Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Everybody deserves a second chance"

Following a night of hectic dreaming that left me kinda shaky, it has somewhat been a relief to read the teacup storm that mildly brewed over at the Seven network recently, involving the television station's response to last year's nationally successful Masterchef. Whilst it hasn't managed to offer the six-night-per-week timeframe that worked so well for the Ten production and its massive fanbase, My Kitchen Rules may generate a similar ruckus based on contestant selection, the judges and show format. Viewers saw the introduction of another round of contestants last week and it feels like things have become more interesting. Maybe.

In parallel with a controversy on the set of The Biggest Loser, information has come to bear regarding the criminal record of one of the food show's contestants. Of course it has to be one of the divorcees. It turns out that Matt Michaelis (from the second round of contestants) has been "convicted of receiving stolen goods, speeding and driving while disqualified" (Source: The 41 yr-old has bravely entered the competition with his ex-wife (they split seven years ago), all for the benefit of their 8 yr-old son Max. Interesting, huh? I mean it; how often do you see fellow divorcees pairing up to compete on the same side? Through the brilliance of Larry David, the world has been exposed to the fluidity of relationships, albeit through sitcom eyes, and My Kitchen Rules offers up another serving along those lines.

The expected commercial station response , however, has not been forthcoming. As it turns out Seven believes that, in the words of one of its publicists, "everyone deserves a second chance". Libby Mickan stated further that the pair had entered the competition "for all the right reasons", with the history of breaches having been laid out on the table from the outset. And why not? I've been told that in Germany it is against the law to discriminate against a person based on their criminal history (I'm sure there must be exceptions for particular charges): if a person has undergone the punishment attached to a criminal act then that is the end of it; matter resolved and time to move forward.

Too often, people who are expected to 'reform' and 'contribute meaningfully to society' are unable to really do so due to a criminal record that hangs over their heads more like a noose than a cloud. Toll Holdings in Melbourne, Australia, stands out in this regard, as it is a company that has initiated and developed a program that specifically employs people with records. Again, it believes that people deserve a genuine second chance. This is yet another example where caution needs to be exercised where legislation is involved. What might seem reasonable at face value has unintended ramifications. The paradoxical effect of drug prohibition is another example.

I think we should commend Libby Mickan and the management at Seven. The more that we see attitudes like this shaping action, the more real our claims of humanity will be.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Black Man in the White House

From Noam Chomsky to my brother, people who understand the limitations of the Obama presidency will say, "But you can't underestimate the significance of a black man in the White House". And I myself have been coasting along, content with the knowledge that even though Obama will prioritise the interests of big business and continue to fly the American imperialist flag, the ugly head of racism has taken an uppercut of epic proportions. But maybe we don't give the world enough credit? Maybe the state of play has advanced in a way that has eluded us as we bury our noses in academic texts detailing the more subtle forms of racism that make clear the order of things as those in power see it.

I am not a scholar on racism, far from it, but I do know that money is king. Street skateboarders, essentially criminals for the public property that they 'destroy', are sponsored by Nike and George Michael enters Australia after declaring his long-standing daily pot habit - it's all okay because if you represent top-notch income, that is all that matters. Paid in full.

So with these examples in mind, maybe we need to accept that the 'skin colour' issue had already been resolved by the time Obama ran for president and in actual fact, the 'black man' was already in the White House, so to speak. I refer to exhibit A, the 'hip hop' phenomenon. With hip hop the world has not merely witnessed a music form that has emerged from the ghettos become a billion dollar industry - former criminals, some of whom glorify 'thug life', have joined the lists of America's most wealthy (examples can be observed in other areas, such as skateboarder Darren Harper).

If African-American, former crack dealer 50 Cent can earn a reputed $100 million dollars from a Vitamin Water drink deal with Coca-Cola, then surely it is reasonable to surmise that colour is not so much the issue in the US as of late, but rather that money is the real issue at hand. In fact, maybe racism is a distraction and media cliche, catching people up who would be better off paying attention to the way in which class plays out.

As I said, I'm not a scholar in these matters, but as a way to soften the inevitable Kennedy-like disappointment, we should just say to ourselves, "Meh, Obama? He 'aint all that really." Because in the end, it's all about the money.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Robert Hughes, 'conceptual vulnerability' & harm reduction

In his punchy, eye-opening documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, the venerable Robert Hughes laments over the state of contemporary art, where dollar value dictates status - in the place of genuine talent and a meaningful creative voice. One of the exhibits employed by Hughes to illustrate his point is an in-development gallery-cum-resort that has licensed the brand names of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. The resort plans to exhibit the 'Mona Lisa' to cement its intended 'high-brow' art reputation. Patrons will be able to work on their tan and soak in priceless works of art without leaving the island. This, for Hughes, is the equivalent of fine art blasphemy.

According to Hughes, developments such as the resort place works such as the 'Mona Lisa', and all that they stand for, in a "conceptually vulnerable" position. Not physically vulnerable; conceptually vulnerable. For Hughes, the 'Mona Lisa' might as well be 'butcher's paper' if its guardians lose sight of its real value. Is Hughes merely a jaded, art curmudgeon, or is he exposing an injustice that is too often overlooked due to its abstract and insidious nature? That is, a loss of meaning, and the ramifications, that we as humans pay too little attention to, lost in the self-absorbed world of the mortgaged, nine-to-five grind.

So is harm reduction also 'conceptually vulnerable'? In recent times the Australian sector has seen NGOs and research bodies align themselves with powerful pharmaceutical companies, a relationship that has stretched beyond the domain of conference sponsorship. And on the topic of conferences, the displays within them have become increasingly fronted by sales representatives. In Australia we cannot forget the massive sums of money that were held in the balance whilst an evaluation of retractable syringes was completed. Of course, the products produced by these companies are important for the reduction of drug-related harms, but where will these relationships eventually take the sector and philosophy of harm reduction?

Interestingly, in the media spots that followed the release of the latest 'Return on Investment' report for NSPs in Australia the 'dollars saved' bottom line was front-and-centre and one could be forgiven for thinking that NSPs should merely be transformed into a self-serve cupboard 'sector' to ensure that we maximise the 'bang for buck' factor.

I have the privilege of working directly alongside demand reduction clinicians and have become increasingly aware of two things:

a) Harm reduction is often the easy part. The real challenge lies in the response to the request from NSP clients (and yes they are genuine and yes, there are very many of them) who want to cease their problematic drug use and, more often than not, find some way of healing past trauma/ grief/ abuse/ shame.

b) The demand reduction/ treatment sector may not be able to quote billions of dollars in savings, but the value that is gained is often priceless. Whether that be group work, psychotherapy, welfare work or medical assistance.

Will harm reduction become all about the money?

I know these are not new revelations, but I feel compelled to raise these issues for discussion as harm reduction is an incredibly valuable philosophy and sector, and one that I am proud to have been involved with for over a decade. If it is conceptually vulnerable, then my passion would dictate that activists and practitioners need to actively address the problems at hand. It is a struggle I am willing to take up and I am interested to read other opinions.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the Mona Lisa Curse:

Part #07

Part #08

Part #11

Freud, 'displacement' & the 'War on Drugs'

Whilst Sigmund Freud's work has been heavily critiqued, his influence on psychology and the wider world is undeniable. With the continuing growth of the 'co-morbidity' area of the illicit drug field, figures like Freud and Carl Rogers may have an increased significance in the lives of harm reduction workers/ activists.

I am no expert on Freud or psychoanalysis, but of particular interest to me at the moment is the concept of 'displacement'. My notional understanding of the topic has been attained via a superficial exploration of the Vietnam War and the proliferation of films during the Reagan era that displayed a disavowal regarding America's culpability in the horrific war, the ramifications of which continue to be experienced by people to this day.

Films such as 'Rambo' repressed America's guilt from the war but as Freud notes, the mechanism of repression is inevitably flawed and the repressed material ultimately breaks through and manifests itself in unwelcome symptoms. Modern societies, unable to come to terms with the past, set about rewriting it through mediums such as cinema.

A common strategy for reinscribing history is the substitution of one question for another. In dream interpretation, psychoanalysis calls this strategy 'displacement'. Displacement accounts for the phenomenon of scapegoating, for instance, on both individual and cultural levels. Through cinema, the question of "Were we right to fight in Vietnam?" was replaced by "What is our obligation to the veterans of war?". Or so one interpretation goes. What then emerges from this substitution is a strategy of victimisation, whereby the transformation of America into 'victim' means that it never has to say sorry for the past. This is an outcome of displacement.

On a cultural level, has the 'War on Drugs' substituted the question of "Why are we engaging in this war?" or "Why do so many people experience problematic drug use?" with "What is our obligation to those who have been harmed by drugs, both users and the community?".

On an individual level, has the question of "Why do I experience problematic drug use" been substituted by "Why are drugs illegal?" or "Why am I treated in a discriminatory manner?"

Interestingly in both contexts, there is a creation of 'victimhood' and therefore a marked lessening or even elimination of self-responsibility.

The notion of 'taking responsibility for one's actions' is often talked about in the illicit drugs field, but it is rarely spoken of in a cultural context, only in relation to the individual. Of course it needs to happen on both levels, but I am wondering if it needs to work concurrently for there to be any real progress, and for there to be greater discussion on individual responsibility and the way it can be fostered.

Peter Sutton, Australian Aboriginal affairs & Prohibition

In his recently-released contribution to the Indigenous polemic in this country, anthropologist Peter Sutton has successfully introduced an open-minded sentiment that takes a continuing issue of great importance to a deeper level. With his book The Politics of Suffering, Sutton is motivated by a genuine desire to redress the grief and suffering of Australian Aborigines in a context where conditions in many communities have worsened over the last three decades. Of particular interest to the author are the increases in material assistance and the transition to Aboriginal 'self-determination' that have defined this period in time; primary outcomes of what Sutton refers to as a 'liberal, rights-based agenda'.

So why have matters worsened under such seemingly positive changes?

While I cannot answer this question adequately, it is worthwhile highlighting core components of Sutton's discourse.

Sutton moves the polemic beyond the overly-simplistic argument that the appalling gap, regarding health statistics and quality of life, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is attributable solely to dispossession and racism. Sutton writes of pre-existing aspects of Aboriginal culture colliding with a specific type of colonialism to create the damage that continues to be felt, He uses examples of remote communities who have been exposed to a much lesser extent of 'invasion' to help support his point, and, without advocating for outright intervention, uses the Aboriginal concept of 'kinship' to further our understanding of why some community members have specifically asked for a non-Indigenous police presence in their community.

Sutton also debunks myths and reveals lesser-known information to further highlight the constricted (and lazy?) mindset that has too often driven the 'progressive' side of the Indigenous issue. Exposed myths include the comparatively high prevalence of violence in pre-colonial Australia (when compared to other Indigenous societies) and the higher number of death rates for prisoners on community-based orders compared to those handed down custodial sentences (for a defined period Aboriginal prisoners fared better than those released back into the community according to an inquiry into deaths in custody). In what is a thought-provoking, detailed and nuanced exploration of the issue, Sutton also writes of how child-rearing practices contribute to the reproduction of harmful attitudes and behaviours. In light of everything discussed, the politicisation of the issue can seem heartless and misguided, having been hijacked by those with an ulterior agenda.

So are there any parallels to harm reduction? Is it too easy to over-simplify the illicit drugs issue into a basic discussion about the innumerable problems that have arisen since the introduction of Prohibition? Are the issues of rights and self-determination presented at the expense of that which will truly heal the wounds that lead to problematic drug use or that drugs can cause?

Contentious issues are rarely ever straightforward and I can't help but think that there is a danger of over-romanticising the pre-Prohibition era, or even a post-Prohibition era. I don't have the answers, and nor does Sutton's book speak in such terms, but the Politics of Suffering should remind us of the critical importance of understanding the complexity of such issues and the need to make sure that we haven't lost our way.