Friday, 26 August 2011

Digital Existentialism: from "Nausea" to the "Writer's Fugue" can social media polyphony save the world?

Readers who've followed this blog since the beginning four months ago  will know  that - after years as a professional arts writer and academic - I have recently started to blog and am enjoying the freedom of experimenting with what feels to me like a new philosophical condition of digital existentialism, blogging and nothingness, I call it, that I keep returning to here in my posts.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has thoughts to share on their experiences of writing in digital media, how does it shape your sense of identity, how is it different to non digital writing - or not...do you have a different sense of yourself in online writing...is it more, or less, sociable... is there life beyond the screen and how much does that matter?  Does it keep you sane? is it a lifeline or a form of disconnection and dissociation that keeps you attached to the eye of the screen and away from real life?

 I’m not quite sure about that one as I spend so much of my time online.

This blog is like my writing has always been: my way of filling an empty space the realisation of one's own  existence in a cold world. Sartre called it "nausea" in his novel by the same name. I call it 'the writer's fugue' and explored the condition in my PhD: 'The writer's fugue: musicalization, trauma and subjectivity in the literature of modernity'. I may write about that here in later posts... meanwhile I am applying my idea of the 'writer's fugue' to writing in digital media, and it seems to me we're all doing it.. in the process creating a new global polyphony... Maybe if we can create enough positive energy and creativity and love for humanity through digital media writing, reflected in writing that shows the truth of what is happening in the world and what it means to be human in this new digital age of  human/machine,  this will counterbalance the wars and destruction and exploitation of this world and repression of our humanity... before it is too late....and we run out of time in the virtual reality of cyberspace... 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

21st Century Writer's Fugue

Blogging and Nothingness... I must have dozed off mid-flight as we passed over the Middle East.  I was on my way to a conference in London, Culture and the Unconscious... I had in my cabin bag a copy of the paper I was presenting: 'The writer's fugue: a creative gift of magical absence'.


In my dreams the words scrolled across the screen in front of my eyes, and as I watched, hands-free,  the lines of text lit up and began to disappear...


Frantically, I clicked the buttons but the text was escaping without me.


I woke up, sitting on my bed in the cottage in the small Australian town. It's years later and I have been writing as if possessed by the spirit of the times, about terrible events in the world that jump out of the screen every time I turn on the computer. The Norway massacre... over seventy killed by a madman.... Refugee children turned away from Australia's shores and sent back into the darkness of unknowing...massacres, revolutions, wars, crisis after crisis...then the riots begin in England, London, pulling me back in my mind to the city of my birth.


It's the third day of the riots.


As I write the word "insurrection" my browser closes down. A dialogue box pops up. We are sorry [browser] has had to close unexpectedly. Please try to restart [browser] in a few minutes. I persist, restart.


A couple of days later I am writing a piece with the title Don't Blame Single Mothers, about "exemplary" punishments for single mothers who did not take part in the riots; reported in the global online media. One mother facing eviction from her council flat because her 17 year old was in the riots; another "single mother" given a five month jail sentence for accepting a pair of looted shorts- she  should have thought about the example she was setting for her 1 and 5 year old, the judge said.


As I write the word "gangs" the whole line highlights in blue: superfast scrolling up the paragraph, my hands are not even on the keys. The page flicks back to the first page I was writing, highlighting all the text as if looking for something- then just as fast scrolls down again leaving the paragraphs intact-  then flicks me back to the page I was writing. The two paragraphs I had just written about the single mothers, and housing estate children who join gangs, had been erased.


Disappeared.


I stare at the screen without a word. Blank to blank.


It's not just the cottage that's haunted. My computer is haunted too.


I remember that a similar thing happened just after Christmas, after I clicked "like" on a piece someone put up on Facebook with a link to an article in the New York Times on Julian Assange. I thought it was a good article, it seemed to be well researched, factual and seeking to give impartial and contextualised insight into the character and motivations of the founder of wikileaks, apparently it had taken the journalist months to arrange the interview; it read well.


I was surprised to find, a couple of days later, the same item on google  - it had been added to a Facebook group on Julian Assange; my name was prominently displayed- although what I was supposed to "like"  was unclear.


I pressed "unlike".


Instantly, the page started to wobble and shake, the text disappeared, and my computer crashed.


When I was able to restart it with some difficulty, I found that I could not get into my email account.  All my word files - around 1000, 8 years of writing- had disappeared from My Documents.


The files returned a day or so later. And I was able to re-access my email account the next week after contacting the provider and resetting my password.


That was in the end days of my (very) old computer, before I was able to buy a new laptop (a long story that I touched on in some of my early blog entries here).


What is going on?


What are these UFOs on the Other Side of the screen, that shadow us as we write?


That steal our thoughts and eat our words?


On social media sites, many spend considerable time constructing arguments in conversation, finding media clips, links to articles and podcasts, putting thoughts into words.


The page scrolls down and it all disappears.


Where does digital writing on social media sites go?


Forget writing into a void.


In the digital age of virtual reality


we're writing into Nothingness.


In the digital era,


Nothing


has never been more tangible.



Sunday, 21 August 2011

"A Punishment for Being Poor"?: continued

On reflection, I have further points to draw out from the experience I describe my blog entry

UK Riots: "A Punishment for Being Poor"? - life as a young mother on a London council estate

 is that, in a way, anyone can find themselves in the situation of being down and out; but that it is only perhaps when you experience this yourself that you can truly empathise  with and understand the reality that it is the 'atmosphere' generated by the social system and the lived experience of being constructed as socially disadvantaged that  is produced on inner city 'sink' housing estates, that produces social unrest and disorder manifest in anti-social behaviour exemplified in the roots and looting.

And this is an experience of daily living that is imbued with personal and cultural trauma, that in itself leads to disaffection, withdrawal, disconnection and alienation: the qualities that are physically manifest and reflected in the run down dangerous precincts of the estates themselves, but this is a social problem than

The blog entry is  is based on my own experience, and approached in a first attempt at putting the riots (and my own experience into perspective)


From my own experience of living, as a young mother,  in those conditions I found  that personal and cultural trauma seems to result from the living in the atmosphere of social disadvantage that is constructed in the system of subsidised housing and benefits. As I said in the blog entry, it is as if there is a price to pay, a penalty for going onto social security benefits and subsidised council housing. The price  is a loss of social status that is conferred by the system, and which, it seems, is (currently) existentially impossible to escape whilst one is in that atmosphere. As a young mother, that pressure is intensified.

The 'have-nots' forced into this role feel the affects, the shame and sense of failure of being losers, and this effects how they feel about themselves and society. The English class constructions of 'haves' and 'have-nots' leads to other-ing. The riots occurred after the announcements of the austerity measures, when services to the poor including youth clubs and libraries were

The danger is that is only the 'effects' are addressed through measures such as rioters being thrown into jail for lengthy sentences, this does not address let alone try to solve the problem of the causes that create social unrest in the first place, that is the personal and cultural trauma attendant on severe social disadvantage. When did it ever happen that a happy fulfilled person created social mayhem and "mindless crime" at least of the publicly visible, violent, performative kind of riots and open looting that broke out en masse in cities across England? It doesn't happen.

Poor people who live in council estates are human, and they react as humans (in this case they react, badly, as humans who are disconnected and alienated and angry). If the social disadvantages that create such an  atmosphere are not addressed, and ways found to engage the current generation of 'lost '  and socially excluded young people in England  - and other cities around the world-  such outbursts of 'bad behaviour' , of anger, rage and fury will no doubt keep on recurring. It is in the interests of all in society, including those at the top, to find ways of improving the life opportunities and experiences of those born into less fortunate circumstances, to think broadly and apply socially just policies, that apply to all rich and poor alike, for the greater good of all.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

'Gazing Boldly Back and Forward: Urban Aboriginal Women Artists and New Global Feminisms in Transnational Art'

To date, surprisingly little has been published on urban contemporary Aboriginal art in comparison to 'desert' contemporary Aboriginal art. Yet it is a movement - of profound social, political, cultural and artistic significance - that has gained momentum in Australia, and attracted increasing international attention, since the late 1980s. I begin to explore the art and culture of this movement focusing on women artists, in the essay ‘Gazing Boldly Back and Forward: Urban Aboriginal Women Artists and New Global Feminisms in Transnational Art' just published in The International Journal for the Arts in Society. Discussion in the essay focuses on the work of prominent Australian Indigenous artist Fiona Foley's work, including an interview I conducted with Fiona Foley at her retrospective 'Fiona Foley-Forbidden' (2009-10) at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art; the works of artists in the the exhibition Women's Art, Women's Business at Sydney College of the Arts, July 2010; and the context of the Boomali Aboriginal Artist Co-Operative, which Fiona Foley co-founded in 1987. 


I gave a conference presentation based on my research for this paper, at the International Arts in Society Conference at Sydney College of the Arts, last July 2010, which coincided with the Sydney Biennale where Fiona Foley had an installation on Cockatoo Island.

The project was assisted by an Australia Council for the Arts Visual Arts New Work grant.

Here's the abstract of the paper:

Gazing Boldly Back and Forward: Urban Aboriginal Women Artists and New Global Feminisms in Transnational Art

By Ruth Skilbeck

Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian women contemporary artists made an important contribution to the foundational impacts and ongoing significance of feminism and the 1970s Women’s Art Movement on all that has followed in international contemporary art. Whereas distance from Euro-centric culture was once lamented by Australian settlers as a tyranny, critical distance from colonial power discourses has functioned as a strength for women artists who use their art to gaze back not only at colonial oppression of Indigeneity, but also at western art’s historical hegemonic male representation of women in the public cultural domain. Women artists do this by representing themselves. Fiona Foley, one of Australia’s foremost artists and a curator, academic and writer, has since the 1980s in her art confronted political issues of Indigeneity and identity as a woman in a cultural history of trauma and dispossession- bearing witness to her cultural heritage as a descendent of the Badtjala people, who were forcibly removed from K’gari or Thoorgine (Fraser Island) in the early twentieth century. The paper applies an innovative multimodal fugal critical analysis – drawing on psychological and musical meanings of fugue – to discuss Foley’s work; the paper draws on an interview the author conducted with Fiona Foley at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, including photographs of the artist and images of her work. The analysis focuses on Foley’s site specific installation at Cockatoo Island at the Sydney Biennale 2010, and her recent survey show at the MCA.

Keywords:
Australian Contemporary Women Artists, Urban Aboriginal Australian Artists, Indigenous Art, Global Feminisms, Fugal Writing


International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 5, Issue 6, pp.261-276. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.078MB).

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

UK Riots: "A Punishment for Being Poor?" continued...

Following my previous blog entry,
UK Riots: "A Punishment for Being Poor"? - life as a young mother on a London council estate
should also add to that the riots in the UK occurred as Britain prepares for austerity measures with severe cuts to social services including public libraries, health, education and community services; and that in the poor areas in London that I refer to, cutbacks and closures of public facilities such as youth clubs and programs for young people have already begun.

Monday, 15 August 2011

UK Riots: Moral Extremes Reflected in Social Media Use

By Ruth Skilbeck
'Barbarians' at each end of the social scale were blamed for the riots that swept Britain last week; media commentators and religious leaders linked the predominantly socially disadvantaged young rioters behaviour in looting hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of fashion, sports wear and electronic goods across the land to an ethical disconnection, a breakdown in civic identity, deficiency in education, and lack of moral role models and leadership in contemporary consumer society that has been hi-jacked by market values.
Whereas the uprisings in the Arab world this year have been fuelled by a drive for democracy; the rioters in Britain focused on breaking into shops and looting the kinds of consumer items they wanted for themselves. The riots were triggered by the murder of Mark Duggan, a Tottenham man shot dead by the police. The uprisings that swept the land for the next four night may have seemed disproportionate, and dissociated from that event, yet the responses of some commentators and moral leaders, suggest they may be understood as a spontaneous outburst of unlawful acting out that reflects the climate of greed and moral decay of the wider consumer society, at high levels; as Britain prepares for austerity measures. 
The Telegraph pointed out that the riots occurred in England shortly after a series of exposures of corruption, greed and ‘looting’ by the upper classes - through tax evasion, the excessive imbalances of wealth in the GFC and the immoral conduct of the News of the World hacking scandal which saw politicians glossing over the unlawful behavior of media magnates, in a blog article, by Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator: 'The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom' (11/8/11). Amongst several  examples he gave of of high level corruption and greed he included the recent attendance of Prime Minister David Cameron at the News International summer party, “even though the media group was at the time subject to not one but two police investigations” related to the phone hacking scandal. 
Oborne condemned the award to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson of a position in Downing Street “although he knew at the time that Coulson had resigned after criminal acts were committed under his editorship.” 
Oborne pointed out that in order to ever face the problems that have emerged this week in the riots across the land, the problems must be located far more widely than in inner city housing estates. 
He wrote: “The culture of greed and impunity... stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the political and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.” 
Meanwhile, the Guardian UK Riots blog, and the Telegraph (12/8/11) reported that in an emergency sitting of the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the riots reflected a “breakdown not of society as such but a sense of civic identity, shared identity, shared responsibility.” He advocated education as part of the solution to revive a sense of moral agency and identity. He said. "Can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens.”
The same blog article in the Telegraph quoted the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev. Richard Chartres saying  a lack of “good role models”  for many children in disadvantaged areas was a contributing factor in the looting and disorder of the past week.
Social media was blamed in parliament for aiding the uprisings as rioters contacted each other through BlackBerry Messenger a closed network system where one message can be send out to multiple receivers. There were calls for more regulation. Blackberry agreed to work with the authorities in their investigations.  However social media in the form of twitter was also the means by which people came together in communities in local clean-ups after the riots; showing once again that what is important is not the technological tools of communication but how they are used by people.


© Ruth Skilbeck, 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

UK Riots: "A Punishment for Being Poor"?- life as a young mother on a London council estate

by Ruth Skilbeck
Twenty years ago I took flight to another life in Australia. But my experience of living as a young mother on a ‘sink’ council housing estate in Camden, North London gave me an insight into the brutal reality of the influences that shape children growing up in that environment - that go beyond individual parenting; to the wider environment and social atmosphere of living in disadvantage in an unequal ‘consumer society’ where greed is a dominant value, the meaning of life is shopping, social status can be ‘bought’ with money, and celebrity culture replaces individual agency. 

It’s taken me a few days to write about the riots of looting, burning and disorder that have torn across England this week, displaying all too vividly evidence of the loosening bonds of the social contract and raising urgent questions of responsibility for the breakdown of civic values in contemporary “Consumer Society” in England. How could the uprisings have happened? 
Like many who have put thoughts into words on the riots that swept across England this week, I have struggled  to understand and analyse these events and put them into a meaningful context. Hordes of masked and hooded teenagers and children running riot, setting fire to buildings, smashing windows and looting hundreds of thousands pounds worth of consumer goods - the most expensive Armani gear, TVs, electronic goods, sports wear- night after night in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and many smaller cities and town centres, destroying local businesses and causing counter measures by groups of local vigilantes coming onto the streets to defend  property and people... The uprisings were triggered by the murder of Mark Duggan, a Tottenham man shot dead by the police. Yet the magnitude of the waves of ‘apolitical’ riots that followed, and drew in a wide cross sector of male and female, black and white children and teenagers, students and older people, seemed at first surreal, like a cross between a Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, a Ray Bradbury short story... and shopping...All in the height of an English summer as the politicians were away on holiday and the police temporarily stood back.
The news that I’ve been following online, has cut close to the bone; even though I’m far away physically now in Australia; triggereing forgotten memories of why I left London. 
Twenty years ago, next month, I fled the Camden ‘sink’ housing estate where I was living, pregnant and with toddler in tow. I left in search of a better life for my children than the dismal ‘No Future” I saw around me everywhere on the litter-strewn, violent council estate. In the local playgrounds with their hypodermic needles and broken glass. In the domestic violence that blackened eyes and knocked out teeth of young mothers, my neigbours. In the hopelessness of being labelled one of the (millions of) ‘have-nots‘ alienated in Thatcher’s Britain.
I had been allocated a council flat when I was a philosophy student living in a squat with my then husband, an artist with a post-punk band. There was a chronic housing shortage and thousands of vacant council properties across London. We were (by default) part of the ‘Squat the Lot’ squatting movement of the Eighties that utilised those empty properties. For over a year we lived with a group of artists and musicians and a couple who worked in a merchant bank, in a magnificently dilapidated four-storey regency terrace house in Delancey Street one of Camden’s elegant crescents overlooking Regents Park. 
Even though there were some privations (I went through 7 months of my pregnancy with no hot water until someone worked out how to turn on the water heating system) this was compensated by a sense of community and shared purpose in that household. I read Philosophy of Mind and Phenomenology, Brentano, Leibniz, Wittgenstein and Sartre and completed my degree.  When I found out I was expecting I went to the local council, which owned the property, and was informed that the house would not be evicted for at least a year after the baby due date, so we might as well stay put for a while. We decorated our rooms in the basement and made a nursery. Two weeks before the due date, contrary to what I'd been told by the council,  the eviction notice came. Just about to give birth was no time to ask to sleep on a friend’s sofa; with no money for a bond, I went back to the council housing office feeling, desperately, like a certain personage in a well known biblical story. We were given ‘emergency accommodation’ in a ‘bed and breakfast hotel’ that turned out to be the top floor flat of a redbrick Victorian mansion in Tufnell Park. 
This was when my experience of the ‘other world’ began. Like George Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris, I was to find out firsthand how it felt to be poor and alienated in London. In any other circumstances it could have been a great flat although it was a little small and cramped, comprising two rooms and a kitchenette. When I’d first moved to London eight years before from Dublin as a freelance journalist, by coincidence, I had rented a much smaller studio flat in a similar looking red brick mansion in an adjacent street in Tufnell Park. It was very expensive (on my writer’s budget); the house was filled with young professionals and other working people, my sister and her partner who had an advertising agency in Soho lived upstairs. The flat above mine was filled with a very large family from somewhere in Asia. The corridors were clean and the rubbish bins neatly lined in the well kept front garden. The house was a pleasant place to live, and the residents, though friendly, kept to themselves.
The atmosphere was very different in the house I called the ‘Homeless Hotel’. What was missing was the communal behaviour that enables people to share and maintain a (safe) living space. In the months I lived there -babe in arms- I had to negotiate a dangerous Rottweiler roaming the corridors and defecating on the stairs; watching in horror from my upstairs window the same dog savage the two year old child of the dog owners, in the back garden.The rubbish bins were constantly overflowing with dirty nappies strewn about the front lawn. My mail was stolen for months by my neighbours. The man living in the next door flat with his ten year old daughter, was taken away by the police as he was apparently molesting her. The fighting of the couple with the Rottweiler reverberated through the paper thin walls; every time I passed the young mother she had fresh bruises on her face. One day she had no front teeth.  Every Thursday Danny the owner of the building would drive up in his latest model Porsche to collect the sheets and hand out fresh ones. That was the extent of his hotel services, for which he charged the council a staggering 580 pounds a week for our small flat alone (and there were six flats in the building). He swaggered in and out of the house with a big smile on his smooth tanned face. I was perpetually surprised by how well he got on with my brawling neighbours and never mentioned the Rottweiler in the hallway. They seemed to admire his audacity and talked about him indulgently as if they felt favoured to have a ‘landlord’ with a Porsche. I on the other hand could not relate to him at all. 
After several months the disconnection from social normalcy began to threaten my sense of identity, and affect my relationship with my husband. I had thought we were an island of creativity and enlightened values, but it seemed that we were not immune to the toxic atmosphere we were living in.
When I moved to the estate I realised after a short while that it was not much better- it was not an atmosphere that I wanted my children to grow up in. No matter how much I wanted it to be a good place to live, I could see there were problems that were way beyond my capacity to change. It was as if the problems were built into the very structure of the estate itself. Pregnant and ill with bronchitis, I was overcome by the urge to take flight. 
Due to my parents Australian/British heritage we were able to emigrate to Australia to bring up the children in a very different environment and atmosphere in Sydney.
This week, watching the riots online in podcasts on my laptop, reading the rolling blogs and coverage from the Guardian online, the memories of how and why I left come flooding back. I still have two sisters in London, in Hackney and Brixton, boroughs which like Camden were amongst the centres of the riots; yet they stayed and brought up their children there. I was born in Clapham, and it’s true too that, ironically, for many years not a day passed that I did not miss my hometown like an amputated limb. Paradoxically I also had regular anxiety dreams that we’d never left the flat on the Estate.
As I watch the coverage and read the reports and analyses, I realise that my instinct to flee was (most probably) justified. If we’d stayed there my children could have grown up on that estate. There was nothing much for the kids to do. They formed gangs because they identified with each other. (There are now over one million young people in London alone that do not have jobs or an education). Pushing my baby buggy through beautiful millionaire’s Camden Square across the road to the estate was not a good feeling, it made me feel like a social failure. Some of my friends refused to visit. A woman from my baby group said she wouldn’t visit me in the estate because she didn’t feel safe walking there.
I came from a different social background (my parents were academics)  but like many I found myself in circumstances needing accommodation yet not being able to afford the ‘market rent’ for a family home; a council flat seemed like a viable option. It was as if in taking that option, I had crossed an invisible line. As if there was a symbolic price to pay for the subsidised housing and that was a visible loss of social standing. It was like a punishment for being poor.      


                                                       *
Whilst the authorities have gone about the process of arresting and charging the rioters, media commentators have sought to analyse and understand the ‘root causes’ of the uprisings.
In the analyses of the riots numerous commentators refer to to social inequalities and the culture of greed building up over thirty years since the last major riots in Brixton in 1981 in the Thatcher era; when Thatcher declared that there was no such thing as society just lots of individuals. I lived in London for ten years of those thirty, throughout the 80s of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ when one of the oft heard  slogans was ‘Greed is Good’. It was in that era that social structures that had been built up over decades began to be dismantled.
The initial analyses of the riots have tended to be polarised between the ‘hang em and flog em’ ‘right wing’ criminalization brigade and the ‘its all social conditions’ ‘left wing’ view, yet what has also been emerging in the analyses and commentary in the mainstream media and through the chattering on social media sites facebook, and twitter, is that there is something new and unprecedented in the ‘apolitical’ quality of the uprisings which took as its object the compulsive looting of consumer goods, and which most disturbingly drew in so many children and young teenagers. Many agree that the riots are a reflection of imbalances in ‘consumer society’ that have build up over at least thirty years, since the Thatcher era of the 80s that did away with the idea of society in place of individuals pursuing their own interests.
Some have pointed out that the riots are akin to a reflex, a reflection and an expression of deep discontent rising up within in and against Consumer Society which is also class-based (hence as it has been pointed out why did the riots not start and occur in rich area such as Henley)? Such an analysis attributes in this ‘uprising’ the absence of meaning and values of consumerism where shopping for expensive goods is supposed to give life meaning. Many of the young people were influenced by ‘gangster chic’ rap culture where the music and fashion industry flaunts consumer goods that the majority of ‘consumers’ in the target audience could never afford ( ironically even if some individuals for example ‘celebrities’ do achieve wealth as the recent death of Amy Winehouse showed this does not necessarily bring a meaningful or happy life and can even deepen a sense of individual alienation). 

The fashion brands favoured by the looters have become a source of analysis with some brands furious at  images of rioters in their clothing and what this will do to their image. An article in the Guardian, ‘Love-affair with gangster-chic turns sour for top fashion brands’ (12/8/11) acknowledges that for some this will increase the street-cred of the clothes. 

Quoted in the Guardian, Mark Borkowski, PR and marketing specialist  said: “Brands have been aligning themselves with gang and criminal culture for decades but ramped up their association with less clean-cut figures in recent years.” Borkowski added: “The riots on the streets have triggered unprecedented middle-class opprobrium, but in a sense this adds to the uncomfortable coolness of the brands." In the same article Mark Ritson, columnist for Marketing Week magazine is quoted agreeing that “by association with the riots and looting” the most-stolen brands will receive "extra street cred".

Numerous commentators have pointed out the riots that the riots occurred in England shortly after a series of exposures of the corruption, greed and ‘looting’ of the upper classes - through tax evasion, the excessive imbalances of wealth in the GFC and the immoral conduct of the News of the World hacking scandal which saw politicians glossing over the unlawful behavior of media magnates, as pointed out in a blog article, by Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator: The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.' (11/8/11). Amongst several  examples of high level corruption, moral decay and greed he included the recent attendance of Prime Minister David Cameron at the News International summer party, “even though the media group was at the time subject to not one but two police investigations” related to the phone hacking scandal. 


Oborne condemned the award to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson of a position in Downing Street “although he knew at the time that Coulson had resigned after criminal acts were committed under his editorship.” 
Oborne pointed out that in order to ever face the problems that have emerged this week in the riots across the land, the problems must be located far more widely than in inner city housing estates. 
He writes: “The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the political and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.” “
The Guardian UK Riots blog, and the Telegraph (12/8/11) reported that in an emergency sitting of the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the riots reflected a “breakdown not of society as such but a sense of civic identity, shared identity, shared responsibility.” He advocated education as part of the solution to inculcate a sense of moral agency and identity.
“Over the last two decades, many would agree that our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship,” he said. "Can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens.”
The same blog article in the Telegraph quoted the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev. Richard Chartres saying  a lack of “good role models”  for many children in disadvantaged areas was a contributing factor in the looting and disorder of the past week.
Two hundred  years ago it was poor thieves on London streets that were sent in droves as convicts to Australia.  Now it's not so easy to gain access as the immigration laws have considerably tightened since then. Flight or fight is a typical response to stress.  And that’s also what’s made me uncomfortable about watching the riots from afar, my disconnection: it’s a feeling like survivor guilt. I was able to get out. So many aren’t. Should I have stayed and tried to improve my community on the estate which I had thought seriously about and tried to become involved in until I fell ill (and pregnant) and my survival instinct to flee took over. I still miss all the good aspects about the street life, the ever changing language and creativity of life in London, the freedom of expression and speech and the dry wit, and my family...But at least I can stay in contact through social media; still read the papers every day online. 
My thoughts are with the communities coming together, organising through social media, twitter, to clean up their neighborhoods after the riots, and to all the people and groups with noble intentions who are seeking to repair the damage on more complex levels that are far harder to clean-up.
                                                                                                             
                                                                      14 August 2011
© Ruth Skilbeck, 2011
More to follow on UK riots.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Refugee children and the Malaysia Solution: "a very scary proposition"

By Ruth Skilbeck 
In the lead-up to the Australian Labour government’s proposed ‘Malaysia Solution’ - ‘swapping’ 800 asylum seekers in detention in Australia for 4000 ‘cleared refugees’ from Malaysia, with no ‘blanket exemptions’ - I spoke via email with Dr Rosie Scott, novelist and social justice activist, on a renewed movement  in Australia to end mandatory detention of children.
Refugee children are back in the news in Australia. The government’s implementation on Friday (5/8/11) of the hardline ‘Malaysia Solution’- that will deport all asylum seekers to Malaysia including unaccompanied children- has caused an ‘uproar’ including criticism from the United Nation’s children’s agency, UNICEF, that this will not only traumatise the children for life but also damage Australia’s international reputation as a compassionate country. The government’s determination to deport 14 unaccompanied minors, has led to calls for reconsideration from UNICEF.


In Australia, in the politicisation of ‘the refugee problem’ the most widespread concern has focused on the most vulnerable: refugee children. The traumatic impact of mandatory detention on children’s mental and physical health was extensively documented in A Last Resort, National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, by the Australian Human Rights Commission (2004) which led to increased calls for policy change. During the years of the Howard government a very strong movement lobbied for refugee rights and specifically for the humane protection of children, through the organisation, ChilOut.  One of the platforms of the incoming Rudd Labour government was policy change to end detention of children, yet 


this was never fully implemented. ChilOut was quiet for a few years, until it became clear that 'alarming' numbers of children were still being held in detention. Last month, with talk of policy change in the air, ChilOut renewed its campaign placing an advertisement in the Weekend Australian (3-4 July 2011) calling to end children’s mandatory detention. Dr Rosie Scott is one of those involved in the campaign. I spoke with her via email about the impacts of changing refugee policies in Australia, and the controversial Malaysia Solution, on the youngest and most vulnerable asylum seekers.
Ruth Skilbeck: Since 2007 when we talked about writers exiled in Australia * held in mandatory detention, there have been several changes in refugee policy; one of these was the change in policy to prohibit the holding of children in mandatory detention. In your view how much has changed since 2007?
 Rosie Scott: It was not  made into law, as up until very recently there were still  over 1000 children in detention- there are still 300 in locked detention now. The others have been moved to community detention. So there are still children being locked up in Australia and  the strong likelihood of the numbers increasing again. There is still overcrowding, a rise in  self harming especially among teenagers,  and other signs of mental illness- there are still riots,  hunger strikes, suicide and despair. Some refugee advocates say the situation is worse, it's certainly no better. 

Ruth Skilbeck: What needs to be, and can be done to improve conditions, and lives, for refugees including children arriving in Australia?
 Rosie Scott: The basic problem is mandatory detention. In a system like New Zealand people are first of all evaluated and those who have a legal right to stay are put into the community, given support, English lessons etc to get their lives together. We also did it in the 50s in Australia - where they stayed in hostels. This is cost effective, humane and positive for society. Mandatory detention of refugees in camps run by commercial operators will always  be open to abuse and leads to long term mental illness, huge costs for society in both money and in human rights abuses. 
Ruth Skilbeck: What are your views on the debate over the proposal to send 800 Australian refugees to Malaysia in ‘exchange’ for 4,000 cleared refugees from there?
Rosie Scott: This is a very scary proposition. At a recent rally a Malaysian human rights lawyer spoke eloquently about the treatment of refugees in Malaysia - they have no legal safeguard nor rights - the camps are hideous, with bad food, canings and inhuman conditions. It is outrageous that we are deliberately putting human beings into this situation.
Ruth Skilbeck: Can you talk about the term used by politicians in the media of being sent “to the back of the queue.” What is this supposed queue that keeps recurring in the policy debate?
Rosie Scott: The 'queue' is an old myth. Anyone who is knowledgable about the way refugee camps work know that the so-called queues, if they in fact exist, can lead to years and years in limbo in camps  with no certainty of  ever being accepted anywhere.

Ruth Skilbeck: To your knowledge are there still any exiled writers in mandatory detention in Australia? Around the world? Why is it important to campaign for the release of exiled writers?
Rosie Scott: No, I haven't heard of any in Australia - I'm sure they exist here and in other countries though. The reason we don't know much about individual refugees is because the policy of putting them into inaccessible camps like Christmas Island means it is much harder for us to contact people individually and visit them (which of course is the reason for the policy).
Ruth Skilbeck: What can be done by concerned citizens to help the situation of writers in exile; children in refugee centres and others held in mandatory detention?
Rosie Scott: A concerted movement of writing to MPs, setting up ads, contacting the refugees in the camps and helping them in practical ways, getting as much  publicity for their cause as possible, rallying, keeping the cause continually  in front of the public, advocating for individual refugees, supporting  organisations like ChilOut, RACV, Bridge for Asylum Seekers, and Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, - in fact all the actions many thousands of Australians took during the Howard era.
Ruth Skilbeck: The ‘problem’ of increasing refugees around the world is arguably the biggest social issue of the 21st century, the social equivalent of climate change; and in many ways they may be linked, with sadly an ever increasing number of environmental refugees fleeing from natural disasters., as well as war... Do you have any visions on what can be done to create a sustainable situation for refugees in Australia, and globally?
Rosie Scott: My comments about the way New Zealand does it apply here too, so the social costs of accepting refugees here are minimised and end up enriching the life of Australians as they have done in the past..   We can also do our bit for climate change by agreeing to the tax and by creating a sustainable economy. While we have  media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and politicians like Tony Abbott (both of whom are strongly supported by oil and coal companies) who run a full time  and well-funded  campaign against  any attempts to counteract climate change, it's an uphill battle - but recent events in News Corporation have made the world a bit more hopeful that the truth will out and the urgent action needed will happen.
Ruth Skilbeck: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the new ChilOut campaign, or anything else to do with these issues?
Rosie Scott: ChilOut ran a magnificent campaign in the past  and now they're gearing up to do the same - they  need our support for this.
[Email interview: 15 July, 2011.]
If nothing else, one thing that is become increasingly clear in this latest round of political ‘Solutions’ is that the ‘refugee problem’ goes beyond party politics; arguably like global warming and the global economy it is a global world wide problem that is beyond the scope of any one country to solve; it will take a whole world approach to effectively manage it. In the meantime as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol, Australia, unlike some of our regional neighbours who are not signatories, has made an international commitment to offering compassionate refuge to asylum seekers, of all ages.
© Ruth Skilbeck 2011
*Skilbeck, Ruth  (2010), ‘Exiled writers, Human Rights, and Social Advocacy Movements in Australia: A Critical Fugal Analysis’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, September 2010, pp. 280-296
*Skilbeck, Ruth (2009).'Arts Journalism and Exiled Writers: A Case Study of Fugal, Reflexive Practice'. Pacific Journalism Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Oct 2009: 132-151