Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme is progressive because it treats maternity leave with the same degree of legitimacy as sick leave for women in the workforce, and his scheme also provides more generous leave entitlements for parents and their newborns. (Hopefully the scheme also helps encourage women with great career potential to stay attached to the workforce long enough to rise to positions of seniority where they can remove institutional barriers that are holding back disadvantaged women). But for goodness sake, I know what Abbott meant when he said ‘women of that calibre’ and it was not a clumsy way of saying ‘I hear you sisters, ‘work life balance’ is crazy difficult and we must do what we can to assist you all’. Abbott’s comment was transparent snobbery. It should alarm us as feminists because the conservative side of politics has a long history of promoting motherhood to patriarchy-approved women – ie. white, married, middle-to-high income – while not only denying support for, but actively undermining, mothers outside that spectrum – eg. single, disabled, non-white, incarcerated, poor. I’m not suggesting that the parental leave scheme is harmful to poor mothers but it isn’t immediately helpful to them, and particularly not if it is sold with the overt message that some mothers are more equal than others.
Angelina Jolie wrote a perfectly sound (and engagingly heartfelt) article about her decision to have a double mastectomy. Her article will be beneficial for women encountering the choice in similar circumstances, and also for destigmatising mastectomies generally. But it is not a particularly insightful piece. The screening Jolie promotes in her article is unaffordable to many in the US and the preventative surgery she ultimately decided upon has problems of its own that are not explored in the piece. Her article also emphasizes genetic risk at the expense of environmental factors which are far more significant in contributing to cancer rates. This is a concern because genetic factors are corporation-friendly but environmental factors are decidedly not. (For an excellent overview of this criticism of the breast cancer campaign I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “Cancerland”). Jolie is not a writer or a medical specialist, she is an actor, so there is nothing offensive to me about her article being relatively narrow and personal in focus, but the response to it almost everywhere has been somewhat.. star-struck. Jolie didn’t write the bravest and most important story for women this year – can’t we just be satisfied with her writing a significant story?
Australia has a problem with anti-intellectualism but this bold article, “Why Australia hates thinkers” doesn’t prove it. Credit to Alecia Simmonds, the author of the piece for getting people talking and also for naming names when she makes her criticisms. Both of those achievements are important but Simmonds’ article reads like having dinner with a scoffing ex-pat. And I should know, I have dinner with such an ex-pat every year when they come back to Australia to visit. (Love you, Dad).
In her article, Simmonds cherry picks a handful of idiot commentators from Australia and then unfavourably compares us to the cultures of France and England. But having been to both those countries I know that these lovely places have their share of over-exposed buffoons, too. Australia’s anti-intellectualism could be demonstrated with less anecdotes and more identifiable measures. I find Simmonds’ swipe at Andrew Bolt for dropping out of a university degree depressing also. His views are repellent but so are those of Dr Steven Kates (ie. “the damaged women” vote), and Kates completed a couple of degrees and teaches in a university. Judgementalism about education levels is a perfect way to prove that anti-intellectualism is justifiable in Australia.
And while we’re madly dividing between us and them, those of us with higher degrees would do well to be careful of defensive statements like those in Simmonds’ article about how poorly paid and noble academic professions are compared to other jobs. I agree that such jobs are paid less than the general public understands but neither description plays too well to the 50 per cent of the Australian workforce who work in full-time jobs for less than $58,000 a year. Some wages truly are embarrassingly humble and so are the working conditions, which can include plenty of unpaid overtime but with none of the autonomy of academic jobs. And who is going to tell a childcare worker her job isn’t a noble one? We’d be better to say that there is a squeeze on workplace conditions that many occupations and industries, including academia have in common.
The article has some very tired old Australian stereotypes, too, that could benefit from re-examination; like, are children here still ashamed of being smart? A huge surge in private tutoring and an obsession with NAPLAN testing among parents suggests otherwise to me. And what of the idea that Twitter is no place for academic thinkers – my feed is teeming with them and links to their work.
But I absolutely agree with Simmonds’ belief that there is a problem with anti-intellectualism in Australia, I just don’t find her article terribly convincing of the fact. Anyway, if you haven’t had enough of this complaint then Jeff Sparrow makes some of these arguments and others in a great response, “Why Andrew Bolt is not an imbecile” at New Matilda.
And to finish up.. a less controversial view of mine? This article is well worth reading. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “How to make the U.S. a better place for carers” in The Atlantic:
Focusing on infant mortality is not typically on a white feminist agenda in the U.S.; the babies at risk are children of poverty, who are in turn more likely to be rural whites and ethnic minorities. But an infrastructure of care must provide care for everyone, just as roads and bridges provide transport for anyone who can drive or afford a bus ticket. Care is for the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, and the dependent. All of us, rich or poor, qualify as vulnerable and dependent for at least some period after birth and before death.
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