Archives: July 2011

23 Jul 2011, Comments (3)

Trashing treasure

Author: Helen

VicForests, a failing and embattled organisation, is clearfelling a new coupe of cool temperate rainforest on Sylvia Creek Road, Toolangi. Toolangi is about 60 km or so north of Melbourne. Toolangi and its neighbours Narbethong and Murrundindi were badly affected by the Black Saturday fires, but this is part of the forest area which survived.

When I was a teenager my father and I used to go walking at Murrundindi, Toolangi, Mount St Leonard and the surrounding Mountain Ash country and I fell in love with that environment with its prehistoric flora and distinctive earthy, cool scent. It was once home, and inspiration, to the poet C J Dennis.

James Ramage released from Beechworth prison: Source, the AGE

James Ramage was released from prison last Friday, after only eight years following his conviction for strangling and bashing his wife, Julie, to death in their house and burying her in a shallow grave. The details of the case reveal a textbook case of a controlling, abusive spouse who killed his wife rather than let her leave.

One reason the Ramage case has been in the news so much is that it was the last time the defence of “provocation” was used in a court case in Victoria. That was the reason for the derisory sentence, and since the case exposed the enormous injustices flowing from that defence, the law was changed. The law moves slowly, but social mores change more slowly still.

The silencing argument that women of the Anglophone “Western Civilisation”, or whatever you would like to call it, are completely liberated, done and dusted, and have no business complaining about anything, has continued unabated lately. In such a cultural climate, a few people were rocked back on their heels when Phil Cleary and Julie Ramage’s sister Jane described her murder as an “honour” killing. But you know what? They’re right.

A couple of years ago I heard Germaine Greer reply to a question from the late Pamela Bone, as to why we (meaning anglophone “western” feminists) weren’t doing more to liberate our sisters in the Muslim world. Her answer was in two parts, and the first part was about our absence of standing in that world. The second part was that we haven’t yet cleaned up our own back yard. There is a pervasive myth in our “western” society that harsh and primitive crimes of misogyny only happen There, perpetrated by Them, those Others. Therefore, Western feminism is a hobby for genteel and well-off middle class women who enjoy perfect equality in their world. It’s false. Let’s not let them get away with it.

If Julie Ramage’s killing had been some kind of rare aberration it would still have spoken volumes about gender related violence in our society, but in fact it was just a very high-profile instance of a common and repeating pattern. Here’s the thing: Women are most at risk of being killed by an intimate partner when they have just left the relationship, or when they are planning to leave and the partner becomes aware of it. Think of the number of times you read “estranged husband / boyfriend / de facto husband” when you read about murder cases in the news.

Sure, there’s cultural differences aplenty between our anglocentric killings and the honour killings in other countries which we, rightly, deplore when we read about them. But they’re still about “honour”, a notion of honour which has been twisted and deformed by patriarchy until it looks like its opposite. Sure, the manifestations differ. Here in our more individualistic society we don’t have “but she can never get married now!” or “Shame on our family!” excuse. Instead, we have the “He just loved her too much!” “If I can’t have her, no-one can!” or some shit. But it’s the same thing, different continents; Control of women under patriarchal norms, whether it’s out and proud – as they are in the countries we finger-wag at – or flying below the radar, as in Australia, UK and US.

Instead of a ritualised, family mandated killing involving brothers or cousins or fathers – and how painful that betrayal must be to the victims – we have more individualised, but still family centred, killings where the betrayer is the person who has promised to love and cherish the woman; not the same in every detail, but still a horrible betrayal, the killing of a woman for a warped notion of “honour”. Not, here, the family-based “honour” but something more modern, the man’s ego or self worth. It’s the same thing, dressed in modern, individualistic clothes. Also, it hardly needs to be said, it involves the concept of the woman as property, which we’ve supposed to have left behind but which seems to just be thinly buried. As with everything else – our remotely controlled weapons, our Guantanamos and detention centres – we really excel, in the West, at disguising the aggressive impulses of our society to make our harms look more civilised or justified. In this case, we pretend that wife-killings are random acts of aggression rather than a repeating pattern.

This affects women of all classes, indigenous women, transwomen, up to and including women at the top of the income and status tree, like Julie Ramage. Privilege won’t save you here.

If Australians want to be smug about the fundamentalist fringes of Islam, we should take a harder look at the rising fundamentalism in the Christian churches in our society. Around the time the Victorian justice system was getting ready to release Ramage, it was jailing John McDonald for the murder of his wife, Marlene McDonald. Again, power and control was front and centre. Marlene had left the abusive relationship and was working at a truck stop north of Melbourne, where her husband believed she’d formed a new relationship with one of the customers. But it went further than that. “Ms Ritchie told the hearing McDonald had confided in her that she had been attacked by two masked men in her home one night but she knew they were her father and brother. “They both started punching and kicking her. The father was very religious and was saying over and over that she had sinned, that she had committed adultery … whilst her brother was calling her a slut and a whore,” she said in a statement tendered to the court. They continued dragging her by the hair to the laneway … when they got outside, her brother started using a baseball bat … She thought they were going to kill her.” She was right.

So, commenters on “western” blogs and news sites, let’s not pat ourselves smugly on the back and vilify feminists on the grounds that we’ve achieved absolute equality (I wish!), while they, over there, commit atrocities in the name of honour and therefore have to bear all the opprobrium. Our honour killings may appear different in detail from the ones those Others perpetrate, but in the end, the women are just as dead.
Crossposted at Hoyden About Town

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I commented on a post of Legal Eagle’s which mentioned McMansions in passing, with the rider: “(S)ome love to rail against environmentally unsound McMansions (how dare the lower class have a spacious and comfortable house, bigger than middle-class people!)”. I called bullshit. Legal Eagle replied “Explain yourself!” And I thought it was worth a post.

I’m calling bullshit on the popular story that criticising McMansions is equivalent to sneering at the working class, and denying them the good things in life. In this narrative, the people championing the McMansion are the true socialists and stand with the working man and woman in their quest for a truly equal society. This is in no way peculiar to Legal Eagle – I’ve seen it all over the media.

It’s one of the endless riffs on the “elites” narrative. According to this variation, the heroic workers are approaching, under neoliberal capitalism, the egalitarian nirvana which they always sought, and the only truly authentic expression of this is a mock-Tuscan mansion of 215 or so square metres, built to the boundary on a treeless (except for pencil pines) quarter-acre block on a nodule-shaped development far from public transport, shops and services, a hotbox in summer and freezing in winter, costing squillions to heat, cool and furnish. But wait! Who’s this, crouching behind one of the two Yucca plants out the front? Oh, no! It’s those horrible “elites” again, throwing cold water on this wonderful social apotheosis, claiming that McMansions are really a bit crap. It’s because they just don’t want the heroic working class to have nice things!

Here’s the article which provoked Eagle’s reaction. It’s written by someone who knows his stuff. But I see the counter-narrative everywhere. During the last election, I saw a letter by a concerned citizen in our local newspaper complaining that the Greens bad-mouthed mcMansions and by association, ordinary Australians. I recognised the name on the letter as a Labor apparatchik (not local), so I know it’s spin.

Unfortunately for this story, its main premise is a fiction – McMansion owners are more likely to be up and coming IT workers and professionals or semiprofessionals as classic battlers. But let’s put that aside for a minute and consider the idea on its internal consistency alone.

What it comes down to is: we’re criticising a mode of planning and building, and being told we’re not allowed to claim one way of building is objectively better than another, in case we offend the lower/middle class (that is, most of us). Imagine if progressives had been the source of this idea. Political correctness! the media would cry. Po-mo relativism! Emotional!! (In Australia, the most devastating criticism possible.) Yes, built environments have political and cultural significance, but I am willing to go out on a limb and say that people who are fighting for the godgiven right of the Aussie Battlers to buy McMansions are speaking more from financial or political self interest than any warm concern for the battlers themselves.

I’m womanning the barricades, Comrades, for the right to say that McMansions are badly built and badly sited on badly planned developments. I’m not ashamed to say that building houses which regularly feature his and hers walk-in robes, home theatres and “powder rooms” as standard, but describing wall and ceiling insulation and smoke detectors as “luxury inclusion(s)” is doing it wrong. Furthermore, I’ll say these houses are poorly sited with regard to sunlight, lack eaves for shade, have thin walls, have little or no garden space, are built quickly and cheaply, will deteriorate rapidly and need expensive repairs in a relatively short time. I won’t be bullied into praising these white elephants by creative use of the Roveian/Howardian discourse of “elites”.

Now I know you’re going to say: “Yes, Helen, you can state your preference for one kind of dwelling over another, but saying that people shouldn’t want McMansions is telling other people what they ought to want, so, still elitist.” Which would be absolutely true, but don’t forget that there is an entire industry – advertising and marketing – whose job it is to tell people what they ought to want. Buyers aren’t just Choosing their Choice in a vaccuum. The building and development corporations (and the big box retailers who serve them, and the credit companies behind it all) are going to a lot of effort to appeal to aspiration, to snob value, to illusions of community and stability. Buyers adjust their “dreams” to fit whatever display model takes their fancy, while in reality the cookie-cutter homogeneity and cheapness of construction suits the developers and builders first and foremost. In other words, I think people are being told what they ought to want by the developers and the rest of the building/retail food chain, and unlike the McMansion opponents, they aren’t being called on it.

It doesn’t end there. The Big Box retailers love the bigger houses because they need to be furnished, and the pressure is on to furnish them a certain way, not just bring all your stuff from the rental house. There are more rooms, and you can’t just put a squeaky little sound system in that home theatre. Then, of course, there are the credit providers raking in their interest after that 24-month-interest-free period.

I have no doubt that if they had the will, the corporations and their advertisers could use the same lush, descriptive advertising to convince the punters they’d be happier and more comfortable (and richer!) in a smaller but better constructed and environmentally intelligent house. Swap the home theatre and his’n’hers walk-in robes for thicker walls, insulation and better basic construction. Use the Australian vernacular instead of the European, with overhanging eaves and shady verandahs on the western side. Use the space gained on the block to orient the houses for the climate. Have solar hot water and other money-saving goodies as standard, instead of “European tiles”, marble benchtops and such. Those can always come later with the money saved on power and other bills.

You don’t think they could sell this alternative vision? Of course they could. They’re the ones setting the agenda.

I dislike these houses because they are an embodiment of how individual buyers, society as a whole, and the environment on which we depend, are poorly served. I don’t dislike them because I don’t want ordinary people to have nice things. It’s because I would like them to have something so much better!

Update: The Melbourne Urbanist, Don Arthur on Club Troppo.

Update 2: Looks like a lot of people are changing their minds about house size.

This is like a metaphor for the ALP. At midnight a few days ago Pat Ogden, publican of the Globe Hotel in Barcaldine for over 40 years, pulled his last beer.

Barcaldine is significant because it was a meeting place for striking shearers in the strikes of 1991.

From Claremont to Barcaldine, the shearers’ camps were full
Ten thousand blades were ready to strip the greasy wool
When through the west like thunder, rang out the Union’s call
“The sheds’ll be shore Union or they won’t be shorn at all”

Oh, Billy Lane was with them, his words were like a flame
The flag of blue above them, they spoke Eureka’s name
“Tomorrow,” said the squatters, “they’ll find it does not pay
We’re bringing up free labourers to get the clip away”

Until recently, historically-minded tourists used to come to Barcaldine to see the Tree of Knowledge. According to local history, or labor myth according to who you ask, the strikers would meet under this ghost gum and this was the birth of the ALP. The Globe hotel was their watering hole and another important meeting place and icon of Australian labour history.

In 2006, the year the then Senator Robert Ray made a speech asking “whether the Labor Party is dying and, if so, what is killing it”, some unknown person killed the Tree of Knowledge by pouring Roundup all around its roots. The tree was sent away, subjected to a kind of embalming process and returned to its former position as a memorial. While many people from the rank and file of the ALP have also expressed concern and many others have left, this poor pickled thing exists as a memorial for the workers of today – many of them non-unionised, on contract and to whom a strike is tantamount to rampant communism – to come and gawk at.

The Globe will become a heritage-listed tourist centre. I hope they preserve the bar itself inside the structure and that, if nothing else, a thirsty traveller can come and drink a beer there.