How the President-elect Refined my Attitude

I have written recently of my feeling that the words of the male candidate in the recent US Presidential election somehow left language tainted. And I started to regret my every dirty thought and word. Deeper than my aesthetic recoil, and more disturbing, is how I felt shamed: I felt I was somehow unworthy simply by belonging to the same gender. I have found it difficult to explain this feeling; I do so here, expecting, like Saint Thomas Moore in Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for all Seasons’, to make myself completely obscure.

The White House


 
If the groper made me feel dirty, the release of details of the murder of a bride in the country town of Leeton accentuated and deepened my discomfort. The facts of that murder shocked and disgusted the nation. We heard uncontested evidence from the defendant’s statement: I had to kill her, I wasn’t angry or anything. Basically emotionless. Just that I had to kill her. Two months before the murder the defendant typed search terms into his computer that included, bride rape, bride kidnapping, necro rape, bride raped with wedding dress. Australians heard this evidence and shuddered. We heard how he had actively stalked up to six other women in the area, how he had photographed a twelve-year old girl 1800 times and recorded her movements in a notebook. Of that child he said, had he abducted her, he probably would have killed her.
 
Detail followed detail of methodical and revolting acts that preceded and followed the fatal attack. I absorbed all of this with growing horror. I am a Leeton boy. The offender was a cleaner at the primary school and the Infants’ School I attended in Leeton. He cleaned half a dozen schools in the area including the boarding school where my best friend was educated.
 

Yanco Agricultural High School


Any reader with a stomach for revolting reality can find more detail on the net. I don’t care to elaborate. The perpetrator’s menu of horrors is vast. Instead, I want to trace the way in which I felt shame that lingered, and surfaced again and again within my mind. Somehow the Groping Candidate and the killer, widely as their acts differ in proportion, resided in the same part of my mind. It takes no great insight to see that the words of one and the acts of the second exhibit a shared disrespect for female humans. For both the woman is meat. Appetite expresses itself without remorse.
 
Horrible, uncommonly so, but why feel shame? I surveyed my life as a male: consciously randy from the age of five (when a pretty red-headed classmate informed my mother, ‘Howard kisses me and lifts up my dress’); raised in a family where the male ruled by silent assent; nurtured by a loving mother who demanded respectful behaviour towards all (‘Darling, whatever you and a girlfriend agree to do together, you must never boast of it to other boys!’); recoiling at my father’s words after he returned from examining the body of an eighteen-year old girl, raped then murdered (‘All that poor girl did wrong was to be born female.’) – I realise that I share appetites with those men who disgust me.
 
To have appetite must surely be guiltless. To think thoughts, to feel urges, must be close to universal. We thought, we felt, but we did not act in those egregious ways.
 
Females of my generation have given their men opportunity to learn that gaze can offend, intrude, unsettle. We have been led to understand the complex nature of harassment, the ubiquity of unspoken postures of dominance, the power of language to hurt. Those of our generation who relinquished authority are the first and only group I can think of to wield power and to surrender it readily. Gratefully in my case.
 
As I learned how women have been hurt I came to realise how much that I liked of myself, might be termed ‘feminine’. Nevertheless my self-examination was the impulse of uncomfortable conscience. All those behaviours of mine were well short of shameful. They fall into the class of behaviour that I never wished my daughters to endure. But they are not atrocity.
 
But shouldering and shoving their way into my mind come the Candidate and the Convict from my place of innocence (for the town of my childhood had retained its rustic peacefulness); and my mind arraigns me in that same dock.

The Last Refugee

Imagine this. A disaster at sea, a lifeboat adrift, full of survivors, now despairing, now in hope, as land takes form through the mists ahead. A form is seen in the water. The boat comes alongside, the form is human and alive. The human extends an arm in supplication. Weary survivors take the limb and heave. The lifeboat, already heavily laden, tilts, takes water. The heavers persist in their heaving and the boat takes more water. A murmur within the boat swells to a cry: “Let him go!”

But the human is already aboard. The boat rights itself, the shouting subsides to a murmuring. The boat drifts on.

Imagine this: a second story. Australia prospers, confidence surges and trust becomes the settled order of things. Somehow Australia’s peoples lose their fears of difference, neither Sharia nor Tjukurrpa nor Kosher is imposed by any person upon any other person, but all are respected and all thrive. The leaders of the government decide to lead opinion rather than to follow it. They declare, “We who have plenty can take in those who have nothing more their need and their stories. Let us welcome them, let them come in!”

And so it comes to pass. Australia booms, its empty lands are claimed, cultivated and nurtured under the guiding hand of the first inhabitants. Australia feeds its peoples, feeds Asia, and prospers greatly. The seekers for asylum fulfil the promise that every newcomer brings. Australia accepts scores of thousands, who succeed in the new land and become part of the community. The community now takes in hundreds of thousands as History smiles upon the land and even the climate shows clemency.

The seekers for refuge are numberless, the land is vast, its resources seem endless. Eventually the land is filled. The flow of seekers for refuge slows to a trickle. It stops. All now are saved, all are safe. But wait! A boat. Aboard the boat are two persons. They extend supplicating arms. The peoples of Australia, accustomed to rescue, habituated and drenched in its ethos, wish to help. But their land is full. There is no room for newcomers. Australians squeeze up together, they wish to rescue those people who extend those arms. They make room, a little room: just one, one alone can be squeezed in. But there are two humans in the boat.

Imagine this: a third story. A lifeboat full of survivors of shipwreck drifts in an uncertain sea. This boat is full. Its gunwhales barely clear the calm surface. Whenever the seas rise all bail mightily to save the boat that saves them, and the boat remains afloat. The boat drifts on.

A shape is seen ahead in the water. As the boat comes alongside, the shape moves, cries, flings human words of thanks, raises an arm in supplication. All aboard the craft can see, all understand: “This lifeboat is barely afloat. If we take in this human his weight will sink us; every one of us – every human person – is lost.”

So much for my little stories. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my pain, my outrage, my shame. All that old stuff. My eruptions of moral rage have brought a brief pleasure, a relief not unlike the visceral satisfaction of purging. But these explosions achieve nothing, convince no-one who is not already convinced, influence no-one in government.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an awards ceremony for defenders of human rights. I told my lifeboat stories. I pointed out Australia’s lifeboat is not full. I was grand in my flight of brave words and noble ideals. I carried the audience, which, led by two Federal parliamentarians, rose as one to applaud. Afterwards each of the parliamentarians, one a frontbencher in the government, requested a copy of my speech which they’d put up on their websites. One confided: ”You have said what we would like to say but cannot.”

What to do? What more to do? What can we – we powerless people do – beyond voicing our outrage, our shame, our grief? Firstly, we must continue to raise that human voice, to give human words to the suffering of fellow humans. That voice, those words, these are the marks of our being human. These words, the irreducible minimum:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

By: Dan Pagis

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I

But what more? As my little stories suggest, ultimately we persons of good will – and I mean that to refer to my fellow Australians at large – sooner or later must face a terrible choice. At the end of all our rescuing there will always be one more supplicant, one too many for our resources, for our lifeboat. We will face a choice. This is Sophie’s choice, whereby we will chose one to be saved and send another – a human other – to perdition.

But Australia’s lifeboat is not yet full. So, what more, what wiser, what more potent act can we non-governors do? The answer cannot be simple, but our powers of imagination, of thinking hard and speaking softly, have helped in the past. Thus Petro Georgiou of happier memory, with Jozef Szwarc, softened the adamantine policies of John Howard. The image of a dead child floating in the shallows of Lesvos softened the policies of Tony Abbott.

I know of one small group in a faith congregation that has approached leaders of other faiths in an attempt to think hard together and to speak softly together to those who govern. State governors have spoken for their people, saying, give us the children; let them not return to offshore detention. Dr David Isaacs blew a whistle on his return from offshore that mobilised doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and now at Lady Cilento in Brisbane. The RCH refuses to discharge child patients to places of detention. We must understand that for what it is: the RCH is not some Marxist commune, not a place of sedition. It is rather an emblem in the state of Victoria. It stands for the highest skill and care. When the RCH speaks it carries Victoria. None gainsays its voice or its acts.

So, what to do? Think hard, confer, suggest, bring ideas to government. One idea, hardly original, strikes me as promising: let Australia progressively divert funds, currently used for offshore detention, towards a respectable, respectful supra-national staging and assessment process in south Asia. There we would maintain accessible, supportive consular representation. No-one would need to board a leaky boat, no-one would need to jump a queue, no human person would come to Australia and be called by a SIEV number. Our brothers and sisters would arrive with their own names.

We might save money, we might not. Neither governments nor we the governed see these issues in money terms: governments never count the cost when augmenting our cruelties; and we bleeding hearts never count beans. No, these issues are strangely unmonetised. The people of Australia hanker quietly to regain some self-respect.

Respectful policies will save lives. We might save our souls.

Do you have a better idea? Work on it, tell your minister of religion, your minister of the crown, the playgroup mothers, the neighbours. Governments need to follow. It is up to us to lead. We won’t save everyone, but we can hardly do worse than we do at present.

The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”

How to Persecute a Smoker

You do not have to try very hard to make the smoker feel miserable. I know, having persecuted smokers for forty five years with all the zeal of the reformed addict. I gave up smoking in 1952 on medical advice. The doctor said I would suffer if I continued to smoke. Although he spoke of chronic lung disease the suffering I feared was a spanking. The doctor in question was my father.

I heeded his advice although it wasn’t easy. Every afternoon on our return from school my older brother and I encountered warm cigarette butts dropped onto the paved area where Dad’s smoking patients smoked until Dad called them in and started to persecute them for smoking. Dennis and I liked to pick up the butts, still gleaming with warm saliva, and take a little puff. Addictive stuff.

Once I was a medical student I could commence practice in my own right. I did so with a will. Never more sincere is the doctor than when battling against smoking: the cigarette and the doctor, precisely opposed, work to antithetical ends: the doctor needs to save, the cigarette needs to sell the next cigarette. In the end death defeats both doctor and cigarette. In the grave no-one sees a doctor and no-one smokes – hell might be different – and both Phillip Morris and Doctors Goldenberg have lost a customer, an addict, a slave.

Over the course of my initial decade as a doctor I grilled every patient capable of holding a cigarette about smoking. It didn’t matter what prompted your visit – the common cold, halitosis from any orifice, bleeding gums or malformed toes – I asked: “Are you a smoker?”

If the answer came, “Yes”, I was off. I informed, I warned, I hectored, I described the coils of cancer and told you smokers stank and as a result they got less sex. I lied. Of course I lied. For the greater good – we do that – we, the militant non-addicted.

I was good at my job. The confessed smoker (Yes Doctor, I did smoke half a cigarette… last month… it was my fourteenth birthday) sits arraigned before me. Relentlessly virtuous, like Senator Joe Mc Carthy, I pursued her.

After a decade I conducted an audit: of 50,000 patients I knew of two who ceased smoking on my advice. Both were ladies well into their eighties. The remainder? They listened to my advice, my graphic predictions, they quivered, shivered, trembled, and – crests fallen – they hurried outside and lit up a comforting fag. Some, too far gone in their degraded state, far beyond fear, felt simple shame. In their misery, they paid, they left, they lit up.

I am sure part of the secret of my success was my sincerity. My purity. I’d ask, not “Do you smoke?” but, “Are you a smoker?” No longer a person but a type, the confessed malefactor sat among the categories, the undesirables: rapists, stabbers, mother rapists…

They’d confess: “Yes, I blow up buses, yes I molest small children, yes” – whispering now – “I smoke.”

We see her, the smoker, in her degraded state. Huddled with others in winter doorways, banished from indoors, she shivers just as she smokes her entrails. Ragged, condemned, outside, outside of the good.

History of course tells us that one day she will rise. Her time will come. Gathering others who are disrespected – the homeless, the mentally ill, global warming deniers, real estate agents, politicians, clergy, boat people, Muslims, Zionists – she and all those we have persecuted will agglomerate and strike. Blowing cigarette smoke in our faces, the smoker will have her day.

Doctor and Suer

I ate breakfast with a sixty-year old doctor who told me he’d retired from doctoring. He is a paediatrician, a member of that special tribe of doctors whose hallmark is kindness.

I congratulated him on his courage. It takes courage to walk away from a mistress as beautiful – or as possessive – as Medicine.

‘Oh no, I wasn’t brave; the opposite. I was sued.’

‘Really?’

Why was I surprised? Even in his quiet state of Tasmania we Aussies follow America in so much.

I wondered what he’d done.

‘Nothing. I wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong. That was the problem: rather I was accused of not doing something right; I didn’t detect a cancer that was diagnosed years later. By the time the cancer was found it had spread and could not be cured.’

My friend told me the story: how the woman consulted him for breastfeeding advice when her new baby was four days old for breast pain that went away over the following week. Two years later an aggressive breast cancer was discovered.

The woman visited my friend only once. By the time the case came to court the unfortunate patient had no memory of my friend.

America’s doyenne of breast feeding, a distinguished doctor, still acute in her nineties, travelled to testify what any doctor – or any mother – would know: breast pain is universal in the early days of lactation; that transient soreness of that sort is not caused by cancer but by engorgement; and when engorgement settles the pain disappeared. That is what happened in this case too; the eventual cancer was permanent but its supposed symptom was temporary.

This did not deter the counsel for the plaintiff from bullying my friend and decrying his knowledge and skill. In open court, on the public record.

The jury found for the doctor. He was exonerated. And, following two years of legal proceedings in which he lost sleep, lost weight and felt shame, he decided to stop seeing patients. ‘If I can be sued for practising properly, then I can never feel safe. I could be humiliated and publicly insulted in that way at any turn.’

A family with two small children will lose a mother. That mother will suffer and die. My friend loses his good name. A community loses the service of a person who turned his back on Medicine’s monied paths to work humbly for children. How many children of the future will never know his wisdom and skill? How many mothers might have found comfort in his counsel?

I marvelled that this person of exemplary quietude could be shamed publicly. I marvelled at the shamelessness of that lawyer, operating for a contingency fee. In pursuit of mere money that lawyer sought to take from my friend his good name. Now the lawyer has lodged notice of appeal. More grief, more tension for the accidental doctor, the human who helped another human in the elemental enterprise of physical mothering.

More tension and uncertainty, more grief for the mother who will die.

I attended a tribunal hearing once of a different type. Here there was no suit for damages. Instead the licensing authority heard an accusation against an older doctor by a patient that he’d carried out an improper examination of her chest.

The tribunal – consisting of two doctors (one female), a former police detective and a social worker – heard the patient’s evidence in a closed room. The woman was allowed the presence of a support person. The doctor and his support person were excluded. As a result the complainant was given an opportunity to present intimate evidence before a small number of persons who questioned her with respect and tact.

The lady and her supporter were then excused and shown to a private room to await the outcome.

Subsequently the doctor was called on to explain himself before that same nuclear group. He detailed a systematic mode of examination which was thorough, an examination he was taught at his medical school in the days when doctoring was painstaking and x-rays were a late resort. It transpired the patient had never before been examined with such thoroughness. She felt it improper.

The older doctor had practised in this manner for sixty-five years without any complaint against him. He took quiet pride in his meticulous methods. He knew no other way. And now those virtues had found him out.

I imagined the woman had to summon her courage and her resolve to make her complaint. But in the course of these proceedings she was not made to feel that she was on trial for her own truthfulness.

The panel – comprised of doctors and non-doctors – exonerated the doctor. The female chair said the panel found his work exemplary. She added, ‘This tribunal wishes you many more years of such careful practice.’ She then excused the doctor.

After the doctor’s departure from the premises the complainant was recalled. The tribunal explained that no finding was made against the doctor’s practice nor against the patient’s truthfulness.

Here again two innocent persons endured painful proceedings, but neither was humiliated in open court. A careful enquiry was conducted, uncontaminated by lure of money; here there was no blood sport.