In Times of War: Ukraine Is Not the Only Country Suffering

A couple of weeks, I wrote about the importance of taking a break from the war news. Being able to step away is indeed a privilege. Ukrainians can’t take a break in the same way that I, living in a nation not at war, can. They may have times when life goes on as usual, depending on where they live, but somewhere else in their own country, cities are being pulverized and ordinary people are the victims of terrorist attacks.

This reminds me of the revelation I had while listening to my Black friends about their experiences in a racist society. What I heard, over and over again, was that the barrage of aggressions, large or micro, is unrelenting. My friends don’t get a day off; the threat is always there to one degree or another. I wonder how living in a state of heightened stress or in a neighborhood that all too often resembles a war zone colors perceptions of a war far away. (See comments on hypertension and stress in Black people, below.)

When the Ukrainian war first broke out, there was an immediate outpouring of sympathy and calls for humanitarian aid as well as military assistance. Americans called for easing immigration requirements for Ukrainian refugees. A couple of friends pointed out the disparity in response between the warmth and concern, and action, for Ukrainian victims, as opposed to people of color in distress in other parts of the world: Central American migrants at the border, Haitians, Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and more. The Conversation examined ways in which the inequitable treatment of those seeking asylum in the United States is based on race and religion. They wrote:

On March 11, 2022, however, the Biden administration provided guidance allowing Customs and Border Protection officers to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis, which has allowed many families to enter. However, this exception has not been granted to other asylum seekers, no matter what danger they are in. It is possible that the administration may lift Title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has encountered fierce debates.

The different treatment of Ukrainian versus Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has prompted criticism that the administration is enforcing immigration policies in racist ways, favoring white, European, mostly Christian refugees over other groups.

The uncomfortable truth is that white Americans are more welcoming toward people who look like them, especially people whom they perceive as innocent victims of violence. I would like to think that once hearts are opened toward one group, common humanity will prevail and the same commitment to fairness will be applied elsewhere, but I am not overly optimistic. The challenge of the moment, or so it seems to me, is to find a balance between reminders that Ukrainians are not the only people suffering from violence and oppression today without descending to “whataboutism,” that is, dismissing the importance of one case by pointing to others. (The classic humorous example being, “But her emails…”)

I think there are ways of bringing up the (non-white) people in need without downplaying the horrible situation in Ukraine. While international aid funds may be finite, caring is not. Commitment to help is not. What would that look like? Perhaps donating to organizations that provide aid to countries around the world, not limited to Ukraine? Splitting contributions between aid organizations? Pressuring our leaders for more just policies, reminding them that just as immigrating Ukrainians need our help, many others qualify for asylum?

Surely, there is enough love to go around.

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There’s a correlation between stress, poverty, racism, and ill health. Some studies have shown a relationship between experiences of racism and hypertension in Black people, particularly young Black men1. Stressors repeatedly occurring over time included the death of a family member or close friend (65.2%), having a new family member (32.9%), change in residence (31.4%), difficulty finding a job (24.3%), and fired or laid off from work (17.6%). Involvement with crime or legal matters was reported at least twice during the 48 months by 33.3% of men.2

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/docs/african_american_sourcebook.pdf
  2. Hae-Ra Han, et al. Effects of stressful life events in young black men with high blood pressure. Ethn Dis, Winter 2006;16(1):64-70

 

Why the Aussie elections are so important this year: an introduction for the unwary

It’s one of those Mondays. I say this with much care and I’m drinking much coffee. Normally I would give you a book post on a Monday, but Australia’s much-awaited (by us, anyhow) election was called yesterday. This is not just any election. It’s our last opportunity to move away from rabid and corrupt politics. It matters. I asked if that meant I should post about it and Nancy Jane Moore said, “Yes, please.”

I’m doing two posts. The first one is on my Monday and the second is will be posted when Monday finally hits the US. One is about our parties, and the other will talk you through our electoral system. All the cool stuff is in this post, and I introduce the parties. I’m not hiding my opinions – you can see where my vote is likely to go if you read carefully.

First, you need to know that, in Australian popular opinion, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, belongs in the same crowd as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. When Trump was US President, the two acted as if they were best friends. Morrison is a fundamentalist Christian of the prosperity theology variety and, until a few weeks ago, was publicly a close friend of Brian Houston, the Hillsong leader who is currently on trial.

Until a few years ago, Australia was on various lists as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Right now we’re not even considered close to achieving such an honour. In the last ten years, international influence and local decisions by the ruling party and their allies have pushed us away from our cultural standard.

How did this happen?

Just one example will explain it. In the last three years we’ve not had a week without a disaster of enormous magnitude. The Federal government put money aside to help and didn’t spend the vast bulk of it. In fact, a few weeks ago, the newspapers told us that the government had earned $800,000 on interest on unspent disaster relief. State governments have taken the brunt of getting people through disasters such as bushfires, floods, and the pandemic. Because they were promised Federal help and only a tiny fraction of the promised help came, we still have people who are living in caravans because they received none of the promised help when the 2019-20 bushfires ripped through territory the size of Syria. Some of these people have been evacuated (or even died) when the floods hit their town this year.

This is unheard of for Australia. We used to be outstanding at getting people through natural disasters with ridiculously low death tolls. We now don’t even have proper Federal policies to handle the natural disasters, and the government keeps cutting back support of the scientists who predict them and all the various bodies who normally find ways of dealing.

That’s just a small part of a complex picture. Australia is moving from being a laid-back country that really tries to do its bit, to a somewhat corrupt oligarchy. We still have our base culture, but I don’t think we can handle three more years of this culture being intentionally ground underfoot.

May 21, as you can see, is an important election. It will decide who we are and whether we care about people, about the land… about anything other than a small group of individuals making much money. The current deputy leader, theoretically representing rural Australians, has said quite clearly that money is more important than anything else. Farmers are one of his chief voting blocs, and he makes it clear he doesn’t care.

How we got this way has an interesting and sad history. It follows the same path as the changes in the US Republicans, and some of the same factors are at play. I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, let me introduce you to who is standing for election. Our parties are not what they look like to non-Australians: their names are, to be honest, not that intuitive.

 

LNP – Liberal National Party, or the Coalition. This is the party currently in power. They are most definitely right wing.

‘Liberal’ in Australia has always referred to the small government (or smaller government) party, but these days it is the party that supports the coal and gas industries and is, to be fair, well-supported by those industries in return. In the sixties and seventies they supported cheap or free education. The free education was brought into play by the Labor party, and is the reason no-one my age ever suffered from university debts. The Liberals kept it when the Labor party was voted out. It was a Liberal leader (Malcolm Fraser) who was in charge when I was an undergraduate, and made sure that I paid no tuition fees. I paid student union fees (less than $100 a year) and for books, and anyone without income got Austudy , which was not quite enough to live on, but Austudy and a part-time job got most students through university with no debt at all. These days students emerge from undergraduate degrees between $20,000 and $100,000 in debt (or even higher) – it’s a choice between education and owning a house, even for most people who come from comfortable backgrounds.

These days the Liberals are, as I said earlier, quite right wing for the most part, despite the name. Even for a right wing party, they are light on addressing climate change, which is why Australia is labelled as bad on climate change – if you poll people’s opinions, dealing with it is important to us. It is not, however, important to our current leaders.

How does the LNP act in Parliament? One of my favourite clips (my least favourite clips make me want to weep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7UCSpZB5Bo

 

Labor – currently the Opposition. Labor started off from the union movement. Unions are still much bigger in Australia than in the US, and considerably more powerful, though less than they used to be. It was, originally, definitely left wing but has drifted towards the right in recent years. Let me be clear, though – right wing in Australia is not the same as the US right.

The spelling of the name is due to one of their early leaders, King O’Malley. He was very important in the days when Australia became independent and he founded a party and… he was American. This is why the name of the party uses US spelling. Canberra (our national capital, where I live) reacts to this naming in its own way. O’Malley was a teetotaller, so a pub was named after him. I have met friends at King O’Malley’s many times and each and every time someone makes a joke about the spelling of Labor.

The party is now centre left (mostly) and centre right (increasingly often). It’s not a left wing party. If someone from the US were describing it, however, they might call it ‘left wing’, because of the same factors that made the old-fashioned Liberals strong on education and social welfare. Education, health, social welfare, and owning a home are four dreams that a large number of Australians agree on. Almost all of us also agree on doing far more to prevent climate change than we currently attempt. State Labor parties have a (mostly) good record on this.

Federally, Labor haven’t been in power since September 2013, so their record on all issues at the federal level is tangled with the strange politics and voting patterns of Opposition. Labor has a history, in Parliament, of not shouting loudly against things they can’t change ie by voting agreement where nothing can be done, and saving the arguments for places they can make a change. They may be not-good on climate change, then, or they may just be biding their time.

Labor has the electoral advantage of everyone’s favourite politician (OK, maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of us). Penny Wong is wildly popular. She refuses to move to the House of Representatives and become leader and every few months people say, “But why???” She’s probably right on not trying for leadership. Most leaders have come from NSW, Victoria or Western Australia and she’s from South Australia. What’s more, the bigoted parts of Australia hate her as much as the rest of Australia loves her: she’s Malaysian Chinese Australian and gay. She is targeted by many, many bigots and the way she handles these people is one of the reasons she is so popular.

She is also popular because of how she handles difficult issues. We watch her for her facial expressions as much as her words and her attitude. When she looks at someone in Senate Estimates and waits a moment before saying something, a clip will be sent around social media, to illustrate a moment where someone not doing their job was forced to explain. Her ethics matter to us. Clips of Wong are always circulated when Senate Estimates (one of our methods for ensuring government accountability) is at work. Let me show you. First, something very everyday (and actually Senate Estimates, where Wong is seeking answers from a minister for things done): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ein2OPaX4GI It’s not the most colourful of the clips, but it shows the everyday work she does and why she’s liked. It also helps that she does things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5pxE4RXpjc

 

Greens – the next largest party (mostly). Until recently they were a bit gentler than the Greens in other countries, but these days they are fixed in their policies and have very strong views. They still get a lot of the left wing vote, but some of us would really like it if they listened and were a bit more adaptable.

Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and other leaders of small right wing parties. We have them in abundance. They get up to 15% of the vote in some states and some elections. They’re a story in and of themselves. They’re important politically, but can also be problematic. The old White Australia is best represented in these parties.

 

Independents: not new at all, but a particular type of independent candidate, based on grass roots decisions in a given electorate, is gaining a bigger voice than previously. These candidates are the main reason this election is impossible to call. Their colour is teal and many of them get backing from groups such as Climate 200 – addressing  climate change is one of the few policies they all totally agree on. Much of this voice belongs to the centre-right and their supporters used to be the core voters of the Liberal Party. This election is going to be one to watch, because if these independents do well, then several ministers are in danger of losing their seats.

The Liberals are so worried about them that two Liberal candidates have shifted the blue of the party in all their advertising to a shade closer to teal and one took his party’s name off some of his corflutes. The Liberals are not just fighting Labor for a majority: an interesting number of them are fighting for previously secure seats. In the 2019 election Zali Steggall (an ex-Olympic skier) defeated the previous prime minister in his own seat. Several of the “Voices of…” (the official term for the new grassroots candidates) are ex-journalists or sportspeople.

In Canberra, I don’t know yet if there are any standing for the lower house (the election was only called yesterday), but there are independents standing for the Senate, and one of them is, indeed an ex-sportsman, David Pocock. He’s not part of the teal people, but he is the leading candidate to challenge our Liberal senator (whose name is Zed, which isn’t nearly as funny in US English as it is in Australian English – for us ‘zed’ is the final letter of the alphabet) and the moment a particular picture of him was circulated, his vote increased enough to make people start to pay attention to him. He now has an audience for his policies, but for such an Australian reason.

This is not a complete introduction, but I’ve run out of time. When I meet a couple of deadlines, I will write you the next post, and you can see why the election is so soon and some of the mechanics behind our system. In some ways it’s very different to the system is the vast majority of democracies. Almost every vote counts here. And we have democracy sausages.

Watch this space.

Time to Learn Our Real History

I’ve frequently observed that my high school history teacher taught us that the Civil War was fought between us and them. Since this was in Texas, you can probably guess which side was “us”.

In the past, I said this more or less as a joke. Not that it wasn’t true – it was very true – but my intention was to mock those history lessons, to point out that the small town where I went to high school was so far behind the times.

Now, though, as Texas and other states pass laws to prevent history teachers from telling the truth about U.S. history, this memory of my education makes me want to cry. While I was fortunate to grow up in a family that rejected the Lost Cause narrative and Jim Crow racism, the rest of the world in which I lived was defined by those lies at every turn.

I saw those lies for what they were, but I somehow managed to both assume that things were changing – it was the time of the activist Civil Rights Movement – and that some things, like monuments to the traitors who led the Confederate Army, would always be with us.

I turned out to be wrong on both counts. We did make some progress on racism, enough that these days there are many powerful African American voices that call it out regularly, but not enough to keep it from remaining a powerful force in this country and not enough to fix all the systemic racism that we are only now beginning to discuss.

And we are finally reckoning with the fact that the Civil War was an act of treason by those who wanted to continue enslaving other human beings. Despite the backlash going on from white supremacists and in some state legislatures, we’re talking about this horrific part of our history in terms I never expected to hear. Continue reading “Time to Learn Our Real History”

Police Brutality and How My Jury Found For a Black Plaintiff

As I write this, the Derek  Chauvin trial is still under way, another Black man has been shot by law enforcement, and a Black Army officer has been brutalized and his life threatened. As outraged and saddened as I am by these heinous events, I also remember a time when I served as a juror on a civil trial that pitted law enforcement against a Black victim. This was many years ago, a time before Black Lives Matter, a time when it was assumed that police actions, no matter how brutal, were acceptable and justified. The case received no notice. It made no difference, except to me and, I hope, the plaintiff. But I think it’s worth telling now.

The events, as I remember as related in the course of the trial, were that two law enforcement officers stopped a car for a broken tail light. It was at night in a fairly well-to-do area. The driver was a young Black man. In the course of the traffic stop, the officers beat him so badly as to leave him with permanent injuries and needing years of recovery. The officers would have had us, the jury, believe that their actions were necessary. The plaintiff asserted that he posed no threat and offered no resistance.

The two officers were white, and they were at least six feet tall, muscular, and clearly fit. The Black man was small, about my size (I was 5’3”), lightly built, well-spoken, a professional. As the testimony proceeded, I found myself more and more appalled by what happened, and more incredulous that two trained officers could not have found a non-violent way of managing a routine traffic stop.

After we heard the testimony, we were instructed as to the law that we must follow, which required that the officers have malicious intent, or something to that effect. We wrestled with the language of the law and with how to interpret it in light of the events. For myself, my conscience and my sense of what is right and just were far more compelling. It was luminously clear to me that the plaintiff had been horribly beaten for no other reason than being a Black man. That the officers, who were supposed to act in a responsible, fair manner, were guilty of a gross abuse of power. Through the deliberations, I argued passionately for justice as I saw it. Some of my fellow jurors were already of my opinion, others were persuaded by my arguments, and a few insisted the case did not fulfill the letter of the law and the officers were justified.

In the end, however, we found for the plaintiff. (A civil trial does not require a unanimous vote.) The jury did not award him everything he asked. There were no punitive fines, but reimbursement of medical expenses and, if memory serves, a portion of lost income. After the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney said she was not able to tell us before, but the award of just a single penny in a trial of this sort meant the plaintiff could now take the case to Federal court for civil rights violations (or a similar next move—I may be fuzzy on the exact details). I will never forget the look on the Black plaintiff’s face after we delivered our verdict. I don’t know if was hope or amazement or relief. In that moment, I felt myself part of something greater: a very small step toward justice.

 

There is more to this story, a post-script as it were. The judge thanked us for our service and then advised us to leave the area as soon as possible. The year was 1992. The jury in the Rodney King case was about to deliver their verdict, and protests were expected. Outside the court house, the streets were almost deserted except for police vehicles. My usual bus was not running because the route had been blocked. Eventually I made my way home on another bus, watching the fires from the freeway.

I’d like to think that what I did, that infinitesimal step towards a more just society, made a difference. The temptation, though, is to become discouraged and stop trying. I’ve learned since that giving up is a luxury born of white privilege. My Black friends don’t get to take a vacation from racism because it’s difficult or terrifying. Today, almost 30 years later, white law enforcement officers are still brutalizing Black people.

I am reminded of a teaching in my own tradition, (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, part of the Talmud), attributed to first century rabbi Tarfon:

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21)

Let us persist, then, and accomplish what we are able, knowing that the next generation will take up the task after us.

 

Culture and science fiction conventions

I wrote out many thoughts on last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention, but something rather important has come up and I need to talk about it. It’s related to World Fantasy, true, but it’s also related to many other online conventions this year.

People from all over the world dropping in to take tea and chat can be delightful… but can also cause problems. No convention has been entirely without problems and no convention has been entirely without moments when cultures have come together and produced fascinating and useful conversations.

I could cause more problems if I listed the issues each and every convention has had or say nice things about the terrific conversations, but I shan’t do either. Instead, I shall give a small list of quite specific ideas to consider. These are the kinds of discussions that program people have or should have. (I’ve had them when programming. And yes, I made mistakes. The world is a big place and full of exceptional complexities.)

1. How do countries see their own various cultures? We can’t just take our own views and use them as a framework for the description of others. My favourite example of this is that people of Korean ancestry are from the dominant culture in Korea and the opposite in the US: a Korean and a Korean American have completely different experience in terms of prejudice and who society favours.

2. How do minorities see themselves, explain themselves, and why? The example I give on panels is often me, myself and I, for I am not the same Jewish as US Jewish and have some very interesting life experiences to prove it. Ask me about them, and ask me what elements of Australian history pushed me towards my self-description as off-white.

3. In any community, who are the experts on matters of culture? I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on these things and some con-runners know this and ask me to be on panels or for advice. Others… don’t. The variations on ‘don’t’ can be entertaining but often make me feel like an outsider. I have other things to do than spend more of my life as an outsider (I am one anyway, so I don’t need to accept the gift of more outsider status) and move on to other things. We are all different people. Ask around and find out who knows what. (Ask me what my new PhD topic is, I dare you. It includes the words ‘culture’ and ‘genre fiction’. Ask anyone researching what their research is about.)

4. There are procedures and guidelines for working with so many minority cultures in so many countries. My favourites look a bit like this: https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/writing-protocols-for-indigeno-5b4bfc67dd037.pdf This and a set of writing guidelines have been produced by the owners of the culture in order to make it possible for the rest of us to write without appropriation. While not all cultures have documents of this sort, they often have people who can be asked. It would be very useful if possible panellists know about policies and protocols and politics. It would also be useful if they could explain how one works with people of this culture or that. However, none of us know everything. Panellists should all know their limitations. That’s the bottom line. We need to know who we can speak for and who we should defer to on a given subject.

This is not a list of ten. It could be, but those four subjects are immense and enough to be getting on with.

Juneteenth

There is talk these days about making Juneteenth a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in this country. And while setting a holiday doesn’t end abusive policing or systemic inequality or even microagressions, the history around Juneteenth makes talking about it a useful focus for addressing the racism that white people want to pretend don’t exist.

It could be argued that the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective — January 1, 1863 — is a more appropriate holiday, since that’s when slavery became illegal in the states that were in rebellion against the United States (though not in the slave states still in the Union, such as Maryland). Though the day of ratification of the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery in the United States — December 6, 1865 — is even more appropriate, because that’s when slavery was legally abolished across the entire country.

But I think Juneteenth makes the most sense. First of all, it is a celebration started by African Americans, who, as the people most affected, should set such dates. The Black people of Galveston began holding celebrations on June 19, 1866. Unlike most holidays, which are set by those in power and often for political reasons, this one came from the people affected. That makes the day powerful. Continue reading “Juneteenth”

A Little Bit of Hope

I felt a little hope this week.

The uprising in the streets of our country (and much of the rest of the world) brought me that hope.

Or more accurately, the reaction to that uprising, which for once veered away from the usual tut-tutting about property damage and instead focused on how the police attacked peaceful protestors. The blatant racism and casual police violence that have always been a part of our society are now under serious scrutiny.

There is a call for real and systemic change in how we handle public safety, something I’ve wanted to see for many years and yet never expected to see. Sometimes, despite being a science fiction writer, I lack imagination when it comes to change in my own world. Continue reading “A Little Bit of Hope”