So Why Didn’t They Do Something?

I spoke with my dad on the phone the other day. He was studying for an exam (he’s doing an Arts degree at uni), and was telling me about some of the texts they’d covered in the unit, specifically about Primo Levi’s ‘The Grey Zone’.

‘I wanted to ask you about German attitudes to the concentration camps,’ he said. ‘When you were there, it was almost ten years after Levi had published that book. What were the attitudes of the German people you spoke with, about the war and the camps?’

‘They were very well educated about it,’ I said. ‘The children learnt about it in school–they covered it several times, in fact–and there wasn’t one person I spoke with, who didn’t think it was a terrible occurrence. There was very much an attitude of ‘never again.’ They absolutely wanted to mark this as a dark part of their history.’

‘A lot of the students in the course thought that the Germans must have known what was going on–that they must have known,’ Dad said. ‘And why didn’t they do something about it?’

‘Well, some of them probably had an idea,’ I said. ‘But you know, most of them didn’t. And the official line was that the Jews were being ‘repatriated’, and it was wartime. You didn’t ask too many questions. As a teenager, I always thought that I’d be one of those people to hide people in my attic. You know? I thought, oh, I would have been brave, and gone against the regime, but really, I probably wouldn’t have. I would have kept my head down, looked after my family, tried to stay alive.’

Most of the German people really didn’t know the atrocities of the Holocaust, and when they discovered them, were horrified and appalled that this could happen, least of all that it could happen in their own backyards. And although many did during the war what I imagine I would have done, others formed resistance groups, and even conspired to assassinate Hitler. These were people who, despite knowing the risks to themselves and their families and friends, tried to stop the tide of fascism.

It’s very easy to look back at the past and criticise people for their inaction, but it strikes me how we fail to consider not only the historical context of that past, but also how little perspective we have of the present.

Consider wartime Europe in the 1940s. Propaganda was everywhere; each side felt justified in its aggression. Anti-Semitism was a prevalent sentiment long before it was used to justify the ghettos, and the idea of the German race as physically and mentally superior was used to justify the removal to camps of homosexuals and people with disabilities. Does this excuse a whole population? Of course not. However, it certainly illustrates just how well the Nazi propaganda machine played on the fears and prejudices of the German people, just as the propaganda machines in every other country did the same for their populations.

We would do well to ask, to which kind of information did the average person have access? Did most people have the opportunity to read or listen to independent media? What kinds of details about the war were available to people on street? This was the 1940s. There was no television. There was radio, and there were newspapers. The media was tightly controlled. Those who really wanted to ask questions as to what was going on, may have been able to access information other than that which was state-sanctioned, but it was dangerous and difficult to do so.

In the years since, our world has become much, much smaller. We live in a global age, where that which happens on the other side of the world is instantly reported in news and social media. Sadly, the Holocaust was not the last tragedy or genocide in our recent history. Since then we’ve had any number of examples of human cruelty. Consider just a few which have happened in my lifetime–conflicts which have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are recent enough for me to remember nightly reports on the news. That’s the mainstream news, not just small independent groups. We saw it whenever we turned on the television. Everyone knew.

We knew.

So why didn’t we do something?

Why didn’t we call our politicians immediately and tell them that action needed to be taken to prevent this? Why didn’t we insist that peacekeepers weren’t doing enough?

The treatment of asylum seekers by my own government appals me. The fact that the average life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is ten years lower than for Australians of European descent is inexcusable. Mining companies are using questionable techniques to extract gas from beneath the ground, and polluting earth and water, and getting away with it. I read and see and hear disturbing news, everyday, and how often do I act on it? What do I do?

Sometimes I write a blog post. Sometimes I retweet an article. Sometimes I write to a politician. Most of the time, I sigh, shake my head, and then focus back on what I need to make for tea, or how I’m going to fit the purchase of new shoes and school supplies into the weekly budget, or whether the baby’s recent illness is of enough concern to take him to the doctor, or whether we are going to all have clean underwear tomorrow. Those are the immediate, relevant, important things, for me right now. We do what we can for those around us, and then, when we have energy left over, we do extra for others. We focus first on ourselves and our families and our friends, then on those outside our circle. It sounds harsh and uncaring, but that is survival. And in times of war or conflict, surviving is all the more difficult. Knowing this also makes us truly realise the bravery of those who have made the decision to stand against an imposing and threatening regime.

We might well look back at all the times when people have stood by and done nothing, and lament inaction or ignorance. But we certainly are not in a position to judge them for it, unless we are willing to stand up and push for change in our own imperfect world.

A friend reminded me that this past Monday was both the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is so important to mark these anniversaries, as a reminder that we need to think outside our own circles, and be brave. When we see wrongdoing, we need to speak out, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it makes us unpopular, even when it’s dangerous. Only then, will we be able to look back at the past, and admit that we really did all we could, and that we affected change. We can say proudly, that we did something.

Le mot juste.

You know you’ve been with someone a long time, when not only do they know exactly which buttons to push to annoy you, but when you can see it happening.

Case in point: I was discussing this week’s blog post with the Handsome Sidekick over a cup of tea, last night.

‘Nobody cares about languages,’ he said. ‘What a waste of time. They should just die out. Pointless. We should just all speak the same one.’

‘Argh! It is so NOT POINTLESS,’ I began, then checked myself. ‘And I know you’re just saying this to wind me up.’

And he laughed.

I really, really love language. I love English, a lot, but I also love many other languages. I love that so many other languages even exist. I can only speak English, German and a smattering of French, and with those two, plus English, I can decipher written Dutch (I’m lost if it’s spoken, though) and get the gist of a page of Spanish or Italian. But even through just this small insight into worlds of words other than my own, I’m smitten.

I love language, and I worry about its future. In a sense, there is no use in worrying about it. There is little I can do. Language evolves, either in spite, or in direct defiance, of any kinds of rules we try to impose to prevent it. But I’m not just worried about languages evolving, I’m worried about them dying.

I know, it seems like such a trivial concern. There are far bigger issues: poverty, conflict, pollution. And I don’t want to argue that losing language is life-threatening like those issues. But it occurred to me the other day, that there are some similarities between the conservation of the physical, and the metaphysical. Sometimes we go to great lengths to prevent a species from going extinct, just because the extinction of that species would diminish biodiversity that little bit more. It’s possible that some of the species we save, we could easily allow to go extinct. The space they leave might well be filled by some other species. But we don’t know for sure. The interrelationships of species are something we don’t always understand, and history has taught us that it’s often more complex than it appears. So, for safety’s sake, we are cautious. We don’t want to let something go, and then discover later that it was far more significant than we had first realised.

The diversity I’ve found in language is inspiring. It’s not always translatable, which is one of the reasons I think people dismiss it. I remember reading a line in a poem by Paul Éluard, when I was studying first year French at uni. I wasn’t very good at French, but I really wanted to be, and so I worked hard at the translations we were set each week. This line, though, sticks with me, because I didn’t need to translate it to understand it. It’s the last line of the poem, Ma morte vivante:

‘J’étais si près de toi que j’ai froid près des autres.’*

Oh, it made me want to cry. I both understood what he meant, and I understood what he meant. I felt a real sense of worldliness, that I had shared this person’s grief in his language, rather than having to translate it through to my own. It was not something I would say in English, but I still got it.

Learning German, on the other hand, was a lot more practical and day-to-day. I spent everyday speaking and reading it, so by the time I left, I found I was more likely to think in German than I was in English. I felt so at home there, and I was so very sad to leave. As I said a tearful goodbye to one of my favourite teachers, my music teacher, he replied, ‘Du. Es tut mir so leid, dass du gehst.’**

In German, saying ‘sorry’ seems to carry more weight. You say, ‘es tut mir leid,’ literally: it does pain to me. And I understood that. It did pain to me to go, too.

We use so many words we’ve borrowed from other languages, everyday. How dull and one-dimensional our culture and conversation would be, if we didn’t! I feel like we’re so lucky that we have so many languages on which to draw, to be able to communicate. Learning languages other than one’s own–even learning more of one’s own!–has been associated with the promotion of higher order thinking. So it is good for your brain, to learn a new language. And it helps promote cultural understanding; it keeps alive literature which would otherwise be lost or left not quite fully appreciated. It broadens our experiences, it improves our vocabularies. It provides connections with the past; it is a part of our identity. But I really believe it does something else. It gives us diversity. Without a variety of languages, we humans lack diversity. Like those pockets of wilderness, preserved to maintain some small plant or animal, we need to preserve at least pockets of language, if not huge sweeping plains.

If we let our languages die, then we become less. We can live without the diversity of words, of course. And as far as basic needs go, we only need to be able to communicate those needs and our desires. We could easily lose a few languages–several, in fact–and we would still be able to talk with each other, and write and read. But I just can’t help feeling like the world would be a little less incredible, and that we would only realise what we’d lost, when we couldn’t get it back.

*Roughly: ‘I was so close to you that I feel cold near others.’

**’You [but in a tender sense, not rudely]. I’m so sorry that you go.’

Taking the Middle Ground in the Culture Wars.

It’s summer holidays here in Australia, and while my little cherubs alternate between frolicking in the sunshine and telling me how bored they are, a review of the nation’s school curriculum is taking place.

About five years ago, it was decided that we needed a national curriculum to ensure that all students in Australia were being introduced to the same core knowledge across several subjects. Now, the cynic in me would say that apparently we seem to need a new curriculum every few years, regardless of whether the current one is still working. The pragmatist in me would suggest that teachers will take what the curriculum says they should teach, and look at what they’ve always taught, and take into account what they know works and what new information has come to hand in their subject area, and combine the lot into something they can do without having to reinvent the wheel, while complying with the guidelines so that their students will pass the exams.

But I digress.

The curriculum was discussed, changes were made, and some of the new courses have already been implemented by some states. I should note here that this new national curriculum was introduced by the former government (Labor). That’s important, because since then we have a new government, and last week, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, announced that due to criticism of this new curriculum, there would be a review of it. You may remember the name Christopher Pyne, because I wrote about him a month or so ago, when I was trying to convince myself to be more open-minded about what he was saying. (I’m still having problems with that).

But it’s not Christopher Pyne who has been in the news this week as much as one of those whom he asked to review the curriculum, Kevin Donnelly. When Donnelly spoke to the media a few days ago about the sorts of changes he might suggest making to the curriculum, he argued that the curriculum as it stands, is too secular, and went on to say:

I would argue that the great religions of the world, whether it’s Islam, whether it’s Christianity, whether it’s Hinduism, Buddhism, they should be taught over the compulsory years of school.

Please know that I’m not being at all sarcastic when I say that I really like what Donnelly has to say here. Religion is a strong influence on culture the world over. We should expose our children to the thinking behind Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam. Introducing these religious ideas also promotes cross-cultural understanding; it highlights the way humans have developed myths to explain the world around them, and how we have created values to help us to live together in that world.

But then he went on to say that parliaments in Australia all begin with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s not really a very interesting fact, and how is it relevant to whether schools should teach religion? Should we model our education system on the parliamentary one? Based on the way some of our politicians behave, I think not. He also noted that the preamble of our Constitution is ‘about God’ and if we ‘look at Federation, for example–1901–90% of Australians described themselves as Christian. So you can’t airbrush that from history. It has to be recognised.’

Well, the preamble mentions God. Once, directly, at the very beginning, and then rather vaguely in the third sentence where it mentions ‘Lords Spiritual and Temporal’, but I just read through it and I can’t agree that it’s ‘about God’. I think it’s about how a Commonwealth nation should form a government.

Donnelly’s reference to 90% of Australians identifying as Christians in 1901 is also irrelevant. Back in 1901, the vast majority also completely ignored the claim of Indigenous Australians had on the land they were settling. The vast majority believed in capital punishment. We shouldn’t be basing our curriculum on what people believed 113 years ago. What matters is what people believe now.

Donnelly argues that our heritage goes back to ‘Judaeo-Christian traditions’. Sure, if you ignore the heritage which includes 50 000 years of Indigenous history before Europeans even discovered this country. If you ignore the heritage of the Chinese immigrants who came to Australian in the gold rush of the mid 19th century. If you ignore the heritage of the large numbers of Greek and Italian immigrants in the 1920s. If you ignore the heritage of the Vietnamese refugees who fled here in the 1970s.

We are a very different nation than we were at Federation, and our education system should reflect that. Our society, and our schools, already do. It’s not about airbrushing out part of history. It’s simply who we are: a much richer, more interesting and hopefully more tolerant nation. What Kevin Donnelly says about religion is fine to begin with, and seems to encourage further learning about the varied cultural backgrounds represented in our society. But when he goes on to talk about the Lord’s Prayer, percentages of Christians and Judaeo-Christian traditions, it appears he is focussing on a very narrow definition of ‘religion’.

Donnelly sees our secular curriculum as a negative, whereas I believe it’s very much a positive. Instead of religion in terms of Donnelly’s interpretation, what would be wrong with our children learning philosophy as a subject which is taught throughout the compulsory years of schooling? Philosophy could involve the teaching of ethics, reasoning, logic, argument, and could address religion, and the question of faith. This would avoid a focus on any particular religion, and would allow all students to participate, without students or parents being concerned about proselytism.

I want the school my children attend to offer a broad education, to introduce a variety of ideas and to reflect the incredible diversity which exists in both the classroom and the wider society in which we live. We may have Judaeo-Christian roots. But we also have roots in Indigenous Australian religion, in Greek Orthodoxy, in Shinto, in paganism, and in atheism. Why limit ourselves by trying to focus on just teaching religion, when we could do so much more, by understanding where religions come from, by thinking about why gods are worshipped and where myths originate?

If we are going to overhaul the curriculum, let us embrace the secular nature of our schools, and leave the teaching of religion in homes, places of worship, or in religious schools. Let us create a public school system which encourages our children to be sceptical, to question, to engage on issues about ethics, politics, traditions and vested interests.

Imagine: a new generation of young people, who have been discussing religion, and culture, and history, from the age of five, until they graduate from high school. Imagine if they were invited to challenge their own beliefs, and those of others, in an environment which fostered respect and understanding? The empowerment, the self-realisation, which would come from this?

Now that is the kind of future in which I would like my children to live.

So. What Do You Do?

First Offspring went over to a friend’s place to play the other day, and when I picked him up, the friend’s mother and I chatted for a while, as the children jumped on the trampoline together, eking out the last moments until First Offspring had to leave. The mother and I discussed the beginning of the new school term in about three weeks, when her youngest child was going to start full-time school.

‘I’m looking for a job,’ she said, ‘and it’s stressing me out already. I need to find something where I can work school hours, but also leave early, on the days they have early finish, and if one of them’s sick, I’ll need to stay home with them. Plus I’ve been home looking after them for the past five years, and so how do I explain this big hole in my CV?’

We talked about different jobs, what we had done pre-children, and what sorts of expenses are associated with working versus staying at home. She mentioned that they’d need another car, which meant there’d be an extra registration, another insurance bill, and all the associated costs with the upkeep of another vehicle.

‘It’s interesting,’ I agreed, ‘because it’s always something you think about, when you get a bit of time back once the children start school, and you think, ‘oh, going back to work is totally going to increase our income,’ but then when you factor in the extra other things you don’t consider, like the fact you have to have new work clothes, and that you end up probably buying more takeaway or pre-made meals, which cost more money… sometimes, I think, if it’s a second income for your household, you’re actually better off staying home and saving money, than going out to earn it.’

This is not to say that all households should be single-income. Obviously, there is a tipping point: if both breadwinners are on a high wage, then it is worthwhile to even work part-time. But for the kinds of work many people do to supplement the primary income, from a financial perspective, it’s sometimes not worth it. Yet it feels oddly lazy, in this society, to say that you’re home taking care of the housework and the cooking and the washing, when the children spend six hours at school everyday. There is an expectation that the primary carer will get work of some sort–usually out of the house–once the children start school, and if one chooses not to take that path, that choice is met with surprise by some, disdain by others.

Of course, it’s not lazy to be the person taking care of feeding the family and keeping the house clean. If nobody does that, it begins to fall apart fairly quickly. It’s a really worthy, valuable place: being home to keep things in order, make sure bills get paid, perhaps grow some of your own food.

But then, you have to meet people for the first time. And what do they ask, when you meet them?

So. What do you Do?

I dread that question.

I dread it, because I don’t really know what to say. I don’t want to say I’m a high school teacher, because I’m not, right now, and I probably won’t be (in any great capacity) for a while. And I don’t really feel like a proper teacher, either, because I’ve only a couple of years under my belt. I don’t really want to say ‘stay-at-home-mum’ because I… just don’t really like that term. It’s as if it’s a life-sentence until my children are 18. ‘You must STAY AT HOME. MUM. STAY.’ Yikes.

I don’t want to say I’m a writer, because, well, so far, nobody really pays me for anything I write. Plus, it’s pretentious (because, again with the lack of payment). And also, I’m worried that people will then ask if they’ve read anything I’ve written, and I have to decide whether to mutter, ‘uh… it’s unlikely,’ or to change the subject.

Why are we so obsessed with what people ‘do’? When we were younger, we used to ask far more interesting questions to potential friends and acquaintances. We used to ask what their favourite colours were, which music they liked, what they liked to do on weekends, what were their favourite foods. And when you think about it, these are much more important questions to ask than what someone does as a day-job. When you ask what someone does as a job, you’re using their response to pigeonhole them into a stereotype which probably doesn’t reveal very much about their real personality. It certainly reveals less than finding out that they like stargazing, Mötley Crüe and felafel.

I remember some years ago, being unemployed for a period of a few months, and I needed to claim unemployment benefits to be able to make ends meet. In keeping with welfare law, I met with a case worker once per month, to discuss my jobseeking efforts, and for her to pass on any relevant positions or opportunities. One Monday, I had quite an early appointment, and my cheerful case worker sat down with her coffee as I joined her at her desk, and she opened my file.

‘How was your weekend?’ she asked. ‘Do anything fun?’

Do? I thought. But I’m unemployed. I don’t ‘do’ anything. And I’m not supposed to be having fun! I’m unemployed!

My lack of employment was such a source of shame for me. I felt so worthless, like such a loser, because I had nothing to say, when people would ask, ‘what do you do?’ And even though I had a fair amount of time on my hands (I was jobless, after all!), I didn’t have the energy or the motivation to do all the things I would dream about doing, when I went back to work a few months later. I didn’t read much, I didn’t garden, I didn’t write. What did I do? A whole lot of nothing. I absorbed all the disappointment from within and without, and it didn’t do me much good at all. For the sake of my mental health, it’s just as well I did find a job.

I wish we could get past defining people by what their job title is. It’s not to say that we should discourage people from working–far from it. Most people like to have purpose, and many of us like to be paid for it. But if someone is not working full-time, or out of the home, or in any job position at all, then that doesn’t make her or him any less interesting or valuable. It certainly doesn’t define that person, and neither should we.

What do I do? The Hokey-Pokey, at times. A mean chickpea curry. Some weeding, now and then. I do all sorts of things, and my job is one of them, but it’s by far not the only one. I’m so much more than that.

Saying Nice Things, or Saying Nothing At All.

I wasn’t going to write about Cory Bernadi today.  I had something else on which I was working, and there were other reasons, as well.  I haven’t read his book, so I’m basing my thoughts on this morning’s article, plus others.  I also figured that there is going to be a chorus of indignant voices raised in response to this article, so why add mine to the mix?

Well, that’s never stopped me before!  And the article this morning really ticked me off. If I write about it, I’ll get it out of my system, and then perhaps I can focus on other topics, which I feel are more worthy of my time.

I know that the ABC has likely cherry-picked quotes to ensure the article is read and shared by the greatest number of people.  On the other hand, the quotes are certainly not out of character for this politician.  Formerly the parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, he resigned and headed to the back bench after claiming that allowing same sex marriages could encourage bestiality.

Now he has written a book in which he has managed to offend a whole new group of people.  Or perhaps that should be ‘groups’.  Or perhaps that should be ‘huge great swathes of the population’.

Bernadi argues that the abortions in Australia are a ‘death industry’, and that ‘traditional families’ are superior to other kinds, such as stepfamilies (and basically any other in which the parent/s are not married, or heterosexual, or whose children are not conceived ‘naturally’, or are not biologically theirs).  He also claims that one of the threats against Christianity and traditional values is the ‘green agenda’,  placing the value of animal and plant life over that of humans.

I was trying to identify what exactly it was that I found so annoying about Bernadi’s arguments, or at least those quoted by the ABC website. I mean, he’s gone to so much trouble to list his issues with what has gone wrong with our country, it seems a shame to choose just one to refute, doesn’t it? But in fact, all his arguments boil down to one assumption.

Bernadi is like every other right wing idealist, in that he seems to believe that all the problems of our modern society would go away if only we were to return to some golden era, where men were men and women were women and they married (and never divorced) and had children and all was right with the world. A time when there were none of those pesky homosexuals, when abortions didn’t exist, when everyone went to church, when humans were confident of their rightful place in nature (at the top of the food chain, and not part of it).

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to that time? Wouldn’t it just make things so much simpler? Oh, if only! And we could be rid of this confusing mess in which we find ourselves, which is destroying us from within!

But there was never such a time. There might have been, for some members of society, but only because they chose to ignore that there have always been unhappy marriages, or infertility, or unwanted pregnancies, or unhappy people unable to have the relationships they really wanted. The problems with our society are not because of some failure to attend church, and not because people are divorcing–or not marrying–or having children via IVF. The problems we face are because we’re humans, and we bicker with each other, and are greedy, and take a long time to learn from our mistakes. But we do evolve. Ever so slowly, but it happens. And in our evolution, we begin to ask questions about equality, and our place in the world, and how we treat others, and how we want our future to look.

Cory Bernadi wants to court a small part of the population and argue that their worldview is under attack, when all that is really happening is that this worldview is having to share the stage with others. Perhaps the saddest part of this is how he throws his religion into the mix. In a country like Australia, where church-going is hardly the Sunday past-time of choice, (whether or not they believe in a Christian god), most people are not going to be swayed when he claims that our country is suffering because we have strayed from the path of Christianity. And I can’t help feeling a little dismissive of his views, when he says that faith and Christianity are under threat by environmentalists and Islam. Under threat? Just how fragile is his faith, if it cannot withstand challenges such as other religions or a different political perspective? The last time I looked, people from different faiths and political persuasions challenge each other all the time. Sometimes–wait for it–they can even respect each other, and get along.

Other times, they fight wars.

What does Cory Bernadi want to do? Get along, or fight a war? Considering the way in which he has clashed even with members within his own party, considering he has already lost one job and is willing to jeopardise his place in his political party, I guess he is willing to fight. I think he wants to foster a strong conservative future for Australia; I believe he is fired up and ready to step up to defend his faith and his right wing values from the rest of us, who obviously have lost our way, because we simply want people to be able to live their lives and be content. Cory Bernadi is ready to stand up for that in which he believes, and do whatever it takes to battle this out.

Call it typical Australian apathy, but I’m not sure many of us can really be bothered taking him seriously enough to fight back. Lucky for us, we’re in the majority.

Now let’s see what we can do about that green agenda, and same sex marriage, shall we?