Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Which Side Are You On?

One question that I've never resolved to my satisfaction, is why I write a blog. When I started I saw it as an opportunity to do some writing. I didn't have any grand ideas for my blog and I don't see it as political action in itself.

Ever since I've started I've been feeling obligated to write about certain topics - to write about topics that don't get covered in the mainstream media. To use this odd little platform I have, to raise issues that are important.

I generally haven't been able to do that, because I generally don't have anything to say about those topics. There's a limit to the number of times you can say "This happened; it was awful", or (more rarely) "this happened; it was awesome'.

But there are exceptions, and the situation is Oaxaca is one of them. I would have written about it sooner, but I've been away from home, and it's taken me a while to get a handle on what was going on.


From Democracy Now:

Over the past four months, the residents of Oaxaca - sparked by a teachers strike - had turned the city into an autonomous zone. The police and official government had been kicked out - in its place the protesters formed the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca or APPO.

For months entire families have been camping outside to oversee barricades protecting the city. The protesters have been demanding the resignation of the state's governor Ulises Ruiz and the formation of a more representative government.

From La Luchita: Paz, Justicia y Libertad:

This all started as a routine labor strike by Section 22 of the Mexican teachers union (often referred to in Spanish language press as "el magisterio") escalated into a state-wide revolt after state police tried to violently evict the encampment of striking teachers on June 14.

The teachers union and the newly formed Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca made the ouster of unpopular governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, widely considered to have won the election by fraud, their primary demand. As violence by police, paramilitaries and mercenaries escalated, the protesters began barracading their neighborhoods in self-defense. For example, after the Radio Universidad radio station used by the teachers union was attacked, protesters responded with a wave of radio station takeovers. But the protesters also began organizing to put their demand into action, declaring Gov. Ulises "banned" from Oaxaca, seizing government buildings and chasing out politicians from the local and state governments.

Violent attacks had for months been escalating against protesters, in what protesters said was part of Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz's repressive Operation Iron ("Plan Hierro"). Brad Will himself documented this with an article a week ago called "Death in Oaxaca". With the murder of the indigenous teacher Panfilo Hernandez, the death toll was at 9 for the protesters. Meanwhile, political parties and the commerical Mexican media were reporting that the protesters were killing people, often without saying the name of the supposed victim or the time and place of the supposed killing. The killing of dissident teacher Jaime René Calvo Aragón, (who argued for the teachers to return to classes) was blamed by the government on protesters, while protesters blamed the government or paramilitary mercenaries of the PRI of killing the teacher as a pretext to repress the protestors, as reported by La Jornada.

I only wish I'd paid enough attention to learn enough to write about the autonomous zone when it was still an autonomous zone.


On Sunday Mexican Federal Preventative Police entered the city. I don't think I can give a good summary of events so I recommend the following sites:

Narco News
La Luchita: Paz, Justicia y Libertad
Indymedia Oaxaca (if you speak Spanish - I'm sure there are many many other great Spanish sites about this conflict, it's just I can't find them).

Three people died in the assault, and the fight is still on-going.

What Next

The Zapatistas are supporting the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca:

The EZLN announced that “for the entire day on November 1, 2006, the highways and roads that cross territories where the EZLN are present in the Southeast of Chiapas will be closed."

The battle isn't over.

Why this is important

I'm not writing this as a call for support. I think it's fairly clear that the people of Mexico are doing a far better job of organising and resisting than almost anyone in the first world.

I'm writing this because I want people to know that resistance is met by repression. Efforts to organise and liberate ourselves do threaten the interests of those with power, and will be met with force. To the extent that that doesn't happen to you, is the extent that your priviledge and/or powerlessness prevents you from threatening society.

Thanks to brownfemipower andVegankid for most of the links.

Note for the comment thread: I'm not prepared to host comments attacking the people of Oaxaca or their resistance (disagreeing with me is OK though).

Also posted on Alas.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Story of Struggle and Hope

I've written before about the experience of waiting for news. In New Zealand waiting for news generally means listening to the National Radio news bulletin every hour on the hour. There are six pips and then they tell you what's happened in the last hour. Usually it's OK if you miss some, usually not that much happens between one hour and the next. But, sometimes, when you really care about what happened it matters desperately and you never miss a bulletin.

From the 28th August to the 21st September 600 workers were locked-out of their jobs. I listened to the news so obsessively that when the lock-out ended I realised I'd forgotten how to listen the news with mild curiosity. I am going to write a brief history of that struggle, because I think remembering that we can win if we work together is an important part of the battle.

There are 600 workers who run the distribution centres for Progressive Enterprises. Progressive run three separate supermarket chains, so the distribution centres receive goods from the suppliers and distribute them to the different supermarkets. In 2003 Progressive Enterprises closed down their Auckland and Christchurch distribution centres, made all the workers redundant, and then reopened in another location, rehiring the workers on lower pay. They weren't able to do that at the third distribution centre (in Palmerston North), because they either weren't able to find a new site, or weren't able to get rid of the lease. So workers in three different locations, doing exactly the same work, were paid three different rates. Workers were paid $2 an less in Christchurch than they were in Palmerston North, for doing exactly the same job.

This picture comes from Friday 25 August, the workers at the three distribution centres went on strike in support of their claim for a single collective agreement and one rate of pay. I was only vaguely aware of it at the time. I'm a unionist - I support striking workers - so I was excited . But I didn't pay that much more attention than I'm currently paying to the workers at TVNZ who are currently taking industrial action.

That all changed on the Monday (28 August). Progressive Enterprises responded by locking the workers out. All the workers were locked out (without pay), unless they dropped the claim for a single collective agreement. The company started putting out ridiculous lies - they said the union was demanding a 30% payrise. Lock-

At the start it was about Woolworths distribution, going into the second week it was about New Zealand workers in general, there was a lot of members of the public that saw that, and rallied behind us.
That's from Shane Cooper, a worker at the Palmerston North distribution centre.

That was my experience as well, although I was paying attention during the first week of the lock-out I still saw it as an issue for that site. When the company and the union went into mediation later in that week I haunted the radio (and peppered anyone who might tell me what was going on with text messages asking if there was any progress), because being locked-out is an awful experience.

The families who were locked out were facing an indefinate time without wages. For the first week, before substantial funds came in, the union couldn't give out money. It just paid the most urgent bills people had, provided food (many donations of kind came in - but it cost $1000 a day just for food on the Auckland picket line), and tried to defer the rest (all the major banks gave mortgage holidays). The stress that that uncertainty puts on people is hard to imagine. Most people can't afford to be without work for weeks at a time, particularly not knowing when that time will end. There were some families where the locked-out workers was the only wage-earner, other families where both parents worked in the distribution centres.

It was frustrating, being in Wellington as that first week came to an end. We were desperate to help, but didn't know how. We had no distribution centre near by (Palmerston North was two hours drive away). We went to a picket outside one of the Supermarkets (the retail workers at those supermarkets were also negotiating for a wage increase, but they weren't locked out).

After a week of closed distriubtion centres the supermarket shelves started emptying. It was really exciting to go in there and see a sign say "We apologise if your favourite product is out of stock." The situation was really odd as well. The one product the supermarkets had in abudance was budget toilet paper. The managers had obviously been told that they didn't want the shelves to look empty, so everywhere they were short the shelves were filled with toilet paper. You'd be looking at the biscuit aisle and in between the Tim-tams and the Shrewsberries there'd be Toilet Paper.

The second week things started to get serious, both on their side and on ours. In New Zealand if workers are on strike, or locked-out, it's illegal to hire or contract any one else to do their work. Progressive were breaking this law in two ways, one they were getting suppliers to deliver supplies directly,* and two they had hired Linfox, a supply chain company, to distribute the goods in the meantime. Christchurch and Auckland workers were 100% union, and stayed strong throughout the lock-out. However, Palmerston North was less than 100% union, and also had the least to gain from a settlement, since they were already on the highest rates.**

At the beginning of the second week workers in Palmerston North started resigning the union and going back. The only way the company would let them back to work was if they resigned from the union, and therefore renounced their claim for a single collective agreement. By Tuesday 5 September (just over a week after the lock-out began) enough workers went back that the company could reopen the Palmerston North distribution centre with scab trucks. They did this with the aid of the police - who once again made it clear which side they were on in industrial disputes.

By this time the fight was for all New Zealand workers, and it was clear that the company was out to destroy the union. Progressive enterprises is an Australian based company that is Australasia's largest private sector employer. It's cheif executive Roger Corbett earns $8.5 million a year (Australian), the claim the workers were seeking would have cost a fraction of that. Australia has recently passed extremely anti-worker employment legislation, and it seemed they were testing their tactics in New Zealand. Progressive and Walmart seem to have a friendly relationship, and have had management exchanges, so they can learn how to screw over workers together.

The intractability of the company made it a union-wide issue. If they could break such a well organised site, they could break anyone So many times over the next few weeks someone would say to me "thanks for what you're doing" and I'd say "it's just we have to win this you know?" and they'd nod.

You see the New Zealand union movement hasn't been known for fighting for a number of years. In 1991 the National government introduced extremely anti-worker legislation. Despite a mandate from around the country the central union organisation the Council of Trade Unions wouldn't call a general strike. The next decade saw stagnation and decreases on wages, attacks on unions, and workers and unions to afraid to stand up for themselves. Just now, 15 years later, the union movement is starting to fight again.

Laila Harre, the current secretary of the National Distribution Union (the main union in the distribution centre) challenged the incumbent and won in that rare thing, a contested union election.*** She was personally attacked during the lock-out and one newspaper editorial blaming the whole thing on her personal ambition to lead the CTU (quite how she'd have the power to make the company lock-out the workers is unclear). She didn't drive the workers to the picket lines, the actual story does her a lot more credit. When, after the first 24 hours on strike the workers decided not to go back, she recognised that this was their decision to make and her job to work to make that decision work.

In terms of union leadership this was a huge step forward. I believe that if we'd lost this the union movement wouldn't have fought for anything, and that would have been the death blow (union movement's are always much stronger when they fight).

I only got up to the Palmerston North picket-line once, on my way somewhere else. The camp was amazing and it was great to meet the workers. I came about lunch-time and they offered me lunch, I demurred - I hadn't had lunch, but I didn't want to take food that was meant for someone without an income. They insisted and one guy said to me "We can't stop the trucks going in, and we can't stop the trucks coming out, but we can give you hospitality, and cook good food"

Those workers couldn't stay out alone - the union movement came in behind almost immediately, giving substantial amounts of money to the lock-out fund (over a hundred thousand of dollars). That was great, but the public reaction was something else. The only thing we could really do in Wellington was collect money, so we threw ourselves into it and got to see, first hand, the level of support out there for the locked out workers.

We were just out there on the street, rattling our buckets, and the response was amazing. People would go to get money out so they could give it to us; people would empty their wallets into the buckets; after a couple of hours our buckets were heavy with coins and we'd raised over a thousand dollars. It was really clear to me that the people of Wellington understood that this was a fight for all New Zealanders. The street collecting was just one way people were contributing, there was a 0900 phone line, and a bank account people could put money into. Ordinary workers gave over a hundred thousand dollars to the lock-out fund.

This picture comes from the Auckland rally to support the locked-out workers, there were rallies like this all over the country.

I had my first 'We're going to Win' moment on Friday 8 September two weeks into the lock-out.**** The Council of Trade Union called a special meeting to decide what the union movement could do to help. As well as contributing substantially more money, people began to talk about solidarity action (which is illegal in New Zealdand). The Maritime Union of New Zealand and the Maritime Union of Australia, both started talking about refusing to work on Progressive cargo, that would have broken the company. Just the possibility made us feel so much stronger. Unions were starting to pledge serious funds. The richer workers, from well organised workplaces, agreed to pay $20 a week for the duration (that's how I began to think and talk, everything was for the duration). These were work places with thousands of workers, so it would be $20,000-$40,000 a week.

It was also becoming clearer and clearer that the company was breaking the law and the union was going to be able to sue.****** There was even the possibility that the whole lock out was illegal. By the third week I really did believe we were going to win, with the legal options and the industrial options, we were strong and the company wasn't going to break us. It was just a question of how long, because those workers were hurting. Although we'd raised a lot, it doesn't go very far when it was split 600 ways.

These cases were due to go to court Tuesday 19 September, they didn't - because the company blinked. They agreed to go back into bargaining and post-pone the court date. Then, for the first time, the company actually agreed to negotiate. It took all day and all night (negotiations finished sometime between 3.30am and 4.30am the next morning), but they pieced together a deal. It was a three year deal for three seperate collective agreement, but the rates were aligned so by the end of two years the workers would have pay parity.

Two days later, on the 21st of September the workers voted to ratify this deal, and the day after that the lock-out formally ended and the workers returned to work.

To fight and win, is the most amazing experience. The union didn't choose the fight, the company did, which made it even sweeter that we won. I say we, but I don't work in the distribution centre, and while this was a victory for everyone, it's the workers who did the hard work.

My favourite story from the strike came from the partner of a worker in Palmerston North. She had recently been made redundant, so they were in a particularly difficult position. Her 7 year old daughter went to visit her grandmother (who worked in a nearby factory) during the grandmother's afternoon smoko. The little girl was standing on the pavement asking, and her grandmother asked what she was doing. She replied "I'm on strike, I'll wave at them and they'll toot at me, because they agree."

So with the risk of sounding like a placard - dare to struggle, dare to win:

*They had legal advice that said something along the lines of in order to keep this legal avoid talking about payment until after the lock-out is ended.

**In New Zealand you can't close a shop, so people join the union on an individual basis not a worksite basis.

***As one official put it "Democracy has broken out in the union movement."

****Yes this is a Buffy reference, sorry about that.

******Yes I have a problem with the company breaking the law and don't have a problem with the union breaking the law. It's not because I'm a hypocrite, it's because I've picked a side - deal with it.

For those who doubted it was a systemic problem

Another former police officer is currently standing trial for historical rape charges. In 1988 he handcuffed a woman who was giving him a lift home, took her into the police station and raped her multiple times.

I know there are many more women who have been raped by police officers. I know because they've told me. By e-mail, in comment threads, and in person. I only wish women who had been raped by police officers could count on people believing them.

I know that only the tiniest fraction of the women who were raped by police officers will ever get to tell their story. An even smaller fraction will have it believed. That women are prepared to come forward, after the way Louise Nicholas was treated, is an amazing testament for their courage, and their fight for justice.

There is one note in all this that gives me hope. It is the defence, not the prosecution, who is reminding the jury to put the trial of Bob Schollum, Brad Shipton, and Clint Rickards out of their mind. Those men were found of not guilty of the charges. The defence lawyer wants exactly the same result as their lawyers achieved, but he thinks that he will only achieve that if they

People believe that Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton are guilty; they believe Louise Nicholas. Defence lawyers think that the trial that became 'the Louise Nicholas' trial will make juries more likely to believe women and convict rapists.

That's a huge step forward.

Also published on Alas

Review: In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

I was really excited about reading Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoirs of a Revolution. My sister had brought it back from America (I don't envy much about living in America, but I would love your bookstores, particularly their low prices). I was really disappointed; think I got to about page 20, before I had a biro in my hands at all times to make furious scribbles in the margin. You could call it a stylistic problem: I could not handle the way she described the women she was working with:

"Kathie [Sarachild] had close-cropped, honey-colored hair and a voice that was small and tenacious."

"Carol Hanisch, an Iowa farmer's daughter, red-haired and freckled.."

"Like her namesake in Little Women, Jo [Freeman] was a stubborn, coltish, no-nonsense doer."

"At five feet one inch tall, she gazed at all comers through owlish glasses, tossing the mane of dark hair that cascaded below her shoulders."

The last one refers to Shulamith Firestone. This is only the beginning other women are described in just the same way: bubbly, titian hair, frizzy hair, big soulful eyes, hair that falls below her shoulders, open-faced and bespectacled. She describes Bernadine Dohrn as a siren.*

Partly it's the descriptions themselves, which read exactly like the sort of descriptions that journalists never give men - trying to make a point about who a woman is by the way she loosk. But partly the focus on physical experience is part of a wider lack of respect she seems to have for other women in the movement. She casually mentions serious personal problems prominent women were going through in a way that is almost gossipy.

Other things that frustrated me when I read the book, bother me less now. As I wrote in my review of Against Our Will, I now understand Susan Brownmiller's aversion to anything that resembles left-wing economic analysis. But it certainly doesn't make the book any stronger:

The SWP's passion for marches and rallies added another dimension to the abortion struggle. Worried that legalized abortion might be employed a form of population control by "the state", the activists carefully appended "No Forced Sterilization" to every WONAAC poster and flyer. At first WONAAC championed the provocative slogal "Free Abortion on Demand." Later it excised the "free" part as ultra-left and unrealistic. WONAAC's effectiveness was seriously undercut by its ties to the SWP.

Red-baiting is not adequate political analysis.

Those are the small issues I had with it. The big issues are larger:

I watched the battered women's movement from a sisterly distance, and was deeply impressed even as I developed philosophic differences with some of its tenets. The larger women's movement had begun to lump rape and battery under the general rubric of 'violence against women,' and I thougth that was sloppy thinking. Rape was a one-time event, whether it happened in the context of a date or was committed by a stranger or strangers, unknown to the victim. Battery was systemic violence within an intimate, ongoing emotionally complex relationship. Any woman could become a victim of rape, but a pattern of physical abuse in a long-standing relationship begged for further interpretation.

I find it staggering that the person who literally wrote the book on rape, would categorically state that rape was a one time thing. I don't know if she's missed the fact that women get raped in abusive relationship many more times than just once. Or she blames women who are raped in the same way she blames women who are in abusive relationships, but either way I'd expect better.

The fundamental problem I have isn't that I disagree with her. I'm probably going to disagree with any feminist about some issues. It's that she's not clear what sort of history she's attempting to write.

She calls it a memoir, but she doesn't attempt to tell her own story. She starts as the feminist movement began, with very little background. You get very little idea of what was going on in her life, and how she became the person she was. She doesn't owe us that, she has no obligation to write her story. But the book becomes a personal tale when she wants it to. Early on in the book she appears to summarise inter-feminist struggles in two different ways, in one part other feminists with power were trying to shut her out, in another part she was unfairly cut down because people were jealous of her power. She appears to be presenting very similar situation differently depending on what position she was in.

I understand that she would feel that way (I've felt that way), but that's not a historical analysis. That's not the story of what happened in the women's liberation movement.

Part of my frustration was about the fact that I'm a big historical geek. Right at the beginning Susan Brownmiller credits "SNCC Position Paper (Women in the Movement)" to Mary King and Casey Hayden, but this just isn't true. The paper was written by larger group of women in SNCC. It's not a huge mistake, but it shows how easy it is for hearsay to creep in. Because she doesn't footnote most of her statements we don't know whether her accounts come from the fact that she was there, the fact that she's talked to people who were there, the fact that she's talked to people who talked to people who were there or the fact that she's read stuff about what happened. It's incredibly frustrating to read all sorts of interesting bits of information and not know where it comes from, and no way of judging their reliability.

But even if you're not a geek, even if you're not filing pieces of information away in your mind, the difference between memoir and history is important.

I believe memoirs - people telling their own stories, how they experienced the world, what it was like for them - are incredibly important. But if you try to tell your story under cover of a general story, then you're going to end up being dishonest. You need to be clear what's your experience and what's other people's.

If you want a good memoir of the feminist movement I can't recommend Roxanne Dunbar Oritz's Outlaw Woman enough, Ruth Rosen's The World Split Open is a good history.

*I find this particularly frustrating because I've read many accounts of the history of SDS which cast Bernadine Dohrn as an Eve character - sexually tempting the New Left to a fall - to violence and the underground. There is no excuse for women to go aorund with the same offensive idea.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


When I was at University a young Act support called Nick Archer wrote a letter to Salient (the student newspaper). I don't remember what the context was, I don't remember what he was responding to. But I remember the letter itself very clearly. Because Nick Archer compared women to pieces of meat. He said that men were lions trying to get women, and if women wore too few clothes then they were responsible for men's response.

I once ran into Nick Archer walking down a long and isolated road wearing a tight singlet - which was a very stressful experience.

I introduce this to point out that misogynists obviously have quite a limited imagination. Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, the Australian Mufti whose statements about rape, appears to have developed Nick Archer's thesis a bit more thoroughly before . But they cover exactly the same ground. Because the Sheik has claimed he has been misrepresented I have provided the section in full. While it is possible that he was mistranslated, his reference to being sentanced to jail appears to make it clear that he is referring to non-consensual sex. This translation is from the The Australian:

But in the event of adultery, the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time with women. Why? Because the woman possesses the weapon of seduction. She is the one who takes her clothes off, cuts them short, acts flirtatious, puts on make-up and powder, and goes on the streets dallying. She is the one wearing a short dress, lifting it up, lowering it down, then a look, then a smile, then a word, then a greeting, then a chat, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay Jail, then comes a merciless judge who gives you 65years.

But the whole disaster, who started it? The Al-Rafihi scholar says in one of his literary works, he says: If I come across a crime of rape - kidnap and violation of honour - I would discipline the man and teach him a lesson in morals, and I would order the woman be arrested and jailed for life.

Why, Rafihi? He says, because if she hadn't left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn't have snatched it. If you take a kilo of meat, and you don't put it in the fridge, or in the pot, or in the kitchen, but you put in on a plate and placed it outside in the yard. Then you have a fight with the neighbour because his cats ate the meat. Then (inaudible). Right or not?

If one puts uncovered meat out in the street, or on the footpath, or in the garden, or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, then the cats come and eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem! If it was covered the cat wouldn't have. It would have circled around it and circled around it, then given up and gone.

If she was in her room, in her house, wearing her hijab, being chaste, the disasters wouldn't have happened. The woman possesses the weapon of seduction and temptation. That's why Satan says about the woman, "You are half a soldier. You are my messenger to achieve my needs. You are the last weapon I would use to smash the head of the finest of men. There are a few men that I use a lot of things with, but they never heed me. But you? Oh, you are my best weapon."

I only wish Nick Archer's comments had received the same level of outrage as this man's did. It's not particularly reassuring to know that men will defend women's right not to be treated as objects only when they can use women's rights to attack other men (hence missing the women not being objects target anyway).

Also posted on Alas

A Review of Against Our Will (first half)

I've been meaning to write a review of Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. But since she discusses the reaction to Agaisnt Our Will I decided I needed to read that before I could write my review.* Then, once I'd read her chapter about race, I realised that I needed to review Against our Will before I could review In Our Time, because some of my thoughts about Against Our Will were too long for a footnote.

If that isn't enough of a precursor I then lost my copy of Against Our Will, so I haven't finished it. But since I'm reviewing a 30 year old book, just to make some points so my review of another book makes slightly more sense, I don't think it'll matter if I'm only actually talking about half the book. So here goes...

My first reaction to Against Our Will is just how amazing it is that it exists. The women's liberation movement invented feminism as we know it. Rape, domestic violence, body image, even abortion - haven't always been defined as political issues. It is a testament to the amazing analysing, educating and organising of the women's liberation movement that we no longer see these things as individual problems.

So I have to start by giving credit to Susan Brownmiller for the work that she did. Also to point out that she didn't work alone. It was as women talked together about their experiences of rape that they realised that rape wasn't just an individual issue. Susan Brownmiller articulated that important understanding, but it was because of the work of many conciousness raising groups that she came to this conclusion in the first place (a debt she fully acknowledges).

The Red Menace
One of the most puzzling things to me about In Our Time was its weird semi-red-baiting. She dismissed any economic argument out of hand, and seemed to think that calling someone red was enough to discredit their point of view.

Having read Against Our Will Susan Brownmiller's position no longer puzzled me. This is an excerpt from a signed article in the Daily Worker:

Was it not a fact that she had been promised $5?
Was it not a fact that she accepted this offer?
Was it not a fact that she had dates in the past with one of the men?

This is completely reprehensible. To imply that if a woman is a prostitute she automatically consents to sex, or if she dates a man she is consenting to sex ever after - that is to condone, if not actively promote, men raping women.

The Communist Party of America did good and important work defending black men against a racist court system. But they didn't need to trash women to do so, they didn't need to reinforce rape myths to do so.

So I can understand Susan Brownmiller's anger at the Old Left - for not just repeating these lies, but believing them. I understand her anger at the New Left that proposed a 'rape-in' against congressmen's wives as political action; used women as a reward for politically right on men: "Girls Say Yes, To Guys Who Say No"; and embraced Eldridge Cleaver. I would say fury is the only appropriate response to these things. I do think that this fury blinded her to some ideas that were too important to be dismissed just because those who espoused them were misogynist assholes, but I understand why it did.

A Question of Race

The most controversial part of Against Our Will was always Susan Brownmiller’s discussion of race. In a way I feel it is foolish for me to comment on it. I’ve read a bit about American history, but I’m not American, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough – and that this is a difficult topic. But I’m feeling stupid today, so here goes.

This was the article of her book that I read first, the controversy – so I wanted to see what she’d said for herself, so I could better judge how she'd reported on the conflict.

For about the first half of the chapter, I thought she was making a lot of sense. She pointed out that white men were using white women to punish black men, and often the white women were merely pawns. The Scottsboro Boys, which is one of the most famous cases, is a good example of this. The rumour that they had been raped was not started by the two white women who were riding on the same train as the Scottsboro boys. The police arrested these women and told them that they'd be charged with prostitution unless they gave evidence.

I think it was an interesting point, and - like I've already said - I agreed with most of the points about how those organising the defence chose to frame these cases. She also has some really good figures about the frequency of inter-racial rape, and the actual reasons black men were lynched (it was more likely to be for owning property, than for accusations of inter-racial relationships).

But the chapter, and her argument, got completely unhinged near the end. It starts with Susan Brownmiller's discussion of the Wille McGee case - a black man who was executed because he was accused of raping a white woman. Towards the end of the appeals process Willie McGee's wife came forward and said that her husband had been having an affair with the white woman, and it was when he was caught that the white woman accused him of rape. It seems to really matter to Susan Brownmiller that the white woman is telling the truth and Willie McGee's wife (who was black) is lying. I think it's always dangerous history (and even more dangerous politics) for the facts of an individual case to matter that much. If you need everyone on your side (in whatever sense you have a side) to have always been worthy and pure, then you're not on particularly solid ground.

If Susan Brownmiller's argument depends on no white woman ever using the agency and power she did have maliciously, then her argument is invalid. That Susan Brownmiller needed to believe the white woman over the black woman, is a sign of her racism.

It doesn't get any better from there on in, and by the end of the chapter it seems that she's suggesting that the reason left-wing people criticise the prison system is because they don't take rape seriously, and don't care about women.**

The need to be specific

The racism in her book isn’t only in her chapter on race, although it comes across most strongly there. While she acknowledges that black men were killed because they were accused of raping white women, she doesn't seem to accept that this means that you have to have a different analysis of rape in the white south, than you would where these circumstances were not present. Over and over again she refuses to see see any other dynamic but a gendered one, and to look at colonial and slavery-era America solely through the point of view of gender.

The only exception, the only time she acknowledges that men don't always rape is the fact that the Viet Cong, and other guerilla armies, don't rape (because they can't, as their military strategy requires the support of the people around them). I guess her background meant that she believed that, when people told her. But she rushed over this point, having spent an entire chapter talking about why men always rape women in times of war.

As well as being hugely racist, I think this is just plain bad scholarship, and bad feminism. Her analysis that men always have raped women in exactly the same way, with exactly the same meaning, throughout recorded time - offers no hope, no subtlety and no possibility of change.

If I'm going to live in this world I have to believe that it doesn't have to be like this. I have to believe that men rape women because of specific historical circumstances, and that we can change these circumstances.

* No I hadn't read Against Our Will before now, I'm a bad feminist. I've also tried to read The Female Eunuch about half a dozen times, but it never seems to make any sense. But I'm not entirely convinced that's a problem with me.

** She was mostly talking about Jessica Mitford (and I'll happily admit that I'm biased when it comes to Jessica Mitford - because her books played a large part in me becoming a political activist) and her critique of prisons. While I'd admit that Jessica Mitford's letters indicate that she her political analysis of rape was only slightly more advanced than Stephen Erber's - I'm fairly sure that her criticism of prisons was based on a thorough understanding of the prison-industrial complex - and is the only reasonable position to take in the face of that knowledge.

Also posted on Alas.

Sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy

I haven’t had an opportunity to look at the government's benefit proposals in detail (I plan to do that tomorrow – it's even sadder when you know I’m on holiday), but I want to start by discussing the, much publicized, announcement that WINZ will focus more on getting people on the Sickness or Invalid's benefit into work. I don’t know the details; in his interview with Kathryn Ryan the Minister of Social Welfare was very vague on how much this would be voluntary, and how much it will be compulsory. His favourite phrase was 'nothing will be compulsory at the moment' (which strongly implies that it will be compulsory in the future). So rather than discussing the particulars, I want to talk more generally about disability, sickness, and employment.

The sickness benefit is available for people who are unable to work due to sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy. The invalids benefit is available for people who are permanently and severely restricted in their capacity for work because of a sickness, injury or disability (why the difference? I don't know. Although it's made even more pointed by the fact that the Invalids benefit is paid more. I'm lying I do know that it's a nasty sort of moralistic division between really deserving, and possibly shirking poor).

The 'services' currently provided by WINZ focus on teaching people how to look for a job and matching up people and jobs (I'm being very generous with my description here). By making such a big deal of offering these services to people on the sickness and invalid’s benefits (and later forcing people to use them) the government is saying that they think the main things people on the Invalid’s and Sickness benefits need to get into jobs is access to these services.

I say bullshit.* I'm going to explore the actual barriers that stop people who are sick, injured, disabled and pregant from getting a job.

The most obvious barrier is the sickness, injury, disability, or pregnancy. To get on the sickness or invalids benefit you have to have a doctor sign off saying that you are unable to work, so it's not just a barrier - it's a medically certified barrier.

There are all sorts of things that the government as a whole could do to ensure that people who are sick, injured, disabled or pregnant can participate fully in society. For example, many health conditions are exacerbated by living in low-quality housing that isn't properly heated (read most NZ houses). The government could do something about this, both by providing more, warmer, state houses, and by instituting better building standards.

What about stress? Many (most?) chornic healthy conditions are exacerbated by stress. Poverty is stressful (and anyone who is on these benefits is poor). Dealing with WINZ is stressful (I've known people suffer from serious health relapses due to the stress of trying to deal with WINZ). There are many thing that the government as a whole, and WINZ in particular could do to improve the health of many people who are sick, injured or disabled. Why aren't they starting there?

Lets move away from the sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy for a bit. After all to focus on those is still to imply that it's a problem with the person that they are not currently employed, and that's not what I believe. There is a huge amount of unreasonable prejudice against hiring people who are sick, disabled, or injured. Everyone I know who has fitted in those categories has had a much harder time finding a job than similarly qualified and capable people who don't. Why not start by working on the people with the prejudice, rather than ask people who are discriminated against to jump through more hoops?

That's only the start though, because it's not just the unreasonable prejudice that is the problem, it's the prejudice that is considered totally reasonable. For example, if someone had a chronic health condition that didn't stop them working a forty hour week most of the time, but that flared up a few times a year and the worker required a couple of weeks off a time, then it would be considered perfectly reasonable not to hire them. Or if someone had a full-time job and then developed a health condition which meant that they could only work three days a week, it'd be perfectly legal to fire them.

WINZ is obsessed with work as the be all and end all of people's contribution to society. But we only get to contribute to society on employer's times. Employers don't have to (and generally don't) take on workers whose health allows them to work some of the time.

This is ridiculous. Why do we let our economic system dictate our participation in society, rather than organise an economic system that allows everyone to participate? Almost everyone can do some useful and meaningful work, if they're allowed to do it on their terms. The fact that it doesn't work like that, that we aren't all able to contribute according to our ability is not the problem of individual people, who have sicknesses, injuries, or disabilities, which don't fit employer's wants.

* For the sake of clarity I also want to emphasise that these ‘services’ are generally not what unemployed people need to get jobs either. I think changing the Reserve Bank Act would do more to lower unemployment than all the 'work4u' seminars in the universe.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Free Speech

I first read about a protest against the Minutemen at Columbia on Foolish Owl's blog. For those who don't know the Minutemen are an American group, who specialise in vile anti-immigration racism and have taken it on themselves to police the Mexico-US border.* The Young Republicans at Columbia had invited . Anti-racist/immigrant rights groups got together and organised a protest outside. Some people also went inside and disrupted the speech (either by unfurling a banner, or shouting the speaker down - I wasn't there, and only have dial-up so I can't watch the video - it's irrelevant to my argument).

I absolutely support and applaud this sort of protest (I've done this sort of protest, just for the record). But what I wanted to address directly was the idea that by disrupting the event (however they did it) interupted this man's right to free speech. The Happy Feminist was reasonably vocal in her disapproval:

But no it wouldn't change my analysis. You protest outside, you write scathing editorials, and you publicize the fact that the College Republicans are basically inviting a hate group onto campus. But as a matter of both tactics and ethics, disrupting the actual speech isn't right.
And to be crystal clear, no, I would not agree with shouting down a pro-life speaking or anti-feminist speaker.

It's the same principle as the Jewish ACLU lawyer who defended the right of Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie. No matter how noxious and personal and awful he found what the Nazis were saying, he still defended their right to say it.
To me the principle of freedom of speech is to stop those with power limiting the speech of those without power (particularly stopping the state limit people's freedom of speech, but I think the role of companies in limiting people's speech also comes under the same analysis). The idea that respecting freedom of speech means listening in silence while someone says something you find offensive seems ridiculous to me. All freedom of speech guarantees is the ability to speak - it doesn't mean that anyone has to listen to, or respect, what you're saying.

Shouting down a speaker isn't interfering with free speech; it is free speech.

What I find just plain weird, is that this argument is generally only applied to people who are speaking in formal settings. On Saturday the neo-nazis held their annual rally and there was a reasonably large counter protest which stopped them meeting where they wanted to meet, and shouted them down (more on that in a second). Very few people jump up and down and says a counter-demonstration is interupting the nazis freedom of speech. But when someone is an invited speaker - when they have backing by some institution, some power base then somehow they have more of a right to free speech than they do on a speech corner. That seems like the wrong way round to me. Those who are in positions of power, generally need less, not more protection against their rights being infringed.

So I have absolutely no ethical qualms in holding banners, chanting, or communicating in any way, while someone I disagree with is speaking. I exercise my freedom of speech by not being silent.

That doesn't mean I think that shouting at people is always the best tactic. The counter-demonstration againstthe neo-nazis is a time where I thought the tactics were wrong. There aren't very many neo-nazis in New Zealand, but they tend to be exactly sort of violent thugs you'd expect (two years back someone vandalised the graves of jewish people, and they attack people as well as graves).

To me, the point of protesting against neo-nazis is to make it really clear that white supremacy is not welcome. I see this message as not just for the nazis themselves, but also for everyone who walks by. But there's never any purpose to the anti-fascist demonstration except to piss the nazis off. I strongly susepct being protested against makes the nazis feel cool and important, so the counter-protest ends up being counterproductive.

I do think that we need to organise to ensure that fascists don't get a hold. But we don't do that by shouting at them. Political racism has appeal for working-class people who believe that they should be better off than they are. By saying "it's the jews/immigrants/Maori who are to blame for your situation" various groups (including mainstream political parties obviously) use racism to organise and gain support. The only response to those lies is to present what we see as the truth - to show that it is capitalism that is to blame for people's economic problems, and that it can be fought.

I didn't attend Saturday's anti-fascist demonstration. I'm sick of them, sick of the macho atmosphere, and sick of activists who seem to get their kicks by playing cops and robbers with fascist groups, as if it's the most important work in the world. There's a real macho culture to these sorts of demos, that makes me very uncomfortable.

I'm really glad I didn't go, as there seems to have been a distinct lack of political analysis at the counter-protest. "More hair than brains" may be an amusing chant towards skinheads - but actually our problem isn't with their hair cut, or their intellect. Likewise a whole crowd chant of 'Ugly, Ugly, Ugly' seems to miss the point.

But most disturbing to me was that some supposedly anti-fascist protesters shoutted "cocksuckers" and "faggots" to the nazis. Now I don't want to tarnish the entire demonstration with the misogynist homophobic actions of a few. I have a lot of friends who were at the demonstration, and I know that they would neither shout that, or stand silent while someone else chanted it. But I think it shows that my fears about a macho atmosphere are not unreasonable.

* Just for a short break and disturbing story. My sister once met someone who worked for the US border patrol at a party. When asked what he did he flipped out his badge (which he'd carried with him to Wellington, presumably to impress the girls) and said "I shoot Mexicans". Just a reminder that the Minutemen are only one of the violent racist groups on the Mexican-US border.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Feminist? Feminine?

Easily the best post I've read this month is Winter's How do I look? Thoughts on feminism and white middle-class femininity. I was really pleased to see that both Hugo and Rachel used the post as . They both focused on Winter's starting point:

My experience with feminine beauty practices has been oppressive. You can read about it here if you’re interested, but now I realise that when I wrote about my experiences, I should have paid a lot more attention to the fact that my own attitudes to feminine practices are deeply class-based. I have not been talking about “femininity,” I have been talking about the specifically white middle-class femininity that affects my life, and which often seems to be taken for granted as a universal experience for all women when white middle-class women speak on the subject. Hence the accusations of class privilege: white middle-class people are all too used to getting to speak for everyone.
I agree with this entirely. I'm not going to attempt to parse the discussion about the relationship between feminity and feminism, but there was an assumption that feminity had a set meaning, and covered a reasonably stable set of behaviours. As Winter points out this just isn't true. The gendered behaviour expected of a woman depends on the time and place, culture and class that that woman lives in. Her ability not to conform to those expectations often also depends on her culture and class.

That's not to say that middle-class white women shouldn't analyse the experiences they have of being middle-class white women. The problem is not that these discussions happen, but that they become a stand in for all women.

Winter went on to make an even more interesting point. Appearance and feminity is generally something that is left up to women to police (certainly among middle-class white women, my understanding is it true for a wider group of people, feel free to jump in if you have a different experience). In particular within white middle-class women part of conforming to standard ideas of feminity is not looking like you're trying.

Therefore, feminist discussions about appearance and supposedly feminine behaviours can fit right in a white-middle class discourse about women's bodies. Feminist critiques of shaving/waxing/make-up and so on, all fit into the idea that women shouldn't appear, and women critiqueing other women's appearance is how the whole system is maintained in the first place.

I think that analysis explains why it's very difficult to discuss these issues in a way that doesn't come across as policing policing. It also explains why discussion gets so fraught so quickly, as most women have good reason to get defensive when they feel other women are policing their appearance and behaviour. It's not just on-line either. I've been part of in person discussions that have gone badly wrong, and no-one really knew why.

But go and read Winter's whole post - I think her laying it out there like that was an awesome starting point.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Sucking beyond the telling of it

The British Labour Party have been in power since 1997. The main advantage of this appears to be that the Conservatives no longer seem that scary. The Tories have taken to attacking the British Labour Party from the left or at least the centre (there's really not that much room on the right). Tony Blair and co. have certainly done their best to ensure that even people who want a mildly social democratic government have realised that the British Labour Party are not going to deliver.

So they've responded to the fact that everyone hates them with attacks on brown people. In particular Jack Straw had the following to say in his local paper about women who wear veils over their faces:*

All this was about a year ago. It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.

In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds – the entirely English accent, the couples’ education (wholly in the UK) – and the fact of the veil.

Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see.

So I decided that I wouldn’t just sit there the next time a lady turned up to see me in a full veil, and I haven’t.


I thought it may be hard going when I made my request for face-to-face interviews in these circumstances.

However, I can’t recall a single occasion when a lady has refused to lift her veil; most seem relieved I have asked.


Would she, however, think hard about what I said – in particular about my concern that wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult.

It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference
I mention not just to point out again the vile racism that supposedly left-wing polticians will stoop to. But because I think it demonstrates really well the point Rachel was making in her post Bikinis and Burkas - that demands that women cover themselves, and demands that women uncover themselves, are both ways men claim ownership over women's bodies (she also had some excellent points about how the discourse around these issues enable imperialism to hide itself and you should go read her whole post).

Jack Straw feels entitled to women's faces. he believes that if a woman comes to his office asking for help, he is a better judge than her about what she should wear, and that he is well within his rights to demand that she dress in the way he wishes to.**

* To be clear while Jack Straw is obviously a troglogdyte he isn't quite so stunningly ignorant as our own Bob Clarkson - he does appear to know the difference between a head scarf and facial veil.

** Can I just randomly mention that I hate George Galloway? Because I do. It's not just that he's part of the current push in Britain to restrict abortion rights. It's that his comment on these eventscontroversy could be summarised as:
George Galloway, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, called on Mr Straw to resign, saying he was effectively asking women "to wear less".
Lets be clear you misogynist moron - the problem isn't with asking women to wear more less, it's men demanding that women dress for them in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The tale of another protest

Different people observe the changing seasons in different ways. For gardeners spring means planting things, for sports fans it means the beginning of the cricket season,* for students spring means avoiding studying for exams, and for Wellington activists spring is celebrated by protesting the conference of the New Zealand Defence Industry Association.

Every year the New Zealand Defence Industry Association holds a forum. To quote from their website:

NZDIA organises the New Zealand Defence Seminars, generally held annually in October/November. This Seminar brings together Australian and New Zealand commercial companies, Asian, Australian and New Zealand Defence purchasing interests together with high level New Zealand Ministerial involvement.
Isn't nice that they manage to leave off references to the purpose of the 'defence' industry is to kill people, and the current wars.

Now obviously on a global scale New Zealand arms trade is insignificant. One of the members of the NZDIA makes grenates in his garage. But that doesn't make them any less repsonsible for the products they produce. Rakon (while not part of NZDIA), is the most used example of a New Zealand company that makes products to kill people. Their GPS crystals are used in US made Smart bombs, some of which were dropped on Palestine and Lebanon this year (more here.

For the last few years the Defence industry has been held at Te Papa (New Zealand's national museum. This has angered some people even more - Te Papa's branding is 'Our Place.** The Defence Industry conference has become one of the focal points of peace organisation, the other being the war against Iraq. Organising against the New Zealand defence industry brings the links between capitalism and war home.

I've been protesting the defence industry conference since 2001. I have to admit that I haven't had a huge amount of enthusiasm for the protests for the last few years. You organise small protests at things year after year, and in the end you just don't have the energy to do it again.

So I can say that yesterday's protest was truly fantastic without blowing my own trumpet (all I did was turn up).

The police were really worried about protesters and had put up blockades all around Te Papa. This made it really easy for protesters outside each entrance to stop those going to the conference getting in or out. There were over 200 people there for most of the afternoon (people came and went), and every entrance to Te Papa was blockaded

In order for this to work the police closed the museum for the afternoon. Which shows where the priorities are, it's more important that the weapons conference goes ahead than that people can actually use the museum.

What was really amazing about the protests was that no-one got arrested. The trick at a protest is to know your strength. The vast majority of people who have been arrested on protests I've been at have got off - they hadn't done anything wrong. But police arrest people on protests because they can - if the crowd is big enough they don't arrest anyone because it'll just make more trouble. It's often really hard to judge your strength - I'm always very cautious. But this time people knew exactly when to back down - when we were weakening. It was an incredibly well organised and effective action.

*Or not - I could be wrong about either of these facts, since I know slightly more about sports than I do about gardening.

** Personally I don't think it matters that much where it's held and I occasionally find the arguments against it being held at Te Papa a little bit precious. It's not like the museum doesn't have problems of its own: Women? Kind of absent. Work and the people who do it? Not so much. Struggle over these things? Five minutes in one film.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A tale of one protest

This was going to be a tale of two protests - since I went on two protests today. But two protests in one day is tiring, so I only have time to write about one of them, more tomorrow.

Clean Start for Cleaners

Today is international anti-poverty day (a concept I find a little weird - today we'll have international anti-poverty day - tomorrow we'll go back to ignoring international poverty). The Clean Start for Cleaners campaign organised rallies in Australia and New Zealand today, which is appropriate because to be a cleaner is to live in poverty.

All around the world Cleaners are mostly immigrant and indigenous women. Despite the fact that cleaning needs to be done everywhere, everday and it is completely devalued. The union rate for commercial cleaners is just 70 cents an hour above minimum wage. Cleaners work two or three jobs to get their hours up and have no security of employment. Subcontracting makes it so hard for cleaners to fight for better wages and conditions, because the employer can always hire someone else.

All these points were made at the rally, of course. Plus some interesting facts I didn't know (90,000 workers got a pay increase when the minimum wage went up -60,000 of them were women - low-wages, poverty and capitalism are all feminist issues). The most powerful speakers were cleaners themselves. There is no service recognition for cleaners, so two women who had cleaned for forty years were still only getting $10.95 an hour. Another woman spoke angrily about always being blamed for being a burden on the tax-payer because she got government assistance - even though she worked over 40 hours a week - she is blamed rather than the employer who won't pay a living wage.

One of the women also talked about being involved in previous cleaning struggles, and strikes. It must be so hard to have struggled and won, but seen the victory slowly eroded over the last twenty years. Particularly as you'd know that if anything was going to get better you need to fight that fight again.

Now I have some problems with the Clean Start campaign - most notably that no-one really understands what its principles are (and last I heard these principles haven't actually been translated into the first language of many of the cleaners). But I was really glad to be at this rally, in support of the cleaners.

(Part of my good feeling towards this protest is because I left before Ruth Dyson - (minister of labour) spoke. I needed to get to the other protest, and if you've heard Ruth Dyson say once that she'd like to change things, but she can't - you've heard it once too many times).

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Tomorrow I will have been writing at this blog for a year. I think the hardest thing has been the search for something to write about - it means you have to listen. I used to kind of shut it all out, and I think it's been a bad year to be listening, particularly as a New Zealand feminist blogger (maybe any year is a bad year). I wrote this, when I was waiting for a verdict when Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton were standing trial for raping Louise Nicholas: police rape trial:

The pattern last two days for me has been dominated by making sure I was listening to the radio every hour, on the hour. National radio marks the hour with their six pips, and I listen to the news, I'm waiting for a verdict. I'm not alone; there are other women listening as intently as me. During a meeting today I popped into someone else's office to listen to the one o'clock news - another woman came in "is there a verdict?"

We're reading entrails. I got a text message saying "Jury came out to ask judge as question - good sign i reckon'. I agree and the question they asked was a good one. Each hour the jury's deliberations stretch on (they've spent 8 hours yesterday, and 12 hours today) I wonder if it's a good sign. "At least someone believes Louise Nicholas" I say, "I hope they stay staunch" whoever I happen to be talking to at the moment replies.

We listen and wait and worry because we believe Louise Nicholas.
I'd been keeping half an ear on the trial of a New Plymouth doctor charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on many different women. I hadn't been listening to the news every hour on the hour, but I had been waiting since the jury went out on Tuesday. I'd been anticipating that he'd be acquitted. He wasn't; he was found guilty on most of the charges. Presumably there were so many complainants that the weight of their evidence gave the jury conviction beyond reasonable doubt.*

It's not that I particularly want him to go to jail. I'm a big Jessica Mitford fan - Cruel and Usual Punishment will turn anyone off jail. The only person I want to go to jail is Clint Rickards. I don't think jail helps the situation, indeed the believe the only protection we have is speaking the name of rapists loud and clear.

What I want for women who are raped, is that people say to them 'we believe you and what happened to you was not ok'. In our society the only way to do that is to get a guilty verdict. While I'm sure those not guilty verdicts are hard for the jurors to come to, while I know that some people on those juries believed Louise Nicholas, and the other women, whose names are suppressed. I know that others didn't believe them. I want to live in a where everyone agrees that getting drunk isn't consent and sharing a bed isn't consent, and you don't automatically consent to boyfriends, police officers, and doctors.

Every conviction is a relief - not just for me but all the women I know and love, and the many more I don't know. It's a little bit of hope that our bodies belong to us.

*It's lucky for certain police officers that any trials that they stand seem to be treated as individual incidents, and the fact that there was a pattern of behaviour is kept from the jury.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Feltex workers at Riccarton have gone on a Wildcat Strike and are occupying the factory. They were told yesterday that their factory was going to close and they were all going to be made redundant (There are good interviews on checkpoint (audio link).

Feltex was put into receivership a few weeks ago and bought out of receivership on October 3 by Godfrey Hirst. The union is currently in negotiations with Godfrey Hirst about the redundancy payments, and new wages and conditions. Godfrey Hirst is currently only offering the Riccarton workers a maximum of $15,000. Under the old collective agreement with Feltex some workers were entitled to more than $50,000 redundancy. Redundancy isn't something generous employers give out - it's an entitlement. In previous collective agreement negotiations workers would have settled for lower wage increases in order to get the safety and insurance that redundancy payments give. That entitlement has been taken from them. Godfrey Hirst has bought Feltex very cheaply - and are not prepared to pay workers what they were entitled to.

The workers do have some negotiating power here - the carpet that they're not making is important orders that Feltex needs to fill. It's fantastic that the workers are fighting to get what they're entitled to. If you leave a message of support here I'll try and make sure they get it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm not even going to touch the 'oh my god she's had sex' subtext

As you probably already know Keisha Castle Hughes is pregnant and she has just turned 16. Span and Cactus Kate (of all people), have already covered some of the ways the coverage of these facts has been extremely offensive. But I want to look at this discourse in a little more detail, because it is pissing me off. From the NZ Herald:

National MP Paula Bennett, a mother at 17, said whichever way you looked at the situation, 16 was far too young to have a baby.

She believed there was no way a 16-year-old had the maturity to cope with the demands of raising a baby.
and from The Dominion Post
Family Planning executive director Jackie Edmond said New Zealand had the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy in the world. She hoped other teens would not want to "copy" the actress.
This level of tsk-tsking has a very clear subtext about young Maori girls who get pregnant. It's part of a concerted strategy to blame poor people for being poor.

Look I'm a middle-class white girl, I find the idea of having a baby before I'm economically and socially secure terrifying, but I get to think that one day I will be economically and socially secure. Not everyone grows up with those set of assumptions about their life, and if you don't have those assumptions your feelings about pregnancy and motherhoood are going to be qutie different.

But there's actually a bigger issue here. Anika Moa has a song on her new album about the abortion she had when her music career was taking off, that she now regrets. She was told from all sides that if she continued the pregnancy she wouldn't be able to have a music career - that she had to choose.

That's why I hate the rhetoric of 'choice'. Women shouldn't have to choose between being a musician and a mother. Obviously in the months immediately after you give birth you do have physical restrictions on what you are going to do (longer the longer you breast feed). But so? Why does that mean that you can't make music - and if you make music people want to listen to, why can't they get to listen to it?

The answer is, of course, 'capitalism'. I get that - most women do have to make that choice. But the way most people talk about it you'd think these choices forced on us by something people have no control over, rather than our economic system. You'd think that there was some law laid down that once you had a child you couldn't do anything else, or if you did it would be 100 times harder. The reason that having a child at 16 is so very hard is that having a child is seen as an individualised project. Parenting gets no economic resouces and no support. It's hard enough to do with a reasonable amount of money - if you don't have a reasonable amount of money being able to do anything but parent when you have a child is really difficult.

We could organise our world so that parenting wasn't just supported, but treated as the necessary work that it is. If we did that, if parents didn't have to work huge amounts of outside hours (or live on the DPB, and all the poverty that that implies), then parenting wouldn't be the end or your life. Women who were mothers, whether at 16 or 40, could do other things as well, parenting wouldn't be seen as the end of your life, and your chance to develop.*

Maybe if we lived in a non-capitalist world that valued parenting women would have children young - when they had lots of energy. Maybe women would have them late, because they wanted to grow up first. Maybe women would make a wide variety decisions based from what they want from life.

But until we build that new world I wish people would just stop judging young women.

Note for commenters: This is not the place for a discussion about Keisha Castle-Hughes or her pregnancy - please keep the discussion general rather than specific, or on the discourse rather than the event.

Also posted on Alas.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What good are rights if you can't use them?

Jill at wrote a good post about abortion called Beyond Legality. She was responding to a fascinating Alternet article, from a hotline which tries to help women get access to abortion:

"Could you ask your friends for $40? If they say 'no,' maybe ask for 20 or even 10?" I hear her ask in her calm voice. Later she tells me that this woman has been evicted from her house for lack of rent, and is crashing with her three children at a friend's. To another caller, I hear her say, "Well, do you have anything you might pawn? Some jewelry? A TV set?" And to another, "Is it possible you could postpone your car payment until after the abortion?"

Laura's case management is strikingly labor intensive. She averages about 15 phone calls per case -- with the client herself, with the various abortion funds, with the clinic that is the potential site of the abortion -- whether in the end the woman successfully obtains sufficient funds for an abortion or not.
Jill puts together a really cogent argument for everything which is wrong with reproductive rights in the united states, and begins:
With all the focus on simply keeping abortion legal, we often miss the fact that access to abortion remains highly limited and even impossible for some women.
I have to confess that I don't understand abortion politics in the united states. I don't understand why access is something that you need to be reminded it about. Access means whether or not women can get abortions - I think that's actually the only way to evaluate abortion policy.

Legally abortion is treated as a crime in New Zealand. It is covered under the crimes act and considered a crime except under circumstances:
(1)For the purposes of sections 183 and 186 of this Act, any act specified in either of those sections is done unlawfully unless, in the case of a pregnancy of not more than 20 weeks' gestation, the person doing the act believes—
(a)That the continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger (not being danger normally attendant upon childbirth) to the life, or to the physical or mental health, of the woman or girl . . .; or
(aa)That there is a substantial risk that the child, if born, would be so physically or mentally abnormal as to be seriously handicapped; or
(b)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse between—
(i)A parent and child; or
(ii)A brother and sister, whether of the whole blood or of the half blood; or (iii)A grandparent and grandchild; or
(c)That the pregnancy is the result of sexual intercourse that constitutes an offence against section 131(1) of this Act [sexual contact with a dependent family member]; or
(d)That the woman or girl is severely subnormal within the meaning of section 138(2) of this Act.
In order to have a legal abortion in this country you have to have two specially licensed doctors verify that you meet those conditions. I don't have a right to an abortion in this country. But I'd rather have an unwanted pregnancy here than anywhere in the United States.

If I got a positive pregnancy test I'd go to the doctor (that'd be free because I'm pregnant), then I'd go to the local hospital for two seperate appointments (they'd both be free). At these appointments the required number of doctors would sign up that continuing the pregnancy would damage my mental health and we'd be away (98% of abortion in NZ are done under the mental health provisions). It may not be what it used to be, but we do have a socialised health system and New Zealand - and that does far more for abortion access than any statement of rights.

Now I am lucky, I live in a large city, other areas of New Zealand aren't so well served (this post gives all the details). But New Zealand women who need to travel to get abortions, and can't afford to, should be able to get money from their district health board or work and income (our welfare service). It's not ideal, but it's far better than having someone at the end of a phone line asking you what you could pawn.

In New Zealand we lost the rights battle so concentrated on winning access (which we did), it seems to me that it worked the other way round - and this has hurt reproductive rights in really serious ways.

In the United States we lost on access as soon as the Hyde Amendment was passed. It became clear that the only women who had a right to choose were women who could afford it. Even if Roe vs. Wade were repealed it would be a difference in scale, not a difference in kind - rich women would be able to make it to New York. Maybe publicly funded abortion for all women aren't winnable in the US now. But maybe they would have been if that had been what abortion rights groups concentrated on since 1973. Maybe access would be more secure too, because all women would feel like they had something to fight to protect, not just the ones with money.

Also posted on Alas

If you're not from NZ this probably won't make much sense

This is an interesting article, and set of comments about a Tuhoe occupation.

But that's not what I'm going to blog about. One of the comments was:

Kia Ora

How can we send koha to tautoko this important kaupapa?
So the straw poll for the comments is: Am I laughing with them, or laughing at them?

This reads like someone using their entire Maori vocab in one sentance, and feeling very proud of themselves for doing so. But this is kind of the ur-example of it - to the extent that you'd think someone would have had to work really hard to create it. 'koha', 'tautoko' and 'kaupapa' are the Maori words most often used (and misused) by pakeha activists. The only reason to think that it's genuine is that if you were going to do a piss-take of Pakeha activists making themselves feel better by misusing Maori words you'd probably include 'mana'.

The wider question is whether Pakeha who don't speak Maori, but randomly insert Maori words into sentance, are always us participating in the colonial process by appropriating and misusing Maori Language or only when they do it in such an annoying way?

Note: I'm really not interested in right wing comments on this, just go away.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Why define rape?

Amp wrote a post on restorative justice, and the rape/consent spectrum. A lot of the comments responded to the idea of rape and consent being a spectrum (really well outlined by biting beever). In particularly arguing to what extent it was appropriate to call acts in the grey area 'rape'.

Now as I've said before I draw a strict line about consent. If a man is using any form of coercion* to make a woman sleep with him, then she cannot give meaningful consent, therefore if there's any coercion then the sex is rape.

But why do I try and define rape? I'm not a lawyer, politician, judge, or policy analyst - my ability to change the legal definition of rape is non-existance. There is no chance that my definition of rape will be accepted across society, without us having a radically different society. At the moment you'll probably get away with raping a woman you're a police officer, if she's 14 and drunk, if she invited you to spend the night in her bed and sometimes even if you video yourself. If we lived in a world where everyone would accept that those women had the right to refuse sex, and those cases were rape, then I think we'd actually be a long way to fighting rape culture and be living in a completely different society. Then we could talk about the ideal rape law and legal practice. But at the moment feminists don't have any control over the law, or legal definition of rape.

I use my definition of rape to analyse the world I live in. Most importantly, I use it to respond to what my female friends say have be done to them, and other women they know.

If a woman came to me and told me this:

She's 15 and she's out on a date, her boyfriend's parents are out of town and so he takes her to his place. She's excited at the opportunity to spend time with him so she tells her parents that she's staying at a girlfriend’s house. They arrive at the boyfriends house and the evening starts well, however, as the night progresses he becomes more and more pushy for sex. She feels trapped, she loves her boyfriend and she likes the way he touches her or kisses her but she's uncomfortable with him pushing her harder. She tells him as much and he grows sullen for a time, withdrawing all affection from her. Soon, however, he apologizes and they kiss again, she likes his kiss, she likes the way he smells, she likes the way he feels, she doesn't like the way his hand is trying to unzip her pants.

She says "No" again; he withdraws ALL affection, maybe even scooting to the end of the couch. He seems sullen and frustrated. He may even argue with her, "What's the big deal?" he asks, "Why are you being a tease?" he says accusatorily. She begins to doubt herself and feels guilt about her actions. She apologizes to him, he kisses her again and soon he's at her zipper once more. She flinches and sighs heavily, "I don't know if I'm ready" she says plaintively, "What?" he asks her; "Don't you love me?”

The girl bites her bottom lip, in a flash of anger and frustration she stands up to leave. He grabs her arm, "Oh baby, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you mad" he says. She looks at him again and quickly it goes through her mind that she doesn't really know where she'd go anyway. She lied to her parents; they think she's over at a friend’s house. She has no car, how is she going to get anywhere? She can't tell her parents and she doesn't want to try to call her girlfriend who may or may not have a car. She knows that she'll just make her boyfriend angry at her even if she DID do that. What if he kicks her out? She lied to be there and if she goes back home she'll get in trouble for lying. In a flash she decides to sit back down.

An hour later, after more approach and retreat and more pushing his hand away, she gives in.

She goes home the next day, troubled, depressed, and unable to concentrate. She has been raped and her emotions and reactions are the same as any other rape victim, but she has no recourse. She just had "bad judgment" and that's all. She must deny her feelings, push them underfoot and ignore them; society will not allow her to grieve because society sees nothing wrong with the boy’s rape of this young girl.

The boy moves on to pressure all of his girlfriends and this girl moves on to deal with her own rape, alone and without aid of any support. Her next boyfriend does the same thing, and soon she comes to understand that this is the way that relationships work.
I would say that I thought it was rape.

I know women who have had experiences very similar to that - I join them in calling those experiences rape. I define rape in the way I do to support the women they do, and reiterate the idea they have the right to say no to sex.

I also define rape in the way I do as a protection against men who have sex with women who don't want to have sex with them. I believe that one of the few forms of protection women have against rape is gossip - passing on information that we know about men who hurt women.

Women need to know who the men are who don't notice, or don't care, that the women they're sleeping with don't want to have sex with them. Calling those acts rape is both protection and resistance.

Why do you define rape in the way that you do?

* The important point about my definition of coercion is that it involves power - you can't coerce someone to do anything unless you have some form of power over them.

Also posted at Alas

Note about comments: I will not allow misogynist comments on this topic.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Grey's Anatomy vs. Scrubs*: Or the Limits of Representation

I've started watching Grey's Anatomy really regularly (they're repeating Season 1 in NZ), I'm not quite sure why - because I don't really like it that much. I don't think it's well-written, by half-way through season two I hated almost all the characters. But watch it I do, if nothing else it gets things to blog about it.

Shonda Rhimes (Creator of the show) said that she wanted Grey's Anatomy to look like America. Of the four authority figures we see most regularly, three are african-american, and one of those is female. This is a world where you can live in a trailer park and grow up to be surgeon. Rich or poor, male of female, Korean, African-American or white - anyone can work at Seattle Grace.

Compare this to Scrubs, the authority figures are all white men, and while you can be a doctor and female or a doctor and African-American, the women of colour are all nurses.

There was this episode of Scrubs where all the main characters were speaking to the camera about their lives. I don't remember the reason but Carla (the Latina Nurse) was telling a story about when she was a girl, and how she came to be in the job she was in. She was in a store and someone was injured in some way and a doctor came in and saved the patient. Her segment ended with her saying "That's when I realised I wanted to be a doctor."

The show didn't have to tell us why Carla didn't become a doctor, because it was really clear. What I loved about Scrubs is that it showed a society where racism, sexism, and the class system were all problems.

I don't believe that individuals can overcome racism, sexism and their position in the class system by themselves, even if you do manage to achieve a position of power despite belonging to and oppressed group then there are going to be scars.

When Izzie told a girl from her trailer park to give up her baby, because Izzie had given up her baby and become a doctor - the show is arguing that anyone can make it. In our society it's simply not true, and any show that pretends it is is lying to us.** Give me a show set in a world I can recognise.

*Or at least the first couple of seasons of Scrubs, I haven't watched the show in years, and suspect it has gone downhill.

** Grace Paley, short story writer activist, said of writing that all your characters had to have blood and money. Meaning that everyone comes from somewhere, and where that is shapes who you are, and that everyone is also shaped by the way they meet their material needs . Most TV shows ignore the second rule, and the worlds they create are that much poorer because of it (and, Firefly excepted, Joss Whedon was unfortunately no exception).

Also posted at Alas

Sunday, October 01, 2006


As I said in my last post, I have some experience with alternative primary schooling. Over the years I've thought about what was good about my school, and what I'd do differently, so I thought I'd write about it.

I'm not planning on starting up an alternative primary school anytime soon. So this post isn't going to address the political problems of alternative primary schools as private schools. This is more of a thought experiment, how I'd organise education in a different society, what I'd try and do if I was a teacher, or the sort of environment I'd work towards creating if I was on the board of trustees.

Our alternative primary school was small, there were usually less than thirty kids. The main division was between 'little kids' and 'big kids'. I don't really know how things were set up for the 'little kids', because I don't really remember (I didn't start at the alternative school till I was 7). But the big kids had a routine, of a sort. We'd start with either writing or maths, and do that till morning tea and then we'd do the one we hadn't done earlier. Writing was whatever we wanted to write about, sometimes we'd do creative writing, sometimes we'd do project work, once we designed and wrote about our dream houses (I seem to remember these mostly featuring zoom tubes, and drinking fountains of fizzy drinks). We did maths at our own pace working through text books and asking for help if we needed it. Somewhere in there there'd be silent reading, and we'd also get read to (the teacher cried so much when reading Good Night Mr Tom - which is totally understandable).

In the afternoons we'd do different things. On wednesday we went to the library and on thursday we went to the swimming pool. Apart from that parents had different interests so they'd lead us in group activities: singing, plays, art, history (we'd pretend to live in all these different times and learned how they did stuff), making ginger beer, making a magazine, sports, zoo school (the zoo people let us do things that they wouldn't let other schools do, and my brother got scratched by a tiger), two kids started a shop, sewing, dance, electronics, Maori, making stuff, astronomy (we stayed over at school one night to see Halley's comet), playing the recorder, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I've forgotten. I don't know how it was decided who got to do what when, but I think we got a reasonable amount of choice.

There was a lot of good things about the way we worked. Most importantly working at our own pace when it came to skills development, particularly maths, was really useful. It meant that people were neither bored or confused. I think in the ideal world you'd have a mix of group and individual work, so kids could join in the groups if they wanted. Being able to write about whatever we wanted was also really cool - it helped kids follow their interests, and I think it'd make writing easier.*

But if I was going to structure a school day I'd do it a little differently, or rather I'd add two things.

One would be a structured session every day where each kid could follow their own passion or interest. This could be anything they wanted: finding out how something worked, creating something, learning to do something. Some kids would spend the time each day kicking goals, others learning to knit, other playing the piano. Either at a set time, or at the natural finishing time of the child's last project the teachers and kid would get together and figure out what resources the kid would need to do what they watned to do.

I think this is important partly because I think it's really good for kids to have the opportunity and resouces to concentrate on things that they're good at and interested in. But more importantly it's because I think it's really important that every kids skills and interests are valued. By doing this the school is saying "this is something that you're good at, this is something we think is worth developing." A lot of kids don't necessarily get that reiforcement from adults, and I think it's really important.

But the other thing that I think is really important is a time set aside each day for each child to work on something that is hard for them. For me it would always have been some sort of co-ordination thing, writing legibly, riding a bike, catching a ball. For other kids it could be reading, or drawing or whatever. The important caveat is that teachers were really careful that the children were trying things that they could see some improvment with practice (ie there were no developmental, or disability barriers to the kid getting better at this activity). It would need to be treated really matter of factly, and non-judgementally, the point being to make the kid feel better about themselves because they're mastering this skill, not bad because they don't already know it.

The reason that I think this is so important was that I, like most kids, came out of primary school knowing there were things that I was good at, and things that I wasn't good at. Luckily for me the things that I was good at were the things that were valued at secondary school, and the things that I was bad at (still everything involving co-ordination) it was OK to be bad at, because I was smart. But nothing in my time at school taught me that I'd ever get better at those things that I was bad at: that I could learn to play knucklebones**, catch a ball, . So if things didn't come naturally, I wouldn't do it (to a ridiculous degree, for years I maintained I didn't understand faxes, despite finding computers really easy). I don't think this is a particularly rare way to approach the world. It wasn't till I learned to drive that I actually worked on a skill that was difficult. I'm not a great driver, but in a way I'm more proud of becoming a vaguely competent driver than of anything else I've done, because I kept on working at it.

I think kids should be given a safe and structured place to work on things they find hard. Not because every kid needs to be able catch a ball, or write legibly, or understand pythagorus, but because every kid needs to know that they can learn stuff, that they're not the person they are now forever, and that things that they can't do now, they will be able to do with practice.

I think, at the moment, children get nearly enough affirmation about their brilliance, and the skills they do have, or understanding that they can gain new skills - they don't have to be 'bad at math' forever.

The one other thing I'd do differently is not make the poor kids do self-assessments. We had to do them every six months or so and we all hated them with a firey passion. I once wrote in one of mine: "SpellingI think I'm getting better at speeling (on second throts maybe not)."

* Start at about age 8 I wrote a series of plays that challenged gender roles called "the lady-knight plays". They started with me killing my brother's character and were great fun- I'll tell you more about them one time.

** I did though - when I was babysitting in my late teens and early twenties, my knuckleboning skills are on par with an 9 year old, but they improved a lot when I figured out you look at the knucklebone you've thrown up, not your hand.