16 Feb Why ‘Free Education’ Should Be Free

First published in the Press 3.2.16

 

Gather round current students and graduates – take a break from fretting over your (on average) $20,000 student debt which will hang around your neck for the next nine years – and let me tell you a story.

 

Because we might have been a bunch of feral, pinko-leftie student hippies in the early 1980s, but we were more than a little prescient about the ultimate cost of the introduction of student loans. I recall protesting about it when the idea was, much like you then, just a twinkle in someone’s eye.

 

In the olden days, students got what was pretty close to a literally free “free education”. Bursaries earned at high school covered our annual polytech and student fees, plus we received (I’m pretty sure I have the numbers right) a living allowance of $36 a week.

 

Which may not sound princely, but room and board at a student hostel came to $28 a week, and Fairhall River Claret was $4 a bottle. So with a part-time job and summer work – often via tax-payer funded community schemes – you could afford to splash out on course books and an occasional muesli bar.

 

The wonder of it all was that, at the end of your certificate or diploma or degree, there was no tab to be paid. You were free and clear. There were choices and possibilities. The world was your metaphorical oyster. Which seemed entirely logical – that had been the whole point of investing several years of your young life in this whole higher education malarkey.

 

So without a bill being handed to me at graduation, I can’t tell you what my education cost in dollar terms. Nor can I tell you what my education has been worth to me in dollar terms. I have no idea if anyone has paid me more than they would have if I didn’t have a couple of bits of paper framed on my mother’s wall. It’s never really come up.

 

But I can tell you that one of my bits of paper taught me how to read – critically, and with pleasure – and the other taught me how to write. Both of them taught me how to think and ask questions, and feel a sense of civic and community responsibility. I can also live for long periods on variations of cheese on toast and I’ve seen how you can make a bong out of an apple.

 

I am telling you this because I want you to know that there was a time when you only had to have brains to engage in tertiary study, not money; when the idea of being 23 and $20,000 in debt was not ok; when the general consensus was that all taxpayers would pay for the best brains to get as much education as they could stuff into them because we’d all benefit from having well-educated people in the neighbourhood; when education was a way out of poverty, not into it.

 

And I want you to know that it would not be unreasonable to ask for that again.

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16 Feb Being Poor

When this piece was first published in the Press (23.12.15) people described it as me “getting my rage on”. They meant that in a good way. I’m pleased I did. By way of context, there were two incidents in the week prior involving the NZ Prime Minister – he dismissed a report on Child Poverty; and in the same week participated in a joke about rape (bending down for soap in the showers) on commercial radio.

 

Bloody poor people, am I right? With their drugs and their inability to budget properly and their lack of initiative.

 

Last week a report from the Children’s Commission revealed nearly one-third of Kiwi kids are living in poverty. Our Prime Minister says that’s partly because their parents are too whacked out on drugs to get a job. “Go ask any employer… they’ll tell you, if they drug test people, some of those people that they are testing they cannot hire because that’s the issue.”

 

Sure, that’s not backed up by stuff like facts. Figures released last year suggest very few beneficiaries are taking drugs. Of about 8000 beneficiaries sent for job drug tests, only 22 tested positive or refused to take the tests.

 

But I dunno. I watched the news on Monday and there was a story about Auckland City Mission giving out food parcels. Last week they were visited by 3,000 people. One third of them have never been to a food bank before. They start queuing as early as 1.30am. Someone writes a number on their hands in felt pen and then they wait for up to five hours for food they can’t afford to buy.

 

Lazy, right? Standing around all day. And they’re up that early because of the P. And that look in their eyes as they wait? That’s not sadness and desperation and embarrassment. Stoned.

 

And where does the Children’s Commission get off calling it “child” poverty? It’s like they’re only focused on children, like that’s their area of responsibility. Those 300,000 kids belong to someone. Someone who clearly doesn’t know enough about budgeting to turn the $80 left over each week after rent and bills into 21 nutritious meals for four people. What they need isn’t affordable housing or better pay. They need maths. If they could work out how to divide $80 by 84 meals, they’d be fine.

 

And look, if it’s not the drugs, it’ll be the flat screen TVs and smokes. Though, you know, if you can’t take a holiday at a bach in Maui, you’d probably want to watch a bit of tele on something you got for no deposit, interest free for 3 years, and roll yourself a fag.

 

Because some drugs are ok. Lots of people with money use them. But the good drugs, like a quality pinot or the party stuff the nice kids use for a bit of fun at the school ball.

 

Besides, the Prime Minister points out, when they say “poverty”, it’s not poverty Dehli-style. He means the city, not pastrami on rye. Over there, they’re living on a dollar a day. Which actually, in Dehli, goes a comparatively long way.

 

But like he says, some of the criteria are pretty subjective – like whether you can afford Christmas presents. Christmas presents are a luxury item. We can’t all expect to get them. Though if anyone’s thinking of getting a little something for the Prime Minister, go for your life. Maybe a pay rise of $13,500. Or soap-on-rope so he doesn’t have to bend down in the shower.

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16 Feb What We Tell Our Sons

First published in the Press 11.11.15

 

When my daughter was a teenager, each time she and her friends left our house, frocked up for a party, I’d call down the stairs, “Have fun! Be safe! Count your drinks! And remember, you can always phone me!”

 

I had promised her, made it clear many times, that no matter the time, no matter where she was or what state she was in, I would come if she called. Once, she did call. I drove across town in my pyjamas. We were pleased to see each other. We saved interrogation and explanation for the next day.

 

I was grateful for mobile phones. I couldn’t always reach her (they never answer) but I knew she could always reach me.

 

When I was a teenager and bad things happened, we would sometimes wish we had some kind of evidence – a photo, a message trail – to prove something untoward had occurred. So it wouldn’t only be your word against his. The risk of it turning into he-said-she-said usually meant no-one said anything at all. Imagine, we would sometimes think, if there could have been a picture?

 

Today, there are pictures. Except instead of acting as evidence of a crime, the picture is the crime. Something bad happens, it is photographed, and posted on social media. Where it remains forever.

 

Once again, this weekend, we’re hearing of a group of young men who are holding a competition where the girl is the prey. The winning boy is the one who gets the most young girls drunk, dangles his genitalia over their faces, takes pictures, and posts them on Facebook.

 

Police have used their discretion to not prosecute these boys for sexual misconduct or assault, and have let them off with a warning. It is, police have said before, hard to win a case when the victim can’t effectively give evidence because she was barely conscious.

 

Another thing that is hard is to do is to find anyone this week who agrees with the police. School principals, counsellors who treat adolescents with sexually harmful behaviours, and rape prevention educators are asking for criminal charges to be laid in this case, and they recommend mandatory treatment.

 

Teenage boys, they say, don’t have the developmental maturity or empathy to understand the consequences of their actions. They need the lesson, or they won’t stop.

 

What drives them? Our children are getting their sexual cues from pornography. The porn they have access to is explicit. Possibly more explicit than their parents have ever seen.

 

So we need to be explicit with them. When our sons are leaving the house for a party, we should call down the stairs: “Have fun! Be safe! Don’t dangle your genitalia over anyone’s face! In fact, don’t do anything at all without her consent! And remember, to give consent, she must be conscious!”

 

And we should tell them that if it feels like something bad is about to happen, the only appropriate thing to do with their phone is use it to call us to come pick them up.

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09 Nov Words Men Shouldn’t Say

First published in the Press 26.8.15

 

Last week, Martin Van Beynan tossed a hissy-cat amongst the pigeons when he argued there were words – specifically the sweary ones – that women shouldn’t say.

 

The response was a fairly universal “Get f***ed” from women and linguists, with a side note of “yawn”. On reflection, I’d have been prepared to make a deal: Men could have exclusive use of all the swear words if women could have exclusive use of all the rest. Let’s call that Option A.

 

It’s not the first time a man has told women how to talk. Public records show people have been criticising women’s voices – the timbre, the tone, the words chosen – ever since we tossed off our corsets in the 1870s, drew a deep breath and started expressing opinions. It is likely this kind of gendered nonsense was happening even before records began – some caveman with a deep “ugh” probably bemoaned the higher pitched “ugh” of cavewomen in an effort to maintain monopoly of fireside discourse.

 

But I was curious to know what would happen if we turned the question around, so I visited my online water-cooler on Sunday afternoon and asked women which words they thought men shouldn’t use.

 

In general terms it goes like this: men don’t like it when we use words that don’t fit their prescribed image of who we should be – as in the “unladylike” swearing-like-a-sailor; whereas women don’t like it when men use words that remark on our failure to fit that prescribed image. (We are “strident”, for example, when they’d prefer us to be passive.) Women also don’t like it when men use words that diminish our status. (“Girl” if we are a grown human.)

 

Here, then, is a handy list of words men shouldn’t say.

 

NOUNS: Sweetie, dear, love, honey, chick (when in a business meeting). Also bitch, pussy, girly, ladies, girls (unless referring to actual children), slag, ho, prossy, nag, slut.

 

ADJECTIVES: Crazy, insane, mental, stuck-up, shrill, hysterical, uptight, bossy, strident, bitchy, nubile.

 

PHRASES: You’re overreacting. What are you on about? Calm down. (Especially when used all together in the same breath.) Also: “You’re being emotional”, and “You’re being sensitive.”

 

SENTENCES THAT BEGIN: “I’m not… But…”.  “Women are naturally” and then includes shrill, strident or bitchy. A sentence also should not begin “Look…” or especially, “Well, actually…” when the tone is condescension rather than a disagreement between equals. Same goes for, “In my experience…”

 

Men should also never begin a sentence with: “I consider myself a feminist, but…” Nor end a sentence with “for a girl” or “like a girl”.

 

PHRASES MEN SHOULD AVOID: “Biological fact”, “That time of the month?”, “Not all men”, or “She’ll have the salad.” And no-one should ever tell a woman she needs to smile.

 

I realise this is a comprehensive list. It would take a fair amount of effort to filter these words and phrases out of your casual social interaction. Arguably more effort than it takes to not say the F-word. In fact, it might involve a whole shift in attitude and require some self-examination – what we might have called “consciousness raising” back in the 1970s. If that turns out to be too hard, we could always go back to Option A.

– Michele A’Court

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09 Nov What I Know So Far

First published in the Press 8.7.15

It’s my birthday this week. Sometimes birthdays arrive with a dark cloud of “I’m running out of time!” angst but I’m thrilled to say this one hasn’t. I googled this year’s age – 54. Apparently, if I was living in many parts of Africa, this would make me the oldest person in my village. According to NZ government stats, I might make it to 89. I can’t tell you if I’m comforted or daunted.

By way of distraction, I’ve made a little list of some of the things I know so far.

That you can feel the most at home in places you don’t actually come from. A sense of belonging the first time you visit a new city – for me, New Orleans; or when you first meet strangers with whom you share some unique experience; or you’re surrounded by a family you’re not actually related to by blood yourself – my daughter’s whanau.

That my most fondly remembered flights are the ones that didn’t go smoothly – the flight cancelled out of San Francisco in 2013 that gave me a bonus night in San Jose; and the emergency landing out of Melbourne in 2014 – another bonus night in a hotel, and the sense that if I had been going to die in a plane crash, that would have been the moment.

That you can forget all kinds of important things – events, faces, mathematical calculations for circumferences – but you will never forget the smell of wet socks and raincoats and boxes of raisins in a primary school cloakroom.

That although you believe you can’t go to sleep without a glass of wine, you find you sleep better without it. But you’ll take a glass anyway.

That as much as you know you shouldn’t get wound up about the cruel musings of a 25 year old you’ve never met who is given a public voice largely because she’s famous for being the daughter of famous people who make frocks you can’t afford, you will still find yourself waking in the night wondering how the hell any of that happened. Like, any of it.

That there is no grand plan and life is chaos, and we will spend most of our interior lives attempting to construct a narrative to prove to ourselves that this is not true. That is possible to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in your head at once and this explains why you love patting your cat while you listen to birdsong.

That sometimes the best way to be still is to go for a long drive. That there is no “bad” chocolate flavour, but some are better than others.

That the only birthday present you properly remember getting is the blue bike for your sixth birthday which didn’t need training wheels because you could already ride, but your dad wired wooden blocks to the pedals because your legs were too short and the seat couldn’t go any lower.

That it’s never too late to start getting on with someone. And that the best thing anyone can be is kind.

– Michele A’Court

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09 Nov Life’s Book Ends (for Lucretia Seales)

First published in the Press 17.6.15

 

Working out what is ethically the right thing to do sometimes involves working backwards. You can have an instinctive reaction to what is right or wrong, and then search for the reasoning that explains your instinct.

 

Like a lot of people, I guess, I’ve been thinking recently about how I want to die. Lucretia Seales gave us all that gift by mounting a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without criminal prosecution. It is fair to say that everyone’s heart broke a little when we heard the news that the courts wouldn’t allow this. She did a remarkable thing in allowing her death to be part of our national conversation, one that we might now be ready for.

 

The thing is, when we are well, we all want to live forever. But when we are not well – and have no hope of getting better – that urge changes. Then we, and the people who love us, discover continuing to live is not everything, and that dying well counts too.

 

Perhaps this isn’t a new thing. There are cultures where the tradition has been for people at the end of life to wander off into the snow or the desert when they’ve felt their time has come. Perhaps an expectation that we can go on forever is the new thing.

 

I’ve felt warmly towards being able to manage a dignified death for years now. I understand the arguments about not playing god, and focusing on palliative care, and the dangers of giving doctors the right to end life rather than always preserve it.

 

So I’ve wondered why I’ve felt instinctively in favour of euthanasia (ugly word) or “end of life choice”, “assisted suicide” and (better) dying with dignity.

 

In part it is because I’ve witnessed the other thing – palliative care that doesn’t properly stop the pain, and a final life chapter that doesn’t reflect in any humane way a life otherwise lived with verve and independence and kindness.

 

But another thought occurred to me over these recent weeks. That maybe we shouldn’t think of death as the opposite of life but instead as a bookend that matches birth. One an entrance, the other an exit. So this conversation we are having is not about life on the one hand and death on the other, but is better described as one about birth and death.

 

And we do all kinds of things to assist birth. We don’t wait for a god or natural processes to determine when a person begins her or his life. We plan pregnancies, and when pregnancies are complicated, we’ll set a date to make it happen. When births are tricky, we’ll circumvent nature and deliver by caesarean. “This,” we’ll say, “is the day you will enter the world.” So perhaps it is not so hard to understand that a sentient being might be able to say for themselves, “This is the day I will leave the world.” So we have the chance to exit the way we entered – with as little pain and as much dignity as we can all offer each other.

– Michele A’Court

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09 Nov Prime Ministers, Ponytails & Punching Down

First published in the Press 6.5.15

 

There’s a drive I take when I can to clear my head. You probably know a road like it. Back roads through farmland, in parts narrow and winding but mostly wide open spaces. Autumn is the best time to travel Route 27 from Auckland toward Taupo – not the most direct way but the one I choose when the opportunity presents itself.

 

This isn’t where I grew up, but it feels like home. Periodically I put the windows down to let in the rural smells and slow down a bit to look a cow in the eye. You get the sense that the road is passing through the land, rather than that the land has been placed beside a highway. I like it when the traveller, the one moving through it, is not the most important thing.

 

I took Lucinda Williams for musical company. On a different trip with my daughter a few weeks ago, she’d been disparaging about Lucinda’s melancholic voice. I’d explained I found it so heartbreaking that in the end it was uplifting. She looked unconvinced. My 17 month old granddaughter, however, waved her hands and waggled her feet cheerfully in time with Lucinda’s languid Southern drawl. We’re going to get on.

 

This trip was a solo one with work at the end of it. Clear skies, empty roads, time to think. I caught myself grinning at the autumn lushness of it all, and laughed out loud at one point when I poked my nose out to sniff the air and a ute passed the other way with a dog doing the same thing. It was nice.

 

Except that I took Mike Hosking with me. Not the actual one, of course, the TV one and only in my head. Not a regular viewer, I’d seen the primetime clip where he’d described a young hospitality worker as “selfish” for speaking out about her personal experience of harassment.

I’d been shocked by it – more than I’d expected to be. Not at the calling out – that’s what commentators do – but at the ‘punching down’. We’re used to the Fourth Estate ‘punching up’ on behalf of the Little Guy in a dispute rather than being a voice for one of the bigger players who could just as well hire a PR expert or contact a gossip columnist or whatever the hell really happened. It was like watching Fair Go advocate on behalf of plumbers against someone who failed to leave her underwear drawer open to be rifled through. The status was all wrong.

 

On the return trip, I managed to push Hosking out of my head by focusing on Amanda Bailey. I wonder what her life is like now at work, at home, in her neighbourhood. And how weird it would be to be singled out as a bad girl by a powerful middle-aged man with his own TV show. A couple of Lucinda’s tracks could have been about Amanda. It’s an old story – being made to feel small, fighting back, being crushed. I’m glad there’s music that gives a voice to it. Someone has to.

– Michele A’Court

 

 

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03 Dec Is the Pope a Catholic?

It would appear that we can no longer assume that the Pope is a Catholic. It used to be one of those handy rhetoricals, along with bears pooping in the woods and the less popular but equally trusted, “Is the Minister of Women’s Affairs a feminist?”

 

Because we’ve lost that last one and suddenly all ground seems uncertain under our feet.

 

Louise Upston has been our Minister of Women’s Affairs since October. On Monday, she announced a name change to her portfolio – now simply the Ministry for Women. The day before, she had declared that despite being our top government advocate for women’s issues, she is not a feminist. In the same breath, she managed to reduce the proud history of feminism – the one that won us the vote, equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to be elected to parliament to do a job like hers – to “flag-waving”. That’s a helluva slap in the face to a lot of great women from our great-great-grandmothers right down the line to us and our daughters.

 

I’m pretty sure if the Minister really thought about it for a moment – the tragedy is she hasn’t – she’d realise that being a feminist was the very least she could do. It’s her job to advocate on behalf of women for greater economic independence, more women in leadership and increased safety from violence.  It says so on her Ministry’s website. Which is the very definition of feminism – political, social, economic and cultural equality. So we have a problem when the Minister says she “doesn’t want to be seen as having a feminist agenda”. Because that’s exactly what she’s got.

 

Upston recently went to a “Miss Tokora” beauty pageant and thought it was awesome. It was like she’d never seen a beauty pageant before. And hadn’t heard that the women’s movement has been protesting against them since 1968 on the grounds they objectify women and judge them according to a prescribed standard of beauty. It’s as though 50 years of thinking, discussion, writing and hard-won experience by millions of smart women have gone completely unnoticed by the Minister.

“What are the things that make a difference to young girls, and setting their sights high?” the Minister asks, and then answers with, “It’s about confidence, it’s about having belief in their ability.” In their ability to do what? Their ability to meet a standard of beauty?

 

Women do believe in themselves. We’d like a society – and our Minister – to believe in us too. And to fight for equal career opportunities and pay equity. To cease victim-blaming. To acknowledge we have a right to be safe. To be valued as equals, not viewed as objects. And we’d like to be encouraged to enter beauty pageants just as often as men are. As in, never.

 

“I don’t ever want anyone to look at me,” Upston says, “and say ‘she’s there because she’s a female’.” Sorry, Minister, but so far I can’t find any other reason why you got this job.

 

— Michele A’Court

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03 Sep Message for Candidates

“In the Beginning, People Created Government for the People”
 
If you are running for Parliament right now and happen to be reading this, there are a couple of points I would like to make to you.
 
Ages ago, people, who are fundamentally social creatures, decided it would be a great idea if we all chipped in for the stuff we all use. Chuck some money in the pot for roads, schools, hospitals, general infrastructure and other things the group needs.
 
We’d then pick some people we could trust to run it – to spend the money we give them, do some planning, maybe every now and then come up with a grand vision on our behalf. Mostly, just take care of organising things so we can take care of each other.
 
We thought it would be ideal if everyone was fed, and safe and well, and had somewhere to live and a book to read. So we invented Taxation and Government, and grew a Democracy.
 
We created your jobs and called you our Representatives. Our intention was to choose the best of us – the smart, sensible, and honourable ones (we even put that in your job title so the clue would be in the name) to take care of our community with the money and ideas we contributed.
 
Part of choosing you to represent us was an assumption that you could empathise with us – imagine our lives, put yourselves in our shoes – exercise compassion, and be in the service of the public rather than serve your individual selves.
 
Imagine, then, how furious we are to know that many of you are horrible people who have surrounded yourselves with dreadful human beings. That what gets you out of bed in the morning is not the drive to make the world a better place for us, but to score points, bully, smear, obfuscate, divert, diminish and inflict pain. That your “To Do” list is less about justice and social equality, and more about power and revenge.
 
That’s not what we picked you for, or why we pay your salary, or who we need you to be.
 
There is a theory, promoted by some of you, that even exposing dirty politics helps keep dirty politicians in power because those of us who love democracy will throw our hands in the air, turn our backs and leave you to it. Essentially, the plan is that you can hold on to government by discouraging people from participating in it.
 
Don’t go buying stocks in that one just yet. Sometimes, when sufficient people are enraged, we also become engaged. A lot of your own crap has blown up your faces of late. This tactic may turn out badly for you, too.
 
And if you’re standing for Parliament right now because you’d like to do some good with our money and ideas, then give us a wave so we can spot you over the steaming pile of filth currently in view.
 

— Michele A’Court

Mainland Live 3.9.14

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17 Jul Rules for Women

It is quite hard being a woman. There are lots of rules. They are not written down explicitly in a list. They turn up implicitly in editorials, popular commentary and casual conversation. A woman works them out from reading between lines and divining the assumptions upon which people’s statements are based.
 
So a woman doesn’t go to Wiki and read a list of rules about what women should or shouldn’t do to avoid sexual assault. Yet we all know what is on that list.
 
The first unwritten rule is, of course, that it is up to women in the first instance to avoid being sexually assaulted. She mustn’t be out at night, alone, in a dark place. She mustn’t be drunk. She mustn’t wear a short skirt or revealing top. The onus is on her, if she doesn’t want to be sexually assaulted, to not look like does.
 
She mustn’t meet someone and get in a car with them, obviously. She mustn’t trust anyone or take them at face value. She mustn’t assume that anyone she doesn’t know yet is a good person. That would be silly, and asking for trouble.
 
This is despite the fact that it is estimated 85 per cent of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim. Most of the time, you might conclude, a woman would be safer with a stranger.
 
But we must travel in groups and dress Amish, and drink green tea and stay home a lot. Then, if the worst thing happens, we’ve spent our whole lives being ready for people who ask if we broke the rules.
 
It has become clear in the past week that there are unwritten rules for how a woman should behave, not just prior to a sexual assault, but after one has been alleged.
 
She shouldn’t talk about it, for starters. Maybe if she’s weepy and looks damaged and frail, sure. If the victim is dead, we’ll take anger and outrage from her family, criticism of a system that let them down. But not from a victim who appears confident, articulate and certain of things. That feels inappropriate somehow, right? We know what a victim should look like. And it shouldn’t be stronger and smarter and braver than us. That makes us uncomfortable.
 
And she shouldn’t talk about it too soon. Maybe after everyone else has spoken she can have a turn. Though she shouldn’t leave it too late, either. We’re suspicious of those women who leave it years to tell their story. Were they really working up the courage? Or just working on their story? If it really mattered, they would have said something at the time. There is a right moment for a victim to tell her story. We’ll tell her when. It’s not like she’s new to being diminished and dismissed.
 
Or here’s a different rule we could try: If you can’t trust yourself not to sexually assault someone, don’t go out alone. Stay home, stay sober, wear pants and call a trusted friend.
 

— Michele A’Court

Rules for Women 17.7.14

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