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Vigil

End of life illness stories come to this moment: the final period of waiting and staying awake. Sleeping mats on the floor of hospital rooms, dozing in chairs, holding hands, keeping shifts and vigils, hard choices, knowing what is to come. There’s an intense wish repeatedly expressed to get there in time: for the living to be present with the dying, to let them know that they are safe and cared for, and that those they love are safe and can go on from this point, to let them go well.

A vigil is a form of ethical attention; an act of deliberation, a commitment to staying awake during the time that is normally kept for sleeping. It comes to us from words that invoke the simple fact of being alive and strong. We keep vigil because we are still here, and we have the capacity to give our time to waiting: attention as the rarest and purest form of human generosity, as Simone Weil put it.

So this week Australians and now many others around the world are keeping a vigil, in growing numbers, for two lives trapped in the gift of a system that seems to have innoculated itself against any possibility of saving them. It is almost beyond belief that political calculation could play so large a part, and yet there it is. We’re amazed, shocked, disbelieving and much more informed about the procedural technicalities of death by shooting than we were.  It’s like something happening in black and white, in slow motion. It doesn’t belong in this world.

Except that it’s here.

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan have achieved so much where they are because the Indonesian prison system has some fundamental expectations of prisoner self-sufficiency, that place a different set of practical demands on prisoners and their families than we commonly see in Australia. What happened next is suddenly being recognised by advocates of restorative justice around the world as a unique configuration of structure, agency and institutional trustThe risks taken by the prison management itself in trusting them, and the way that they have each responded, resulted in a new system working in the best possible way for others. The prison governor testified on their behalf.

Australians have been taken by surprise by the fact that this restorative work has been going on for several years, and that our lazy stereotypes of “drug kingpin” and “godfather” are so completely out of date. This is not who they are. And from the level of support that they’re now getting, it’s very clear that significant money could be raised to extend their work, and perhaps even transfer some aspects from Indonesia to Australia.

So this is a very, very hard moment, and a very difficult decision to accept. Why shoot them now, after all this time? What possible future is there for rehabilitation as a vision for anyone once this thing is done?

Understandably, it’s easier to retreat into the mechanics of standard operating procedures than to admit a misgiving, to explore instead the complex potential of trust—in human capability, in rehabilitation, in imagination. In every leadership manual ever we’ve accepted the same limiting proposition: that strong leadership amounts to a willingness to act decisively and to push on regardless, braving unpopularity. There is nothing at all, it seems, on how strong leadership could go about reversing its own decisions, on the basis of fresh evidence.

A couple of days ago someone wrote privately to me that what’s happening is causing us all to “have a good hard look at our humanity”. I don’t think that’s overstating it, and I think this self-scrutiny is at the heart of our vigil. We’ve all seen the expressions on the faces of the men in orange jumpsuits waiting to be killed, but we’ve rarely had such intense exposure to what comes before that—the waiting, the bargaining, the families, the dread.

Governments who execute force us all to watch, but what we feel and think about it is up to us.

So while we’re waiting, we’re wondering: could we have done more, said something different, shown up sooner? It’s not just the people who gave casual answers to polls that were then used to claim something about Australian popular support for execution, or even the people who commissioned and published those polls in the first place—as if this really should be a crowdsourced verdict, like some kind of reality TV voting process.  It’s not the difficult possibility that Australians didn’t speak out sooner because they’re not white. It’s not even the relentless tallpoppyism that is still, incredibly, causing people to say that there’s nothing special about them and the attention is undeserved.

The vigil we’re keeping is the answer. The attention is deserved because they have as much right to have their human sovereignty over their own lives defended with great force, as any of us do. The attention is deserved as it was for Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ms Dhu, and T J Hickey. Human sovereignty over life matters, and really has to be bigger than state sovereignty; this is why murder, like torture, can’t be part of the instrumentality of the state. Whatever it might achieve, whatever political strategy it might be part of, is very, very tiny on the scale of what will be sacrificed.

Today there are public vigils being held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other smaller places. More and more voices, including powerful ones, are speaking up. There is almost no hope left—but the most incredible stories of human survival are those where there was no hope at all, and those waiting did not give up.

The Mercy Campaign petition is still open. Please sign if you can.

And please watch this. Myuran Sukumaran in his own words, on living. Or this, on the projects they’ve developed within Kerobokan. At the very least, know what they have achieved.

Update

Last night I drove with my teenage daughter to the vigil held in the Sydney church where Myuran Sukumaran’s family and wider community are part of the congregation. We were welcomed with real warmth, and it was an honour to be there. Messages from Myuran and the Chan family were read aloud, and Myuran’s grandmother was an unflinching and unforgettable presence.

So all possible courage at this late hour to everyone involved. Updates to the Mercy Campaign petition are being sent to the Indonesian government regularly. And there will be another vigil on Friday evening. This is an extraordinary time in Australia.

On the long drive home, we were stopped by a cop. He asked where we’d been, and I told him. “They shouldn’t be executed,” he said. Just like that.

Update

This morning in darkness, the transfer of prisoners to the island where they will be executed has begun. Because the purpose of execution is to discipline others through horror without exposing the state to implications of cruelty, then execution by government is the worst kind of double standard: lockdown secrecy and extravagant display all at once. Let’s put this very plainly: there is no ethical or compassionate way to end a life without entirely defeating the purpose of execution. So there has to be very evident cruelty, and there has to be a thin veil of procedural correctness over it all.

“None of us have 300 years” (Audre Lorde). When we are all gone—all the politicians, the shooters, the judges, the witnesses who insulted and those who wept, the dealers and the users, and the president himself—this moment will be part of history, alongside all the men in orange jumpsuits waiting quietly for the speeches to end. Because in terms of the impact on others, there is absolutely no difference between legal and illegal execution, except candour.

Go well, Myuran Sukumaran.


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The reality

Even though I know what the reality is, it gives me hope, it gives me a purpose, it gives me something to do. However little time I have.

– Myuran Sukumaran, Australian artist

Here’s a story that ought to be filling us all with hope: a big tale of resilience, creativity, cooperation and opportunity, driven by a remarkable and gifted Australian. Look at him here: he is young, and healthy, and doing so much good. He has time left. If I was his mother watching this, I’d be awash with pride at what he’s achieved.

But his reality is this: that right at this minute plans are being made for him to be taken to a field, tied to a post and shot. Let’s not mince words, this is what we mean by “death penalty” and “firing squad”, and anyone who is still championing this as a just outcome needs to look much more closely at the violence in the details. There is nothing at all separating this killing from that of Kenji Goto, and the only whisper of daylight between this and the shooting of Kajieme Powell is the premeditation, the forced contemplation of what’s to come. Nothing at all distinguishes what his mother will feel when his body is returned, from the grief of Junko Ishido.

None of us are going to live for ever, and this is why mortality really is inseparable from love. We all wonder how, when, in what condition we’ll end our turn; we wonder who will be with us, and how they will get up and carry on without us when we stop.  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, an intensely personal discussion of what happens to individuals and their families at the end of life, suggests that this is why humans really cannot bear the idea of dying. So we go on suffering because we don’t know how to accept that what’s around the next bend—the next birthday, the next family wedding—isn’t going to be part of our life time. The weather will continue, the buildings will stay up and the clocks won’t stop; it’s just that we won’t be here to see it, and people we love will have to go on without us.

Gawande and many others are now arguing that it’s vital to good healthcare that we learn to make peace with human dying, and let that direct us towards living while we’re here in a way that reflects our values. This isn’t a simple thing: it takes time to untangle our own values and beliefs from those of our community and the cultures that shape us. It’s easy to get taken up with the things that seem to matter to others, the achievements that are celebrated, the stuff that is envied. But in the end we all have a fairly strong sense of what we each really care about—what we would go on doing if it was the last day of our lives.

UK palliative care specialist and cancer patient Kate Granger, for example, has taught me a great deal about what it means to value work, and to fight to continue working while thinking that this might be the last year for doing anything at all. Lisa Bonchek Adams advocates tirelessly for the right of patients with metastatic breast cancer to have their condition recognised as a disease stage that can be lived with, and in so doing she continues to love and care for her children, her family and friends. Both have made hard personal choices to continue in treatment, and to do this in public, because this is what enables them to go on living with purpose.

This is Gawande’s point: we each approach the question of what it would take to live the best possible day today on our own terms, whatever the constraints we’re facing. This isn’t just a question for people who are sick; the best possible day is a wish we can all offer each other, for the simple reason that we’re all mortal too. And this really should be the basis for how we treat each other, how we value each other’s time, and how we react to the knowledge that someone is facing their death. This isn’t just about ethics in institutional or constitutional decision-making, or state sovereignty: we stop in our tracks for death, and we try to bring every possible resource of care and hope to the end of someone’s life, because one day that’s exactly how it will be for each of us.

How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake.

– Eric Manheimer, MD, Twelve Patients

And so I can’t make peace with this dying at all. I wander round the house thinking about him, and I know that thousands of us are doing exactly the same, right at this moment. Those close to him have said goodbye and look exhausted with grief. I can’t imagine their pain.

Execution strips all possibility of dignity or care from the event of dying, which is why it’s used wherever the aim is to brutalise and terrify. The aim isn’t simply to end life, but to cause its end to be a spectacle, and to force the whole world to contemplate the violence and abjection of life being ended in this way. Kenji Goto’s mother, pleading for his release, said that she would sacrifice her life for his, and we all knew that this was an unbearable cruelty that she should be made to suffer the knowledge of his death, and her exclusion from it. Nothing is different here.

Myuran Sukumaran is an Australian artist. With persistence and vision he has created a studio and an educational enterprise filled with generosity, and inspired an incredible campaign to try to keep him alive. And at this last minute, he’s still there painting, caring for his family, thinking it all through, making a portrait of himself and the island of Nusakambangan, where prisoners are taken to be shot.

He is one of us, and he is still alive. Don’t disturb him. Let him paint.


While there is still even a fraction of time to register your concern, please consider following the Mercy Campaign and signing their petition for clemency. They are highly organised and refusing to give up hope. Also, Australia’s parliamentarians are united on this, which is all the hen’s teeth you need.


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End in sight

I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.

–J M Barrie, Peter Pan

It’s highly probable that somewhere in the world today a child has been born that’s going to live to 150

–Joe Hockey, Treasurer

Two thoughts.

1

Australian politics is frozen in mid backflip over the shark, and I’m still stuck on the Treasurer’s claim back in January that we need to shore up our public health system to prepare for Australians living to 150.

The precision of the Treasurer’s belief is relevant. It comes from longevity research, where 150 is indeed the number thrown about. There are strange characters in this field, and probably the strangest of them all is the bearded British eccentric and self-taught biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who’s one source of the idea that the first human who will live to 150 is already alive today. He’s the “Chief Science Officer” and co-founder of the SENS Foundation (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and also co-founder of the Methuselah foundation. His TED talks are mesmerising.

The goal of engineered negligible senescence is to reframe age-related deterioration as a disease that can be targeted, and a problem that can be solved. Regenerative medicine isn’t short of cash, or hubris. The Methuselah Foundation has given “over $4m in funding … From tissue engineering to stem cell science, we’ve seen explosive progress in the industry, and we’re more convinced than ever that regenerative medicine will transform health care in the 21st century.”

Google has also invested heavily in longevity research through the California Life Company initiative, Calico (“We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries”, although “as we make early progress on our research and goals, our capacity for handling press inquiries is limited.”). Despite not having time to talk to the press, Calico is now in a $1.5b partnership with pharmaceutical research company AbbVie; extending life makes sense to the markets.

Because extending life is still medically speculative, the Palo Alto Investors LLC has set up a $1m prize focused on proof of concept. For now, the prize is hung out for those who can prove it’s possible to extend homeostatic capacity in mammals. Homeostatic capacity is the natural ability to repair after damage and recover well from illness, and if we could only stop it degrading over our lifetimes, we’d be able to kick on for much longer.

150 year old Australians turn out only to be a modest target in this startling field; the chief investor in the Longevity Prize, Dr Joon Yun, seems to have set his sights on death itself:

A normal 25-year-old has a one in 1,000 chance of dying from outside forces in a given year. If declining homeostatic capacity were not a factor, a 1,000-year healthy lifespan is theoretically achievable. The mortality rate of a healthy 15-year-old is 0.01 percent in a given year, which could theoretically translate to a 10,000-year lifespan.

To be sure, immortality is not the explicit goal of the Prize, but the successful abolition of aging would certainly make death the next target.

“We hope that, if we are successful … sustained homeostatic capacity will have the consequence of making death a statistic rather than an inevitability,” Yun said.

The ethical questions here don’t need underlining. This is the meat and potatoes of science fiction: when research succeeds in abolishing aging (or “curing death”, as Google puts it), not everyone will have access to negligible senescence technologies. There will be industries and markets and scarcity, and price will be manipulated by the usual corporate hoarding of patents. Not everyone will be a winner.

So this is why extended longevity of the 150-year kind should feature in Australian healthcare planning. It’s not because frail centenarians will be clogging up the public health system, but because the prospect of living to 150 is the kind of thing that ratchets up demand for private health solutions, puts the fear into financial self-management, and widens the gap between Australians who can pay for upmarket services, and Australians who can’t access the basics.

In other words, it’s exactly why we shouldn’t be stripping down our public health services as we wait for the miracles to come.

2

It’s been a terrible week for contemplating the horror of dying by execution, as we’ve all not looked away quickly enough from the blunt evidence of human cruelty. Suddenly our social networks are filled with images and videos of bleak and lonely deaths driven by a simple calculation: that because humans want to stay alive, and are loved with intensity by others, then human life itself can be exploited, weaponised, haggled over, and finally thrown down in the war on one thing or another.

And now two Australians are waiting to be executed in Bali for organising an attempt to shift heroin into Australia in 2005, that failed spectacularly when all nine involved were caught. They have been in prison for ten years, living their lives and waiting for this shoe to fall. One has become a pastoral leader, and the other a painter who runs art classes for other prisoners.

The apparent justification is that shooting them now, after all this time, will make others think twice about participating in the distribution of illegal drugs. Prominent Australians who have used heroin and lost children to heroin have argued against this with compassion and respect. There has been a wide and concerted campaign across the Australian media asking for clemency. Artists, musicians, lawyers, senior clerics and writers have spoken up, and are continuing to call for hope.

And yet there they are, waiting to be killed for decisions taken 10 years ago.  Their mothers are with them. I don’t know how they’re still putting one foot in front of the other, knowing the separation that’s ahead. I would not. Even the most tough-talking death penalty proponent hasn’t put forward a justification for this extreme punishment of their families, whose distress and dread is overwhelming.

So that’s why I’m in furious agreement with everyone writing, singing, speaking, holding vigils for mercy for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It’s because they’re human, and because human mortality shouldn’t be exploited to punish or terrify, any more than it should be trivialised as a medical problem waiting to be fixed.

* the title of this post comes from ‘Nothing is Made New‘, a poem written by John Kinsella and delivered to the President of Indonesia as part of a plea for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.


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Whatever it takes

“We will do whatever it takes to make Medicare sustainable … If we don’t, with an ageing population, we will find ourselves in 10 or 20 years with a system that will collapse under its own weight.”

Peter Dutton, Minister for Health,  The Australian November 27

With things in the world as they are, two things to celebrate, and Australian health care reform.

First, something really great: the women of Elcho Island mentioned a couple of posts ago succeeded in their crowdfunding campaign, and can now put in place their plan to address some of the nutrition and health issues that contribute to chronic preventable disease in their own lives and families, under their own community leadership.

In the same week, our Federal government—the government that currently has care of the Australian public health system on our behalf—outlined Cunning Plan B for their own bit of crowdfunding.

The plan now is to reduce the amount of funding to GPs by $5 per visit, an amount that GPs can either choose to pay for themselves or shift onto patients. This saving to government will be still not be invested back into Medicare itself, anywhere, because it’s still going to be harvested into a national medical research fund. That’s the crowdfunding part.

There are some other modest improvements in the new copayment proposition—especially the sudden insight that pathology collectors who spend all day working alone drawing blood in centres that say NO CASH ON PREMISES can’t actually collect cash on those premises.

And plans to make it mandatory for GPs to collect a co-payment from people under 16 or on concession cards have also been parked. As Health Minister Peter Dutton put it to leading Australian television journalist Leigh Sales this week, the focus has narrowed to people who could pay more, but don’t:

And we believe the people on higher incomes, people in your situation or mine, that we do ask a $5 co-payment, but that we haven’t mandated it.

OK, let’s not muck around here. People in either Peter Dutton’s situation or Leigh Sales’ situation aren’t reference points for the general Australian population, income-wise. So this remark deserves a bit of attention.

Because this is still a health policy shift that is not primarily designed to improve health outcomes. As furious GPs and community health organisations across Australia have been pointing out, the impact on lower income users and already vulnerable communities will continue to be far more serious than on anyone like Peter Dutton or Leigh Sales.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, for example, put it bluntly that this is still a proposal to defund the services that are trying to fix Australia’s existing problems of health equity:

“Aboriginal people are not overusing services, they are underusing them. Adding a financial barrier like a co-payment will not help reverse this trend.

“To close the gap there needs to be every incentive in place to get Aboriginal people to have check ups, to see their doctor, to attend their follow up appointments and attend to their health needs.

“The co-payment undermines universal health care and targets the wrong end of the system. It is simply poor health policy.”

If it’s not good health policy, what is it? Apart from funding the hypothetical Australian cure for cancer, Cunning Plan B isn’t even really aiming to fix a current health funding problem, so much to raise fears about system load in the future that the minister insists we should prepare for now. (This is from a government relentlessly selling prosperity in the present because even “what might happen in 16 years time” is too far ahead to imagine in terms of climate impact. So there’s that.)

But there’s something else going on with all this price signalling, that’s not at all subtle, and is much more interested in the dog-whistling of the past than any risks posed by the future. Governments commonly use price signalling in a disciplinary sense, to stop people doing something. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco fall into this category. Price signalling in relation to GP visits is an attempt to reframe healthcare needs as part of a generalised state of moral co-morbidity, interacting with other symptoms of individual failure to shape up to the demands of being a model citizen in a growth-focused economy.

It’s this idea of health as something that you fix by not visiting the doctor that hitches the GP co-payment to other measures being proposed in the current reform climate, and it’s why Australian higher education really needs to study the language of responsibility versus entitlement in which it’s being haggled over in public. In other words, it’s a huge clue to an effort to turn Australia back towards a time when we celebrated individuals and their ambitions over the wellbeing of their communities, and lived with ourselves by stigmatising those for whom the playing field was a mess of potholes from the start.

But we don’t necessarily think this way any more. Doubts creep in. The vision of people crashing their boats on our shores and drowning right in front of us, and the terrible conditions under which we then hold them indefinitely along with their kids, and people around the world shattered by trying to hold their families together in the face of unimaginable catastrophe just because they are where they are, and the total mess of climate change that even the biggest of polluters are rapidly trying to fix, and people all over the place taking to the streets in protest—all these things have made a difference to the way we think about who has what.

The result is that we haven’t reacted as expected to the reform program before us. As new Guardian columnist Jason Wilson (that’s the second piece of good news) put it so well this week in an outstanding piece on the current effort to put lipstick on the budgetary pig:

But another problem with “resetting” is that the current crop of Liberal MPs – a much more right wing collective than even the Howard majorities were – can’t really comprehend the belief that their budget measures were unfair. Despite Abbott’s well-known Catholicism, he shares the secular-Calvinist presuppositions that animate his party, and provide the core belief of the English-speaking right: namely, that just as the rich deserve their wealth, so do the poor deserve their fate.

Code-phrases like “personal responsibility” express the belief that those who have no job, cannot provide for their own healthcare expenses, or cannot fund their own retirement lack virtues that more successful people possess. Economic values – efficiency, the necessity for “price signals” to deter the undeserving – merely give it a contemporary gloss. It’s possible to stoke the outrage of a minority of Australians with talk of dole bludgers and queue jumpers, but the failure of Abbott’s attacks on the most vulnerable shows that Australia is not at heart a Calvinist nation.

I think he’s right; this is a government that simply cannot stop itself from reaching for the ideological condiment when they’re serving up reform. That’s why we have an out of the blue mention of “six minute medicine” in this policy, for example. It’s a healthcare myth that’s been around for a long time and has already been debunked, but it’s back now because it’s an attempt to smear general practitioners as a whole, to whisper to us that without government regulation they’ll shuffle us all out of the door as quickly as possible, before whisking away to the golf course.

It’s the worst kind of insinuation designed to break down trust between GPs and their patients, to tell us that the government is on our side as consumers, and the people to whom we’ve entrusted our health are not. This is the reality of  “whatever it takes” healthcare reform: it’s sly, divisive, and unconvincing, and I can’t imagine how tough it must be to suddenly be the target of it.

So this is really an end of year thank you to the GP who takes care of me as a public health cancer patient and looks after my whole family, and to all her GP colleagues and their professional staff. We are so grateful for everything you’ve done for us.

Hang in there.


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“Wider lessons”

There’s weeping. And then there’s anger.*

For a year, Richard Hall and I have been tracking the ways in which higher education has become an anxiety machine, fumbling our way through this together using the metaphors of cycling, hamster wheels, technologies of pressure, instruments of shame.

We’re not alone in thinking any of this. (See especially Melonie Fullick’s sustained critique of productivity from the perspective of mental health, the worm at the heart of academia’s vanity culture.) The rankings instruments that drive institutional competitiveness have harmonised with the individual will to compete and celebrate the results of winning, without ever calculating the human cost of not winning, and the entire structure is now doing this:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

Just wait while I send this email. Start without me. I’ll be along in a bit. Do you mind if I don’t come? 

They will do this at all levels of the career, even if you pay them by the hour at a real rate that disintegrates to something approaching casual retail work once you factor in all the things they’ll have to do on their own time to get the job done well. They will do this especially if they’re also trying to run alongside the speeding train that might represent their future career hopes.

Some days they will also drive each other for you. They will whisper about each other, and turn a blind eye to each other,  and not quite find the time to act on their own secret critical thinking about any of it. They will also surreptitiously maintain each other through care and coping practices and shrugs in the corridor and exchanged glances and raised eyebrows in meetings and Friday drinks that become chronic, secretive drinking problems so that they can get some rest without writing emails in their heads at 3am.

In fact, if you get the scarcity, intermittency and celebratory settings for occasional reward just right, then the toxic alchemy of hope and shame will diminish their capacity for solidarity, and they will keep the whole thing going for you, in the name of commitment, professional standards, the value of scholarship, academic freedom, the public good of educational equity.

But I love teaching. I love my students. I love my research. I love that I get to work from home on Fridays. And Saturdays. And Sundays.

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

This week, an email is circulating that seems to have been organised to go out with a degree of aforethought, by a senior UK academic who has died after being put on performance management for not meeting extraordinarily demanding grant funding expectations. He was 51.

The university concerned are reviewing their procedures. They’re even having a think about “wider lessons” to be drawn from this unfortunate turn of events.

Is it about one bad manager, at one particularly bad university? Is it about the culture of one place, all by itself, some unique sinkhole of shame into which one life has fallen? Can that one university review its procedures and its management training, and encourage the rest of us to move on to the next bit of news?

As you were. Nothing to see here.

Here’s my thought. This is only how it will turn out if we all agree that this is an OK way for rankings impact to be seen as good.

An alternative is for us at a broad level of professional solidarity to perform some version of putting our bats out.

So what I will do is this. It’s a little personal pledge and I’m putting it here to remind me.

Whenever I hear the senior management of our university talk about rankings, competitiveness or performance I will tell someone about this case.

Whenever I hear our government say that Australia needs a more competitive university system, I promise to think about this person instead.

Whenever a colleague is being talked about in my hearing as unproductive, I will stop what I’m doing and remember that this person who worked in the same profession as me took the action that he did.

Whenever someone uses the word “deadwood” to describe something other than actually dead wood, I will ask them if they heard about what happened here.

That’s all we have. But if we agree to mind about this together, it really is not nothing.

Some days hope is really very difficult to sustain.

Update

UK blogger The Plashing Vole, a beautiful writer, also has now written about this.

Chris Parr has written about this for the Times Higher Education, and quotes in full the emails that were sent to and from the professor in this case. Nominally this finesses the situation to explain that the process was at the informal review stage prior to full performance management. But the full tragedy of university processes, their self-regarding justifications, and the practice of individual compliance with them is on the starkest display in this correspondence. There are no words.

* Update 2

Richard Hall has raised a question with me that I think is really important, that I’ve been thinking about all day too. It speaks to the issues also raised by public reaction to the deaths that have recently attracted so much attention in Ferguson, and in Australian cricket.

At the heart of these complicated moments, there are people much more directly and profoundly dealing with loss than any of us sitting on the bleachers with our heads in our hands.

There’s a strong case for appreciative restraint at these times. How would I want the feelings of my own family or friends to be taken into account if something like this happened to me? Because what academics all over the shop are saying is that we recognise these conditions and demands to be very widespread, and we recognise our own vulnerabilities in the face of them. So it could be me, because it could be any of us. (And in fact, for me this piece is also about colleagues I know and care about, whose careers have similarly been derailed in higher education’s currently brutalising audit culture.)

This is why for me it isn’t about only one place, one terrible loss, but it’s really about the institutional thinking and the individual going along with that together create the conditions under which productivity is narrowed to particular kinds of outputs, particular kinds of fundraising success only. This is thinking that I’ve been doing all year, about the kinds of harm that are experienced every day, by so many people in university culture as it is presently set up.

But there are people for whom this loss is personal, and I am not one of them. So all day what has worried me is that if this was my loved one’s name repeatedly being handled by strangers—however respectfully, with whatever level of concern or admiration—I might find that in itself very painful to live with. What happens to those who lost you in a private sense, when your name suddenly becomes talismanic to a much wider public?

Thinking this through I have for the moment redacted quite a bit what was written here. I have taken out the name of the person concerned because on reflection I think there’s something to be said for letting a person’s name belong first and foremost to the people closest to them. I have also corrected the too-hasty characterisation of the problem as research insufficiency when it’s more accurate to say that the issue involved unbelievably high threshold expectations for grant funding.

This bit of redacting relates to something non-Indigenous Australians like me have had the privilege of learning about from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have very strong cultural protocols against general use (especially by the media) of the name of someone who has passed. I’m not claiming kin with Aboriginal culture at all, or the same reasons for doing it. I’m just aware that this has always seemed to me like a gesture that could be made in other circumstances.

So I’ve rarely edited anything much on this blog after it’s gone out but I’ve substantially edited this one. And yet I am grateful actually to know the name of this person because I really am going to continue to mind.

— KB


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Showing up

Go son, go down to the water / And see the women weeping there
Then go up into the mountains / The men, they are weeping too

Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song

1.

It’s a day for weeping, as it turns out. All over the place, so much grieving.

Lives brought up short abruptly and in shockingly public ways right in the middle of being lived, and other lives ending privately with some warning.  Barely born ones touching down lightly and leaving us at once and very old ones leaving us in the arms of others they made out of their own bodies, or not.

And all of us still here at this time going on with the unfinishable project of writing the rules for grieving when grief is suddenly more than can be held in the boxes and buildings and clay cups we have made to hold all the stuff. People setting fire to things and lying down on freeways, and setting tables of thanksgiving with empty places, and making quiet organised gestures, all of us trying to find the words for these confusing experiences of shared public grieving while not getting in the way of others above us in the complicated hierarchy of entitlement to shock.

Because it’s not over. We’re all here to go on dying, that’s our work, our gift of making way to everyone who comes after us. And yet we work as if that’s not the case, not relevant to our values, as if it’s a vanishingly tiny thing relative to the busyness and accomplishment we stand for while we’re here.

But sometimes it feels as if the spectacle of dying demands our attention, and so we stop awkwardly and don’t know what to do with ourselves, how to show up, where to stand, banal and tricky survivors that we are. Do we play cricket this weekend, or not? Do we go to McDonalds? Do we carry on with the chatter of our day online as though #blacklivesmatter or #blackdeathsincustody or #stolenlives or #putoutyourbats shouldn’t just let all the other conversations fall quiet and all the workday deadlines go by unattended?

Aren’t we meant to stand and line the roads in silence at a time like this?

2.

In the waiting room of the radiotherapy unit where I spent a lot of time this year, there’s a big table of jigsaw puzzles. People come along, and fill in their bit, while they wait. Because that’s one of the weird details of cancer treatment: it involves a lot of waiting, a lot of sitting about, a lot of downtime. So we put the pieces of the sky back together, over and over.

Without exactly planning it this way, at home we distracted ourselves from cancer with the enormous and unfinishable puzzle of military history. Weird, hey.

So now, written up in the incalculable heap of debts I will never be able to repay to the beautiful Rustichello who walked every single step of this year with me, is the fact that I really know a lot more than I did about war. War movies, documentaries, audio books, actual books being read aloud to me in the middle of night: the soundtrack of this year. It’s got me thinking about why we keep telling ourselves the story of war, given the price of listening: wins at terrible cost, losses at even greater cost, history excused by the winners and remembered by the losers, and all the maps and diagrams and technologies and turning points. So many stories, so much hurt.

And at some level it seems to me that what happens when people commit to going back and thinking about what happened in the past is connected to this strange capacity that we have to show up—this same capacity that social networks online have suddenly made visible at such extraordinary scale—in respect of the grief carried in the lives of others, to maintain some kind of vigil over the histories of dying, to keep passing on the stories of the exact moment they left us, and what grief remained, and for whom.

But I think we’re still struggling with the practice of showing up in the context of lives that are still being lived.

3.

And so this gets to what we might be searching for as we say over and over and over and over: rest in peace. What is that peace that we can’t bring ourselves to create in life on this earth, that we hope others will rest in by dying?

The problem is that a conciliatory practice of peaceableness can’t come into being in any rational way with things as they are, and we all know it, and none of us know what to do about this. So we end up with showdown after showdown, pleading with each other to listen, while demanding compliance and respect and public order and fatalism from those who get the least from the way things are.

And it’s so hard because to listen well, we have to listen to the stories that are furthest from our own values. Because for someone it really is about ethics in games journalism, and for someone else it really is about the shirt, and for a whole crew of others it’s the energising sense of capacity and relevance that comes from tipping the trash cans over and over and over. What even is that?

So power can’t make way, privilege can’t shut up, and yet for all the talking there is now so much we can’t bring ourselves to say. In a beautiful post, Tressie McMillan Cottom puts part of it like this:

But it should never be spoken. We should never have to admit that we have sanctioned murder so that we can have stuff. Stuff, loosely defined, runs the gamut from televisions and plate glass windows to whiteness and bike lanes. We should never be forced to articulate that we have accepted a minimum threshold for murders so that we can have stuff. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Riots and Reason)

And then it happens that people who do have something to say about this, something that might help, second guess themselves, stay quiet, and don’t know how to show up in case they’re in the wrong fight, on the wrong topic, carrying the wrong credential.

Shut up.

4.

And yet we keep trying to show up. In Australia we’re watching the showing up that’s happening in the context of a particular incident of public loss, a life that was stopped in public, right there on the television while people were reaching for a beer or chatting or sending another email, freakishly and impossibly and in a way that confounds statistics and any reasonable safeguards.

And I’m reading about Kate Forristall’s beautiful #irlproject, which is fundamentally about showing up for others as we are here, all still living as we are.

And I can’t help it: I think in the face of all of this—look, we have got this. We know what to do. We’re doing it. We’re weeping, exactly as we should.

Cricket bat

All over Australia, people are doing this thing today: #putoutyourbats


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With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.

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