who is Joseph Anton?

Stevie ModernNot his real name, ‘Joseph Anton’ only half-belonged to a man half-belonging among free people.

Salman Rushdie [Photo: David Shankbone]

Nevertheless, ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie’s secret service alias during his over-a-decade in forced hiding, is the fully fleshed pivotal character in the West’s mortal struggle over freedom of speech, and so its identity.

Like all heroes, the Anton we read in Rushdie’s compelling Joseph Anton: A Memoir is flawed and afraid. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his very identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

Defence-less. Against a fatwa, no defence is possible. Defences are made against judgements handed down by a recognized court having “jurisdiction over him”. Rushdie writes of 1989 with tender vulnerability. A man afraid in his bed, huddled close to his wife on the fateful day from when “All Muslims” – the fatwa directed – were to “execute them wherever they find them”.

Despite the known death squads dispatched from Iran and Lebanon to London in the years that followed, (an international as well as personal violation) the memoir tells of Rushdie’s plight held too long in abeyance by diplomatic circles hoping to negotiate with the hostage-taking Iran. A particular shock comes when despite years and promises of diplomatic progress, Rushdie is face to face with Thatcher, the British prime minister, who offers wistfully that, “little can be done without a change of regime”. “That’s it?” his fiancée demands, receiving no response.

The new regime in Iran wasn’t making promising noises. A birthday message came from the new “moderate” president Khatami: “Salman Rushdie will die soon.”

Protests against novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ Jan. 1989. [Photo: Robert Croma]

The events to follow the fatwa; the threats, fatal shootings and stabbings of those involved – and in many cases not involved – in the distribution of The Satanic Verses (who did not share Rushdie’s protection) are documented with fervour. As are the bombings, book banning and burnings. Rushdie’s concern here is for that ignored broader issue, the importance the (unfairly) named ‘Rushdie Affair’ represented to freedom.

When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific… it’s just about him; …. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.

Along with the blackbird, insults and blame fly in and roost. John Le Carre, Germaine Greer – pen in hands – write blood onto Rushdie’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘tolerance’ (not of Rushdie, of the mobs calling for his death), and Prince Charles, staggeringly, complains of the costs to the public purse for Rushdie’s protection.

Where only justified bitterness might be expected for censors, critics, apologists for the hate-mongers burning him in effigy, we find in Rushdie’s memoir a larger insight. There are surprising accounts of virtual imprisonment often patiently endured for the safety of family, publishers, airline passengers, audiences and foreign-held hostages. If the expected support of his government never materialises, (The Blair government sought to extend blasphemy laws) he shows gratitude for those literary and moral supporters that included Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens.

One hundred Arab and Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays, written in many languages and published in French, ‘Pour Rushdie’ [For Rushdie] , to defend freedom of speech…”We have the obligation to tell him that he personifies our solitude and that his story is our own.”

Where Rushdie brings literature, where he brings Rushdie in his memoir, are the complex layers of ‘Joseph Anton’ and his other self struggling beneath the bullet-proof surface. Hunched in getaway cars. Fitful sleeps turning him roughly in unfamiliar beds. Days away from the thing he loves most – writing stories – costing him at moments his sanity. Rushdie snatches from just above the surface of this suffocation and fear, rare and happy gulps of friendships and trust. These lighter moments cherished in peril never quite achieve normality, surrounded – even if gratefully – by armed guards.

joseph-anton-a-memoir-by-salman-rushdieIn fiction, Rushdie fused his earlier life experiences with the mixed-identity characters of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is instead the story of Rushdie’s struggle for unmixed realization. Beneath the subterfuge he senses another kind of extinguishment. Have the armed protectors succeeded where the fatwa has not? As the anxious Rushdie mixes deeper with ‘Anton’, we are suspended at numerous critical moments: Which ‘character’ will overcome the other? What boundaries of control will be drawn between Rushdie and ‘Anton’ in their unhappy truce between the will to happiness and the need to survive?

When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired in a sense, free will.

Like his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s name “disappeared into the front pages”. It disappeared into the epithets and ‘Satan Rushdy’ avatars of clerics burning for his murder. A name no longer his, free will becomes no longer an option the Secret Service is able or at times willing to accommodate.

Literary criticism of Joseph Anton has centred on Rushdie’s use of third person, the ‘he’, ‘his’, ‘him’ of Anton rather than the ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ of Rushdie. Even as the author gives deeply personal unvarnished accounts of Joseph Anton’s – that is his –  troubled love life, of raising a family in a climate of fear and death, the device remains strange and discomfiting.

Critics have brittly marked this disconnection in the memoir and yet ignored how this device offers firsthand Rushdie’s dissociation from the ‘fully free society’ where he only half-existed. Rushdie has spent the period of this story negotiating anguished boundaries of identity, and the brilliance of the device preserves for the reader his unwilling masks and fugitive feet.

Ambiguous, ‘Joseph Anton’ dramatises a man not enough free to use his name. It’s a disconcerting parable for a free-society not enough brave to articulate what that freedom means. By dissociating from its principles and one of its prized authors, that society endeavoured to remain ‘free’ to avert moral combat with the broader threat brought down by Khomeini’s fatwa.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list: freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex…

Where Rushdie could be forgiven for his focus on a situation never more vivid and personal than saving one’s own life, he demonstrates Olympian regard of the larger picture. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing…We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love… Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Forgotten in the events following its publication were The Satanic Verses’ satiric and literary qualities. Incidental as they may be to principles of free speech, they are not to its gains. Open its cover and a hijacked jet-liner makes a post-explosion dive above the city of London, and among the flying debris of plummeting seats and trolleys, transformative incarnation in cloud-filled descent takes hold of two of its passengers. It would be hard to nominate a more pyrotechnic beginning to a tale spanning centuries and continents. The language is modern, jarring, electric, magic-real. Deep in its pages, an angel Gibreel messages an ancient prophet Mahound in mad vision, “tilting” and “panning” its locus like a futuristic camera. Just as explosively, arguments over the story’s literary quality were superseded as London (and the world) plummeted into the ensuing controversy and real life terrorism that almost forced the novel from print.

Sandakat Kadri writes that Arabic lore, which The Satanic Verses made novel use of, details a period “several Qur’anic scholars of great standing have accepted as the truth.” Legend tells at Islam’s birth of Mohammed’s acceptance of other idols. Such a story would contradict notions of Mohammed’s ‘perfection’ and an unchangeable Qur’an. Kadri observes that,

Those offended were never very likely to read them. Rushdie’s book raised hackles for reasons other than its contents, however. Its title echoed a legend known in Arabic…when the Prophet briefly faltered in his mission… [His] supposed revelations were not divine. They were the whisperings of a demon (shaitan): satanic verses.

As with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s camera widens beyond seventh century myth. In Joseph Anton, stories are to him as they were his father’s who freely mixed in bedtime stories to the young Salman. Stories belong to everyone, but were also “his, all his… to alter and renew and discard and pick up again… to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by”. 

Sacred or profane, they were ‘untrue’ but an access to other truths. These are the accounts of a Rushdie before the Anton ‘subterfuge’, before British clerics feigned promises of withdrawing the fatwa’s threat, before an anxious ‘Joseph Anton’ is pressured to sign a repudiation of his beliefs and art. It was a moment in Joseph Anton, alone, too keen to be understood, and “loved”, that Rushdie labels his “great Mistake”.

Rushdie emerged from Anton a name to renew and pick up again. Joseph Anton‘s story, if not fiction, should be ours to live in, and with, and by. Shortly after the fatwa, New Yorkers began to wear ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges in public solidarity. “I wished I could’ve worn one of those,” Rushdie writes. Now, with Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he does ♦


reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.

the ‘lesbian’ virus?

Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: the New Science of the Meme

Three years ago a woman achieved high office, amidst a resurging a virus threatening large parts of the United States. During Elena Kagan’s US Supreme Court nomination, she may have expected news media to assess her judicial philosophy. For reasons later explained, they focussed almost entirely on her single status and questioned whether it indicated she was a lesbian. Though Kagan had made no public statement of sexuality, CBS News published an online column. Kagan could , it read, become “the first openly gay justice”.

Justice Elena Kagan [Photo: Wikipedia]

“If Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time. This is a measure of how far women have come,” announced The New York Times. It then demurred, “Two will be single and childless. This may be a measure of something else entirely”. That ‘something’ remained unexplored, left to the implicit concerns of its readers. Even the liberal Slate Magazine headlined Kagan’s nomination ‘An Unnatural Woman’ among a short-list of nominees the magazine judged “overpopulated by women who are single, childless, or divorced”.

The now rapidly spreading virus remained unreported.  Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme explores why some ideas continue to resurface and spread, often regardless of any truth value. A ‘meme’ is any idea or packaged concept that humans come in contact and share with each other, for example by talking. Other behaviours spread memes too: language patterns, mannerisms, signals, or a song. Memes reproduce from one brain to any witnesses’ brain. They are retained in memory and may remain dormant for long periods, only to resurface and multiply at later times. Often, memes survive because they fulfil some very basic patterns of human behaviour, often without our conscious understanding. As the original author for Microsoft Word, Brodie offers the computer as a metaphor for understanding our relationship to memes.
Would we expect a computer to “understand” its own program? No! It just needs to run. And our brains evolved not to understand themselves, but to perform very specific tasks… Meme evolution selects for the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and myths that we pay the most attention to.

Phantom Dominances are memes about power roles, writes Richard Brodie [Photo: Uncyclopedia]

As memes, packaged concepts spread not only down generationally, but across from person-to-person, much like the ‘virus’ of Brodie’s title. 
Brodie cites the attention men have paid since prehistory to the opportunities for power. Power represents a place in the dominance hierarchy, governing access to resources, including perceived access to women.
Attaching ‘lesbian’ for example- a potent concept around ‘rejection’ of men-  acts like a fear response in the presence of female challengers to power roles.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash refers to these power plays as ‘phantom dominances’, responses which reinforce no longer existing roles. Yes, gay rumours seem a far-fetched reflex for a Supreme Court judicial appointment. At the level of memes however, it’s a widespread and potent ‘virus’ that can be documented at short intervals in today’s public mind.
What astute American news viewers may notice in the ‘lesbian meme’ is its unhelpful attachment time and again in response to female achievement, especially in a country traditionally emphasising the importance and power of public office. It seems an implausibly long list to remain so undetected. To include just some of the ‘lesbian meme’ victims; former US Attorney General Janet Reno, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Reaching positions of prominence, each have been rumoured in the media as lesbian. Fascinatingly, each instance appears from its media vantage point as a profound rupture to the status quo, despite the meme’s repeated (and repeatedly debunked) emergence.

Brodie’s Virus of the Mind is not an abstruse reasoning for prejudices or bigotry. It explores instead the genealogy of ideas, how they come to spread, which ideas have a tendency to survive and reproduce. Through understanding the science of how ideas blend and reproduce, we better understand forces behind some of our knee-jerk responses and deeply held beliefs. In so doing, we may take further steps to raise the level of our modern consciousness. To be aware of memes is to take part in steering them to more productive ends ♦

grandeur, without delusion: dawkins

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Think ‘primal urges’, and a picture of greed, hunger, fear, and sexual lust bounds readily from the cave of our imagination. Indeed, Natural Selection easily and readily accounts for our early survival instincts, writes biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Through The God Delusion, Dawkins also explores evolutionary explanations for our higher moral codes – common values like compassion, giving and the care we extend beyond the bounds of our immediate family. How did these seemingly unselfish traits arise in furthering survival?

Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’

The human origins beneath our developing moral codes are among many scientific questions tackled by Dawkins’ The God Delusion. All known human societies for example, have extended beliefs in a supernatural order, of spiritual beings and divine punishments. Many religionists argue for this reason that without faiths, humans would be without moral compunction.

Arising across different cultures, races and geographic origins, religious beliefs, with the usual aim of benefitting a particular ‘in-group’, carry similar and often repeated patterns of ritual and belief. These suggest the powerfully reinforced behaviours designed with benefit to mutually excluding groups. They may have genetic origins that furthered early group survival.

As Dawkins argues in The God Delusion however, these offer a poor basis for moral decision making.

[This book] is intended to raise consciousness- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

Science now offers a logically simpler origin story that takes into account the multitude of solar systems and galaxies, replacing the mythically central human position in the cosmos. By decentering the human from cosmology, many of the divine claims of race and subjugation are revealed to be false and damaging.

Rembrandt, (1634) Abraham and Isaac.

Genetics have linked us within the animal kingdom, and debunked racial justifications in the Torah, Holy Bible and Quran for genocide and tribal exclusion. Biological recognition has similarly allowed feminism and tolerance to replace patriarchy and the scripturally codified values of the tribe.

Given the religious claims of moral guidance, it would be expected that various religious and non-religious people would act differently in moral situations. Scientific study does however support Dawkins’ contention that “our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past”. Thought experiments have shown underlying moral universals do cross seemingly disparate ethnic, religious and geographical lines.

The subjects were asked to choose in various hypothetical situations which actions were morally ‘obligatory’, ‘permissable’ or ‘forbidden’…The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer’s study was that there were no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments.

In a generously referenced, orderly and readable prose, Dawkins offers an alternative cosmological grandeur. The God Delusion not only measures the improbability of a designer more complex than our own universe, but illustrates an historical pattern of human movement – albeit with periods of regression – toward a more modern liberal behaviour. As scientists unravel the natural workings of the human brain, they find a morally urgent being capable of goodness without fear. That too, is a basis for not only our own guidance, but genuine optimism aswell ♦

Richard Dawkins has been previously reviewed in imodernreview’s ‘a new turing test’ (The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing) and ‘genesis and the genius’ (documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin ).

should Australia have a Bill of Rights?

Geoffrey Robertson, The Statute of Liberty

Australia does not have a Bill of Rights, a comprehensive statement setting out the basic rights and freedoms of all its people.“A Statute of Liberty”, says celebrated human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a Melbourne festival in April,

…is an idea I wish to celebrate and whose time has come in every advanced democracy in the world.


Geoffrey Robertson QC is Australia’s foremost proponent of a Bill Of Rights. Photo by lewishamdreamer

Australia’s Constitution inherits and retains traditions from British common law, preserving a separation of powers between parliament, its monarch and judiciary. This reflects Australia’s former role as a British colony, he says. Unlike the US, Australia’s constitution does not vest individual rights in personhood. Some guaranteed rights – limited rights to a trial and codified prevention of an official State religion, are explicit but few. They are examples designed to ensure civil liberty as a whole, but do not reflect civil liberties as they apply to individuals: you, me, citizens of Australia.

Parliament has signed many international human rights treaties but these are non-binding. As the High Court Justice Kirby remarked,

Australia’s constitutional arrangements are peculiar and now virtually unique among common law countries. 

New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada have each adopted a Bill of Rights. Even Britain adopted the EU Convention – whole –  into its domestic law.

Presently, parliament is virtually unrestricted in passing laws that constrain many rights and freedoms that Australians have come to feel are proper and generally specified in other free societies.

Courts in Australia have interpreted implied rights from some of the terms in its Constitution. There is an implied – though not guaranteed – right to vote. Robertson argues that due to more recent High Court decisions, there is an at least implied freedom to discuss political matters, though nothing that equates to the protections of the US first amendment. Australia’s free speech protection is upheld only against a difficult standard, a level of speech “necessary to maintain the system of representative and responsible government”.

Critics have long argued that judges are ‘unelected’ and that parliament is the peoples’ representative body. Bills of Rights have been put to parliament before however, and been dismissed. It is Robertson’s argument that rights cannot be the prerogative of any one body to endow, but of all bodies to recognise. It is a courts’ proper role, he says, to interpret laws as they apply to individual cases, uniquely placing them with the capacity to recognise cases of injustice.

It may shock many to learn the Constitution does not guarantee equal legal protection. This omission is as antiquated as it was deliberate: many of the constitutional framers rejected proposals that might put an end to existing “colonial laws that limited the employment of Asian workers”. The Constitution also permits to this day specific laws with respect to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.” This racial inequality was encouraged by Edmund Barton, later Australia’s first prime minister. In 1898 Barton argued equal protection clauses, which he disfavoured, would limit the government’s power. In his words, the power was necessary “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured and inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.”

Geoffrey Robertson, Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights

It is a power incompatible with modern democratic values.

Robertson’s book Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights notes the government has actually defended this position in recent times. It has made use of this adverse provision in overturning many human rights and heritage protections. In Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) for example, the High Court observed its current scope would not have been able to prevent the forcible racial assimilation policies by the government in the last century.

Only in the absence of a Bill of Rights, could a moral injustice such as racially discriminatory laws be overlooked in favour of legal precedent. Such are the limits Statute of Liberty makes clear in regards to common law.

Currently, the Australian state of Victoria (2006) and its Capital Territory (2004) have instituted bills of rights, which have improved policy making and created a dialogue between courts and parliament. Such bills should be encouraged and copied in other states. To prevent them from being encroached or overturned, there should be a federal bill protecting Australians nationally.

Such a bill would recognise rights in personhood, protect against individual rights abuses, and improve Australia’s record in acting on its treaty promises to the international community, says Robertson.

A Bill of Rights would define Australia as a modern nation of individuals, and recognise the distinguishing national character of a people born, and entitled, to live freely ♦

Geoffrey Robertson introduces The Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights in this Radio National excerpt. The book is available from Vintage Books and ABC stores. [Pictures sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]

the macho paradox: jackson katz

Jackson Katz, Anti-sexist activist, Speaker, Author Filmaker. Photo from Jackson Katz website

Think you’re an innocent bystander? Think again. According to renowned anti-sexist campaigner Jackson Katz, sexism and violence fuels the ‘tough guys’ image that culture projects on men in all cultures. This tough guise leads men to assert themselves on women and weaker males in order to be ‘masculine’.

The dangers of ‘masculinity’ in this form to society should not be underestimated. As Katz notes,

In the US alone, over 85% of people who commit murder are men…90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, 95% of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by males, and it’s been estimated that nearly 1 in 4 men will use violence against a partner in their lifetime.

Violence is only the most extreme outgrowth of a pervasive culture that projects the aggressive physical dominance of the male, Katz’ research suggests. Learnt early in development by boys through family and community, the ‘tough guise’ of the male is over-represented in all major media forms.

Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help served as the Secretary of the US Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-03.  Through co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP) Katz has become the leading internationally recognised educator in preventing gender violence, especially through his work addressing sporting and religious groups as well as the military. He is also a regular columnist for online news site The Huffington Post.

Katz, J. (2006) The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

The title of his book however, points not only to the perpetrators and victims of violence. The key innovation of Katz’s approach to addressing male violence is in using what he refers to as the ‘bystander approach’. Katz’s lectures, films and book aims to empower you as a bystander to take part in preventing sexism and violence.

This approach gives cause for re-examining the role many of us unwittingly play; tolerating the sexist joke, standing mute in the diminishing of women, not seeking to help defend a male abused because they aren’t perceived as ‘masculine’.  It is also a practical guide to action, a role all can play in becoming  modern activists.

Most believe that in order to intervene in a potentially violent situation, you have to choose between doing nothing, or in physically intervening at personal risk. 

Positively, there are multiple points between these poles: Jackson Katz lists 10 important steps we, and particularly male peers- a powerful influence- can take. They are freely available at jacksonkatz.com and form an important modern resource for helping end culturally sanctioned abuses. Among them; the invocation to NOT be silent when abuse appears likely or indicated, and address the issue either by talking with the abuser or someone empowered to talk with him.

A bystander can also gently and privately ask the victim if there is a way to help.

Men need to read [Katz’s] book. Not only because it will make the world safer for women, but because it will free men to be their true selves.

Eve Ensler, Author, ‘The Vagina Monologues’

Katz asks us to no longer fund sexism by purchasing sexist media (some mens’ magazines for example), and to defend others against sexism, homophobia or discrimination. By “raising the cost” of prejudice and violence, Katz says, we make it that much harder for physical dominance to enforce its culture in your society.♦

The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006) is available from Source Books. The short film Tough Guise (approx. 7 mins) explains the connection between popular culture and male aggression. Jackson Katz’s 10 steps ‘What Men Can Do’ can be found here.

song of myself: american essay

The Best American Essays 2011 

Edwidge Danticat, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay Series this year takes the reader beneath the skin of personal experience. Its the 26th series of long form journalism pieces sourced from among America’s most insightful journalists, thinkers and authors.

Annually, a prominent writer is awarded the task of selecting the years’ shortlisted essays. This format, according to the values and premises of each editor, demonstrates the versatile form of the essay and its subjects, distilling complex ideas from diverse fields to a wider audience.

Edwidge Danticat is editor of The Best American Essays 2011.


Haitian born author Edwidge Danticat follows from last year’s editor, late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens championed essays by scientists and other specialist writers, focussing his selection on the importance of communicating the breakthrough benefits of Science, and  arespect for the scientific process in general, to a wider audience.

Danticat is author of Create Dangerously and the National Book Critics Circle award-winner for her autobiography, Brother, I am Dying. Sensitive to the challenges of writing from the self, Danticat’s selection is poignant, written almost entirely from journalists’ and authors’ first-hand observations. They include eyewitness accounts of self experience that meet the challenge of illustrating a wider issue. Danticat writes,

Such is the power of the stories we dare tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are into words.

The 2011 essay selection speaks of the potential personal stories, as good stories do, to bring readers to greater understanding and empathy. The strengths of the technique lie in giving readers direct experience of rare, unusual or painful events. For many, these events would otherwise remain distant and remote. Mischa Berlinski‘s essay brings us right into Haiti’s harrowing earthquake;

The horizon swayed at an angle…the visual effect was precisely that of the grainy videos that would be shown later on television, as of somebody shaking a camera sharply. It was tremendously loud- like huge stones grinding…

Scene from Port Au Prince after the 2011 Earthquake, Haiti

Hitchens is also a contributor to this year’s edition. His ‘Topic of Cancer’ is deservedly acclaimed here for fearless self reporting during an author’s own cancer-ridden decline. First written for Vanity Fair, ‘Topic of Cancer’ began a series of articles by Hitchens. With his body rapidly approaching its Mortality, his writing reaches further toward immortality.

‘Lucky Girl’ from Bridget Potter takes readers to Brooklyn, 1962; to friends to beg for illegally bought contraception; to finding oneself unmarried and pregnant; to begging doctors to be pronounced ‘neurotic’ and so be allowed an abortion; to compulsory expulsion from school; to sharing the decision of 80% of single pregnant women who opted for illegal abortions that year over adoption; to trying to find a back-alley doctor within the remaining few ‘safe’ weeks for operation;  to trying to find money and fleeing to Puerto Rico and risking ones’ own life.

Sneaking into an empty office at work and locking the door, I picked up the phone. The overseas operator found the number and placed the call. The connection was crackly, and the man who answered neither confirmed nor denied that they would help.

The wider statistics of Potter’s experience are shared here, but the writing is acute enough that today’s political implications are powerfully, if indirectly addressed. Through the eyes of ‘Lucky Girl’ readers can imagine from a personal perspective what a nightmare scenario it recollects. Its power to astonish is that such a status can be still blithely contemplated in today’s political discourse, devoid of the kind of empathy Potter’s ‘Lucky Girl’ demands of its readers.

Personal experiences, masterfully told as here, help populate and pierce the screen of observation, bringing us into the sharply defined pixels of a larger narrative. Danticat’s selection of story essays demonstrate that senses really can be common, as can our humanity ♦

imodernreview critiques The Best American Essays 2010 in this previous article.