Let’s just relegate the curtsy once and for all

I never thought I would find myself writing a piece about curtsying, and these are certainly the first and last words I will have to say on the subject, but the storm in the Royal Doulton teacup that has apparently erupted over the Prime Minister’s decision to forego bending her knee to the Queen in favour of a courteous bow is, to be blunt, ludicrous.

Back when I was in primary school in Joh’s Queensland, we learnt to curtsy. As far as I can recall, this instruction occurred during folk dancing lessons when, upon taking one’s partner for a quick Pride of Erin around the steaming bitumen of the outdoor basketball courts, girls would curtsy (one knee behind the other, girls, and then dip without bending forwards) and boys would bow (left hand behind the back, lads, and bow from the waist to a 45 degree angle). It was all very chivalrous and, much like long division and reciting My Country, we figured on it being a quaint, anomalous skillset that we’d never use again.

As a woman in my own age group, Julia Gillard’s training in etiquette was likely much the same, growing up in conservative Adelaide.

Then we all moved on to high school, took up disco in place of the Pride of Erin, went to university, learnt about colonialism and the lasting legacy of the monarchy around the world and some of us became ardent republicans. That’s pretty much where the PM’s life and mine diverge. She did law and went into politics, I did education and teach politics.

Curtsying, like the smell of vegemite sandwiches fished from a plastic lunchbox on a hot day, became a distant memory.

Until last week when the Queen came to town.

This isn’t the first time the PM has met Her Majesty, although it is the first time on home turf. On hand to greet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, along with a conga line of other dignitaries, the PM chose to bow slightly as she shook hands.

Well. From the outraged response from sections of the hardline monarchist rump and the British press, who love any excuse to sink the boot into the colonials’ lack of respect and ignorance of protocol, you would think that Julia had mooned our Head of State as she descended the gangway of the Royal aircraft.

For the record, and just in case any reader of this blog is likely to be presented to Her Majesty during her current review of the colony, the official website of the British Monarchy states:

The Queen meets thousands of people each year in the UK and overseas. Before meeting Her Majesty, many people ask how they should behave. The simple answer is that there are no obligatory codes of behaviour – just courtesy.

However, many people wish to observe the traditional forms of greeting.

For men this is a neck bow (from the head only) whilst women do a small curtsy. Other people prefer simply to shake hands in the usual way.

See? No curtsy required. Now let’s just all go about our business and pretend this neverhappened, shall we?

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Taking it to the streets: Occupy or be damned

Occupy Wall Street began some months ago as a movement to reclaim for the public the symbol of capitalism. In the wake of two economic collapses in three years, questions are being asked about the efficacy and sustainability of the capitalist structure. Such questions are legitimate, particularly when the system itself is seen to have alienated the many for the economic gain of the few.

Within weeks the network had spread to other cities across the US, then to Europe and Australia. Occupy protestors operate by taking up residence in the public centre of the city, claiming it for “99%” of the population. The movement is characterised by it lack of leadership and the consequent anonymity of its participants.

When confronted by police in New York and told that they were impeding pedestrian traffic, protestors replied in unison, “We are pedestrian traffic!” That’s the point. A society that has vested its power in capital and multinationals has lost sight of its pedestrians: the people who make up the vast population and whose voices have been drowned out by a fawning corporate media and governments quick to condemn dissent as being undemocratic, unrepresentative, disorganised or dysfunctional.

Many denizens of social media, true to form, have been quick to criticise, with statements generally dismissive of the movement’s capacity to effect social change. “Everyone has their gripes”, ran one tweet, “but since when did public occupation solve anything?”

When hasn’t it?

If the suffragists of the late 19th Century hadn’t occupied the steps of the Houses of Parliament and various other public places in pursuit of the vote for women, we may never have seen universal suffrage. If the women’s movement of the 1960s had not occupied the streets and public bars* we may never have seen anti-discrimination or equal pay legislation.

If the civil rights protestors in the US in the 1950s had not had the courage to occupy cities of the southern states, universities, schools and public transportation, we may never have seen racial justice – or a black president of the USA. If Indigenous Australians had never occupied the heart of the nation’s capital and established the Tent Embassy, we may never have seen land rights or an apology to the Stolen Generations – we may never have seen an end to the stealing!

It is true that everyone has their gripes and individuals sitting around nursing their private grievances are not going to see any change. But when the grievance is a collective one there is no greater statement than collective occupation of public space.

The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp occupied the grounds outside the eponymous US military base in England for 19 years in protest at the UK government’s decision to allow the US to house nuclear missiles on the site. The missiles were removed by 1991 as a result of the UN’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but the Peace Camp remained until 2000 when the protestors gained approval for a peace memorial at the site.

It’s a mark of a very smug and overfed society that can sit back and criticise others for taking a cause to the streets. Occupy Sydney and Melbourne protests have both ended in police using force to clear the occupation. The women of Greenham Common faced this situation again and again, but always returned to the camp and resumed their peaceful demonstration by simply being there.

So before you complain about over-inflated executive salaries, multinational corporations taking profits out of the country, banks skimming off more and more fees, governments in bed with industry lobbies, media in bed with everyone, ask yourself whether you’re prepared to be there: to occupy.

Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted dictum that “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”, only describes part of the story of social change.

Yes, a small group of thoughtful people can change society – but sometimes it takes a large group of really angry ones.

*Prior to the early 1970s it was ‘illegal’ for women to enter the public bar of a hotel. They were confined to ‘Ladies’ Lounges’ or ‘Saloon Bars’. The ‘law’ was in fact not a law, just a convention, but rigidly held. In 1965 Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane. Similar protests followed and by the early 70s the informal ‘laws’ were changed.
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Pssst, wanna buy a drug that’ll make you live forever?

When asked what surprises him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama replied:

Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health, and then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present. As a result he doesn’t live in the present or the future and he lives as if he’s never going to die, then he dies having never really lived.

Today’s revelation that medical researchers predict that drugs will be available within decades to slow the ageing process and extend the human life expectancy to 150 and beyond is alarming on a few fronts.

Firstly, the headline that accompanied the report: New drugs offer hope of life to 150-plus. Hope? For what? 150 years of worrying about where the money for the drugs is going to come from? Hoping that you’ll be able to fit into 150 what you apparently can’t fit into 80, 90 or so? Hoping that the last 50 or so of that lifespan won’t be spent wondering what happened to the first 100 and finding yourself unable to function well enough to make up for the lost time?

Secondly, this is a construct entirely of the developed world and, albeit I imagine subliminally, aimed at increasing the social hegemony of the west. Will life-prolonging drugs be offered to people in developing nations so that they, too, will be able to fulfil their potential without the constraints of chronic disease and debilitation? Of course not. These drugs will be expensive and therefore available only to the wealthy. After all, in a world dominated by a virulent culture of consumerism and greed, only the wealthy have a right to live longer.

Thirdly, will humanity be served in any positive way by doubling the life expectancy of people in the wealthy nations? Many of humanity’s greatest achievers have died relatively young. Of the following people, listed in no particular order, none made it to 70 years of age – five didn’t get as far as 40 – yet consider the contribution each made to world history in the short time they were here:

Oskar Schindler; Christopher Columbus; Eva Peron; Mozart; Shakespeare; Captain James Cook; Marco Polo; Marie Curie; Steve Jobs; Martin Luther King; Jane Austen; Elvis Presley; Emmaline Pankhurst; Vincent Van Gogh; John Lennon; Joan of Arc; Jesse Owen.

Yes, it could be argued that their contribution may have been much greater had they lived longer, but the point is, they didn’t need 150 years to make their mark. They managed to fit a lifetime of achievement into the lifetime allotted by nature – or fate.

The quest for immortality has been around for as long as people have been living and dying but I doubt that being around for over a century and a half would make us a better species. In fact, I suspect it would just provide us with more excuses for procrastination. What do you want to buy time for? Why not just do it now?

As for the bright sparks who are busily developing these drugs, perhaps their time – and substantial research grants – would be better spent working on something that will actually benefit all of humankind. Like, for instance, a cure for AIDS or ways to get quadriplegics and paraplegics walking again. Offering rich people the opportunity to live forever really isn’t going to cut it with the millions of kids in Africa living with HIV/AIDS.

When, according to Greek legend, the gods of Olympus offered Achilles a choice between a short and glorious life or a long and dull one, he opted for short and glorious. Stop worrying about the future and living beyond 150. Stop looking for the miracle drugs. Just get out there and do some living and you may find that a natural lifespan, unenhanced by miracle, age-defying drugs, is enough.

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Doing the grandchildren proud: a cautionary tale of self-interest and brainwashing

On Wednesday this week the government’s Clean Energy Bills passed both houses of parliament and will become law. Australia finally has a market mechanism to deal with greenhouse emissions and joins the European Union and New Zealand as a developed nation taking a decisive step towards mitigating climate change.

Thanks to an orchestrated scare campaign by the opposition, however, not everyone is pleased. It was to be expected that the industries responsible for most of the emissions, specifically the mining and energy sectors, would oppose the legislation, however it was not representatives of these industries who made the most noise on Wednesday.

As the bills passed the lower house on Wednesday morning, we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of a group of people, most of whom can only be politely described as on the retirement side of 60, heckling and abusing the Prime Minister from the public gallery. Now, I have nothing against protests against the government. I have been involved in more than a few and consider political protest to be a fundamental right within our democratic process, but Wednesday’s display of venom and bile was just that – personally motivated and seemingly completely devoid of any understanding of either the legislation being passed or the process that got it there.

The public gallery of Parliament House is there to enable the public to view our democratic proceedings. Even when our politicians behave like pre-schoolers, show off for the cameras, throw tantrums and shout at one another, the public should be respectful of the place and the process, if not the players. It was also somewhat concerning that many of the protestors were seated in the part of the gallery reserved for the guests of members. This means that a Member of the House of Representatives had to sign them in, and presumably vouch for their behaviour. The rabble from the gallery, including the Members’ guests, prompted the Speaker of the House, Harry Jenkins, to call for a report to be made on which member, or members, was responsible for these particular guests. This protest, it seems, was orchestrated from the ranks of the coalition, it was not an example of civil dissent.

The seniors, ejected from the gallery, continued their protest as they marched through Parliament House escorted by security, and once outside they unfurled banners and continued with their fully orchestrated campaign chanting, among other things, ‘no mandate’. The government may hold office by the slimmest majority, but it is a democratically elected government and as such, holds a mandate. There is no basis for the claim that the government does not hold a mandate for the carbon pricing mechanism: it governs, therefore it holds a mandate.

There is also no logical basis for their opposition to the carbon price itself. Unless any of these seniors is personally responsible for mining company operations they will not be affected. In fact, they will most likely be better off once the government’s scheme to compensate householders for the trickle-down increase in energy prices take effect. So what’s their problem? Oh, that’s right, they didn’t vote for Julia Gillard and therefore don’t think she has a right to govern.

At a time when young people are constantly under criticism for their lack of respect to their elders it was particularly saddening to hear one gentleman, and I use the term loosely, in referring to the Prime Minister of the country shouting, almost hysterically, into a TV camera a reference to “that lying scrag that’s running the country”. Would he, I wonder, stand by and allow a younger person to refer to, say, his wife in such terms? This was not political protest, this was personal abuse and if it is indicative of the level that political debate has reached in this country we are, indeed, in trouble.

Most troubling of all, however, was the age of these people and their objection to legislation aimed at ensuring that there is an environment left for their grandchildren to inherit. Do these people have grandchildren? How, then, will they look those kids in the eye and tell them that they were there to protest a piece of legislation to reduce pollution and arrest global warming because their superannuation or mining shares may be in some way affected? How will they explain their nationally televised behaviour and language when they complain about kids today having no respect? Can they justify how they have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the unsubstantiated opposition line that a carbon tax will render Australia a second rate economy and destroy lives and livelihoods? Do they think about anyone other than themselves?

Will their grandchildren be proud of them? Do they really care?

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Lack of judgement? Blame the staff.

Last week the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, again found himself in an uncomfortable situation regarding his surroundings. On a routine political visit to a factory he was photographed, wearing the de rigeur bright yellow vest and safety goggles, while being shown around the manufacturing operations. The interesting part of the photo was not Mr Abbott or his host, however, it was the pornographic calendar hanging behind him on a locker which raised eyebrows and questions. The Murdoch-owned news.com  site which ran the photo the next day strategically placed the word ‘oops!’ over the explicit part of the image.

The standard response was quick in coming: Mr Abbott labelled the photo ‘unbelievably tacky’ and  while not personally blaming his staff, official channels suggested that they were to blame as they should have been through the factory beforehand and removed anything inappropriate.

This is not the first time this line has been used in Abbott’s defence. There was his stunned mullet response to the Channel 7 ambush interview with the “shit happens” video back in February, when his staff apparently had a couple of hours notice of the interview and its content but failed to warn their boss. Then there was Abbott’s appearance in March at the anti-carbon tax rally in May when he was photographed and filmed speaking in front of some highly offensive placards referring to, and depicting, the Prime Minister. Again, his staff were blamed for not removing the offensive signs before Mr Abbott took the stage.

There is a pattern emerging here. Either the Leader of the Opposition has the most incompetent staff in Canberra, in which case, one wonders, why are they still there; or his staff are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Those circumstances being a boss who does not listen, who opens his mouth before engaging his brain and who does not consider the consequences of his actions.

The role of the Opposition Leader is to present his or herself as the alternative Prime Minister. Ideally this should be accompanied by a sound and reasonable alternative policy platform and the presentation of a public persona of good judgement. Tony Abbott shows neither of these indicators. Increasingly, he is revealing himself to be only interested in one thing: power, and for this, the end justifies the means. There is no discernible policy platform, only a few blundered economic statements and stonewall opposition to government policy; and his public persona is certainly not one of good judgement.

The Gillard government is not a strong one, the PM’s own leadership lacks decisiveness and direction and her judgement is certainly questionable. However, in its first year of office, this tenuous government passed 191 pieces of legislation without a single rejection, despite the background noise from the Opposition. Tony Abbott lacks the substance and style to become prime minister and this latest episode, trivial though it may seem, is just another indication that this man is prepared to compromise anything to grab power. But then, what?

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Heroes of the week beginning 3/10/11

With the Nobel Prizes announced during this week and the deaths of two prominent achievers, there are several contenders for Hero of the Week  I’m going to concentrate on them and bypass the nomination of a villain for this week. Also, it follows from my previous post on the nature of heroes in our modern society that we consider the following people in the light of the criteria I suggested might be the minimum standard for hero status.

The first nomination is Professor Wangari Maathi, the Kenyan scientist, politician and environmental activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her three-decade campaign to address environmental degradation and poverty in Africa: the Green Belt Movement. In the 1970s Maathi recognised the link between poverty and environmental destruction in rural Kenya and set about addressing them by encouraging women in villages to plant trees. Deforestation had become the greatest threat to the African environment and by targeting women, Maathi reasoned that the planting of trees would empower women within the social strata, provide them with economic activity and revegetate the land. Three decades later the Green Belt had covered most of sub-Saharan Africa. Maathi was elected to the Kenyan parliament in 2003 and served as a junior Minister for Environment and Natural Resources until losing her seat in 2005. It is unknown how many lives Maathi’s work changed, but the single-mindedness with which she pursued her goal is nothing short of inspirational.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Following on the same theme, that is, women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize – and there have been only 12 in 110 years – last night the 2011 winners were announced. It had been rumoured that the Committee would this year honour the activists of the Arab Spring, and this turned out to be the case. Three joint winners of the Peace gong this year: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia and the first female to lead any African country; Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian political activist who has worked to increase and improve women’s participation in the democratic process; and human rights activist, Tawakkul

Leymah Gbowee

Tawakkul Karman

Karman of Yemen, who was a key figure in the protest movement against the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. These three women have been awarded the Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The Arab Spring has been one of the most profound political shifts in modern times.  The overthrow of dictatorships and closed regimes has not been entirely peaceful, with ongoing bloodshed in Libya and other places, but these women, and other human rights activists with them – both male and female – are lookingto a brighter, democratic and more peaceful future.

The final nomination must go to Steve Jobs, Apple CEO and co-founder who died on Thursday at the age of 56. While the Apple company has come under scrutiny for unethical practices such as the use of sweatshop labour in China and mineral extraction from the Congo basin further endangering certain fauna, I am looking at Jobs, the man, not Apple, the company. Steve Jobs did not win a Nobel Prize, he didn’t even graduate from university, but he was undoubtedly a creative and technological genius who changed the way the world thinks about computers. I was reluctant to add him to this list of hero nominations for this week, but he more than meets all the standards I set in my last posting. I think my reluctance was due to the personality cult that seems to have developed around him and which has been prominently on show since his death, but then, did not many of the heroes I named in my last post have personality cults? Ghandi? Mandela? Martin Luther King? Mary Mackillop? Maybe the way in which a hero responds to their own personality cult is another mark of greatness. I have not been a fan of Steve Jobs and have never bought into the personality cult, but I do own an iPad and an iPhone and I freely admit that they have radically changed the way I interact with media and use technology. Like the other nominees for this week, he looked to the future, not the past, and used his creative skills to change lives.

Vale Wangari Maathi and Steve Jobs. Congratulations to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman. Heroes all.

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We don’t need another hero – or do we?

After a hiatus of some months, during which time I moved house – indeed, states – changed employment conditions and was disconnected from the internet for what seemed an eternity, but was, in fact, only a matter of weeks, it feels good to be finally back in the writing groove.

During my short exile from the internet, I had the opportunity to see television. This may not sound like ground-breaking stuff, but my household has not had a TV for over 15 years, and frankly, judging from the utter tripe I saw in my couple of viewings, we haven’t missed much. However, in the few programs I found vaguely sufferable, one word kept jangling uncomfortably like a single badly tuned instrument in an otherwise well-tuned band: hero.

Like so many great words before it, the word hero seems to have become the latest casualty of a syndrome I’ll call ‘popular overuse’. This is where a word gets used so frequently and applied so liberally that it ceases to have any impact or any real meaning. The word ‘evil’ is another one – once reserved for the truly, unspeakably bad (think Hitler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper) and now used to describe slightly over-boisterous kids or a puppy that wees on the carpet.

Back to hero, though.

“The hero of this dish is undoubtedly the pork!” exclaimed one the Masterchef judges rapturously. Hello? The pork is the hero? Surely if the dish is that good, then the hero is the chef? I only watched a few episodes of Masterchef – probably a good thing – but the word ‘hero’ popped up on a regular basis and always to describe food.

There may be many heroes associated with food, from the farmers who produce high-quality meat, grain, fruits and vegetables; to the cooks who turn the raw materials into works of culinary art; right through to the humanitarian heroes who get basic foodstuffs to people who are starving or have suffered natural disasters. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I fail to see how the food itself can be a hero.

The word descended further into farcical popular overuse syndrome during an episode of The Renovators when a judge enthused that “the chair is the hero of the room!” That was just too much for me. Chairs as heroes, I’m afraid, does not say great things about our society.

When Tina Turner wailed “we don’t need another hero” in the theme song of one of the Mad Max movies, the song described a post-apocalyptic world where survival meant relying on either brute force or rat cunning. As a society are we actually heading towards that world where heroism means nothing and heroes can be chairs?

So where are the heroes? Sports stars are routinely placed on pedestals and worshipped as demigods only to fall from grace when they show that they are human after all. The rich and powerful are idolised for their material success; celebrities are idolised for nothing more than being famous. Given the fleeting nature of sporting, material and celebrity success and the fickleness of the adoring public when the veneer of success falls away to reveal flawed humanity, it seems our standards for heroes has slipped. If our role models can be discarded as soon as they reach a sort of ‘hero use-by date’, we’re not setting our own standards particularly high.

Real heroes are the ones whose achievements endure beyond the celebrity, beyond the headlines and even beyond the life of the hero his or herself. The achievements of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr, Marie Curie, Jacques Cousteau and even our home-grown Mary Mackillop give the individuals an aura of greatness despite – or perhaps because of – their flaws as human beings. In our modern cult of celebrity we expect ‘heroes’ to be perfect, and when they prove otherwise, the gloss suddenly tarnishes and we lose interest. Form and style seem to count for much more than substance.

For the record, my own heroes – or heroines, in fact – are Prof Wangari Maathi, the

Wangari Maathi, 1940-2011

founder of the Kenyan Green Belt movement who died only last week, and Prof Vandana Shiva, the Indian physicist and environmental activist. Maathi, the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate, introduced grassroots sustainability to Africa by personally leading the way. Shiva has also forged the path of grassroots activism in the world’s second most populous country by actually getting her hands dirty. This, perhaps is the mark of the true hero: a preparedness not just to point the way, but to take the lead; a true conviction of one’s commitment, based on understanding, knowledge and wisdom, and a willingness to put one’s own life on the line to carry it through.

Right now, as the world enters a crucial phase marked by exploding population pressures, declining capacity to feed our bursting cities, reducing oil production and economic instability, we need heroes more than ever. But if the only ‘heroes’ we can muster by way of the popular overuse syndrome are vacuous celebrities, rich white men and over-endorsed sports stars, perhaps we’d be better off hero-worshipping the pork and the chair after all. They, at least, have substance.

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