Our unfortunate ignorance

I may have got a little ranty on The Spinoff’s Facebook page recently, after reading this excerpt from a new book on the “unfortunate experiment” at National Women’s Hospital. To wit:

I appreciate this is an excerpt from the book, but it rings a little callous that the line quoted above is literally from the last paragraph of it. The excerpt humanizes the doctors involved, and doesn’t even mention by name a single one of the women who were literally left to develop cancer due to wilful medical neglect.

Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s 1987 article in Metro gets only half a sentence – “It took the attention of feminists and a media response to highlight the tragedy …”

For people who have no idea what happened at National Women’s Hospital, this article will not be informative, either about the arrogance which led to up to 30 women dying of treatable cancer, or the significant impact it had on the way we think about informed consent and medical ethics. And that’s a shame.

As I say; I know it’s just an excerpt, from a book written by a doctor who had a significant role exposing the unfortunate experiment, with the clear intention of ensuring this horrific chapter in New Zealand’s medical history isn’t whitewashed. Per the Otago University Press statement (pdf) on its publication:

Since that time there have been attempts to cast Green’s work in a more generous light. This rewriting of history has spurred Ron Jones to set the record straight by telling his personal story: a story of the unnecessary suffering of countless women, a story of professional arrogance and misplaced loyalties, and a story of doctors in denial of the truth.

But that’s not what comes through in the foreword, where the doctors who wilfully experimented with women’s lives without their consent are humanized, where Herb Green’s initial work is described as “a major advance for New Zealand women” long before any mention of the fact his later work killed women, which erases a culture of medical superiority and sexism in favour of shrugging, “It’s difficult for an outsider to comprehend how this could have happened”. Fifty words are given to a 1950 FIGO determination on carcinoma-in-situ, and literally none to the names of the women harmed – not even “Ruth”, the central figure of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s groundbreaking article, whose determination to access her own medical records blew the lid of the experiment; not even Sandra Coney or Phillida Bunkle themselves – reduced simply to “feminists”.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think The Spinoff have done its readers a good service. And that’s a pity because this book deserves to be publicized. This chapter of our history needs to be better known. We should understand the complex issues and background around medical science, patriarchal arrogance, the dismissal of women’s safety and autonomy, and our understanding of informed consent which impacts people to this day.

~

Coney and Bunkle’s article (pdf) was published in 1987. I was three-and-a-half and not really paying attention. But Coney’s subsequent book of the same name was one of the volumes my mother unsuccessfully tried to sequester from the family bookshelves as I reached those dangerous pre-teen years of awkward questions and being able to read a little too far above my age grade.

I picked it because I liked the statue on the front cover (and it was in a cupboard I clearly wasn’t supposed to be able to reach). I didn’t even know what a cervix was. But I knew there was something terribly wrong when one man in a position of power was able to do things to people under his care – to women – without telling them what was happening, or what the risks were. And I learned how hierarchies of power protect their own even when terrible harm has been done, even when it should go against every principle their institution or profession is meant to stand for. How people in societies are sectioned off into groups which are deemed less intelligent or less worthy of information or autonomy – women, people of colour, incarcerated criminals – especially where the advancement of medical science has been concerned.

It’s probably no surprise I turned out to be a feminist who doesn’t go to male GPs and never misses a smear.

We don’t have to demonise the whole medical profession. After all, it was doctors like Ron Jones who exposed the real data from Green’s experiments in 1984, and who are still determined not to let us forget. But we must be aware of the potential for harm when so much trust and power and blind faith is put in the hands of any profession, when laypeople are presumed to have no right to input or information about their own treatment, and when it becomes simply instinctive for institutions to defend their own against criticism. We have to remember our history so we can make sure it never happens again.

Books like this are tremendously important. But there are better ways to tell their stories.

QOTD: Somebody has to prepare that steak

I’m having difficulty finishing Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, the feminist critique of economics by Katrine Marçal. It’s just too real. Every few pages I put it down with a sigh at how true, yet/thus how utterly frustrating, it all is.

So in lieu of a long-planned review, to be completed once I’ve ground my way through the last 30 brilliant, infuriating, vindicating pages, here’s a quotation which nails the key point.

Since Adam Smith’s time, the theory about economic man has hinged on someone else standing for care, thoughtfulness and dependency. Economic man can stand for reason and freedom precisely because someone else stands for the opposite. The world can be said to be driven by self-interest because there’s another world that is driven by something else. And these two worlds must be kept apart. The masculine by itself. The feminine by itself.

If you want to be part of the story of economics you have to be like economic man. You have to accept his version of masculinity. At the same time, what we call economics is always built on another story. Everything that is excluded so the economic man can be who he is.

So he can be able to say that there isn’t anything else.

Somebody has to be emotion, so he can be reason. Somebody has to be body, so he doesn’t have to be. Somebody has to be dependent, so he can be independent. Somebody has to be tender, so he can conquer the world. Somebody has to be self-sacrificing, so he can be selfish.

Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say their labour doesn’t matter.

Unity: a poem inspired by Martyn Bradbury

[A point of clarification: this poem does not represent my views. Every line is a direct quote from Martyn Bradbury’s blogs over the past years. This post is intended to highlight his views and manner of expressing himself.]

After a weekend of checking Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury’s latest diatribes – against women’s marches, Green Party voters, liberals, cyclists, the Labour Party, tourists, millennials, Nazi punchers, identity politics and Guy Williams – for personal attacks against myself or my union comrades, I decided this whimsical thought-experiment-slash-poem, assembled over an idle evening or two, deserved to see the light of day. It amused me to make it; I hope it amuses people who have been abused by New Zealand’s greatest leftwing blogger to read it.

Presented with no apologies; these were Martyn Bradbury’s own words, even if some of them have since been unceremoniously deleted.

“Unity”

or

“#ifthisishowthelefttreatallieshowwilltheytreatyou?”

having to put up with the puerile ravings of a hypocrite
is a tad tedious.

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Last night Giovanni Tiso and Russel Brown launched a twitter attack
a tsunami of abuse by the Emerald Stormtroopers and aesthetic left of Labour

If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
God these people are clowns.

The Left is its own worst enemy
the Left hates itself
the Left looks for traitors
the Left will simply bicker

It’s not the message of the Left
it’s the deeply flawed messengers the Left keep hiring
as self important as Giovanni Tiso
as alienating as the PSA Wellington comms team
mixed with the tediously smug insight of Simon Wilson

Maybe it’s living in Wellington,
undeservingly smug
absolutely positively passive aggressive.

maybe it’s living with a Green Party staff member,
those Green Party staffers who love to cyber bully
Hipsters with ambition and top knots
as sociable as a militant vegan in a battery cage chicken café

THIS IS SATIRE – NO NEED TO PROSECUTE – THIS IS SATIRE – NO NEED TO PROSECUTE

The EPMU doesn’t storm the barricades, they knock politely
so tinder dry that they make the PSA look like a clown college.
they wonder why the CTU can’t create more solidarity

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This is why you can’t trust Labour and the Greens
the total lack of political vision
too frightened to anger the PSA
the battle of the teeth
the naked ambition of Julie Anne Genter
a recipe for friction and disunity.

THIS IS SATIRE – NO NEED TO PROSECUTE – THIS IS SATIRE – NO NEED TO PROSECUTE

If only Kim had heeded my advice
personal ambition and ego politics always trump what’s best for NZ.

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Twitter can be rough
a boutique shop down a tiny alleyway
for Militant Free Bleeders and Beard Glitter aficionados
screams of ‘hate monger’ if someone gets the wrong pronoun
fucking worthless as a political measurement tool

outside the tiny little alienating echo chamber
the impenetrable little echo chamber
the Emerald Stormtroopers
are itching to start a schism of religious proportions.

just accept some people are simply mean
there’s a block button for a reason

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Russell Brown called The Spinoff the future of journalism
the supposed saviour of journalism
glitter bearded hipsters and middle class Blue Green wankers
new gatekeepers, policing language, identity and self interest for millennials
Their standard
about as high as your average beauty blog
Cash for copy
with all the charm of a modern day witch hunt
more like the youth wing of the Property Council than a social justice movement
like a little of Wellington in Auckland. Ugh.

And then there are the Millennials.
the first user pays generation
Me first cultural norms mixed with narcissistic social media
Without an idealogical compass
they are all going to the Greens

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a 23 year old crying on social media
some interchange she had with a rich white bloke
inside a snobbery winery
that’s front page fucking news?

I’m not allowed to have an opinion on the feels of a 23 year old woman
A 23 year old Millennial performing a classic over share moment
crying on social media

but if I was allowed an opinion

fake news at its most divisive
bullshit social media pile ons
liberals in social media bubbles
pointless alienating self-aggrandisement.
petty in comparison
alienating to everyone outside their echo chamber.
who actually cares beyond Twitter

one week of screaming racist
Longer than it took God to make the Universe folks.

a 23 year old woman who cried on social media
the feels of the preciously middle class
classic run-of-the-mill-middle-class-emotional-millenial-over-share

we gots us a girl in bubble wrap folks

Upset and tearful?
Over that?
Upset and tearful?
I’d imagine the children of Aleppo were upset and tearful.

let’s take her at her word
she was in fact upset and tearful

But again
I’m not allowed to have an opinion

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urban males
made to feel guilty for having a penis inside the Labour or the Greens.
this fragile ego
the perception that their privilege has been eroded
a frightened male sub culture that has to be gently coaxed
You can’t get shit done if you don’t have white males on board.

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oh come on Comrade
it’s the election year for Christ’s sake!
If we want progressive change
put aside the righteous anger
Rather than flinch and react angrily
understand where the anger is coming from
take less personal insult from righteous anger

you sanctimonious little arsehole.

[A point of clarification: this poem does not represent my views. Every line is a direct quote from Martyn Bradbury’s blogs over the past years. This post is intended to highlight his views and manner of expressing himself.]

Lifehack: read more Pratchett

Given the name and origins of this blog I was honour-bound to link to this io9 article about 10 Discworld quotes you’ll desperately need for the next four years:

There is almost no subject that Terry Pratchett hasn’t explained better, funnier, and more times than just about anyone else on the planet. Reading his Discworld novels is reading a master at work, and it seems like he gets more relevant the more time passes.

I’ve just started a too-long-put-off reread of Monstrous Regiment and right from the get-go the wisdom and vital social commentary are dropping:

There was always a war. Usually it was a border dispute, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbour was letting his hedge grow too long. Sometimes it was bigger. Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the midst of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious and warlike, otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting them, eh?

So this is part of my self-care for the election year ahead: read more Pratchett. It’s damn good for the soul.

Lefty book reviews: Don’t Buy It

books
It’s more Post-It than book, at this stage.

Where to start with Anat Shenker-Osorio’s Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About The Economy?

This review seems redundant, because literally every person I’ve encountered in the past year has been subjected to my near-evangelist recommendation of it. I don’t know every lefty in New Zealand (despite what Matthew Hooton might think); I just feel like I’ve said this all before.

And I have. Even before I read Don’t Buy It, or developed my slightly unhealthy adoration of its author. If you’ve read many of my posts about narrative and language and rejecting centrism, you’ll hear a lot of the same themes. I flatter myself that great minds think alike.

That’s my bias: I agree with pretty much everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever said, and firmly believe that unless the mainstream leftwing movement starts doing things differently, we’re not going to build the mass support we need to fundamentally change our world.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a strategic communications expert and research from the USA, who’s worked with American and Australian trade unions, our own CTU, and a range of progressive organisations in the US. In October 2015 she ran workshops in New Zealand with commsy-type people from the CTU, trade unions, and the Green Party. That’s where I first met her, and the rest is fangirl history.

The book is fundamentally about language. The messages we send, not just with our policies or campaigns, but the metaphor and subtext of every slogan, speech and press release.

The point is we’re doing it wrong.

Look at the global financial crisis of 2008. A tremendous opportunity to highlight the basic problems of capitalism. A time when practically everyone on Earth was ready to do things differently because the system was clearly broken. What happened? The banks got bailed out. The world kept turning.

Why? Because the content of our messages might have been bang on, but the delivery wasn’t. As an example, Shenker-Osorio addresses the “global financial crisis” itself:

We often think about crises as sudden, unpredictable turns of events. Think of the common usages of this concept, like midlife crisis and identity crisis. These are generally unanticipated alterations of behaviour. … We never saw that coming.

We don’t necessarily look for a solution to emerge … nor are we out looking for someone to blame for what happened. In fact, we might be tempted to believe the situation will right itself …

Thus, our frequent reliance on the phrase “economic crisis” most likely does not establish the necessary idea that this was a long time coming, people in power made it happen, and we need to act deliberately to change course.

It seems pedantic. It’s very word-nerdy. And the kinds of people who always get up in arms when progressives start critiquing language may ask “who even cares?”

It’s true. Most people don’t think this deeply about the language they hear. But they’re still picking up the subtext, and if the subtext is reinforcing the right’s way of thinking about how the world works – that the 2008 crash just happened, that nothing’s fundamentally wrong, that no one could have seen it coming – they’re never going to find our solutions credible. We’re fighting “that’s just the way things are.”

Think about the naturalistic ways we talk about “the economy”: it grew. It shrank. Jobs were lost. Wages sank. All this just happens for no reason. There’s nothing we can do about it.

Think about “the top 10%”. How strongly we associate “top” with “good”. It’s much easier for the right to say the wealthy are more hardworking and deserving when we reinforce the idea that they’re better than us.

It’s not just metaphors. The left loves the passive voice – “inequality must be addressed”, “reforms are needed”, “the policy will need to be reviewed”. We feel like we’ve taken a real stand – yet said nothing. We don’t name the villains – we paint people as victims of a terrible faceless system.

At the end (because language is vital, but it isn’t the only thing) Shenker-Osorio presents a set of four powerful policies to redefine key parts of the economy – and re-set our expectations of how it should work and who it should work for. They’re US-specific, but the idea of putting forward audacious, groundbreaking strategies backed up by strong, coherent messages is immensely important.

Because we’ve been afraid for too long. Buying into the language and framing of our opponents has felt lovely and safe. We want to sound grown-up and mature like those serious businessmen politicians. But that’s why we’re losing, and that’s why we have to change how we do things. As the book concludes:

Progressives must stop humming in a blandly nonoffensive alto. Regardless of what we do or say, our opponents will call us wildly out of touch and wacky, so we might as well have some fun and say what we actually mean. It’s shockingly difficult for us to speak from our worldview, accustomed as we’ve become to walking the fictional middle line. We’re losing so much ground in every battle, it feels scary to “go out on a limb” and come out swinging for what we believe. But make no mistake: continuing to do the same things and expecting different outcomes is a madness we don’t have the time to indulge.

dont buy itFor such detailed and challenging subject matter, Don’t Buy It is an immensely readable book. It’s optimistic, even as it tells us that we’re doing things wrong. It offers a clear path forward. I hope progressives here and all over the world choose to take it.

Bookdepository link here; also available from Unity Books.

More about Anat Shenker-Osorio at her website.

Watch her address to the 2015 CTU conference on YouTube.