Category Archives: Society

A little bit of luck

Cross posted

Chris Trotter’s most recent column is a dispiriting analysis of why cost-cutting, beneficiary-bashing, privilege-defending prime minister John Key somehow remains so popular: it’s because he’s so ordinary, just another Kiwi bloke who is happy to drink his beer from the bottle and weild the tongs at a barbie Even his extraordinary wealth doesn’t upset New Zealanders: being rich is fine provided it’s not inherited wealth, and it’s not flaunted, not displayed in a way that implies that other people are lesser beings. There’s no Remmers snootiness about John Key. He’s pragmatic rather than being a thinker, and it’s a damned fine thing that he doesn’t seem to read great literature, or enjoy Beethoven’s string quartets, or heaven forbid, try to engage in any sort of intellectual life. We don’t want any smart people around here, thank you very much.

I think Trotter is on the money when he says that New Zealanders prefer modest heroes: one of the reasons New Zealanders admired Sir Edmund Hillary so much was his modesty about his achievements. John Key does seem like the chap next door, just an ordinary bloke getting on with the job. Personally, I’d rather that we had some intellectual heft on the 9th floor of the Beehive, and in ministerial offices, along with the nice chap demeanour, and frankly, I’d prefer a country where being smart and well-educated and prepared to talk about policy and ideas isn’t regarded as a social solecism, but evidently, I’m in a minority on that one. (The evidence would be John Key’s continuing popularity.)

Where Trotter nails it is with this sentence about the way New Zealanders regard John Key.

Strangely, we don’t seem to mind if our leaders are richer than we are. Money, after all, is a wonderfully democratic thing. With sufficient hard work (and just a little bit of luck) just about anybody can become rich.

Just a little bit of luck…

It takes more than just a little bit of luck to become very wealthy. It takes a whole damn truck and semi-trailer of luck to become wealthy. Let’s count the little bits of luck that John Key has had.

First of all, there’s the luck of being born with a white skin. John Key has never had to experience walking into a shop and being regarded with suspicion just because his skin is the wrong colour. Then there’s the luck of being born male – he doesn’t have to justify his pursuit of career at the expense of having children, or carefully plan childcare if he wants to do a full-time job. Nor has he constantly had to calculate whether he is phsyically safe when he walks down a street, or has a few too many drinks. He was born able-bodied: no having to negotiate all the barriers that society places in the way of people with physical disabilities, from cars parked over kerbs and pavements, to lack of toilet facilities, to public places that are accessible only through a back door right round the back of the building, to work patterns that demand 10 hours phsyical effort a day, to… the list is endless. He was born with sufficient neural connections across his corpus callosum, so that he is a quick and able thinker, able to grasp difficult concepts quickly and easily. When his family was impoverished during his childhood, because his father died, there was a good quality state house available for him to grow up in, providing him with security. He had the extraordinary good luck to be born to a mother who made it easy for him to get through school and university, who assumed that her children would pursue higher education. He had the good luck to go through university at a time when only a small proportion of New Zealand’s population did so, which meant that the government funded virtually all the tuition and living costs for students – no student loans for him. And so it goes. John Key is an extraordinarily lucky man.

Let me be quite clear: it is not John Key’s “fault” that he was born lucky, any more than for example, it was Kiri Te Kanawa’s “fault” for being born with an extraordinarily beautiful singing voice. It is just a piece of extraordinarily good luck. I do not doubt that John Key has also worked very, very hard. But one person can work hard all his life, putting in extra hours, doing his best to earn a good income and support himself, and still end up at retirement age with not much more than the old age pension to live on. Another will work hard all his life, but because he has been born lucky, because he is in the right place at the right time, he will become incredibly wealthy.

What Trotter points to in this paragraph is the collective delusion that New Zealanders buy into, that being wealthy is a reward for hard work, and that if only the rest of us worked that hard, we too could be wealthy. Far from being a column in praise of John Key (pace the standard cheerleaders on the right), Trotter has given us an exposé of the way we delude ourselves about our prime minister, about the nature of achievement, and about how we regard success in this country. I recommend it.

The treacle

We lived in Adelaide for nearly a year, back in 1998 / 1999. It was a lovely town, full of parks and museums and beaches and galleries and good food and good wine. The pace of life seemed slow, pleasantly so.

We moved back at the start of 2008, nearly 10 years later. In the decade of our absence, it seemed that nothing had changed. At all. The only developments that I noticed was the extension of the tram line from its former terminus in Victoria Square, to West Terrace, and the building of the freeway from the south eastern corner of Adelaide, up to the hills. Nothing else. And during the three years we have been here, the only development has been a further extension of the tram line.

The pace of life is not just slow in Adelaide. As friends of ours described it, living in Adelaide is like swimming in treacle. The sun is shining, the food and wine are good, life is easy, and if there is a problem to be solved, well, it can wait, can’t it?

I have met some dynamic individuals during my time here, impressive people who are working hard, with vision, and making a large contribution to Adelaide and South Australia and its institutions. A tax partner in one of the large accounting firms, a senior manager in the public service, the principal of my children’s school, some academics doing world class work. But there are plenty of people who are just pottering along, looking for someone else to solve their problems, saying it’s not my fault, not my problem, who can I divert you to so that I don’t have to do anything.

I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing. A relaxed and easy life sounds pretty good to me, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned about getting ahead and getting things done. On the other hand, I have heard that federal politicians complain that whenever they meet with a state pollie from South Australia, the state pollie has her or his hand out, asking for something. They never fly to Canberra with a great idea, a plan for something that would benefit the whole country, a vision to be shared. Perhaps relaxed-and-easy slips over into lassitude. Yet South Australia has a tremendous reputation as a reforming state: first in Australia to give women the vote, and the state that coped and found a whole lot of tolerance and even celebration of Don Dunstan and his pink shorts. But then there’s the whole private school scene, which seems to be about buying privilege rather than trying to get a good education for your children. All the more so when the top state schools are level pegging with the top private schools when it comes to educational achievement. For example, until very recently the upper echelons of the legal establishment in South Australia was reserved for boys from St Peter’s, or perhaps St Ignatius. Where you went to school, where you send your children to school, matters in South Australia. One of the things I found disturbing was some academic colleagues who were determined to send their children to private schools, even though they could read the statistics perfectly well for themselves. The contortions they went into about character and extra-curricular activities, and the type of children they wanted their children to associate with, astonished me. Anything to justify the purchasing of privilege. I’m fine with people sending their children to a church school because they are church people, or with sending a child to a particular school because of a particular programme that is available there that suits that particular child, but worrying about a child’s associates, as though the kids in your local neighbourhood aren’t quite good enough for you, makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. And it seems to me to be a manifestation of the treacle: this is the way things are done around here and really it’s too difficult to change and let’s have another glass of wine and chat about the weather.

I’m curious to know what other Adelaide people think about the treacle.

And for all that, let me stress how much I liked Adelaide. It really is a very pleasant place to live, and I will miss many, many aspects of it very much. It could well be that what I am perceiving as treacle had more to do with the institutions where I was working, and the area in which I was living, instead of a being a particular thing about Adelaide. The naming of “the treacle” made sense to me: it aptly described parts of my experience in Adelaide. But I’m well aware that it could be just my experience. Thoughts?

It seems I am a coarse, uncaring beast

Cardinal George Pell, who is Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has opined that people without faith are bad people. If Australia ceases to be guided by Christian principles, then “Australian society will become increasingly coarse and uncaring.”

Faithless are coarse, uncaring and without purpose, says Cardinal Pell

Let me tell you a story about the good Christian mothers and fathers at the school my children attend. At least, I assume that they are Christian, because they send their children along to the inter-denominational services, and many of them are sending their children off to private church-run schools when they go to secondary school.

Last year, one of the mums at school had twins. She already had four children, ranging in age from 10 down to 5. Her partner left her during her pregnancy, so she was trying to manage on her own. Things weren’t too bad, except that she had a c-section, which meant that she couldn’t drive her car for six weeks. So each morning, she was getting up, feeding and tending the babies, getting the other kids organised, and then putting the babies in the pram, and walking the children to school. Another mum saw all this happening one day, and was appalled. So with the consent of the new mother, and with the assistance of classroom teachers, she sent out an e-mail, asking people to volunteer to help with getting the two younger children to and from school each day. The two older children could get themselves to school along quiet streets on their bikes.

I read the e-mail, held my head in my hands for a few moments, because I already had a fair amount on, and then e-mailed back. Of course I could find a few minutes in the morning to help, especially when I was already out and about getting my own children to school.

The next day, the mum who organised the e-mail told me that I was the only person who had replied to her. It seemed that there was some gossip going around about the new mum, so plenty of the other parents at the school didn’t think she was worthy of help.

I think that could fairly be described as uncaring, and coarse.

Over the next day or two, a few more parents stepped up, and a roster was organised, and family friends stepped in, and one way and another, the new mum was able to get through those first few weeks. But the original response was uncaring, and unkind, and insensitive, and crass.

I have been angry about the whole incident ever since, and I am made even more angry when I read comments like George Pell’s. As far as I know, we are the only avowed atheists in the school. Everyone else goes along with the regulation Christianity, bar a few children who come from families with other faiths. But ours was not the uncaring and coarse response.

George Pell didn’t stop with the nasty comments about non-Christians. He also thinks that people without faith lead meaningless lives. “… without God the universe has no objective purpose or meaning. Nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss.”

Hmmm…. I see that exactly the other way round. I look into the abyss, into the wonder of the universe, into the utter inconsequence of the speck of existence that is me within this universe, and the abyss looks back it me. I can stand tall, knowing that I am responsible for me, that the universe really does not care about my existence, that there is no vengeful or beneficent being keeping tabs on my life, and rewarding or punishing me as she sees fit. This has created the greatest sense of freedom I have had, and the greatest sense of responsibility. And this is what gives my life meaning. Not some external story that I tell myself, some construct I confect to shield myself from the horrors of the night, but meaning generated from within, from trying to understand myself, and the society within which I live.

Take your fairy tales, and your nasty epithets, George Pell, and stuff them where the sun don’t shine.

Update: You should also read tigtog’s brilliant post at Hoyden about Town, where she shreds this claim that Pell made.

Cardinal Pell said education was not enough to create a civilised society, that faith was necessary too. He cited the example of 20th century Germany, which he said was the best educated society in the world when Hitler became leader.


I feel so ashamed.

Protestors holding sign saying, "No to refugees."

Detention centre debate begins

We live in one of the richest nations in the world, and we cannot even behave with minimal decency to children whose parents have made a desperate journey to come here. Some people there wanted to offer welcome and support to these people, but most people wanted to have nothing to do with them, and certainly didn’t want to have them in their own comfortable community.

I wonder how many of these people go to church on Sunday, or send their children to church schools, where they claim to teach Christian compassion?

Update: Grog’s Gamut has an excellent post – The triumph over power, prejudice and bigotry…

To be honest, I doubt the 500 people who attended the meeting reflect the real view of most people who live in the hills. My suspicion is more than a few of those who attended the meeting don’t even live in Woodside. If Jamie Briggs wants them to be his supporters, then go for it – but he can then forego any crud about him being “a moderate”. My view is that the real majority of the residents is voiced by people such as Kim Galdigau who “said the Christian church community in the area wanted to know what it could do to help”.

Of families and earthquakes

My brother rang me early on Saturday morning, and told me that there had been a massive earthquake in Christchurch. We’re a North Island family, and we don’t have family down south, but as it turned out, my beloved uncle was there on Friday night, staying on the eighth floor of a hotel. I was able to contact him by txt and confirm that he was okay, but after that, I stayed off the network.

I spoke to him by phone on Sunday morning. It was terrifying, he said. He woke to his bed rocking and shuddering, and only by clinging on tight did he manage to avoid being thrown out. Many of the other people staying in the hotel were tipped out of their beds. He packed up and got down stairs, and then in company with the other guests, assembled outside. It was bitterly cold. After a while, the hotel staff brought out sheets and blankets. There was no information: the hotel did not have a battery-operated radio. All of the guests were badly frightened. Eventually my uncle made it to the airport. The building was closed, so together with other travellers, he spent most of the day perched with his luggage on a traffic island. People helped each other out, sharing food and water, looking after luggage for each other, supporting each other. A nearby hotel made its bathrooms available for people to use. By mid-afternoon the airport re-opened, and late in the day, he got a flight to Auckland, and from there, home to Wellington. On Saturday, he coped, but on Sunday, in the safety of his home, he has been very, very shaken.

As the plane took off from Christchurch, the people on board clapped.

I’m sure people functioned on adrenalin on Saturday. There had been a disaster, by who knows what good fortune there had been no direct loss of life, and it was a matter of everyone doing what they could to check on their neighbours and families and friends, to look after people who were injured, to pull together food and water and shelter for the day. But by today, I’m guessing that the longterm nature of the damage has started to become apparent. My uncle and the other people on the flights out of Christchurch will have gone home to comfortable beds, clean water, power at the flick of a switch. Many people whose homes are in Christchurch don’t know when they will have access to such basic goods again. A problem for adults of course, but so much more of a problem for people with others to care for. Parents will be worried about food and shelter for their children, adult children will be worried about caring for elderly parents, caregivers will be concerned about the people they assist with daily living. Some people with disabilities may be in extra difficulty too, especially if their ability to live independently is predicated on functioning public services. Things will be all the more difficult because at this stage, there will be no end in sight.

My thoughts are with the people of Christchurch.

Some other thoughts: The old buildings in Christchurch were damaged, badly, but the new buildings, built to earthquake standards, survived. Not only are the building codes excellent, but they are administered by a corruption-free inspectorate. This weekend, we New Zealanders have good reason to take great pride in our corruption-free public servants.

As people in Christchurch are coping with the earthquake, people in Victoria, Australia, are coping with floods.

Dear friends of ours lost lost their mother and mother-in-law today. Our thoughts are with them too.

Cross posted

FGC at Cornell University

Cross posted

Careful – this may be TRIGGERING, and the links may be TRIGGERING.

Dr Dix P. Poppas of Cornell University Medical School has been performing genital surgery on little girls, and then doing follow-up work testing how much sensation the girls have (left). Here is the abstract for the article in which he reported the research: Journal of Urology: Nerve Sparing Ventral Clitoroplasty: Analysis of Clitoral Sensitivity and Viability: Volume 178, Issue 4, Supplement, Pages 1598-1601 (October 2007).

Here is the article on Bioethics Forum which reveals the story.

Bioethics Forum: Bad Vibrations

The Hastings Center, which hosts the Bioethics Forum, is well known for its work in bioethics. I’ve been reading Hastings Center reports for years, in connection with my work. It is a reliable source. The authors of the post are Alice Dreger and Ellen K Feder. Dreger has been criticised by intersex people, but that particular line of criticism does not seem to have a bearing on this issue.

Alice Dreger has a follow-up post at her Psychology Today blog: Can you hear us now?.

I’m appalled. How could this still be happening, in the 21st century? Dreger and Feder compare the doctor’s actions to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, because he conducted his research in plain view, but I think there are closer parallels with Herbert Green and his non-treatment of some women at National Women’s Hospital. In both cases, I see a doctor determined to prove that he is right, and to hell with the consequences for the people he is supposed to be trying to help.

The obvious question is how on earth did Dr Pappas get his work approved by Cornell’s Ethics Committee? The answer is that he didn’t.

How come the article says Poppas had IRB (ethics oversight) approval and we suggest he probably didn’t? Because what he has approval for is retrospective chart review, a harmless little look back at what he recorded in the charts as having happened to his patients. What he didn’t do was to get approval in advance for the “clitoral sensory testing” that he was writing down in the chart and then used to produce the systematic and generalized conclusions about his technique. This may sound like a technicality. It isn’t. If he had sought IRB approval for the “sensory testing,” the ethics staff might have sat up and asked him what the heck he thought he was doing to these girls, and they would have tried to make sure the parents were informed about the unknowns and risks, and the girls could have refused to participate.

Source: Alice Dreger’s blog post.

This doctor has been using “medical vibratory devices” on little girls and calling it research.

I feel ill.

Melissa has opened a discussion about it: Discussion Thread: Cornell University and FGC, and Melhoukia has been writing about it: This makes me sick: There are not enough content warnings in the world for what you are about to read. I first heard about the article through Feminist Philosophers: FGM at Cornell.

You can contact the Dean of the Cornell Medical School here:

Children are people too

Cross posted

Over at Feministe, there’s a monster thread concerned with policing children’s behaviour. According to some people on the thread, children shouldn’t be allowed. Our public spaces should be free of them for fear of them ruining the grown ups’ day.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. But only a bit. Mostly it’s about children being kept out of restaurants and movie theatres, and how parents are necessarily bad parents if their children cry, or run about, or create any kind of disturbance. In short, if they behave like children.

There’s a lot to not like in the thread, and given that it’s now over well over 300 comments long, I wouldn’t bother with it. I think the thing that disturbs me most is the assumption that many people make (both in the thread, and in real life), that my children will be noisy, and disruptive, and they need to be KEPT UNDER CONTROL. The effect is to treat children as though they were smelly, slimy bugs that have crawled out from under a log, and are objects of disgust.

It’s a commonplace way for children to be treated. Years ago, because another child had cried during a wedding ceremony once, we were told that we could not bring our 13 month old daughter, from whom I had never been apart for more than a few hours, to a wedding ceremony. The assumption was that she would cry, and that I wouldn’t have the sense to take her out. One of the local inexpensive family restaurants we go to on occasion serves drinks to children in nasty plastic mugs, not even mock glasses. We have to ask specially for our sensible and careful daughters to be given glasses. When we got onto a plane with the kids, people roll their eyes, and look put out and angry to be seated beside children. Yet our girls are quite capable of managing a few hours in a seat on a plane without creating any more trouble than any other passenger.

I do not understand why my children, and any other children, are treated with suspicion. Not all the time, by any means. Not everywhere, by any means. But often enough, instead of making the same basic assumption that applies to adults in public spaces, that is, the assumption that the adult will comport her or himself in a way that makes the space easy for everyone to be in, the reverse assumption is made. People assume that the particular children they see right in front of them will do something that disturbs the adult, before even giving the children a chance. It’s a nasty prejudice. And yet it’s one that many people (see that thread at Feministe for example), seem to embrace. It seems that it’s okay to say, “I hate children.”

And even if the children do “misbehave”, so what? Lots of adults do that too. They take calls on their mobile phones and sit bellowing at the restaurant table so everyone can hear them, they talk at the tops of their voices full stop, they fart in crowded lifts, they neglect to wash, they abuse the waiting staff. And yet, they are still allowed to go out in public.

Enough with hating children, with treating them with contempt. Children are people too.