Spirit of Punk – Evening Reflection

On Thursday night I went to a spoken word event for the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2016 about the “Spirit of Punk”. I expected it to be full of activists, queers, old punks and maybe the token posers who think that punk is about music genre purity. The night was advertised as a place to bring or write something about what punk is and read it out to everyone else, to encourage people to really write from the heart.

To begin with, it felt a little disconnected and less genuine than I thought it would be, much more focused around the Writer’s Festival scene than anything else. The guy running the night clearly had elements of old guard punk and nostalgia driving him to run it, but it seemed weirdly mixed in with class privilege in a way that seemed a little oblivious. He waxed lyrical about his aimless desire to rebel in the face of a father who seemed to love him unconditionally and encourage his taste in punk music, and it was heartwarming, but did kind of clash later with his message when he sneered at the memory of young punk guys trying to scare him on the train, repeating what he said then; “Is that all you’ve got?” I was really tempted to stand up and ask him if that was all he had. To ask why he thought he was any different, any tougher than the young men he was disdainful of. If “rebel without a cause” and “punk is dead” were the prevailing attitudes of the night, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. But to be fair, this guy made that night for other words and perspectives to be voiced alongside his own. Still, I was not ready to see that what I expected as a fringe element of the evening feel a little more like the main course.

There were a succession of writers who weren’t there quite as much for the punk as they were there for the spoken word, and while their work wasn’t bad, it did feel off-key. And it was strange to go to an event expecting to share an understanding of  disenfranchisement and anger, to look for an inter-generational community who understood that feeling, only to have a lot of smiles and gentle laughter and flowery prose. There were poems about sex and intimacy and jealousy, and one in which I couldn’t hear the words but I could hear the deliberate musicality of them. It was an open stage, and while I’m glad that different types of stories and levels of experience with spoken word were welcome, I was still waiting to see the energy I felt in my chest reflected on the stage, still waiting to be swept up in the passion for the theme of the night. I paid a little more attention to one guy who got halfway to punk by saying that it wasn’t about aesthetic as much as a political attitude, only to disengage again when he lost the path I hoped he’d go down and started talking about how buying a CD from a store wasn’t the same as exchanging zines and secret mailing lists. I get the more advanced concepts of not selling out or buying into consumerism, but when punk speakers dwell on those concepts in isolation from class issues, they feel like rather privileged discussions.

Maybe he said something more that didn’t have elitist, gate-keeping overtones when I was tuned out but I wasn’t holding my breath or ready to give the benefit of the doubt. I had anticipated that there would be some element of rosy-tinted uses of punk as a vehicle for excluding people who weren’t cool enough or educated enough about who the “classics” of the music genre were or how appreciation for it was meant to be performed. That petty purism and exclusionary condescension towards other disenfranchised youths is honestly why, IMHO, the punk scene stopped being what the old guard remember it as. It’s why the ‘spirit of punk’ has been maintained elsewhere, particularly in the queer + activist counterculture scenes I started exploring in university. I don’t think punk was ever meant to be curated like a piece of art in a rich old museum. It was never meant to turn a cold shoulder to poor kids who were too disliked or isolated to be shown the ropes or crack the secret codes. And god forbid anyone ever draw comparisons between punk and emo subcultures, the latter of which contained the same disenfranchisement and counterculture sense of challenging authority, and was a direct musical descendent. I wondered if any of the adults in the room were the kind who’d complained about the emo scene when it happened. The generational gaps seemed to hang in the air at that point in the night, an emptiness I had forgotten to account for. That drove me to write and perform my piece basically then and there.

honestly not my best or nuanced but it felt as good as I could get in half an hour

After I performed I was followed up by Snow – who’d basically had a lot of the same thoughts and sentiments that I did. We were both quite emotional and angry and ready to flip off everyone in that audience for not saying what we wanted them to say. I think I was simultaneously surprised and not at all to find that the crowd seemed to respond to that energy with enthusiasm.

It was a little confusing when we found afterwards that enthusiasm manifesting in people approaching us – and particularly Snow – telling us how brave we were. I want to say that the encouragement was lovely, but have to admit that those words sounded disconnected from what we had both tried to say. I don’t think anyone who’s felt that kind of anger is ever expressing it to be happily congratulated for it. I feel like usually, by the time you hear those kinds of words in your life, you’ve already made yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t need them. I think maybe we wanted to see, if not an echo of ourselves, then an echo of our own righteous anger against society in the hearts of the people around us.

We got to see the kind of act we had really been waiting for when an older woman wearing the classic punk outfit of a wrinkled white shirt and blood red tie brought her chair up to the front of the room. She identified herself as an old member of the spoken word scene, as a woman who’d had barbed wire wrapped around her naked body during a piece about pain, and had to spend four hours afterwards agonisingly removing it. She spoke directly, had wiry arms that moved her seat and microphone around with a strong grip, with a battle-ready edge to her body. She was the most hardcore person I’d ever witnessed in my memory.

She spoke of all the old punks that she knew – “dead, to a man ” – and of squatting in a house with 12 people and no heating or electricity or anybody who cared for them, using stolen musical equipment to give themselves an emotional outlet, and it was a heart aching story, one that I think continues to resonate in the increasing class divides and rising living costs we deal with today. I felt that the tone of her words were different from a lot of other people there that night. Punk didn’t sound like an elite club of rockers when she sat on the stage. It was a refuge for the disenfranchised. Her set dealt with drugs and death, not about those earlier days as a time when things were better, or some kind of golden age, but as a time when things were worse, when music and culture was the only escape for people who were made to feel that their lives didn’t matter. It was no lighthearted tribute. You couldn’t deny that this was a person who had lived through it; that regardless of what the surface of disenfranchisement looked like, she knew what it felt like.

She finished her set, and there was some more poetry before the night wrapped up, and I went home with my head buzzing.

I know that the movement was art, and fashion, and politics, and it wasn’t just one thing. It was diverse. People empathised with different parts of it to varying strengths. If it wasn’t so malleable and welcoming and resonant, it wouldn’t have been the amazing, big thing in our culture that it was. It’s fitting that a Spirit of Punk night was an open mic, chaotic and sometimes at odds with itself.

I’m glad that I was challenged and inspired to challenge others, and it was right to take even a small moment out that night to dwell on the sense of mourning and loss, of the punks who might have grown up and contributed to the night, but are now only echoed in art and history and our memories. Especially considering the crossovers between punk and queer subcultures; between the losses the queer community faced during the AIDS crisis, and in the days prior to the spoken word event. All of that noise and anger and yearning for freedom and recognition had been intermingling in my head, and I think that night helped me process even just a small part of that.

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Home is Where the Upper Class are

For a short time recently I was classified as homeless. It was a safer experience of it than the stereotypical kind, in that I wasn’t on the streets. My living situation was ‘unstable’. I couch-surfed between the homes of people who love me, shared rooms, and though none of the places open to me could give me the space to actually live my life and be a fully realised and autonomous individual, it was still breathing room which I was lucky to have. But it’s a position which comes with a lot of introspection, self-doubt, and a lot of hard questions. One of the key underlying factors to my situation was mental illness, in which I am not alone, but the point which is most relevant to why I spent three months and 22 lease applications to end up without a home is the fact that I am unemployed and survive on Newstart.

I could talk a lot about the whys and the hows of that, but that’s getting beyond the discussion. It was a hard time, though, and I keenly felt all of the rejections I got and it felt a lot like being kicked when I was down. And while searching for solutions, and for sympathetic voices in the media, there seemed to be a distinct lack of conversations about what the reality of housing is like for people on income support. Most tips I found (and advice from well-meaning family) included some variation of the advice, “have more money“. I could find article after article about housing from business perspectives, from the perspectives of people with salaries allowing for mortgages, discussions dominated by people who can be classified as nothing other than middle or upper class. People whose only advice seemed to be along the lines of ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it’. Society seems happy to tell individuals that the problem is theirs to solve alone. But the problems facing individuals in these circumstances go beyond any one person’s capacity to solve, and beyond any individual’s temporary situations. There are no bootstraps to pull, no savings to pull on or financial cuts to make that would make overpriced rentals any less unreachable. Eventually, I got out of that situation and returned to sharehouse living, but it remains a vividly alienating experience, and one that I know other Australians are still caught in right now.

The reality is that there are some rather big problems within Australian culture and our understanding of the right to a home throughout periods of unemployment. There are two important elements laying down the baseline values and expectations of our society, on which my own expectations are built:

  1. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission“Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to adequate housing.” Adequate housing is defined as more than just shelter from the elements. It’s not just about survival, but dignity. This statement is also supported by Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights, set by the United Nations General Assembly, of which Australia is a part.
  2. The Australian Government National Commission Audit states that; “The primary purpose of income support to the unemployed is to provide a minimum adequate standard of living to people who are temporarily out of work and unable to support themselves through their savings or other means.” 

So, we have a welfare system that is specifically designed to provide housing, laws regarding housing as a right rather than a privilege. So, by nature we have demand, and laws requiring that supply meet the demand in quality as well as quantity. But what do we rely on for supply?

For most people seeking adequate housing, supply comes from the private market, a system based off profit and competitive sales and investments in which there are winners and losers. The housing industry is inflated, the cost of living rising every year above the low income markers. For many people stuck in the rental system who are being pushed around from suburb to suburb and further out from job opportunities by rising prices, home ownership is, according to a 2011 report on Gentrification and Displacement, “a borderline fantasy which has logical appeal but is nevertheless outside the bounds of their real or imagine resources.” This isn’t a system which can be boycotted and still have your rights met, like whether or not you buy bottled water. Public housing is only available to people the government decides are vulnerable enough, demographics which have been artificially tightened to allow the government to present prettier statistics without any real improvement. And the demand on public housing well outstrips supply, with tens of thousands of people Australia-wide stuck on waiting lists.

So, if our government can’t enforce our rights to adequate housing, what do the attitudes of the private sector look like, when it comes to understanding their part in providing an essential service for every Australian?

image

In response to this particular forum post, there were dozens of cries of illegal discrimination, but there were also a fair few agreeing with it to varying extents. And it’s tempting to respond to this screenshot with thinking that it’s just ‘a random on the internet’, an inconsequential outlier, and that a single voice does nothing in the face of our own anti-discrimination laws; but when you look at the wider trends of gentrification within Melbourne, it’s clear to see that these kinds of attitudes are having a very real effect on the situation. We may not be able to pinpoint and prosecute every case of discrimination, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; the wider spectrum points to very real and common discrimination practice.

And I’m sure it’s tempting for many people approaching it from the business side to explain these practices away as ‘just common sense’. Unfortunately, what might make sense for a business is rather senseless when it comes to matters of human rights. Demand outstripping supply is, for luxury goods, an extremely beneficial thing. It allows business owners to raise prices, put more value on their resources and employees and expand on profits. But for an essential service with little to no alternatives, this is one of the worst things that could happen.

Besides the risk of homelessness, many people are faced with constantly having to move house to find affordable rent. This has a very real health cost to add to the pressures of low-income earners. Moving house is counted as one of the top five most stressful events in life, ranking above divorce. This article claims that “the average Briton will move five times during their lifetime” and the stress of that event will last more than three months. But for people in the rental market the number of moves is likely much higher, as the majority of Australian renters are on a fixed-term residency for under 12 months. 40% of renters also have children, adding to the stresses to deal with in moving; besides possible job relocation, lowered job opportunities and/or added commuting times, school relocation becomes another factor. All of these have massive impacts on the emotional stability of a child’s growth, with far-reaching consequences well into adulthood. The dark footnote of the Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality study linked above is that there may even be an increased mortality rate for people who move frequently as children, an impact that could be seen within the decade of the study. That is a link which requires further research to corroborate, may be correlated rather than causal, but is beyond grim to contemplate even as a possibility.

But even for people without dependants, the prospects of having to move once every year for an undetermined amount of time still has negative impacts. Stress is incredibly well-known as a factor in lowered life expectancy through ways such as increasing the risk of heart disease, which is known as one of Australia’s largest health problems and a big burden on our economy. Not to mention the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts in young people facing homelessness. Bad quality housing also has noted effects on health and life expectancy that disproportionately affects people on low incomes, people who can’t afford to refuse bad housing in favour of something on par with basic standards.

I know that some of this is the kind of thing people might respond to as being off-topic or picking at irrelevant or less important details, but when it comes to analysing the links between experience and consequence on a systematic scale, this stuff is important. Overcoming nuanced problems means understanding the nuances. These kinds of consequences are why we have philosophies such as human rights, and Maslow’s hierarchy. If we ever want to create a society in which each individual has the opportunity to reach our fullest potential, we must create a society in which our needs and rights can be met. Otherwise, we should acknowledge the fact that we do not, in fact, live in a merit-based society, however popular that idea is when it comes to job applications and problems of discrimination. If you are willing to deny someone the right to a home based off employment status, willing to drive out your tenants with price hikes while knowing that you are contributing to a trend of gentrification, you are actively promoting homelessness and poverty and class divides. Real estate agents and landlords making decisions on rising rental prices are an active, driving force putting pressure on the income support system. Considering the outcry the government makes on the way the welfare system contributes to the “Budget Crisis”, one would think that holding property investors responsible for rising housing costs would be a major priority.

desirability

There are too many things I wanted to say at this article. Allowing access to human rights to be defined by how “desirable” one can be to someone with money is dystopian to the extreme.

We are facing a genuine cultural problem. This is something we should be talking about–in mainstream media, not just on specialised/niche websites and organisations–and actually addressing on all the levels on which it affects us. Gentrification tears apart communities, and undermines family systems. It damages and impedes our attempts to create an equal society. I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the uneven spread of consequences in regards to oppressed minorities; LGBTQ+ youth often leave home and enter the rental system years earlier than their straight/cisgendered peers, and attitudes against leasing to young people quite likely contributes to the higher rates of homelessness for LGBTQ+ demographics–an estimated 1 in 4 homeless people in NSW are LGBTQ+, which is shockingly disproportionate. If homelessness affected the population evenly, that number would be closer to 1 in 10.

It’s an LGBTQ+ issue. It’s ableism, as disability is so often a reason for unemployment and lower incomes. It’s relatable to racial and cultural issues within Australia, since something as simple as a name on an application can affect housing accessibility, since gentrification can remove people who require language assistance from the communities and areas which share their language and ethnic backgrounds, and create social isolation through distance. It’s a women’s issue, relating to the struggle to reduce violence against women–families fleeing domestic violence are at big risk when looking at that gap between public and private housing accessibility, especially in a rental market which discriminates against leasing to people with kids. I could go on, but the fact is, it’s incredible that something which affects so many different demographics unfairly can continue without much outcry, or even for it to be actively encouraged by governmental policy.

money spending.PNG

By this logic, my Newstart payments would need to be doubled in order to afford the sharehouse I’m living in now.

This is a problem that our government should be concerned with, if it is in any way committed to Australia’s long-term future, to eradicating racism and class divides and lifting our own citizens out of poverty. If the government is really concerned with taking the pressure off the national budget in regards to the income support system, they shouldn’t be shunting vulnerable people onto the streets by removing support: they should be concerned with housing prices.  They should be extremely concerned with a housing market which prioritises profit over rights, and with the large gap of available housing between low-income earners, job-seekers and the perpetually unemployed. So long as disabilities exist, decreasing unemployment and homelessness by creating jobs is only ever going to be a measure of limited effectiveness. If the government doesn’t want to raise income support to actually meet the price of living costs in Australia, then they must initiate restrictions on the private housing market, or else increase the emergency and long-term public housing systems. 

Everyone has the right to a home. Our society needs to acknowledge the human rights that aren’t being met and have more conversations about how to change that, instead of just giving everyone the unrealistic and hopelessly ineffectual and ableist advice to climb the class ladder and get over it. Those attitudes are ones which–amongst everything else–tolerate homelessness as a punishment for being low-class, homelessness as punishment for being queer (or disabled, or otherwise othered by society). If we are to realistically battle these problems in Australian culture, we must battle homelessness, too.

The displacement from homes that gentrification causes is an active sign that our anti-discrimination laws aren’t being enforced, and aren’t effective. And the gap between public and private housing availabilities to people on low incomes is a gaping wound in our social system.

If we care about a fair Australia and a bright future for everyone, if we care about eradicating class inequality, these are problems which we need to solve.