Sally Jesse and the Baying Masses

I used to watch TV instead of going to school when I was in my teens. Now, now, don’t leap down my throat. You think just because you’ve read one sentence, that gives you the basic idea so now you can spew bile on the comments section. No, no. I was sick okay? Also, that’s a bad way to behave.

I learned a lot about good and bad ways to behave, stuck at home with the TV remote. Daytime TV is super educational, in a brain rotting sort of way. First infomercials (home gym equipment, Suzanne Clip), then between Oprah (book club, touchy-feely, car giveaways) and MASH (honestly it was a welcome relief), was Sally Jesse Raphael. The queen of trash talk TV.

Families would drag their teenage daughters on to the show. Tearfully, angrily, they would divulge their disgust in how they dressed and who they spent their time with, because there is no better parenting than slut-shaming your child on internationally broadcast television. Concerns would be brushed aside, brazenly, brashly, by these abrasive girls.

Sally Jesse, in her power suits and oversize red glasses would look suitably disgusted and appalled at all this carry on. Revolted by the choices these girls were making. How they chose to dress. Dragging it all out for the drama, and then offering platitudes in the guise of helping these families. We were all with her, weren’t we? It was a learning experience. A chance to clear the air, between loving family members and a declining audience share.

Looking back I do not for a second think that these girls (and they were girls) were exemplars of feminine empowerment. I think many of them were making very unhealthy choices. How easy it is to blame them. To blame their families. Perhaps even to blame the television executives who used their poverty of choices as fodder for entertainment. Millions bounced around by corporations, creating growth, profit, jobs for the hardworking, and here was the bread for the masses. Keep the crowds happy with the cut and thrust of a domestic spectacle. A drama where the only people hurt were those already on the bottom of the heap.

Years later I lived in the UK with my husband. Cambridge, a town full of elites and drowning in its own beauty. My husband was completing his PhD, while I worked a low wage job. Looking for a flat for our last year was stressful, we looked at many shitty flats in many dodgy locations before finding a reasonably good option. A one-bedroom terrace flat in a block of council flats. The type of flat with pre-pay electric meters, and neighbours who stocked up on extra large cans of lager at the corner store in the morning. The type of flat whose previous tenant had decided to disappear after the mounting debts got too much. The houses across the street had nice gardens, but the occupants never said hello, unlike the guy who thought I should be grateful for the aggressively friendly attention of him and his two large pitbulls as they wandered the neighbourhood.

We shared an entrance with a boy in his late teens (and he was a boy), who moved in not long after us. Let’s call him Mark. I don’t know why Mark ended up in a council flat on his own at such a young age, though I can make a few guesses. It’s clear Mark had been badly let down, first by the family who should have looked after him, and then by the social structures that should have been supporting him when his family failed. But, he wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t set off the alarm bells that some of our other neighbours did, or that some of his friends did.

The flat had been noticeably quiet for some days before we were woken, early, by banging on the doors, “Mark!” The police had turned up. We opened the lower door, let them up, said we hadn’t seen him for a few days, and then minded our own business like good neighbours should. A few days later he came home, but he stopped going out at night.

Mark was under a curfew.

I don’t know what Mark had done. I only know that by the time we left Cambridge, Mark was in prison and his girlfriend was pregnant. I only know that social services worked in such a way that, though money was thrown at housing him, we never once saw someone checking if Mark, this barely literate teen, was okay. The only officials we saw in our time next door were police and debt collectors. He was dumped in a flat without the emotional skills to cope on his own, the maturity to keep him out of trouble, and without a clue how to manage basic tasks like putting out rubbish and recycling until we took the time to show him how.

All these years later, I still feel angry for Mark, for all the Marks. For the waste that was once a child with promise. I liked what I saw of his girlfriend. I’ve always thought she’s probably doing a good job of raising that child in a society full of hurdles. One where we set up single teen mums to fail and then wonder why it happens, if they do. But Mark? I’ve never thought a stint in prison would see him come out a better man. I wonder, how safe I would feel now, opening my door onto a quiet corridor and seeing him there.

And that curfew? It didn’t solve anyone’s problems. It didn’t stop Mark from having his mates over. It didn’t stop the noise, the drinking. It didn’t stop his mates from hooning off in a hurry in their cars late at night and probably drunk. It didn’t stop him from collecting a sawn-off length of pipe and running a lap of the block the night that bricks got thrown through our second floor windows. It didn’t stop Mark from trashing his apartment in a rage one night. I don’t know, but I think I’d feel like punching holes in walls if my life felt that hopeless too.

All it meant was his problem was contained. Away from the rest of Cambridge. The nice Cambridge.

Away from the successful middle class who tut-tut at these messy people with their messy lives as though somehow our societies are completely separate. As though the choices we make about how we share, and with who, are fair. As though it is these kids’ damn fault for the mess they find themselves in. As though we solve their problems by forcing them to be home, even if home is where they don’t feel safe.

Do you think Mark ended up where he was without the people who work on those front lines supporting kids thinking, ‘we are failing this kid’? Without someone wishing they had the resources to offer him something more. We listen to the mainstream media asking their tough questions. But when people tell us what they need, we peer into our bank vaults, count our change, and shake our heads sadly. Tell them to find ways to manage. Pour scorn on these wayward youths in a Sally Jesse style trial by media, and yet we refuse, refuse, to listen to the evidence for how to prevent Marks from becoming Marks in the first place.

We pretend we live in better, fairer societies than the Victorians, or the Romans before us. These days I get to sit in my nice flat, in my nice neighbourhood, and listen, as our politicians punch down. We all nod our heads, as though we too know what these kids need. Fool ourselves that we are not complicit.

Then we take our ring side seats, switch on our TV sets.

Grab your popcorn folks. Real life. It’s the best damn show in town.

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Welcome home, see I made a space for you now

Today I have no jokes. No pithy remarks about my life as an immigrant. I’m not sure I can add anything to the debate surrounding the current ‘migrant’ crisis that can change the mind of anyone who hasn’t had it changed by those photos. I’m not the person to tell you about the crisis in their homeland, and the journey they take.

But, I have something to say about who these people are, to anyone whose fear of the ‘others’ holds back their better natures.

Those others – they really are just like you.

I know this because I am an immigrant in a non-English speaking country. I went to language school. Those others? They were my classmates.

When I started last year, about half of my class would have been migrants from the middle east. The biggest single group – Syrian. Nearly all men, though many had wives in another class, it had just worked out that way. Some had children. One who I got to know well had young daughters who had spent two years of their short lives living in refugee camps.

There were times in the classroom that showed we came from different worlds. Like talking about our families: ‘I’m the youngest of 12 children. But five of them are dead’. That’s not something many twenty somethings in the west would say.

But that didn’t happen often. Mostly they were just like me and you. Laughing at the same bad jokes. Struggling to learn Danish. Working hard, because unlike me, they don’t have the luxury of leaving if it doesn’t work out.

They weren’t terrorists. They weren’t misogynists. I’m a vocal feminist, and if you think I’d be silent if I saw sexism, then ‘Hi’, because obviously we’ve never met. They treated all the liberal western females in my class just fine. Showed interest in all our diverse cultures, and in our families – both to the married mothers, and the unmarried ones.

They were family men. Educated men. Men who worked hard. Men who liked to watch sport and play chess. Men who would laugh as they handed me pens I dropped once my pregnant belly got in the way. Who’d chat about how their families were adjusting. What their kids’ school was like.

I’ve moved around the world. I’m not stupid. I know I’ve been able to do this because I’m the right sort of immigrant. Because of the colour of my skin. My nationality. Because we are educated. Because decades ago my father-in-law was born to New Zealand parents in the UK. Because of quirks of fate.

There are no easy solutions. Many of our leaders are right when they say taking in more people won’t solve the root cause. Maybe they should think about what might. Maybe that doesn’t matter when children are drowning while trying to reach safer shores.

Last year New Zealand celebrated winning a seat on the UN Security Council. This was John Key’s response:

“We have worked very hard on the bid for close to a decade because we believe that New Zealand can make a positive difference to world affairs and provide a unique and independent voice at the world’s top table…It has been more than 20 years since New Zealand was last on the Council and we are ready to contribute again.”

Now is a time to contribute. Our way of life is not so fragile a few hundred people can threaten it. But closing our doors, that black-mark on our humanity. That’s the real threat.

Sign a petition to increase NZ’s refugee quota here.