Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A shift at the Crisis Centre

I’ve been working at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda for about six months now. Lately, it’s been a particularly intense experience – the level of need out there is higher than usual during the Christmas holiday period, partly because a lot of other services close, while we remain open 24/7, and partly because it’s an emotional time of year for a lot of people. I’ve noticed we’ve been getting a lot of calls and drop-ins from people in various levels of not just housing, but also psychological crisis.

Our main role is to provide immediate crisis accommodation, mostly in cheap motels, basic material aid, and referrals to appropriate services for people who have fallen (hopefully temporarily) into homelessness. We don’t have resources to deal with any serious level of mental illness – you can’t place someone in a hotel if, like one of my callers last night, he says he needs emergency accommodation because he fears for the safety of his flat-mates, his head feels like it is “ticking like a time-bomb,” and he “goes off” at night and starts kicking the walls.

An even more distressing case last night was a caller from a town in regional Victoria, who rang saying he had slept in a park the night before and had nowhere else to go. He was in a very fragile state, crying through much of the call, and reporting that he had tried to self-harm during the day. He’d recently been on a bender, using methamphetamine (ice) eight days straight, plus some cocaine. He repeatedly said that he felt "lost." Again, booking him into a hotel was not a safe or viable option. I persuaded him to allow the police to take him to the local hospital to spend the night there, and get some medical assistance. I’m told that cases like his are clogging the emergency departments of hospitals throughout Victoria – increasing abuse of methamphetamine has placed considerable strain on mental health and emergency services.

I will relate just one other, more unusual, case from my shift last night: early in the evening, I took a call from a volunteer from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. He was calling regarding a Burmese man, with little English, who had been discharged from hospital in a country town near Melbourne, only to find that his landlord had evicted him in his absence. Apparently he was two weeks in arrears with his rent. I pointed out that the eviction was illegal, and the volunteer agreed, but said it may well have been a pretty dodgy tenancy arrangement from the start. In any case, the client had left the property and was now at the train station. I immediately rang the local housing service, and minutes before they closed managed to get them to agree to fund the client for the night. As usual, this was conditional on him presenting to their service the following day.

Bagan, central Burma (Myanmar)
Feeling pretty pleased with having achieved this, I then spoke to the client through a telephone interpreter. This was an interesting, somewhat frustrating experience – the contrast between the softly spoken, somewhat tentative female interpreter and the strong, rapid speech of the client was marked. As often happens, there seemed to be a lot more said in Burmese than was related to me in English. 

During the assessment, it emerged that the client was now on a train, on his way to a station in outer east Melbourne. I couldn't get a straight answer about why he was heading there, but he seemed to know people in the area. He told me he had a history of drug use (ice and marijuana) but hadn't used for over a year, and had no mental health issues. It was unclear why he had been in hospital, but he said something about chest pain, and receiving an injection. He said he was OK now. He also reported that he was on a Bridging Visa which had expired, but was getting Centrelink payments.

We always ask people contacting us by phone to present at a police station for an ID check before we place them in accommodation. This client agreed to go to straight to the police station on arrival at his destination, and call us again from there. I was concerned that his limited English might make this process difficult, so I rang the station to let the police know he would be arriving in the next couple of hours, supplied the client's name and date of birth, and asked the police officer to call us when he turned up. One of the other workers in the Crisis Centre had told me that Burmese people only have one name, which explained why his first and last names were the same, an interesting piece of cultural information that I also took it upon myself to share with the officer.

So far, so good. I considered scoping out hotel vacancies in the area, but decided to wait until I heard from the client again – we were busy, and it seemed possible he had friends in that area who might end up helping him out. In a certain sense, that did turn out to be the case.

Several hours later, I got a call back from the police officer to inform me that my client was a missing person from the psych unit of the local hospital. By this stage he was back in the ward. The officer said I should call the hospital to get further information or to make contact. I said that wouldn't be necessary, as our role was to provide emergency accommodation, and this client now clearly had some accommodation available to him. "Yeah, I think they'll be keeping him in there for quite a while..."

Although my input had very little to do with it, that was one of the success stories of the night – a client who had somewhere to go, and judging by the fact that he had voluntarily returned, seemed to have some faith that his mental health needs would be effectively addressed there. 

This was a contrast to the first caller I mentioned, the one who was kicking the walls. He’d already had pretty extensive experience of the mental health system in Melbourne, and was reluctant to return to a hospital where the drugs he’d been given had reduced him to a state where he said he had had trouble walking. In any case, given the lucid and polite way in which he spoke to me, escalating into anger only when he spoke about a brother who had died overseas, it was unlikely any overcrowded city hospital psych ward would have admitted him. He told me of one mental health service that he’d had good experiences with. The best I could do for him was to urge him to contact them the following day, and to impress upon him the fact that his mental health problems needed to be addressed before his housing issue could be resolved.

I’m beginning to think the same might be said for the entire state of Victoria. May 2015 bring some progress on this front...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abbott and the ABC: a story of second-order hypocrisy

Abbott has recently broken one of his pre-election promises, that is, that funding to the ABC and SBS would not be cut under his government. It was announced on Wednesday that $254 million will be cut from the budget of the ABC and more than $25 million from SBS. Tony Wright, writing in the Age, has pointed out that this makes Abbott a liar. More than this, it makes him a hypocrite, given the ferocity with which he attacked Julia Gillard for breaking her pre-election promise not to introduce a carbon tax.

None of this comes as a great surprise. For me, it’s hard to get worked up about the fact that Abbott has been shown to be a liar. He is a politician after all, and politics has always involved a delicate relationship with the truth. It's no shock to learn that a politician has broken a pre-election promise.

Martin Jay, an American scholar, goes beyond this form of cynical realism about politics to argue that mendacity is actually a virtue in this domain. He suggests that we’re safer with a politician who expediently changes his story from time to time than one who fanatically insists that his perspective is the truth and nothing but the truth, and uses this to justify violence against those who oppose his views. To be human is a virtue in a politician, and to lie is human.

The charge of hypocrisy is more serious, but as George Orwell pointed out, hypocrisy is only possible in a state in which privacy exists – in which we can do one thing in our private lives, and put on a different face in public. Far worse is a state in which hypocrisy has been eliminated because there is no distinction between private and public any more, or no one can ever alter their position. None of us is entirely consistent and nor should we expect this in our politicians.

However, Abbott is not just an ordinary hypocrite; what is disturbing about him is that he is what David Runciman calls a second-order hypocrite, that is a politician who cynically exploits the public’s familiarity with double standards in politics and takes advantage of its na├»ve yearning for someone who can rise above it. Second-order hypocrisy involves cynical manipulations of people's desire for a simple version of the Truth, designed to whip up moralistic condemnation of political opponents. Abbott’s campaign against Gillard was a good example of this. Abbott set himself up as the guardian of a pure, truthful standard of political practice against which Gillard fell short: "My aim is to lead a no surprises, no excuses government that says what it means and does what it says." 

Paradoxically, it may have been because Gillard had a reputation as a genuinely and unusually conscientious politician that this smear campaign was so successful. It made it a bit easier to sustain the fiction that our heartfelt trust was really betrayed by her shift on the carbon tax issue. Maybe it’s because few see Abbott in this light that his failure to abide by his own espoused moral principles doesn’t seem such a big issue. 

The damage that is done by second-order hypocrites in politics, if they are successful, as Abbott undeniably has been, is that they create a climate in which everyone is on the alert for hypocrisy and lying, while other forms of wickedness are left to flourish. The project of denouncing liars and hypocrites engenders anxiety, since the spectacle of what happens to those who are branded by these accusations makes it seem extremely important to establish one’s credentials as one of the pure, the true believers. This is the kind of atmosphere that created the Terror under Robespierre.

This is not to suggest that commitment to truthfulness leads in the direction of Terror. Rather, it is second-order hypocrisy that can put a society on this track. It is hypocrisy of a particularly powerful kind, masquerading as a commitment to Truth. In some cases, those who use such tactics may convince themselves of the purity of their motives and ideological position, but this is dangerous self-deception.

It is dramatic to compare Abbott to Robespierre; the leaders of the Egyptian government that has imprisoned Australia journalist Peter Greste and others might seem more suitable targets for such a comparison. Fortunately, we are still far from confronting this level of ideological control of the press in Australia. 

Nevertheless, Abbott has done damage to the tenor of public debate here, and succeeded in introducing a level of personal attacks, moralizing judgments, and polarized positions that often seems more American than Australian. The decision to cut funding to the ABC is entirely in keeping with this strategy, since the kind of intelligent, substance-based political discussion and satire that is facilitated by public broadcasting (and community radio) is a major obstacle for the success of second-order hypocrisy. 

Let's not succumb to Abbott’s tactics by wasting our time moralizing about his personal duplicity; rather let's focus on safeguarding the institutions, like the ABC, that guarantee a more expansive, truly democratic style of public discussion in this country.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Fountainhead

It’s been an interesting week. I’ve just started a new casual job, as a social worker at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda, Melbourne. The work involves taking telephone calls and face-to-face inquiries from people who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, providing empathetic support and immediate assistance, and referring them to services that can provide ongoing support to get them back into secure housing, and address related issues.

Although I’m only one week in and still training, I can see that this job will involve plenty of challenges – from the heartbreak of seeing people in desperate or simply depressing situations, to dealing with outbursts of anger from frustrated or unstable clients, to dealing with con-jobs, like the charming, elderly, somewhat teary gentleman who had his bag stolen during a night spent at the Casino because he had no money to stay elsewhere, was put up in the best hotel we can afford, and given an array of vouchers to provide him with food, transport and a change of clothes, and then turned up again the next day, driving a red sports car.

This week I also finished reading Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Several friends expressed titillated disapproval on learning that I was reading Rand, due to the fact that she gets quoted at Tea Party protests, and was Alan Greenspan’s guru. Her ideas have inspired libertarian and right wing politics in the US to the point where her biographer, Jennifer Burns, describes her as "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." Flannery O’Connor, a wonderful American writer and a contemporary of Rand, once told a friend who had found a Rand novel left behind in the subway, "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail."

When I came across The Fountainhead in a box of books on the street in Balmain, I was unaware of O’Connor’s advice. In any case, I was curious to find out what kind of story inspires libertarian politics. Maybe there was also a certain perversity that led me to start reading this book just before I was about to take up my new job.

For Rand, the social worker is the epitome of badly dressed evil. Her novel is designed to persuade the reader that altruism is the enemy of integrity, independent thought and creativity. She explicitly elevates selfishness to a moral and political ideal, making no distinction between self-centred indifference toward others, and the courage to remain true to one’s principles in a climate of mediocrity and corruption. (It is worth noting that the novel was first published in 1943 and can be read as an attempt to understand the forces and failures that had led to the state of the world at this time.)

The central character of the book is Howard Roark, a talented architect who remains heroically true to his ideal of functional beauty in the face of repeated pressures to compromise – and who begins his love affair with Dominique Francon, the main female character in the novel, by raping her. This beautiful, intelligent, unfulfilled woman responds by falling aggressively in love with him, and after various plot twists including a striking episode of self-harming which involves cutting her body with broken glass, an act which nearly kills her, they eventually live happily ever after. Dominique gives up her job as a journalist along the way, and becomes content to spend her days making herself look lovely and contemplating the beauty of nature as a background to her husband’s soaring phallic achievements.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

For me, the story of this woman and her relationship with the architect was the most intriguing aspect of the novel (admittedly I have glossed over many others in this summary). It appeared to be an effort to come to terms with what we might now categorise as a personality disorder, though it's likely that Rand would have condemned such a diagnosis as an example of the evils perpetrated in the name of altruism. Naturally, the reader is not encouraged to feel empathy or pity for this character; rather, she is portrayed as aloof, brilliant, intensely desirable to men, and consistently well dressed, providing a stark contrast to all the other remarkably unattractive women that appear in the novel.

Dominique’s suffering is treated as unimportant next to the ideals and work of her lover, but at the same time it is clearly, even dramatically, described. It does not appear that Rand’s fans have paid much attention to this aspect of the novel. If they did, they might find a clue regarding the kind of personal distress that can motivate a political commitment to extreme individualism.

But perhaps it takes the perspective of a social worker to see that.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Doubt on Easter Sunday

Lancelot Andrewes. Bodleian Library

This Easter Sunday morning I listened to a reading of a sermon entitled “Doubt on Easter Sunday,” by Lancelot Andrewes, originally given in the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. Bishop Andrewes felt that intellectual doubt (or infidelity, as he called it) about the factual basis of Christian faith was the greatest problem of his time. For Andrewes, 1600 was already “the dregs of time,” when the faith of the early Church had faded away. I guess he might consider that the dregs have travelled through the sink-hole and been sucked well down the drain by now, although in some respects, his argument seemed quite contemporary.

The bishop examines the account of Christ’s resurrection with an eye for evidence to counter doubt. He points out how slow the twelve disciples were to accept the resurrection: even after they had seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes, they were “jealous of their own senses” and struggled to believe. Thomas took this reluctance to another level by insisting on touching, not merely seeing the flesh of Christ before he would believe. Only once convinced of the resurrection by evidence in multiple, mutually confirming forms did the disciples go out to spread the good news. How then were they able to overcome the doubts of listeners who had not seen or touched the resurrected Christ personally? The disciples had neither worldly power, nor rhetorical skill; they were destitute, weak, uneducated men. But they had a more powerful, compelling way to overcome doubt: they were able to perform miracles, immediate evidence that the greater miracle they had themselves witnessed was true.

Christian faith, on this account, is originally based on the direct testimony of eyewitnesses (and one fingerwitness). Miracles provide ‘evidence-based’ proof that there is more to reality than secular science can explain. This suggests that in spite of their apparent opposition, Christianity and science have a key feature in common. They both present evidence to support their theories/doctrines, and anyone who accepts this evidence and understands its implications can join the community of true believers. Independent reflection and belief are at the core of both Christian and scientific worldviews, at least by the time Lancelot Andrewes wrote his sermon. As systems of evidence-based belief, both Christianity and modern science have been able spread rapidly and democratically; there is no need to belong to any particular cultural group to participate.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601-1602)
This account of Christian doubt and faith reminds me of the way Buddhism is often presented in the West. A rather loosely translated passage from the Kalama Sutta is widely reproduced (I remember coming across it pinned to the wall in a kuti in Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon); it claims that the Buddha told the Kalamas:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Bodhipaksa calls this a “calamitous misreading” and compares it with a more scholarly translation of the sutta:

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”

The two versions both emphasize the importance of “knowing for yourself” through personal experience, observation and reflection. However, the first, more popular version both fails to bring out the warning against speculative reasoning that is given here and in other early Buddhist suttas, and more generally presents belief as the central concern of the teaching, rather than the assessment and cultivation of qualities of mind.

This interpolated focus on belief appears to be the product of a Western bias which could be informed by either a Christian or a scientific worldview, given their shared interest in the question of how to form true beliefs. This is not to suggest that the translator’s intent was to assimilate Buddhist to Christian teachings. On the contrary, this slant allows the Buddhist teaching to appear as a competitive alternative to the Christian approach, since in spite of Bishop Andrewes’ efforts, these days many see Christianity as demanding belief based on blind acceptance of authority, in the absence of evidence, even in the absence of comprehension. As Madeleine Peyroux sings, “They preached the gospel down in New Orleans, they preached it at school. Never made much sense to me, wonder if it was supposed to…”
The idea that the Buddha, like a scientist, does not ask us to believe anything unless and until we are personally convinced of its truth is attractive to the modern mind. On the other hand, if Buddhism adheres to the same methods as science, and is in the same business of generating rational, well-supported beliefs, then it seems likely that science will supersede it just as, for many, it has superseded Christianity. Why not just stick with science?

The more scholarly translation of the sutta is richer, not only in that it is more authentic, but also in that it indicates that Buddhism might be less concerned with beliefs than with certain qualities of mind, and consequently teach a form of enlightenment that is qualitatively different to that of science. In spite of the overt emphasis on belief in Christianity, I suspect that this is true of living versions of that religion, too.

William Blake, Christ Appearing to the Apostles after the Resurrection (1795)