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Posts Tagged ‘Social commentary’

A while ago I posted “A Diamond is Merely a Lump of Coal That Did Well Under Pressure” At the time I was reflecting on the power of this imagery, how it encapsulates so many ideas about strength, inner beauty, hard work and so on.
But take a look at the blood diamond calligram “Not All Diamonds Are The Same”

The literary and visual image of a diamond as a thing of beauty and desirability has been tarnished by their use to fund corrupt governments and military activities in parts of Africa. However, the Kimberly Process sought to keep these Blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds from being traded. The governments of participating countries are required to certify where the diamonds have come from and to guarantee that the diamonds being traded are conflict free. The diamond industry and various NGOs such as Global Witness, as well as other member states, are official observers who can check that the certification process is genuine. It has been successful in helping some countries reduce the flow of conflict diamonds and to increase official stocks but Zimbabwe is a notable exception.
So it seems incredible that the Kimberley Process has authorised exports by two companies operating in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields. Members of the military are known to have tortured and killed workers in the mines, and used the money from the diamonds to fund illegal government activity. Global Witness has suggested that members of Zimbabwe’s ruling party may use revenue from the area to fund the intimidation of voters ahead of elections.
As a result of the decision to authorise the Mirange diamonds Global Witness has withdrawn from the Kimberly Process, an organisation it helped set up.
Previously, The EU and the US had blocked any move to lift the ban, but late last year said that Zimbabwe has made considerable gains in addressing areas of non-compliance. It’s hard to see how, especially as the military is still involved in running the mines.
Lifting the ban undermines any credibility that the Kimberly Process may have had, and raises the question why, the US and EU have suddenly changed their positions.
Consumers can no longer be reasonably sure that a diamond certified by the Kimberly Process is not a blood diamond. The only thing a responsible person can do is insist on seeing the provenance of the stone being purchased. Some retailers, such as Michael Hill, already do this.

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It seems that the OECD has been somewhat mischievous in its reporting of the gap between the rich and poor in New Zealand. One can only wonder why it has reported its “findings” in such a dramatic fashion. Why has it only told part of the story?

Tony Alexander, chief economist BNZ, has looked closely at the OECD data it used to claim that New Zealand has the fastest growing gap between rich and poor in the developed world. Alexander reports in his weekly overview that the gap was accelerating between 1986 and 2000, but since then the gap has continued to close.

So for the last ten years, while in other OECD countries the gap has continued to increase, the gap between rich and poor in New Zealand has been closing. A good thing. A fact not reported by the OECD.

Tony Alexander attributes the closing of the gap to the reforms of the mid eighties finally reaching their full economic effect in the mid nineties.

While some people might find his opinion galling, the fact remains that in New Zealand the trend is to closing the gap between rich and poor.

An increasing gap between rich and poor gives rise to social discontentment and resentment. Perception can become reality in people’s minds and that is why I accuse the OECD of being mischievous and biased in its reporting.

I would go further and suggest that the misleading claim by the OECD is dangerous to New Zealand’s social cohesion and that much of the damage has already been done and is difficult to undo. Peoples’ first impressions and perception are often lasting and difficult to refute, a behaviour well known to advertisers, marketers and those in PR.

Nonetheless, the gap between rich and poor in NZ is much higher in 2010 than in 1986, and there are too many people who, for whatever reason, are unable to feed and house themselves adequately … The gap needs to close, and close more quickly.

The OECD statistics are available on http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/39/45/49170007.xls

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“The gap between rich and poor has widened further in New Zealand – and in Sweden – than in any other developed countries in the past 25 years …. (The OECD report ) calls for “three pillars” of action to close the gap – investing more in education and training, helping all groups into jobs, and closing tax loopholes to make the rich pay a fairer share of taxes.”

Simon Collins,  NZ Herald December 7 2011

Warning: the following contains unverified “facts” (there’s an oxymoron!),  and a mixture of my own opinions and those of others.

Much of the discussion I have heard today (National Radio Morning Report and The Panel) has focused on taxing the rich to pay more for government services, which raises two points – who are the rich, and how do you tax them.  Bernard Hickey said that the rich are those earning one and a half times the average wage ie in NZ, $70,000;  one of Jim Mora’s guests suggested that California’s bid to increase taxes of those earning US$250,000 is about right; another guest referred to Obama’s suggestion to tax millionaires to pay forgovernment projects, but also pointed out that in NZ only about 30,000 people earn more than $100,000. Bernard Hickey also suggested that NZ could close one tax loophole here by introducing a land tax, given that some rich people had quadrupled even quintupled their wealth over the last ten years by buying properties.

Someone I spoke to today (he was on the Savings and Capital Working group and has worked in the finance and energy sectors) said that taxation is the least of NZ’s problems. He knocked off the other two pillars in one blow by explaining that the export/manufacturing sector we need can’t develop because of one key factor – no energy policy. Overseas investors won’t come here, because our energy supply is inconsistent, inefficient and costly! Exporting commodities such as logs yields a fifty per cent return, exporting a partially transformed product eg cardboard boxes yield about seventeen per cent, and a fully transformed product eg furniture yields about three pc return. Why? Not just because of investment in plant, but because of problems with energy supply. Apparently, ten years ago the Dairy industry planned to have half its milk production in “elaborately transformed” product … It hasn’t happened because of the investment costs … And no energy policy.

So with an energy policy we wouldn’t have such a large unskilled workforce, people would have to be up skilled to manufacture “transformed product”. Productivity would increase and we could stop worrying about who these rich people are who will pay for clean rivers, public education, public health, and universal super, as well as working for families, and interest free loans.

Who would have thought it … An energy policy  …  Bring back Electricity Corporation?

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“Storytelling is how we survive, when there’s no feed, the story feeds something, it feeds the spirit, the imagination. I can’t imagine life without stories, stories from my parents, my culture. Stories from other people’s parents, their culture. That’s how we learn from each other, it’s the best way. That’s why literature is so important, it connects us heart to heart.”

Alice Walker

Alice Walker, author of  “The Colour Purple”, represents for me more than the literature of the oppressed and the marginalised, more than literature of  social justice, more than literature of a gifted writer. Yes, she has the power to reach across boundaries and to connect with people regardless of nationality, gender, class, ethnicity. Yes, she has the ability to change lives and can influence the way we think about racism.  Yes, she uses literary devices to breathe life into characters and situations.

She has the gifted writer’s ability to draw us into relationships with her characters. She gives us the opportunity reflect on the ethics and values of our community, to empathise with characters from different backgrounds and experiences, to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Her storytelling has the power to connect many hearts because her storytelling is literature.

Nonetheless, everybody has stories. Everybody needs stories.  “(stories are) … how we learn from each other, it’s the best way.”  Stories tell us who we are, tell much about the community that shaped us.

My son set up this blog for me to encourage me to write. I’m not sure what he thought I would write about. At first I didn’t know what to write about. When I realised that this was an opportunity to tell stories to my grown up children I realised I had an audience, at least one I could address in my head. They can choose to read or not read what I write, but I can share stories with them that otherwise might not be told. I have told stories about my mother and her mother. I have told stories about my travels, stories about our family, what it is like to live with a spinal cord injury, my hopes and dreams, opinions on social or political issues, my interests and thoughts in general. My daughter always clicks “like” when she has read a post “Because”, she told me, ” I want you to know I’ve read it.” That’s when I knew that it’s not only literature that “… connects us heart to heart” but all storytelling, whether it is sharing experiences or thoughts and ideas. When I see that she has read a post I feel a connection.

The storyteller, like the artist or poet makes herself vulnerable  because she reveals something of herself and the background that has moulded her. Opinions can reveal prejudices and introduce conflict. But that is how we learn about each other. Reflections can stir the imagination, expand and inspire ideas. Memories can provoke interest in finding out more about who we are and the forces that given us “identity”.

Using technology anyone can create a social role as a storyteller. We can connect with people on a global scale. I am excited to read something written by a woman who has lived most of her life in Africa and the Middle East. To connect with someone from such a different cultural background and to learn something of her life and yet find we share many concerns and priorities is eye opening.  It is awesome that someone may read my words and connect in some way, and that conversely I will read someone else’s story.

By the way, Alice Walker has a blog. I recommend reading it!

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When I saw Nigel Latta on TV talking about teenagers I was at first amused until I realized what a load of crock he was talking. Not only was he talking rubbish, but his theories about teenagers are not funny, they are dangerous. Calling teenagers another species or aliens is marginalizing and isolating them. Categorizing people, giving them labels, mocking them, dehumanising them has been done before. The nazis did it. Bullies do it in the classroom and in the workplace.

Comedians do it, but usually it’s done to make us look at ourselves, and to highlight an issue that’s wrong. Perhaps Latta thinks he’s a stand up comedian or an entertainer. The thing is, he’s an educator, and I think that what he says about teenagers, and the way to treat them is wrong. An element of truth there may be, but this is what makes what he says so dangerous, so insidious. He can hook you with a half-truth, make fun of it, and, wham, he can reel you in.

You can group people according to age: toddlers, pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, the middle aged, the elderly. And you can find something to endlessly mock in each group. The self centred, tantrum throwing toddler; the rude obnoxious teenager; the lost middle-aged person in crisis; the senile, forgetful oldie. Or you can show respect for people regardless of age, race, religion … We can choose to be inclusive, embracing the wonderful human-ness of others, celebrating our differences and seek to understand and learn from others.

It’s not funny to marginalise the teenager. At a time when someone is seeking independence, security, self-awareness, an emerging sense of empathy, questioning of identity … Hell, that could be me now … The difference is that I’ve reached a point in my life when I realize that I don’t know who I am, and that it doesn’t matter because change is good, complacency is not.

I like teenagers. Their minds are developing at an extraordinary rate, and their perceptions of the world can provide us with an opportunity to take a fresh new look at our own world that may have become stale, fixed or cynical. We can choose to be threatened by their questioning of mores and values, or we can choose to honestly re-evaluate ours. We can choose to outright reject their ideas, or we can choose to defend and rationally argue our own positions. Teenagers are learning to control and co-ordinate their thoughts. We can assist or resist.

Teenage angst, can be positively redirected to creative or sporting activities. Some of the most insightful poetry I have read has come from the troubled minds of teenagers. Same with stories and music. Teenagers have shown me that expressing creativity is a path to personal fulfillment and a sense of self. The discipline, team work, and focus that come from physical activities are captured by teenagers who discover the joy of successfully implementing strategies and tactics and the comfort and excitement of being part of something larger than themselves.

Realising that we are tiny specks in the universe can be terrifying or it can be empowering. Following a teenager’s journey to find a place where she feels comfortable is an opportunity to make that journey myself. To be part of that journey is a privilege, and the rewards are infinite.

Sure, teenagers can be smelly, hostile, hurtful, inarticulate and incomprehensible, but they need us (adults, parents) more than ever to love them despite this, perhaps because of this. They’re pushing boundaries, pushing parents, seeing what they can get away with. They need boundaries, but these boundaries can often be negotiated and mutually agreed upon. Where there’s room to compromise we should, but some things are so important we must only say no. That’s going to test our ability to explain our reasons. Teenagers force us to develop communication skills, to become negotiators, and enforcers. Being around teenagers sets us off on a journey too.

We may not enjoy dealing with aggression from toddlers and young children, but we accept that we need to learn strategies to constructively deal with it. We may not like the behaviour but we don’t resent the child throwing a tantrum, nor should we resent teenagers. We don’t isolate and marginalise the toddler, nor should we isolate and marginalise teenagers.

I delight in seeing the world through the eyes if a toddler – stopping to marvel at the butterfly or the snail trail. I delight in seeing the world through the eyes of a teenager – discussions about social injustice, corrupt political and financial structures; learning to negotiate through minefields of personal responsibility.

I love the certainty with which teenagers hold their convictions. I love their wisdom and their insight. I don’t think I’m any wiser now than I was as a teenager, I’ve just learnt a few more skills. I love being reminded that we are all on a journey, no matter our age, and that we choose our destinies. Oh, the angst …

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Years ago I discovered a world where art intersects with words. Two of my passions gave birth to a third passion, calligraphy. I call my version of calligraphy letter art, where there are no rules or limits to what can be created. I might feel like doing a water colour wash then add letters and words in one or more media applied with any sort of tool, from brush, nib, stick, card or finger. Or I might start by drawing letters in rubber then wash over the top, peeling off the rubber to reveal a message.

"Letter Art" in watercolour wash

Once, when I was at a party I became animated about how much I enjoy this. The next moment is etched in my memory. Some woman piped up “Next you’ll be doing cake decorating.” Initially I was shocked that she would mock me by comparing art with cake decorating, then I realised how judgemental I was being. I began to think about how creativity finds an outlet whatever, and that judging and comparing creativite outlets in an attempt to diminish one or both, is to demean the human urge to express ourselves, to interpret the world, to discover beauty, or do whatever.

I often return to that thought, that is, the legitimacy of the human urge to be creative, and that creativity has no boundaries. Whether writing poetry or prose, the writer has a message and uses literary devices to create something special. The artist can blend media, surface, technique and so on. Singing, playing a musical instrument, photography, sculpture are also conventionally regarded as being creative, so why not cake decorating, meal presentation, calligraphy, scrapbooking, dancing, dress design, furniture design, and so on. (incidentally, some of these latterly mentioned creative outlets are regarded as “feminine”, so perhaps there is some gender bias at work here.)

Creativity and imagination are related. Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. This inspires me to believe that human endeavour is at its finest when we apply creativity – to look for opportunities, to solve problems, to seek wisdom and understanding. It is through art, literature, music, any creative work or thinking that our spirits soar.

Einstein's "Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge" in watercolour wash

So what is creativity? I’m not sure it can be defined or measured. What is art?. Where painting intersects with calligraphy, is it no longer art? Clearly that isn’t so, otherwise Colin Mc Cahon wouldn’t be regarded as one of New Zealand’s great artists. Does someone’s willingness to pay for artistic endeavour define a work as art? If someone will pay for a cake to be decorated does that mean that cake decorating is art? I believe it can be, and that it can certainly be an example of creativity.

Is literature only the work of great writers? If only the greatest writers were published, my reading world would be impoverished. I love reading “coming of age” novels (I have realized in the last few years that I have yet to come of age – will I ever grow up?). Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps best known for writing “The Poisonwood Bible” yet it’s “The Bean Trees” and “Pigs In Heaven” that I enjoyed the most. And I’d be a lesser person if I hadn’t read Billie Letz’ “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon”, “Where The Heart Is” and “Made In The USA”. And I find plenty to chew over in Marion Keyes novels.

And good things happen when creativity intersects with technology. I’ve discovered plenty of great writing on blogs. One of the best things I’ve learnt about blogging is that because it provides a great medium for writers it’s become a treasure trove for readers, and a fantastic forum for ideas. It’s a wonderful spark for creativity. It’s a great place to find poetry:

Julia Fehrenbacher of Painted Path writes wonderful poetry and prose.

This via kind over matter

Held

When she slows
quietly down
instead of pushing
urgently forward
When she asks and listens
and receives
instead of talking and telling
and trying
When she bows
deeply
to this light-filled
Now
instead of running
screaming away
It bows deeply back

and she feels herself
falling

freely
falling
safely
falling
softly
falling
back into
the wide open
arms
of Grace

People have always found ways to express themselves creatively, to feel their spirits soar and their hearts sing. Creativity is an essential part of who we are. It can’t be measured and it shouldn’t be compared or minimised, but rather celebrated and embraced, wherever it is found.

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I read an article called “Sylvia’s Story” in the Sunday Star Times April 17, 2011. It was about the thousands of women, war brides, who sailed to New Zealand after World War two to join their husbands who were New Zealand servicemen. It got me thinking that something extraordinary happened in New Zealand in the decades following World War Two. In Europe people were coping with rebuilding cities and lives, coping with the results of atrocities and dealing with trauma on a scale that had never been seen before. But in New Zealand, far away from deprivation and destruction, connected only by servicemen who would not talk about their experiences, news sources that were sketchy, and immigrants who were regarded with suspicion and wariness, life went on much as it had always done. New Zealand at that time was generally isolated and insular and New Zealanders took pride in their self-sufficiency. The number 8 fencing wire mentality was still essential to survival, and women were strong, independent, able and continued the pioneering successes of previous generations of (European) women.

Into this world came not only the European refugees, but also thousands of women, mostly English, who married New Zealand servicemen they had fallen in love thousands of miles away. If they were anything like my mother, they had been spun a story of a land of milk and honey, a paradise where anything was possible. Instead they arrived in a country so primitive and unsophisticated that many, like my mother and Sylvia must have wanted desperately to go home. I don’t believe that my mother ever forgave my father for uplifting her from the vibrant (if damaged) city of London, to the tiny family cottage in Mangaweka where the toilet was an outhouse, then to Wellington where she found, not a city, but a backwater where facilities were primitive and there was not even theatre for distraction.

Like Sylvia, my mother and father were forced to live with family for the first part of their married lives. This angered Sylvia who wanted a state house.  Sylvia’s husband was an airforce officer and from an affluent family. After the war he returned to the company he had previously worked for and was trained for promotion. My father was an army private and his family was large and poor. When he left New Zealand, despite having left school at thirteen, he had achieved a cadetship with the Railways as a draughtsman. When he returned, injured in 1941 in Egypt, he was told he was too old for the cadetship and so worked variously as a labourer building the Tawa line, and as a porter, but never again had an opportunity like the cadetship.

Living with family was the least of my mother’s problems; she never complained to me about it anyway, but recalled with humour incidents like, when living with my dad’s aunt, taking all day  to light the fire under the “copper” to do the washing.

Sylvia, like most war brides, arrived in New Zealand in 1946 on a “bride ship” carrying hundreds of brides, fares paid for  by the New Zealand Government. Sylvia, married to an officer, had superior accommodation. My mother married in New Zealand and arrived in 1943 in a converted freight ship carrying mostly servicemen returning home. Fortunately, my naive mother shared a cabin with a much older, worldly woman who protected her from these predators. One evening they discovered a line of servicemen spaced out along the corridors to provide an early warning system for a serviceman who intended to try his luck. The older woman, knowing they’d be back, barricaded the cabin door.

My mother’s fare was subsidised by the government but was paid in the main by my father who had proposed by letter from his hospital bed in Egypt. She, like Sylvia needed clothing coupons for her wedding dress. Sylvia’s husband, as an officer received plenty of clothing coupons enough for a dress. My mother and her friends and workmates all saved and pitched with coupons for fabric, and she made her dress herself. It was plain but all she could afford. When she arrived in New Zealand, her aunt-in-law saw the dress and immediately offered her own lacy, pretty one instead. Feeling pressured, my mother wore the borrowed dress. Though pretty, it was at least four inches too short, my great aunt being much, much shorter. My mother always hated her wedding photo, and I believe that she thought she had betrayed the generosity of her friends and workmates.

Sylvia, like my mother was terribly homesick, but was able to return to England with her husband for a few years in the early fifties. My parents could not financially afford to visit England. My mother finally visited when she was in her eighties, with my sister and after my father had died. I sometimes wonder if my father was frightened that if my mother returned she might not come back to New Zealand. I suspect that my grandmother and others may have suggested she return to England.

It is the experiences of these war brides, their struggle to come to grips with their adopted home, that led to something extraordinary happening in New Zealand at that time. My mother felt ostracised by New Zealand women who could put their hand to anything but were probably intimidated by her dress and her “posh” accent. Though poor, my mother always found a way to dress with style, a strategy that helped her maintain her self-esteem. I wonder how many other war brides also felt isolated and abandoned. My mother found herself living in a community dominated by people of Irish descent and she felt threatened by the hatred she perceived the Irish have for the English. As a result of  loneliness, dependence on my father and a sense of obligation toward him, my mother became determined that we would have a better life than she did.

She would do everything possible to ensure her children, including her daughters, were educated and independent. She expected that we would do well at school, she expected that we would finish secondary school, and she expected that we would have a tertiary education. There is nothing more powerful than a parent’s expectations to ensure a child succeeds at school.

The one thing that New Zealand offered these war brides (and refugees) was opportunity for their children. They came from countries where class, wealth and gender determined education and opportunity. The women may have felt isolated and ostracised, but their children were, are, New Zealanders assimilated and part of New Zealand culture. These women saw for their children no class structure, equal education available for all, and limitless career opportunities regardless of gender (fodder for debate, but this has been my personal experience). Their sacrifices would benefit their children.

In this way, I believe that these women, these war brides, contributed to  extraordinary changes in New Zealand over the following decades. Women of my age (50s) and older have careers as doctors, lawyers, judges, businesswomen, university professors, politicians … and families. By the 1980s I was a marketing manager and mother. My daughter takes for granted that she may become a senior manager in the organisation she works for, and issues of gender just aren’t on her radar. My sons assume women have the same rights and opportunities they do.

New Zealand already had a history of women’s rights; the war brides, my mother anyway, saw this and made sure a door to opportunity opened wide for their children.

English war bride married in Mangaweka, NZ, 1943

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