Happy Easter! I’ve been getting two messages about the state of religion lately. The first comes from the op-ed pages and TV, that we’re presently holding a wake for religion and the time for a cremation will be announced shortly. The second is what I see on the streets.
This struck me vividly as I walked to my local church on Good Friday (a public holiday here). The first group I encountered had come from a meeting room in the town hall, about 30 cheerful young men, probably Indians and Bangladeshis, who, as good Muslims, had just finished their Friday prayers.
The second was the crowd heading for the local Catholic church. Good thing I arrived a bit early. It is a largish building, but by ten to 3 there was standing room only. Sydney is a multicultural city, so there were many Indians, mostly from Kerala, Koreans, Italians, Chinese and Lebanese, and plenty of born-here Aussies. It was a young crowd, too.
The next evening, after the Easter Vigil, we drove back home at 11pm through back streets from a different church. We kept passing clusters of young people dressed to the nines and clutching their vigil tapers. Streets had been closed off to accommodate the crowds overflowing the footpath in front of a Greek Orthodox parish.
Around the corner from home is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. As I was going to bed this crowd was just winding up. Young people were singing and chanting at the entrance, unable to enter the packed church. The bells rang out joyfully for churched and unchurched at 2am.
No doubt there are a lot of unchurched people out there, perhaps even a majority. But do they have the vitality and energy of people with faith? I think not. And is there anything more persuasive than joy? After this Easter, to me it seems clearer than ever to me that faith has a future. Or rather that Australia has a future and it is faith.
I believe that our Deputy Editor, Carolyn Moynihan, promised readers a cheery newsletter. This was a bit rash as mine is the only newsletter this week because of the Easter holiday. And I do doom and gloom much better than sunshine and Pollyanna.
In any case, I am reflecting on the death yesterday of a dear friend, Brian Harradine, a man known much better in Australia than overseas, but a model for politicians everywhere. He died yesterday at the age of 79 after a long illness.
Brian began as a union organiser and Labor Party stalwart in Tasmania and rose to national prominence by dint of hard work and his steely intellect. But in 1975 he was expelled from the Party for denouncing Communist infiltration. It was a bitter blow, but he immediately stood for the Senate as an Independent and was elected easily.
He spent the next 30 years in the Federal Parliament, where he fought tirelessly for his constituents and for causes that he believed in passionately – workers’ rights, Aboriginal rights, the rights of the family, and the rights of the unborn. I don’t think that there has ever been an Australian politician who fought harder and longer for the pro-life cause than Brian Harradine.
He also knew what families are all about. In 1980 his wife died, leaving him with six children. A couple of years later he married Marian, a widow with seven. The family of 15 lived in a modest house in a modest suburb.
Being an independent in Canberra was a lonely job. But all the parties respected his conviction and toughness. They had to. From 1996 to 1999 he and another independent held the balance of power and the government ate humble pie to secure his vote. He was unpretentious but he knew how to leverage his position and he drove a hard bargain. No one did more for Tasmania.
At one stage I worked in his office for a few weeks writing speeches when he was campaigning against population control measures hidden in the foreign aid budget. One evening I attended a Senate Estimates Committee hearing at which he was roasting arrogant and evasive public servants. It was very entertaining to see them squirm under his relentless interrogation.
He was also a man with a deep Catholic faith which kept him smiling through hard times at home, disappointments in politics and his years of illness. I shall miss him.
A man with a woman holding a baby boy stepped off a plane in Wellington, New Zealand, on Monday to a rock-star welcome. British royals Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and nine-month-old Prince George arrived for a week-long visit, the first state visit for the youngest “Cambridge”. Polls indicate that monarchism here is likely to die a natural death and that New Zealand will become a republic, but that doesn’t stop Kiwis going gaga over a glamorous princess, Diana’s eldest son, and their little Prince Charming.
A man, a woman and a baby – a man and a woman married to each other, with a child who is the fruit of their committed, mutual self-giving. This is the most natural thing in human society, if not in the world, and how beautiful it looks to us, whether the wife and mother is svelte and dressed in bespoke outfits, or a little rounder and softer and dressed in what a young family can afford off the rack; whether the dad has royal blood or is just a salt-of-the-earth honest bloke.
Now, speaking of honesty, I have to say that I cannot feel the same or think the same about the picture presented by two gay men and the baby girl they brought to a playdate with Prince George on Tuesday. The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, a Kiwi institution which looks after the health of young children, was entrusted with the task of inviting 11 representative sets of parents with babies around George’s age to the intimate event, and I suppose it was inevitable, given our legislature’s embrace of same-sex marriage last year, that gay parenting would be endorsed in this way.
The media, instructed not to “make an issue of it” naturally gave the trio a special mention in the news. They were two decent looking men with a healthy looking baby girl, one of them bouncing her mother-like in his arms, but no, the image did not work the intended magic for me. It made me sad and indignant. Why should this little child be deprived of her mother? Nothing those men can do for her can replace the intimate bond between a mother and baby, or the uniquely maternal love for a child of whatever age. Is one of the men her natural father? If not she is doubly orphaned, and doubly wronged. She has been treated as an object of adult desire, not as a subject with the right to exist in a natural family.
Prince William at a state reception last night spoke of New Zealanders’ warm-heartedness, generosity, progressiveness and modesty. I’m afraid one of things is subverting the others, at the expense of our children.
The same spirit of hubris drives scientific experiments such as three-parent embryos, as Jill Burcham highlights in her intriguing exegesis of a Nathaniel Hawthorne tragic story of obsession, “Rappacini’s Daughter”. Oh, but, the designer embryos are for the greater good of society, the scientists say.
Well, for an answer to that line of argument, read Michael Cook’s article on horrendous experiments carried out by Japanese doctors at Harbin, during World War II – and the way they were excused. Once we start seeing other human beings as means to an end there is no limit to the evil any of us can do, and justify.
It’s not uncommon to hear that the early Fifties was a cultural desert. All it had was Perry Como, Betty Crocker, Hopalong Cassidy and suburbia oozing out from cities like The Blob (Steve McQueen’s first film). Pretty unfair, I think.
Especially in view of the fact that 1954 – 60 years ago -- was an annus mirabilis in cinema, as Ronan Wright reminded me with his homage to Dial M for Murder in this week’s MercatorNet. It’s hard to think of a single year in which so many astonishingly humane works of genius appeared.
In the United States there was On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s film about corruption, courage and conscience. Alfred Hitchcock directed another film that year, Rear Window, a brilliant mix of claustrophobia, paranoia and suspense.
But Italian and Japanese directors were even better. 1954 was the year ofLa Strada, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece about a brutal and heartless circus strongman (Anthony Quinn) who buys a young woman (Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina) to be his helper. It’s an unbearably poignant film about love, friendship and the value of every human life. True, it is sombre and heart-wrenching, but it is my second favourite film.
And it was also the year of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, my all-time favourite. It’s Shakespearean in its range of human experience -- courage, love, nobility, generosity, leadership, pride in work -- the absorbing plot and the brilliantly realised characters. Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff was released in 1954, a film which, to tell the truth, I have never seen -- but it is acclaimed as one of the cinema’s finest achievements. It is at the top of my “must see” list”.
I look forward to the day when the cinema recovers its humanistic genius. Today it competes with games, television and the internet, none of which favours a more reflective, meditative approach to art. Technically, contemporary films are superb (with such huge budgets they ought to be), but rare is the one that touches the heart. But perhaps I’m too pessimistic. Send us your suggestions.
There are a lot of very gloomy stories in the news this week. Another shooting at America’s biggest military base, Fort Hood, ending with three innocent people dead, plus the suicide of the shooter. The CEO of the internet search engine Mozilla forced to resign because he donated $1000 to a campaign to protect natural marriage. The search for the doomed Malaysian Airlines passenger plane and the 239 people on board continues to be fruitless.
But there is a good news story which could make an intriguing film. In 1970, thieves brazenly stole two paintings, one by Paul Gaugin and one by Pierre Bonnard from a private home in London. Nowadays they are worth about 30 million Euros. But they left them on an Italian train – not exactly Pink Panther stuff!
Nicolo, a worker in a Fiat factory who had an eye for beauty spotted them at a lost property auction. “Rubbish,” the auctioneer told him. He scooped them up for the equivalent of 22 Euros and hung them on the wall of his kitchen in Turin and, when he retired, in Sicily.
One day his son realised that they might be the real deal. He asked art dealers. “Rubbish,” they told him. Only after he insisted did the Italian Art Police (we don’t have these in New Zealand) take him seriously and take the paintings away. Now Nicolo wants them back. The original owners died without heirs and he paid a fair price for them. Aren’t they his?
I’m with Nicolo. For 40 years he admired those paintings every day. He must have known every brushstroke, every shade of colour. Not out of snobbery, not because they were hanging on a museum wall. Just because they were beautiful. Why shouldn’t they belong to a real connoisseur?
There's a lot to read today so I'll leave you to it. Enjoy.
Surfing the web is a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s a big responsibility; otherwise, I’m quite sure, half of the pages on the internet would never get read.
Sometimes, however, you discover real gems, such as the New York Post’s account of the life and early death of Elizabeth Joice, a New York woman who refused to have chemotherapy when she was pregnant. It’s not a story which interested the New York Times (although it did run a fine feature on the lingering death of French cuisine).
I wonder where people like Elizabeth get their courage. She came from a rough background, raising herself after her mother died and her father shot through. She had been living with her boyfriend for a couple of years when she discovered that her body was riddled with cancer. He disappeared into the kitchen, emerged with an engagement ring made of tinfoil and proposed on the spot. They married soon afterwards. To their surprise they soon discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant.
Her doctors told her that she could either have a termination and chemotherapy or a baby and risk her life. She desperately wanted to bring new life into the world and to give her husband Max a child, so she took her chances. On January 23, her daughter Lily arrived; on March 9, Elizabeth died.
It’s the natural generosity and cheerful courage of mothers like Elizabeth Joice which reveal what children are all about. They don’t come into the world as therapy for their parents’ problems but as precious gifts. They are worth the ultimate sacrifice. I only wish the media would feature more such stories of hidden heroism.
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At the end of the working week, as it already is Down Under, I find myself thinking about two experiences during the week that highlighted the value and importance of work. The first occurred at the local service station where I stopped to fill the car with petrol – or rather, where a young woman doing forecourt duty filled it for me.
She was smiling and almost skipping as she went to do the job, and when I observed that the wind had turned cold she wriggled with pleasure and said how she was looking forward to winter because you could put lots of clothes on. I think if she had been working in the pouring rain she would have found a way to enjoy it.
What had boosted her happiness that day was the news that she had scored a full-time job with the company, which had taken her on trial. She was thrilled to bits about having a real job, even if it was pumping gas. I asked if she had any other plans. Yes, she had applied for the Navy and was accepted but had to wait another year, being too young. She obviously relished the thought of that career move.
I’m sure that girl was typical of her age-group, wanting to work, to take responsibility for herself, to build up a skill, a career, a future. A society that cannot provide employment for its young people, as most now do not, is doing them a terrible injustice. Shannon Roberts’ Demography post today touches on this.
My other insight into work began to unfold yesterday when I became aware of the buzzing of a chainsaw in the neighbourhood. When I finally looked (and I had a grandstand view from several windows) there was a fellow working his way up a very tall Norfolk pine about three doors down, systematically cutting off its straight, radiating branches. He had gone far enough to make it obvious that the whole tree was coming down.
Normally I’d be appalled at the disappearance of a large tree, but Norfolk pines are somewhat out of place in the burbs, I think, and for elegance the workman certainly had the edge. With nothing more than his own body, some ropes, a simple harness and his chainsaw he systematically worked his way to the top, using a handsaw for the last branches, until there was just him against the slender top of the trunk, silhouetted against the sky. Then, using the branch stumps as footholds he made his way down, cutting the trunk as he went.
It was an impressive display of skill – and nerve – as good as any acrobat in my (limited) experience of the latter. How marvellous, I thought, that there are men who take on such necessary but dangerous work, turning it into an art and something really worth looking at. How grateful we ought to be to those who do all the dangerous stuff that makes the rest of life possible.
I said “men” deliberately back there, although I suppose there are women who would be prepared to take on such work, given that we now know girls can do anything. Whether it is rational or at least desirable that they do is open to question. Can’t there be some things that just men do, and other things that just women do – unless there’s an emergency, when it’s all hands on deck? What’ the harm in a little sex role (or “gender” role, if you must) differentiation to keep things interesting?
If you think that’s a provocative question, wait till you read Michael Kirke’s piece on a book for young women by Italian journalist Costanza Miriano whose title translates as “Marry him and be submissive”. Enough said.
One last thought on the male-female role thing: Stalinist Russia beat the West to “liberating” women from their familial role and the family there is still recovering from the damage done. Read Pavel A. Parfentiev’s most interesting history of the Russian family in the 20th century.
Today’s newsletter is devoted to public service announcements. The first is to alert you to our new blog on social media and the virtual world, Connecting. The editor is Denyse O’Leary, a journalist, author and blogger who lives in Ottawa, in Canada.
The world of social media has become such an important part of our lives so quickly that we need to ponder its impact upon us. We want Connecting to give guidance about how to react to innovation; how to cope with intrusive and dangerous aspects of social media; how to detect how it is changing our notions of privacy and personal identity -- and lots more.
Denyse is a talented and experienced writer with plenty of flair. Pass on your suggestions for stories to her. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure that you subscribe to the regular updates from Connecting. Tell your friends on Facebook.
The other announcement is the Grand Launch of MercatorNet’s iPhone app. There’s a link on our home page, but you can also click here to reach the Apple store. After a long gestation and a difficult delivery, the app is ready for download onto your phone or iPad. We’ll be developing an Android app as well. We need feedback!
Yesterday was World Happiness Day. Today is World Down Syndrome Day. The juxtaposition is coincidental, I think, although the date of the latter is no accident since in much of the world the 21st of March can be shortened to 3/21, representing the extra chromosome that causes trisomy 21. And we have three articles on the subject, for good measure.
Coincidence it may be that the relatively new “feast” of WDS Day rubs shoulders with the even newer global feast of happiness, but it is very fitting all the same, because “Downs” are famously happy people. As Mary Le Rumeur says in her upbeat piece about a younger sister with Down, “Rose shows us that you can be happy with simple things in life.”
Not only happy (though they surely have their down moments) but affectionate and funny, able to enjoy a bit of joke and kid others along. Despite their intellectual and physical disabilities, these brothers and sisters of ours are able, in varying degrees, to become literate, to work and even to live independently in some cases. Modern medicine is able to help them with various physical problems and drugs are being developed which may help their brains.
But here we run into a sort of schizophrenia in the medical world: while one lot of scientists are working hard on remedies and cures, another lot are working flat out on tests to detect DS with greater efficiency prenatally, solely to encourage mothers to get rid their unborn child if it is affected. And, tragically, most of them take that advice – which is what it is.
It is not kind to make light of the serious limitations that Down syndrome brings, but it is cruel to create a social environment where it is regarded as a fate worse than death. It makes things even harder for parents like Christopher Blunt, who writes about the grief that overwhelmed him when his newborn daughter was diagnosed with trisomy 21. At the same time his experience offers tremendous encouragement for other parents in his position, as you can read for yourself.
Happily, in fields like this where human dignity and human life are under siege, there will always be doctors who resist the trend. The outstanding example at present, to my mind, is Dr Brian Skotko, who co-directs the Down Syndrome Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Having a sister with Down inspired this brilliant young man to dedicate himself to research and treatment of the condition, a mission he pursues with awesome energy and an obvious love of his patients. Go to the article, watch the video and read the short interview he did with us. You won’t be sorry.
I have been mesmerised by the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on its way to Beijing. After a massive search by a score of nations covering much of the China Sea, the Indian Ocean and Central Asia not a trace has been found. Without the corpus delicti, it’s impossible to say what happened. Alien abduction seems unlikely, but most of the other theories sound nearly as strange. Nothing remotely like this has ever happened in aviation history – with the possible exception of Flight 19 in the Bermuda Triangle.
If it was an attack by terrorists, why haven’t they gloated over their success? If the pilot or the co-pilot used the Boeing 777 to commit suicide, why did it continue flying on for hours? Besides, the two men seemed psychologically stable. The only black mark against the pilot seems to be that he supported rebel politician Anwar Ibrahim – but in my book, that is a sign of good sense, not derangement. If the plane suddenly lost pressure, why was it deliberately turn off course?
Perhaps the reason why the world has been so fascinated by the fate of the 239 passengers and crew aboard MH370 is that it has once again exposed the folly of believing that systems and technology work infallibly without the intervention of human virtues and vices.
We thought that passport controls worked, but two poor Iranian asylum seekers managed with stolen passports to get seats on the plane. All civilians believe that planes are being tracked day and night by radar and satellites. But this is not true; MH370 vanished into thin air. Some aviation writers say that it is possible, though implausible, that the place could have avoided radar and flown to a location in central Asia. The famous black box may not contain satisfactory answers – if we ever find it, that is – because it records only the last two hours of cockpit conversation and data – and the plane kept flying for hours after it veered off course.
We keep building systems to remove human error or to avoid its consequences, but the human factor keeps coming back. Jetliners are remarkably safe, but there can be no protection against a pilot who wants to kill himself. In the end, our safety, even our survival, depends on the integrity of millions of men and women who conscientiously put in a good day’s work.