ‘modernize’ and labourers were losing jobs to machines. (Yes, yes, I know that in standard economic thought investment in new technology leads to an expansion of business and the gross domestic product, but that all takes time, and in the meantime the children still have to be fed.)
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A day to remember

Many years ago, when I was four or five, my parents got my brothers and me up to watch one of the lunar missions returning to earth, on what was then our very new and exciting black and white TV. I can recall shots of the sea, and not much more. I think they were live shots, but my memory could be playing me false here – it could be that film was flown out to New Zealand and then shown on TV. But in that case, I can’t think why Mum and Dad would have gotten us up specially to watch it. What I do remember is the occasion, and why it was important.

Fast forward a few decades, to a different country, and a much larger colour TV (flat screen, digital, bells and whistles, and not something we had intended to get just yet, but our old TV suffered from mechanical derangement in the move over the Tasman).

Today, my husband and I got our children to watch the apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generation being read in Federal Parliament by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. We want our girls to remember this day, or even if they don’t remember the day itself, to remember that we got them to watch and witness when the Prime Minister, in the Federal Parliament, said “Sorry.”

Saying sorry is important. The words really do matter. Here’s why.

I wrote, months ago, about the republican account of freedom as non-domination. A free person is someone who can stand tall, who can look others in the eye, who need not constrain her actions for fear of other people’s reactions. She is a person is with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. She is free from domination.

Freedom as non-domination is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social settings. And it is an institutional sense of freedom. The republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.

This account of freedom can be used to explain what goes on when one person commits a crime against another. Very roughly, the person who commits the crime dominates the other, remove her freedom, and constrains her actions. The offender does not see the victim as a citizen, someone who enjoys freedom as non-domination.

I know, my account here is, well, thin, when it comes to crimes like rape and murder, and it could do with a lot more explanation. If you want to follow up on this, then the book to look for is Not Just Deserts: A Republican Theory of Criminal Justice, by John Braithwaite and Philip Pettit, (OUP: 1990). But the account does work quite nicely when it comes to the treatment of Indigenous Australians. For an incredibly long time, their citizenship was formally and literally denied, and even when that was changed, the treatment of Indigenous Australians by other Australians denied that Indigenous Australians had any rights, even, at its extremes, denied that they might have any status as human beings, and certainly denied them the same sort of status as other Australian citizens. They were totally dominated, treated as being of little account, treated as being some sort of irritation on the Australian polity.

So how to start restoring the status of Aboriginal people, as full citizens, as people who can stand tall and look the other in the eye, secure and respected in their freedom?

Braithwaite and Pettit argue that where a crime has been detected, and the offender convicted, then there should be recognition, recompense and reassurance. The offender must recognise that she has offended against the victim, compromising his standing as a citizen who enjoys freedom as non-domination. She must take steps to make good the victim’s losses, through compensation or whatever other steps are thought necessary. And she must reassure the victim that the actions or circumstances which created the crime will not re-occur.

I think Australia has done a lot of hard work with recognising that a great wrong occurred. To be sure, at least some people thought they were doing the right thing when Aboriginal children were taken from their families, in what we now know as the Stolen Generation, but whatever the intent of those who devised the polices and implemented them, the fact was that a great wrong occurred. (Rather than getting into “did it / didn’t it” occur discussions here, there’s a great post and links and comments thread – Debunking Windschuttle on Larvatus Prodeo for anyone who wants to argue that there never was a stolen generation.)

Some work on recompense is starting to happen, with claims against state and territory governments. More on that in a moment. It’s the third “R” I want to concentrate on, reassurance.

The victim needs to know that she will not be vulnerable to the crime again. She needs to know, not just the the offence is recognised, and the compensation has been paid, but that it will never reoccur. That’s why the apology is so important. After all, if it was only about recognition and recompense, then in a perverse market solution, it could become okay to commit crimes, provided you paid the price afterwards. Payment rendered for goods taken. And of course, transactions can always be repeated.

That’s why standing up and saying sorry matters so very much. The apology ties the recognition and recompense together, and binds them into a reassurance that the crime will not happen again.

Of course, paying compensation reinforces the strength of the apology. It turns the words from being mere words, into a genuine and sincere acknowledgement of past wrongs, and a clear signal that all efforts will be made to ensure that such a crime will not occur again, that the victims of the crime are no longer vulnerable to domination, that they are free citizens standing tall and proud.

That means that the next steps that the Rudd government takes are very important. From the outside at least, the recent John Howard inspired incursion into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory looks suspiciously like another version of the Stolen Generation. In addition, so far, Rudd has not talked about recompense. However, for today, that should not detract from the enormous step that has been taken with the apology. And the apology contained this important sentence:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

It’s a first step.

Alas, this morning we had time only to watch the apology itself, and a little of Mr Rudd’s speech, before we had to take the girls to school. We don’t know how long we will be living in Australia – it could be a few years, or it could be forever. There’s a good chance that our girls will become Australians in substance, not just form (they all have Australian citizenship, by birth or by descent, in addition to NZ citizenship). As Australians, I think that it is important for them to know that they witnessed the moment when the leader of the nation had the courage and the integrity to say, “Sorry.”

Update over the break.
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Who is the rudie?

So the Prime Minister preferred to carry on running the country while the queen pontificated about something or other. Predictably, this was seen as an insult to the queen. Coupled with a report about Commonwealth prime ministers not bothering to dine with the Prince of Wales and his wife, it seems that Commonwealth leaders really are terribly rude.

Or are they?

These are, for the most part, elected heads of some of the most robust democracies in the world. I don’t mean robust in the sense of rough and tumble, but in the sense that both the institutions and the practice of democracy is strong. The leaders of democracies gathered at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting can truly said to have been chosen to lead by their fellow citizens. Sure, not everyone in this country will have voted for Helen Clark, but if John Key, or whoever, is elected next year, then he or she will just as surely be the leader of our democracy as Helen Clark is now. Not because everyone has voted for him or her, but because the great majority of citizens in this democracy will have participated in the democratic processes that have resulted in him or her becoming leader.

And who is the queen? And the Prince of Wales? Nobodies. Nobody chose them, nobody trusts them with any real power, nobody wants them to actually rule. By simply being born in the right wrong place at the right wrong time, they get to swan around, invoke inherited privilege, and demand that we treat them with respect. The position of the Prince of Wales’ wife is no better. She has done nothing on her own account to be entitled to respect, simply married into the Windsors.

I see no reason not to treat the Windsors with common courtesy. But common, ordinary old courtesy is all they should get. If I were to send Helen Clark an invitation to dinner, I’m sure I would get a polite note back, saying “Thanks, but no thanks.” Ordinary, common courtesy. I have no right to make demands on her time, I have no right to expect her to listen to any speech I make, I have no right to compel her to act in any particular way, other than through the ordinary mechanisms of our robust democracy, functioning in the same way as it does for every other citizen. If anything, I have more right to approach the leader of our government than Elizabeth Windsor does, just because I am a citizen.

Rather than the democratically elected heads of Commonwealth countries being apotheosized as “rude” when they elect to spend their time governing instead of listening to these nobodies, the relics of the House of Windsor should be seen as rude, for even beginning to think that they have a right to take up the time of Commonwealth heads of government. Elizabeth, Charles and Camilla, you are the rude people here.

Strewth, blue!

Australian citizenship test

September 19 – Suffrage Day!

September 19, is Suffrage Day in New Zealand. On this day in 1893, women in New Zealand gained the vote.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to enfranchise all women. Some women were able to vote in some elections in some other states and territories, but New Zealand was the first country to give all women exactly the same voting rights as all men.

In 2007, 114 years later, women in New Zealand have formal freedoms that the suffragists (the New Zealand term for women who fought for the vote) could not have foreseen. Women no longer lose their property on marriage, rape within marriage is recognised as a crime, women are paid the same amount as men doing the same job. To be sure, formal freedoms are not the same as substantive freedoms, but legally, formally, and to a large degree substantively, in this country women are free. And this freedom began to grow and flourish on September 19, 1893.

In the glorious maelstrom of modern life and ideas on the internet, today is also International Talk Like a Pirate Day. But when you say “Aaargh! Avast ye, me hearties”, say it in memory and honour of the women who went before us and fought against the established order to claim freedom and power.

To Kate Sheppard, who led the fight for the vote, to my forebear Elizabeth Caradus Russell, who was one of the women who fought with her, to the nearly 32,000 women who signed the petition asking for the vote, almost a quarter of the female population of New Zealand – my heartfelt thanks.