The Security of a Free State

I wonder today, as I do whenever I hear news of a mass shooting in the United States, if this might be the one. If this might be the moment where that nation is so appalled by the suffering and pain wrought by guns that a push for change doesn’t just sweep politicians, but rises from the people like a tide. I often wonder and I am often disappointed.

I wonder if the fact that this latest shooting occurred in a centre that provides services to disabled people might provoke an emotional response – where shootings in churches, women’s health clinics, shopping centres, movie theaters, even schools, have not. I wonder if the steadily rising number of gun massacres – already outnumbering the days passed this year – will inflame public concern. I wonder if the fact that the San Bernadino mass shooting was not even the first that day will flicker across the radar of some peoples’ periphery, or whether they’ll notice that ten more people across the country have died as a result of gun violence in the time since. I wonder.

I perused the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, wondering what all the fuss is about. What piece of text could provide so conclusive an argument for the possession of lethal weapons around a country? I did not find it largely compelling.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

One sentence. One concise sentence that has given license to millions of murders since it was added to the Constitution in 1791. I am extensively aware that guns have been debated in legislative arenas, courts, and universities in the years since. That the limitations and protections that the Amendment affords have been assessed, tested, evaluated and reinforced. If anything, this makes it worse. A world in which America is responsible for the most defense spending, and has the most powerful army in the world, still has room for there to be a gun for every man, woman and child? A world in which theaters and methods of warfare have changed so dramatically, still relies on guns to create security for American citizens?

The Constitution gives room for Americans to have guns so as to safeguard a free state – to ensure protection of one another. But overwhelmingly, the use of guns has nothing to do with protection. This year the US has seen 2,708 incidents of home invasion involving guns; the deaths of 640 children (between the ages of 0-11) and 2,422 teenagers involving guns; 52% of suicides caused by guns; all out of a staggering 48,297 incidents involving guns.

How many more times, in how many more ways, can it be said? The NRA smirks that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But in the United States, more often than not, people kill people with guns.

I wonder if that will ever change.


Tackling the #qanda-ry

A truly reprehensible thing happened on Q&A this week and we really do need to talk about it. I refer, of course, to the moment on Thursday when a post-operative transwoman was told that she had deliberately mutilated her genitals in having a procedure that went against all concepts of “good medicine”. Julia Doulman parried that question with grace and a not insignificant amount of bluntness; “I’d rather have twisted mutilated genitals than a bullet through my head or lie on a railway line.” I did not hear a single minister in this government criticize that questioner for exercising a right to say something so rude to another human being.

On the eighth of June, a member of the audience in Studio 22 asked whether the Human Rights Commission, a necessary independent body that oversees whether or not an Australian government perpetrates human rights abuses, and one that the government regularly demonises, should be disbanded. Another asked what protections she would receive were it the case that she should be asked to create wedding invitations for a same-sex couple and wished to refuse to do so on religious grounds. An audience member on the 23rd of March asserted that allowing foreign ownership in this country was “selling ourselves down the river”. A video question on the 27th of April asserted that binding on marriage equality would “lose votes for the Labor party”. Those examples are just limited to the last three months.

Today Immigration Minister Peter Dutton referred to the audience and panel of Q&A as “stacked”, in response to comments made by convicted criminal Zaky Mallah on Monday night’s edition of the program. This was only one of the latest in a series of condemnations by the government of the program – Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the Prime Minister, derided the program for having little editorial oversight. Well, Mr. Turnbull did. The Prime Minister said something very different, which I’ll return to in a moment. But, and I don’t know that I’ve said this often and I doubt that I’ll say it again, I do agree with Peter Dutton.

The audience of Q&A, its panel, and its points of discussion, are regularly stacked. This is done so as to inflame public opinion and provoke conversations on difficult topics. In an episode of the program exclusively featuring Joe Hockey, 50% of the audience declared support for either the ALP or the Greens. The questions are deliberately selected to challenge the panelists – and the ones that are usually attacked by the government involve panelists from the government. That is, however, the function of having a program like Q&A – to challenge views and opinions, particularly those held by the sitting government.

Zaky Mallah’s comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. They are being used, however, as a political tool by a government that has displayed an alarming lack of tolerance for any sort of dissent. In the last budget, millions of dollars worth of funding was redirected away from the independent Australia Council for the Arts and placed directly in fund controlled by the Arts Minister. Funding was cut for the ABC and the SBS (despite election promises that this would not be the case), and the Prime Minister regularly criticises the public broadcaster as not “on Team Australia” whenever it dares contradict the government’s policies. The only praise he could find within himself to give the ABC was to congratulate it on its airing of The Killing Season, which is admittedly compelling, but the PM and I probably think so for different reasons. The government’s campaign against Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs is ceaseless and a disturbing series of political attacks against an independent official attempting to highlight human rights abuses.

Q&A made an error of judgement by allowing Zaky Mallah a platform on Monday night – but that does not mean that its necessity as a part of the Australian democratic system should be understated. I can think of few developed democracies where members of the government are put in a position to be so directly accountable to the everyday citizen. The government clearly only has issues with the instances where the program allows direct challenge to their political positions; by all other accounts, they rarely deign even to watch it.

The last time the Prime Minister was on Q&A was the 27th of August, 2009. At the time, not even Leader of the Opposition, he said this: “I think honesty is terrific, but there are some things that you have no right to be honest about.” Suggestions today have called for tighter screenings of audience members and a more controlled studio audience – which all sounds very democratic indeed. We have need of programs like Q&A, programs that actively encourage us to critically engage with government policy and ask ourselves questions about its legitimacy, more than ever under this government.

8 DOWN: Collective of lions

It’s the question on every social conservative’s lips when it becomes time again for Sydney to whip out the Dame Edna specs and assorted feather boas:

“Why do you get a gay pride parade when I don’t get a straight pride parade?”

And to some gay people, it’s an excellent question. To the tongue tied homosexual, a blushing violet, (and, contrary to popular belief, the more common exemplar of the tribe) there is little to offer but embarrassment, or shame, or indignation at being asked at all. So why is it so important that we have a day to dress up like a member of the Village People and walk through a crowded population zone throwing condoms at unsuspecting revellers?

Well, there are multiple very good reasons. One of them is because a prospective straight pride parade would likely be organised by Cory Bernardi, and look a little something like this:

Another is this: because there is such a thing as a straight pride parade. It’s what I call a “day of the week that ends in y”, and it often features such events as

  • heterosexual couples walking down the street holding hands without fear of persecution or judgement
  • heterosexual couples celebrating their unions by calling them ‘marriages’ without having to justify themselves or even establish to the population at large that it is humanly possible for them to feel love for each other
  • lawn bowls
  • etc.

The straight pride parade runs for 364 days a year, and crosses most if not all known language and geographical barriers. The straight pride parade is something that happens all around us, all the time, always. We live on Planet Straight-Pride-Parade. That’s the status quo.

To invalidate a night where one group that doesn’t fit into the heteronormative, cisnormative pigeonhole gets to march through the streets proudly and defiantly celebrating their diversity is not only insensitive – it’s dangerous. Advocating a culture of indifference about expression and representation – in whatever complacent, ignorant and sometimes well meaning language one wishes to use – spreads the idea that diversity should be tolerated, where in actual fact it should be celebrated. Research now tells us that gay men are earning 13% less than their heterosexual counterparts. We do not have the luxury of burying our heads in the sand and telling ourselves that respect and equal treatment abound in our world.

Whilst the parade exists on the macro level to express pride about being different, about being unique and individual, on the micro level it can have a vastly different impact. Gay and genderqueer visibility is an important part of asserting that sexualities and gender identities that do not conform are valid, and a part of society with an established place and voice. For some, the pride parade is not just about dancing through the streets, laughing and singing – it is an opportunity to affirm that they are not alone, that they exist as part of a community of people with shared experiences and shared struggles. The pride parade is an expression of frivolity, but nonetheless an essential expression of cultural identity.

But culture at the Mardi Gras does not begin or end with the parade. It is a cultural festival – where films (including the much-lauded Brazilian The Way He Looks) and theatre (Belvoir’s Blue Wizard, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Gaybies and the Old Fitzroy Theatre’s Playing Rock Hudson among them) provide an opportunity to celebrate gay stories in an open and honest way.

Culture is defined by who is creating content and who wants to see it; the Mardi Gras creates opportunities for queer creators to distribute their works to new audiences, and for the [insert giant inclusive acronym here] community to feel safe and included within the sphere of popular culture. Not as background players in someone else’s story, not as an abstract idea or construct, but as people with defined identities, challenges and lives. We get the chance to show a wider variety of traits and personalities; without being effeminophobic, because heaven knows we’ve had enough of that this week, it’s not enough to just show the sassy gay friend telling the white girl that her outfit doesn’t work.

So when someone asks you why we have a Mardi Gras, tell them all of these things. Tell them of the wonder of showing pride in your identity; tell them of the need to scream from the rooftops (be those rooftops tall and broad or small, intimate and quiet); tell them of how Mardi Gras is about changing minds and saving lives.

Or if you can’t be bothered, just say “why not?” Because really, why not?

Hasta mañana, interwebs.

P.S. Props to SBS for hosting the parade on Sunday night, but I honestly think you gave up your biggest draw when this lady left the station.

Bigotry, Defamation and Sodastream

A lot of those who label themselves pro-Palestinian hold the belief that this means being anti-Israeli. To put it mildly, that’s like saying that a requirement for being a feminist is being a misandrist, or that to be in favour of same-sex marriage you must believe that heterosexual couples are not worthy of the same treatment. It is possible to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine; that’s what’s commonly referred to as the advocation for a two-state solution. The only requirement for being both is not being blind to the positive and negative attributes of either side.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a testament to the double standards held by the international community against Israel. Women are stoned for being raped in the Middle East, and yet the hipster-left doesn’t advocate not flying Emirates or buying electric cars specifically to avoid having to fill up with oil from Saudi Arabian reservoirs. People complain about being labelled anti-Semitic for speaking against Israel, and then try to cite the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Dredging up old blood libels and using anti-Semitic rhetoric is, surprise surprise, going to invite an anti-Semitic label.

It’s not by any means true to say that criticising Israel makes one anti-Semitic, or indeed anti-Zionist. As a Zionist myself, I believe that the only way to properly support Israel is to criticise it when it does the wrong thing. That’s called being reasonable. My personal view is that recent settlement activity made by Israeli authority undermines efforts to achieve peace; I also see the recent UN vote granting Palestine non-voting member status as having the same purpose. Every nation and every group needs to be held accountable for everything that they do. The nature of democratic discourse and the right to free speech entitles us to argue, and to criticise, and even to condemn; but it is an affront to free speech and to democratic discourse to simply boycott one voice.

I respect the majority opinion enough to believe that myopic criticism of Israel is not rooted in anti-Semitism, and I believe that the root of this prejudice lies in the convenience of criticising Israel. The Israelis as a people tend not to see need to explain themselves to foreign powers or the media. They do what they do and then they rely on people like me, Jews living in the Diaspora, to proliferate the clear reasoning behind their actions, which filters down to us from our schools and our community leaders. To us, Israel’s actions are usually very straightforward; a flotilla arrives in their waters full of weapons, for example, and the army boards that flotilla and disarms it with what could probably be regarded as very minimal force, for example. To those of us who have watched the footage, who understand the real and present need to protect Israelis in the wake of constant threat of a third intifada, Israel’s actions are quite reasonable. The same is true of Israel; and it thus does not believe that it needs to explain itself to the media or to foreign powers. Israel does not factor in the massive bias that exists against it in the media, because it does what it does not for the benefit of the international community but for the safety of its citizens. This is the reason it is easy to criticise; it doesn’t explain it’s actions because it doesn’t feel that it needs to. On another level, Israel is easy to criticise because it does not declare war on those who believe it to be wrong. It is not founded on or run by fundamentalists whose priority is to attain supremacy over the ideological discourse of the international community. It accepts criticism and then gets on with the business of government.

I think that only supporting the good things that a nation does is the only way of continuing conversation and dialogue. I applauded the recent decision made by Scarlett Johansson to withdraw from her position as Oxfam ambassador to appear in advertisements for Sodastream, an Israeli endeavour that provides jobs for hundreds of Palestinian workers in the West Bank. Instead of standing by an organisation which would rather see those Palestinians destitute and without work simply to prove an inflammatory point, Johansson stood by the people giving Palestinians the means to work to put, as the great George W. Bush once put it, food on their families.

It’s kind of a paradox, but the only people who shouldn’t be allowed to engage in conversation are those that believe that some voices shouldn’t be heard. We need to have rational conversations, like the ones Eva Cox argued for this evening on Q&A; ones that eschew labels and partisan support and simply argue for each side on its merits, with the ultimate aim being a fair and balanced conversation. Inflammatory rhetoric like “apartheid state”, designed to evoke comparisons to a regime that subjugated its citizens to a way of life not experienced by the Palestinian people living in Israel, does not get anyone anywhere. On an aside, the use of that assertion, that Israel is an apartheid state, is not only inflammatory but also supported by no evidence. There are currently twelve members of the Knesset who are Israeli Arabs, a right that would never have been afforded to black people in South Africa. The only possible reason this phraseology could be used would be to curry myopic favour for the BDS movement, and I err on the side of caution against those who would try to deliver their message through the use of buzz phrases that aren’t relevant to the conversation.

My support for Israel remains not because of some kind of deeply seeded belief that God entitled the Jewish people to that specific plot of land thousands of years ago. It remains because Israel stands as a reasonable, open force for change not just as the only democratic nation in the Middle East, but across the scope of the globe. Recent common law decisions about the way that the fashion industry portrays body image with regard to BMI limits and warnings about doctored images are measures strides ahead of any action taken by other governments on this issue. Israel’s recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other countries reflects a commitment to equality not even taken by our own government. The nation that provides the most humanitarian aid to Palestinians? Israel. Whilst many sit and blindly condemn Israel and its people, choosing to disallow their voices instead of accepting their obvious experience and ability in many nuanced fields, they damage the credibility of their own commitment to education, to diversity, and indeed to open democratic discourse.

I support the right of the Palestinian people to their own state, and I think that makes me pro-the-Palestinian-people. I choose to identify as pro-everyone-who-isn’t-a-convicted-criminal-even-though-that’s-problematic-as-some-convicted-criminals-have-been-rehabilitated-just-look-at-Orange-is-the-New-Black-that’s-got-to-be-an-example-of-how-the-judicial-system-can-inspire-fear-of-recidivism. A rather straightforward position, I think.

Speech at Auschwitz

Today I had the solemn duty of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Poland. At the end of my visit, I spoke to the gathered crowd about what the Holocaust means to me.

Here is that speech.

I’d like to tell you a story about a young girl before I start. Her name was Roszi. When Roszi was about our age, maybe a little older, she was taken from her home with her older sister Lenke. When they reached this place, this awful awful place, Roszi was put in a queue with one of her cousins, and Lenke another. When her cousin noticed this she suggested that the sisters stay together and cousins stay together – and so they swapped. That young girl, Roszi, was my great aunt, and because of that momentary decision, I am blessed to have known her, her son, her two granddaughters and her two great grandsons.

As we’ve visited sites I’ve inevitably thought about the people in my family who weren’t as fortunate as my grandparents and the handful of relatives they had left after the Second World War. About my grandmother’s father, aunts, uncles, cousins. About my grandfather’s sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. And I wonder sometimes about how would be best to remember them.

My grandfather survived the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth. He pulled through with more strength and more sheer life than I’ve seen in any other individual ever before. His smile is what carries me through this place, because even though he saw bodies thrown into a pit he could laugh and he could smile with me in the decades after. And when I see places like this, places where it happened, I’m angry.

But I’ve found on this trip that my anger has worked in mysterious ways. I’m angry at the curtains in my bedroom that don’t fit my windows, at the volume of the movies on the bus that block out my music, at the sheer incessant nonsense that builds up around me. I have nothing to do in this miserable place but hate everything and anything, and to be perfectly honest I just don’t want to hate anymore.

When we left the children’s forest on Thursday, I felt nothing but sheer anger. Anger at the whole entire world – but I realized, not after long, that even though I want to destroy something like a visceral panther I can’t. I can’t help anything by being angry, but I can do a world of good by living.

I wanted to take my own form of revenge.

My grandfather once said, “A man is a man. Whether he is a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, if he is a good man, he is a good man.” With that in mind, I urge you to understand that the survivors of the Holocaust didn’t just survive for us to live our lives Jewishly, though I can’t help but agree that they would have loved us to do so. The message I have taken from this journey is not just for us to live as good Jewish boys and girls – but for us to live as bright and shining human beings.

Be resplendent in your existence. Be as disgustingly individual and good and kind as you can muster in your hearts because if anything, the Holocaust has taught us that nobody, Nazi or otherwise, can tell us that there is a perfect way to live and anyone who doesn’t is condemned to death.

Grow up and eat what you want and live where you want and sing how you want and believe what you want and marry who you want and have how ever many children you want and raise them however you damn well choose because Hitler’s Germany and Hitler’s Poland and Hitler’s Hungary and Czechoslovakia said that people couldn’t, and that makes me sick.

My grandfather always wanted to be an industrial engineer, just like his father was. But because war broke out, he had to train to become a tailor. He couldn’t live the life he wanted because other people made that life impossible. He was forced into a cattle car among some 10,000 other people with no food and water and was lucky to be one of the sixty Jews who survived. He was reduced to eating the roots of grass to live. They made him afraid to seek medical attention for a broken arm because if he had he knew they’d shoot him.

Don’t live your life how someone else tells you to – do what you think is right, because at the end of the day, when they’re marching you into a gas chamber before they burn your body like they’re roasting an animal all you can say is that you didn’t let them take what you were, that you were as kind and as loving and as caring and as good as you could find it within your heart to be, and you’ll go with a conscience as light as a feather.