Nelson Mandela has died – may he rest in peace – and the world is paying its last respects and tributes. I have written a few thoughts but have spent much longer today reading about a man, a good and great man, whom I have seen more of than read about before.
Mandela’s face is part of the political imagery of the 20th century – and what a wonderful face it is. I have commented on his smile, and you only have to Google up a page of images to see how consistently he wore it, and how naturally his face seemed to crease into those good-humoured, relaxed lines. All leaders try to smile, but not all succeed in convincing us that all’s right with the world. What a blessing Madiba’s personality and his forgiving character have been for South Africa, and for the world.
One thing I didn’t mention in my article but has often occurred to me in recent times is the amazing fact of Mandela’s longevity. The hardships of his 27 years in prison, part of it at least spent in hard manual work, did not shorten his life. It is tempting to use the cliché, What doesn’t kill you… , and it does seem to be true of Mandela that suffering made him stronger. Today’s wisdom is that suffering must be avoided at all costs, and somehow it seems to be making us weaker.
True to form I am running very late with this newsletter and in danger of turning into a pumpkin. Time to sign off, then, hoping you enjoy our smorgasbord of articles covering everything from the latest PISA rankings to the Pope.
It is rather late and I have run out of puff. No ideas. At all. When this happens, I open the comments page and delete our accumulated spam.
Most spam has a purpose. Comment spam contains links to websites. These vary in odour from you-know-what to insurance, holidays, and even grammar checkers. The more of these backlinks a site has, the higher it ranks in search engines and the more traffic it will get.
It’s always easy to sift comments from spam because spammers have far too much to do to compose thoughtful observations. The lazy ones just bang in a word like “nice” or flattering remarks like “I love this blog” and hope that it passes the moderator.
The harder working ones seek to be relevant without actually reading the article. There is a certain talent required for this and I think that it needs to be acknowledged. Tonight’s honourable mentions among the deletions range from the baffling to the hallucinatory:
Many great ideas go unexecuted, and many great executioners are without ideas. One without the other is worthless.
Thanks for the post. The obvious things are the ordinary things, and we have forgotten them. The modern world that we have created. Keep up the good work and keep posting. You are doing a superb job. Body piercing jewellery.
Wish on everything. Pink cars are good, especially old ones. And stars of course, first stars and shooting stars. Planes will do if they are the first light in the sky and look like stars. Wish in tunnels, holding your breath and lifting your feet off the ground.
I thank God I don’t have to wade through this stuff, and you should, too, if you are addicted to reading our comments. And I also thank our comment editors, Tim Lee, here in Sydney, and Sue Alexander-Barnes, in England, for their patience and gimlet eyes.
There’s a letter from the New Zealand government sitting on my desk awaiting a reply. To be precise, it is from the Electoral Commission and is actually just a voting paper prefaced by some simple instructions. I am invited to tick Yes or No to the question: “Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?”
This referendum on the Government’s asset sale programme was initiated by the Left who got over 327,000 Kiwis to sign the petition to Parliament after the sell-down was started. As someone who bought a few shares in a powerco during the first float of publicly owned assets a while back, I don’t feel in a strong position to oppose this round. Also, with government debt growing by billions every year, we the people either have to invest more or be taxed more and, personally, I’d rather have a choice of how to spend my spare cash.
The whole thing, by the way, is a very expensive ($9 million) opinion poll because the results are non-binding and the Government has already said it won’t change its policy. Of course, if the No's win, it at least means that they can throw the results back in the face of John Key and his mates for ever after.
On that basis, the referendum I really wanted to see was on the same-sex marriage bill sprung on us by the lefties last year (unlike the asset sales policy, which was part of National’s election platform), but without the political parties’ organisation and coffers to draw on we could not get enough signatures. The need for a referendum was actually debated in Parliament but the politicians promoting gay marriage were dead against the populace having a say -- and they are the very ones who want a popular vote on who owns the power stations and so on. As if the price of electricity were more important than the future of marriage.
We’ve got some great ordinary blokes (and blokesses) in NZ, though – like Dale Williams, who as mayor of a small town called Otorohanga turned a situation of youth unemployment, crime and flight to the cities into one of virtually full employment in a few years. Watch the video of his TED talk on the front page.
Three of our featured articles today deal with the family from various angles. Robert Carle affirms the rights of teens and their parents to access psychological counselling that accords with their own values. Paediatrician Michelle Cretella points out that family ties and not condoms protect young people from sexual misadventure. And Ignacio Socias writes about the efforts of a large group of family organisations around the world to ensure that the family is, at last, given the recognition it deserves in national and international politics.
Having been raised in the United States, I have fond memories of Thanksgiving, which Americans will be celebrating on Thursday. Most of these revolve around food, lots of food. The more love, the more food, was the watchword. What distinguished our Thanksgiving cuisine was not so much turkey as vast numbers of pies. This was something that visiting Briton Hilaire Belloc noted in one of his poems:
In Massachusetts all the way From Boston down to Buzzards Bay They feed you till you want to die On rhubarb pie and pumpkin pie, And horrible huckleberry pie, And when you summon strength to cry, "What is there else that I can try?" They stare at you in mild surprise And serve you other kinds of pies.
Does this tradition continue? I hope so.
Anyhow, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the first nationally proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. In the middle of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln found eloquent and heartfelt words to “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
Thanksgiving for what, you might reasonably have asked at the time. Thirteen weeks before, the Battle of Gettysburg had ended with 50,000 casualties. It was a Union victory and the beginning of the end, but that was hardly clear at the time. Two weeks before, the Battle of Chickamauga had ended in a Confederate victory at the cost of 35,000 casualties. They were days of great sorrow.
So, while Lincoln acknowledged “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, he went further and gave thanks to his God for the chance to do “humble penitence”. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” he wrote in the proclamation. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
The other day President Obama described his predecessor as “this quintessentially self made man”. I wonder if Lincoln would have recognised himself in this phrase. He knew better than anyone that it is not the “striving spirit” alone which has made America great. As he said in his First Inaugural Address, it is “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land”.
Let President Obama take note: Thanksgiving only makes sense if there is someone to thank for the food and fellowship.
We’ve posted quite a few stories so far this week. Here are some highlights.
Margaret Somerville has been attacked in recent days as “simply a mouthpiece for the Roman Catholic Church”. She disagrees, strongly, and explains why. I’m not impressed with a cockamamie plan dreamed up by some Oxford academics for solving disastrous romances.
Natalia Churikova reminds us of the Holodomor, the ghastly Ukrainian holocaust, which happened 80 years ago. And Lorna Tilley, an Australian archaeologist describes how a group of Neolithic Vietnamese cared for a severely disabled young man thousands of years ago. They put some of us to shame.
It’s “Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated?” time again – and with a certain solemnity on this fiftieth anniversary of the shocking event. It is a question Baby Boomers love to ask as it takes us back to our youth and is a chance to show that we have not been overtaken by Alzheimer’s yet. Those born yesterday will have to be patient with us; eventually that question will die a natural death.
As a matter of fact I do remember. It was Saturday morning and we were having breakfast at our small convent boarding school when the mother superior came in and solemnly relayed the news. I won’t pretend that I recall any more than that, but it’s likely that we felt genuinely sorry. President John F Kennedy was not only the Most Powerful Person in the World, he was a Catholic and RCs the world over basked in his reflected glory. Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Pope John XXIII – all were eclipsed by the handsome president and his lovely wife, the perfect family, in the White House. Camelot.
The intervening decades have cast various lights over that idyllic picture and the character of JFK. No-one is perfect. I have read a couple of articles today that still cast him in a heroic light, but Alistair Nicholas in MercatorNet makes a rather different assessment. In fact, two writers who died on the same day as Kennedy in 1963 may have left more lasting legacies.
As Michael Cook points out, Aldous Huxley warned us graphically about the people we have collectively become, while C S Lewis, writes Michael Coren, “has converted numbers beyond counting to Christianity and continues to be read by millions.”
I hope you enjoy our November 22nd anniversary trilogy -- and the rest of our varied bill of fare.
It is overcast, drizzling, and damp at the moment, but last week I could have sworn it was summer. The tell-tale signs were there on the City streets: cicadas, Christmas tinsel everywhere, no one wearing a tie, and saffron-robed devotees chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, as they danced in a conga line down George Street.
I was on my way with a friend to a lunchtime talk on power dressing and I started brooding that Hare Krishna clobber is a far better fit for Sydney summers than pinstripes.
It was less stressful than I expected. Roger Shamoun, the creative director at Zimma Tailors, has a very sensible philosophy: “There are no rules. Try it and if you like it, do it.” In question time, I told him that my fashion icon was Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook. A cloud passed over Roger’s face and he said that Silicon Valley was a blight on the fashion industry.
Anyhow, it wasn’t a waste of time: I learned that polka-dot ties don’t go with striped shirts. I’m afraid that power dressing is a galaxy far, far away for me. The other day, when I was in church, an elderly Chinese fellow tapped me on the shoulder with some helpful information: “Your coat. Bird crap.” I quickly peeled it off and he was spot on. Or rather I was. The theme of the lunchtime talk was dress for success: I had scored a bullseye.
There’s lots of good reading below. Browse/click/read. But an essential feature is The New Asian Tiger can cope, by Filipino economist Bernie Villegas. After the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, the impression you get from the media is that the Philippines is a basket case. Not so: with a 7.5% growth rate and a renaissance in manufacturing under way, the Philippines is a rising economic star.
Sometimes the unfairness of the world is too much. This week, while Filipino survivors of Typhoon Haiyan were dying because relief could not be got to them, plutocrats were bidding at auctions in New York and Geneva for two paintings and two gems that sold, collectively, for US$365 million. That was far more in cash terms than the world’s governments had pledged by day six of the Haiyan calamity.
I know that access has been the problem in getting help to the suffering Filipinos this week rather than money, and that the country’s rickety political system, is partly to blame; but the contrast between luxury trophy trading in the world’s glamour cities and the desperation of millions of homeless, hungry, sick and dying victims of Haiyan made me angry. It strikes me as symptomatic of the way of the world in general.
Tying up hundreds of millions of dollars in art works -- or, shall we say, in artefacts of dubious merit (Francis Bacon weirdness and Andy Warhol pop art) -- and jewels is just plain wrong in view of the extreme poverty that still afflicts so many of our brothers and sisters in the global village. Think of the local infrastructure and self-help schemes $300 million could fund in the Philippines and elsewhere.
Yes, there’s corruption to contend with in the poorer countries, many politicians and officials syphoning off public funds to line their own pockets, and others following suit. But when it comes to me-first behaviour the templates all come from the rich countries. Philanthropy is all very well, but it would be better to give the developing world models of personal restraint, fair business and wages, fair trade and an ethic of genuine public service – and not build up fortunes to squander on ugly fashion items in the first place. (For a fine critique of the cult of Francis Bacon see this essay in The New Republic.)
Having got that off my chest I want to highlight, the wonderful Tale of Two Survivors of Haiyan featured on our front page. In the teeth of the typhoon, a man and boy survive, because they have each other. Let’s continue to do what we can for all those suffering in the aftermath.
It’s difficult to read about the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has brought to the Philippines: more than 10,000 dead, hundreds of thousands homeless. I have friends with relatives in Tacloban. With all communications severed, they have heard nothing and they fear the worst. It may have been the most powerful typhoon ever to make landfall.
The first response to this calamity is "climate change". The Filipino negotiator at a UN-sponsored climate change summit in Warsaw plans to go on a hunger strike to focus the minds of the other delegates.
But the question that he really should be asking is why the island of Leyte wasn’t better prepared for this ferocious storm.
Ultimately the answer is poverty but an important element is corruption. As Maria Paz Mendez Hodes, a Filipino journalist, points out, the government is reactive in the face of natural disasters, rather than pro-active. “The country desperately needs spending on preventive infrastructure. Hence the anger when a pork barrel scam funnels key funds away from those projects, resulting in a deadly nexus of geography, poverty and government inaction,” she writes.
In the days ahead, there will be plenty of people calling for action on climate change after Typhoon Haiyan. But that’s not what people living in the world’s most disaster-prone country need most. Regularly buffeted by typhoons, volcanic eruptions, floods and earthquakes, what Filipinos need most is an efficient, forward-planning government where disaster funds don’t dribble into the pockets of corrupt politicians. That will save far more lives than carbon trading schemes.
A starling has made its nest under our roof. We can hear it fossicking around as we stand at the kitchen bench and also watch it flying countless missions across to the shrubbery to gather twigs and dry grass for the nest. I suppose this means that there is a repair job to be done up there when the breeding cycle is over, but in the meantime it is edifying and rather touching to watch this avian mother so diligently preparing for what comes naturally to her: having babies.
The same applies on a larger scale to the ducks that inhabit the neighbourhood. We are close to a river, which would be the natural place for our web-footed friends to hang out, but over the years new residents have taken to feeding the creatures so you find them in the garden and at the back door. The improved diet seems to be responsible for their producing several broods a year and it is not uncommon to see a mother duck with 12 to 18 fluffy little chicks toddling after her.
The high birthrate compensates for the loss of quite a few. For one thing the mothers take their families over roadside drain grates; they just don’t get that small chicks can drop through. But otherwise mother ducks are as protective as any. Even their offspring seem to have an instinct to look after each other. On a recent walk I noticed a bunch of ducklings in a small hollow in the grass verge. My arrival unsettled them and as they moved I realised that there were three of different sizes: two larger ones and, snuggled between them, a little runt, which burrowed in again as they resettled.
This bit of nature study has been prompted by several articles on MercatorNet this week that suggest human beings are losing not only their instinct for building nests and families, but also their reason.
Demography posts revisit Hong Kong, South Korea and Russia, which all have critically low birth rates. In Asia, especially, economic policy, city planning and investment decisions that drive up the price of housing (and reduce living space – a 400-square-foot flat is about standard in Hong Kong, apparently) combine with women’s career aspirations and an intensely competitive education market to increasingly push babies – and marriage -- off the agenda entirely. In North America, writes Lea Singh on Family Edge, a website canvassing the pros and cons of having a third child gets thousands of hits a month. It’s a big deal. (Meanwhile in Belgium all some people can think about, it seems, is killing people off.) It’s high time politicians and governments -- Norway has seen the light -- put the family front and centre – or we’ll wind up as a planet for the birds.
There’s lots of things to chew over in our features, too. Happy reading.
PS Our fundraising appeal is going well. Sorry to pester you, but please consider whether you can contribute something to this effort for human dignity.
Today is a holiday -- only in Melbourne officially, but rest of the country has taken the afternoon off to watch the Melbourne Cup, “the race that stops a nation”, as every radio commentator, without a single exception, describes it. As usual, someone high up enrolled me in the list of the nation’s biggest losers. My money was on Masked Marvel at 35:1. I should have known better, at it had placed 13th at the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley.
It was Fiorente by a neck, a fairy tale ending for Gai Waterhouse, the first female trainer to win the Cup. She is a stylish and vivacious woman who feels at ease in the goofy hats that women wear in the Spring Racing Carnival. A real media darling.
I discovered in the pre-race publicity that Gai is a National Living Treasure, an award for “exceptional Australians with substantial and enduring accomplishments in their field”. This was a bit surprising, as she has only won the Cup once and Bart Cummings, the other NLT who is a trainer, won it 12 times.
But good on her – racing identities employ lots of people. But I wish that the list of living treasures included Australians like Nick Capozziello, whose story is highlighted in Carolyn Moynihan’s interview below. He is a 33-year-old American fellow with severe cerebral palsy who struggles through life with great dignity and courage without complaining. Some of his words really made me think about the disabled: “I sometimes wonder why God put me on this earth the way I am. It feels like He doesn’t answer me, but I never get angry at God because if I didn’t have cerebral palsy I would be a different person.”
Guys like him are the ones who have truly “substantial and enduring achievements”. They are everywhere but they’ll never appear on the evening news. To use a sturdy Australian idiom, their blood’s worth bottling.