I think my only encounter with Byzantium, growing up, was learning some stanzas of G K Chesterton’s epic poem about the Battle of Lepanto (1571). We actually recited them aloud, as we did many poems in those days, and consequently I have never forgotten the opening lines: “White founts falling in the courts of the sun, / And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run…” No-one, as I recall, explained the intriguing image or much else about the poem other than the fact that it was about a Catholic victory over the Moslems. Still, its unforgettable rhythm, images and sounds are occasionally evoked by some event.
It came to me today as I read the article written for us by Lars Brownworth, author of a book called The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilisation. He reminds us that there is a Christian “Byzantium” which has survived ancient schisms and Muslim domination, only to be driven out by the current upheavals in the Middle East. Thanks to ancient prejudices, however, the Western world apparently couldn’t care less that Christian communities dating back to the time of the Apostles are disappearing. This is a real tragedy and injustice; I wonder what GKC would have to say about it.
History rises up to rebuke us again this week in our excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr’s powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is 50 years this week since he wrote his defence of civil disobedience against unjust laws and, while racial segregation has ended, many people do not understand the natural law argument on which he based his defence. Indeed, a lot of intellectuals and political activists reject natural law completely – and so they are completely wrong when they claim the “civil rights” mantle for the campaign for gay marriage. And that’s all I have to say here about the stupidity and injustice New Zealand politicians inflicted on the country this week.
In other articles Patrick Stokes suggests a principle that should govern protests against the dead; Pat Fagan of the Heritage Foundation rolls out some of the data confirming the essential connection between the intact family and national prosperity; and Tim Lee backgrounds the imminent Malaysian elections.
Speaking of gold… You might have noticed we are running an appeal for funds right now. We need your support to continue our work -- we need to raise $30,000 this month to cover our costs until the end of the year. To help us battle on, please give whatever sum you can afford.
It’s hard to know what to say about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. So far three people have died and there are horrific injuries. Perhaps the best thing is to say nothing and pray for the killed and the wounded and their families. Trying to fit this tragedy into a prefabricated framework may feed the ego, but it makes you look like a jerk.
Exhibit A is Dan Bidondi, a writer for a conspiracy website who was the first to ask Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick a question at his press conference. "Is this another false flag attack staged to take our civil liberties?" To which the governor politely replied, No, and asked for the next question. But it gave Mr Bidondi a crack at appearing on TV and an excuse to tweet his notoriety.
It’s always best to wait for the facts. Whoever the bomber is, killing and maiming probably came second in his mind to spreading fear and hatred. Feverish speculation is a good way to lend him a hand.
So far this week we have posted three articles. Ronan Wright reviews a film from Argentina about priests working in a ghastly slum. It may be helpful in understanding the new Pope’s background. I have written an obituary of Robert Edwards, the investor of IVF. He died two days after Margaret Thatcher and he may have changed the world more than she did. And Carolyn Moynihan has given the New York Times a big F for its coverage of the abortion scandal in Philadelphia.
Finally Robert Reilly reflects upon the philosophical background to the push for same-sex marriage. It's a long article, but well worth reading.
You might have realised that we are in the middle of a fund-raising campaign. MercatorNet is free: help us keep it that way!
Carolyn Moynihan, who is taking a break this weekend, has interviewed a Harvard economist about the demographic freefall in Europe. It’s quite a fine piece and I recommend it. As a bonus it contains his fine characterisation of his colleagues: people who with a head for crunching numbers but who lack the personality to be actuaries.
I tried my hand at crunching numbers a while ago when I was writing an article about big families. It turned out, I seem to recall, that only about 25% of women of childbearing age had 3 or more children but they contributed more than half of the children. The future, in other words, belongs to children from big families. Demographers ought to pay more attention to this segment of the population. They will change the world…
As long as we are on this topic, Clare Horsfell, a new mum, has written a charming piece for Family Edge – the ten best things about life in a big family. It went viral on Facebook and has become one of the year’s most popular articles. Check it out here. Thanks, Clare.
Some of our other articles this week deal with the demography theme. I have reported about the “little emperor syndrome” in China. Researchers say not only that these children really are spoilt but that their self-centredness could eventually be a problem for the country’s economic development. Philippa Taylor reports from the UK about a development which opens the door to genetic engineering of children.
Darren Curnoe, an evolutionary biologist, asks why science journals devote so much space to discoveries of fossils of the ancestors of homo sapiens when there are so many other important issues to discuss. Finally, from London, Brendan O’Neill analyses why so many people are jumping on the same-sex marriage bandwagon.
The world is paying tribute today to Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain, who died yesterday. The Economist described her as a “blue-rinse Boadicea” (the British queen who rebelled against the Romans), a witticism which gives an insight into how much she was hated and admired. In some parts of the country she is still loathed as the tyrant who made a wasteland and called it peace. One miner told The Guardian that her legacy was “catastrophic” and “horrendous”.
But Winston Churchill was reviled, too, and he is acclaimed nowadays as the greatest of Britain’s prime ministers, just as Mrs Thatcher is being described as its greatest peacetime PM. She led her country out of decades of listless gloom and helped to restore it to its position as an economic, cultural and political powerhouse. In this issue, Peter Smith,Joanna Bogle and Lord David Alton weigh up her career and declare that the balance is positive.
"I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician," said Mrs Thatcher when she became leader of her party in 1975. Any public figure who dares to have convictions will have enemies. I wish there were more of them.
#margaretthatcher may have been the trending hashtag in London today, but not in Los Angeles, which is mourning #annettefunicello, who also died yesterday. No, I was neither a Mouseketeer nor a fan of Beach Blanket Bingo. But she always projected an appealing image. In reading her obituaries, I discovered that, unlike most other child stars, she didn’t flare and burn out. After navigating a few of life’s speed humps, she raised a family and lived out of the limelight.
It was her later years for which she ought to be remembered. Since about 1987 she battled with muscular sclerosis, which eventually left her unable to walk or talk. But she accepted her decline with a deep faith, good grace and patience. There are many roads to greatness. Maggie Thatcher took one; Annette Funicello took another.
Let’s not stop here: there’s more to read in this issue. Margaret Somerville asks why Canada’s prime minister refuses to debate sex-selective abortion and Jennifer Bryson argues that the West is losing opportunities to help the Arab world become more democratic.
They say there is no such things as a free lunch, but that’s not quite true. I have had several free lunches at a local eatery and it’s all thanks to our local (free) suburban newspaper. Every week The Western Leader runs a crossword competition and correct entries go into a draw for lunch for two at The Falls, an historic house in West Auckland turned into a restaurant.
My sister and a couple of friends religiously do the crosswords and post them off by Tuesday, winning over the last few years at least half a dozen lunches. Yet although the meals are free they are not completely unearned, since they involve research in some rather arcane fields of knowledge: television programmes of the 1980s, Rugby heroes of the early 20th century, colloquial names for New Zealand towns, obscure NZ rivers, winners of the Melbourne Cup (horses), celebrities unknown to people (us) who never watch local soaps, and so on.
This is where I come in, being the one detailed to find this information on the internet. And I must say that it is remarkably easy, thanks to Google. The search engine has never failed yet to fill in the blanks in the crossword. Thanks, Sergey Brin and everybody. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?
Of course, the net has its downside, as we all know. This week the NZ government introduced legislation to crack down on cyber-bullies and create a new agency to hear bullying complaints. That should help solve unemployment… Seriously though, kids have killed themselves after being persecuted online. But what is the answer? Izzy Kalman, a regular contributor and expert on bullying has some very practical advice for parents in one of our new articles – tips that don’t involve new government expenditure.
In other articles: Tracy Mehan points out that the idea that nature is unchanging and that man is a destructive intruder is now questioned by many ecologists. Paul Russell in Australia and Peter Ryan in Canada tackle aspects of euthanasia; and George Friedman explains why the United States will continue to grow in power on the world scene.
Our featured blog posts include fresh angles on Danish demography, African exceptionalism, polling in the US on same-sex marriage, and what Black pastors there are saying about that issue.
You might notice something new about MercatorNet’s home page. Selected posts from our blogs are appearing, together with the articles. We’ve felt for a long time that we need to showcase the blogs. We are quite proud of them but because of the way they are displayed, some readers don’t even know that they exist. It can be a bit discouraging for their hard-working editors.
So, as an experiment, some of the posts from Sheila Reports, Conjugality, Demography is Destiny, Family Edge, Reading Matters and Harambee will be displayed on the home page. I hope that they spark your interest in becoming regular readers.
Later in the year, we hope to roll out a completely new design for the website. Our aim is to display the rich content better and to make MercatorNet easier to share through social networks. We are in the business of promoting sound ideas about human dignity and we want the message to spread far and wide.
It has been a whole week since the last newsletter so the list of articles is long. With the gut-wrenching topic of child abuse in the news so often, this week we cover two scandals so big that films have been made about them. It turns out that both have major flaws in their arguments. Read Ronan Wright on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, and Sean Murphy on how the Catholic Church handled an abuse case in Wisconsin.
Francis Phillips reviews a history of forgotten Russian aristocrats. John Tirman decries a lack of sympathy for ordinary Iraqis and Afghans caught up in a ghastly war. Philip Sutton argues that the US Boy Scouts would be unwise to allow gay leaders in their ranks. Tristan McLindon says that getting married at 21 isn’t such a bad idea – he should know, as he just became engaged after a whirlwind courtship. And, for Easter, Peter Smith did a profit and loss statement on the creed which underpins Western culture.
Working on the internet is not conducive to structured, sequential thought, not that I have ever counted that among my talents. For instance, instead of fretting about Things That Matter, I have been brooding lately over something that has gnawed away at me for years. Why, when Hollywood is casting a truly sinister villain, do they recruit someone with a British accent?
This conundrum first reared its ugly head as I was watching that Bollywood classic, Lagaan. Words fail me in describing its splendid characters. But the one I enjoyed most was the tyrant Captain Andrew Russell, who actually twirled his ruddy handlebar moustache. Bad to the bone was that boy.
However, Bollywood had borrowed from Hollywood. Who is the most terrifying villain of all time? Surely it is Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Actually, Sir Anthony was even more bloodthirsty in Titus Andronicus, another Hollywood production about unhappy families, mutilation and cannibalism.
Then there is Alan Rickman in Die Hard, as a sophisticated and ruthless terrorist; Jason Isaacs in The Patriot, a sadistic Redcoat in the American Revolution; Ian McKellen as Magneto in X-Men. Even in animated features the bad guys have English accents. Remember Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, voiced by George Saunders?
What clinches my argument is the sadistic Brit in Cliffhanger, that 1993 epic starring Sylvester Stallone. But he was played by an American, John Lithgow. To paint the dastard doubly dark, an English accent was needed.
I am not the only one who has twigged to this. Oscar-winning English actress Helen Mirren said a while ago, “I think it's rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British. We're such an easy target that they can comfortably make the Brits the villains.”
Does anyone have any suggestions for putting an end to this offensive national stereotyping once and for all?
We have five articles so far this week as Easter approaches. Like me, Alastair Roberts laments the passing of Google Reader. Vincenzina Santoro expresses some scepticism about the success of the International Day of Happiness. Helena Adeloju complains that Facebook has let her down.
Today the US Supreme Court began hearing on two important same-sex marriage cases. Harvey C. Mansfield and Leon R. Kass, two distinguished American scholars, question the science behind the push for legalisation. And finally, Pedro Dutour dispels the smear about Pope Francis’s involvement in the Dirty War.
There will be no newsletter on Saturday. MercatorNet is taking a holiday over Easter. See you next week!
Last week I went to a social gathering which included a talk by a lady beekeeper, a flamboyant soul with layers of bright red and light blond hair which ensured that our attention never wandered far. In fact, there was no danger of that since bees, as most people at least vaguely intuit, are among the most fascinating of creatures. Their social organisation is simply mind-boggling as is their adaptation to circumstances (think of the worker bees that fetch water in hot weather and the others who fan the hive to keep it cool) and the food they produce for winter has delighted that plunderer, man, from time immemorial.
As always, when you look closely at nature, the question arises: could the highly complex and in many ways beautiful “society” of the hive be simply the product of blind evolutionary forces? Are bees, along with apes and humans, ultimately just matter in motion, just physics? How can that view of nature, apparently adopted by most of today’s evolutionists, account for consciousness (don't bees have it?) reason (a bit of that too?) and moral sense (just us, I think)? This, horribly simplified, is the subject of a book reviewed for us this week by David Gallagher. And before anyone groans, “Not another book from the creationists,” take note that the author, Thomas Nagel, a leading Anglo-American philosopher, is an atheist.
Of course we humans often take leave of our moral sense, reason and awareness to conform to the ethic of the hive (surplus queens have to be eliminated) when confronted with a person who seems useless to us. At least, that is what is happening with babies diagnosed prenatally with Down syndrome. As Mary O’Neill Le Rumeur wrote in her piece yesterday for World Down Syndrome Day, over 90 percent of these unborn children are aborted, with the encouragement of the health authorities. At the same time we get articles like this terrific one in an Australian paper that testify to the richness a child with Down can bring into a family. (I think the most charming faces I have ever seen have been like the ones with that article. Do have a look.)
Also in this issue: Chilean epidemiologist Elard Koch explains why his country and Ireland have among the best maternity outcomes in the world; Barbara Ray introduces an important new US report on the effects of delayed marriage; Laura Cotta Ramosino reviews the movie Oz the Great and Powerful; and George Friedman wonders whether Obama can repair Us-Israel relations.
You may be aware -- I hope so -- that we have a campaign running to up our number of Facebook fans to 5000 by the end of the month. Only a week to go and we are sitting on 2999! I did hope it would roll over while I wrote this newsletter but… Can you please give your FB friends a heads-up if you haven’t already? Thanks.
About six or seven thousand journalists from all over the world have been in Rome covering the election of Pope Francis and his installation ceremony, which takes place today.
What a pity that Morris West isn’t there to pontificate about the irrelevance of the Catholic Church. He died in 1999, but back in the 60s, he was a best-selling novelist, arguably the most famous (not the best) that Australia has ever produced. He wrote 25 or 30 books, with his special patch being a Church which he could neither love nor leave. But I must admit that some features of his international best-sellers were almost clairvoyant.
First there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in 1963, about a Slavic cardinal who becomes Pope (like Karol Wojtyla). Then there was The Clowns of God, in 1981, about a Pope who abdicates (like Joseph Ratzinger) so that he can wander around preaching a different gospel (not like B16). Then there was Lazarus, in 1990, about a foul-tempered and tyrannical Pope who gets all touchy-feely and updates the Church after a near-death experience on the operating table (ditto).
Finally, Eminence, his last completed novel, in 1998. This is the story of a cardinal from Argentina with an Italian background, who was tortured in the Dirty War, had a love child with the woman who nurses him back to health, and no longer believes in God. His fellow cardinals admire his sincerity in ‘fessing up to all this, and elect him anyway. But he declines and a Jesuit from Milan becomes Pope instead. So, in a way, Morris West did predict the election of an Argentinian Jesuit.
Nowadays West’s potboilers feel awkward and dated. Whenever he wrote about the Catholic Church, which was often to the point of obsession, his central theme was that it would collapse unless it changed its repressive views on sex. Well, recent Popes didn’t take West’s advice but, judging from recent scenes of young people in St Peter’s Square chanting “Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co!”, the Church is not collapsing. Instead it seems to be on the verge of a new springtime.
Morris West was a public relations apparatchik for the Sexual Revolution. It’s also a pity that he didn’t live long enough to take responsibility for the fall-out. That is something that MercatorNet is trying to do from time to time. This past week, when both Republic Ron Portman and Democrat Hillary Clinton have both endorsed same-sex marriage, we are running two articles on it. Carolyn Moynihan asks why can’t she marry her sister and Robert Reilly deals with the infertility argument.
Also, in this week’s newsletter is a review by Jennifer Roback Morse of a stunning book on how the sexual revolution has affected demographic trends. And finally, Margaret Somerville critiques the case for a commercial market in blood.
Yesterday I got a text from a nephew saying, “Pope Francis - Good choice of name.” Not because he is great fan of Francis of Assisi or popes (in fact he tends to give religion a wide berth) but because that is his son’s name. “Yeah,” I replied, giving him an opportunity I knew he would grasp, “a lot to live up to.” “Yep,” he returned, “I don’t know how the pope will manage.”
Actually, from all accounts Jorge Mario Bergoglio has managed extremely well to live up to his high calling so far and he inspires confidence in his ability to live up the superhuman demands of the papacy as well. He may have told his brother cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have done,” but I think the church, if not the world in general, will be thanking them as time goes on. And if the Latin Americans are happy, that’s an awfully good start. Anyway, in our house last night we drank a toast to the Pope from Argentina.
Caroline Farrow, a UK Catholic, is also enthusiastic. She predicts, “Pope Francis will be a pope of the people, leading the way forward by example in prayer and in a lifestyle of simple humility.” Michael Cook sees him as a pope who can begin to roll back the kind of secular humanism that wants to banish religion from the public square. (Michael wasn’t very successful with his predictions about papal names a couple of weeks ago, but I think he is really onto something here.)
In our other articles: Adam MacLeod and Andrew Beckwith look at new rules about gender for Massachusetts public schools which suggest that, if redefining marriage hasn’t made the sky fall in, cracks are certainly appearing in the firmament over that state; George Friedman explores the interesting hypothesis that there is method in North Korea’s madness; and my Q&A with Judi Vankevich, The Manners Lady, reveals a woman who is on a mission to civilise the world by mak\ing manners fun.