After a three-day summit in Washington DC on countering violent extremism, today's newsletter focuses on the terrorist threat from radical Islam. Admittedly, it is hard to find the right words to describe the enemy. Even President Bush, who was blunter than his successor, was at a loss for words. "Some call this evil Islamic radicalism,” he said in one speech. “Others, militant jihadism. Still, others Islamo-fascism. Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.” Mr Obama, however, seems reluctant to link Islam with terrorism. Given the well-publicised atrocities committed by the Islamic State in recent weeks, I wonder if he still needs to be so fastidious.
There has been a dramatic retreat from marriage in the United States over the past 40 or so years. Non-marital childbearing, single parenthood, and family instability have all increased, but especially among less-well educated and poorer Americans. As Brad Wilcox, a familiar voice in MercatorNet, argues, this must be reversed -- if for no other reason than its economic consequences.
He points out that "the retreat from marriage is not the only factor contributing to negative economic outcomes in the nation, but it is one important factor that must be addressed if the United States seeks to reduce poverty and economic inequality, and to increase the odds that every man, woman, and child has a shot at the American Dream."
It is my pleasure to announce a new addition to the MercatorNet team: long-term contributor Zac Alstin (pictured) has officially joined our ranks as Associate Editor, and has from this week begun learning the ropes, incantations and IT mysteries that keep MercatorNet humming along from week to week.
Zac has a background in philosophy, a career history in Bioethics research and policy, and a penchant for quoting obscure Chinese sages. He lives with his wife Shannon and young son Eli in Adelaide, South Australia, from where he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion.
Zac has been a regular presence at MercatorNet since 2010, and with over 60 articles published there’s a good chance you’ve read at least one of his pieces and maybe even liked it!
We look forward to working with Zac in the coming year and hope you will join us in welcoming him.
Not long ago, the news that the Pope had said something off the cuff about breeding and rabbits and children swept through the world media. Lots of chuckles from talk-show hosts and a few grimaces from puzzled parents of large families. He was misquoted, as often happens. But he has more than made up for the gaffe in an address last week: "Not to have children is a selfish choice. Life is rejuvenated and acquires energy by multiplying: it is enriched, not impoverished!". Read Carolyn Moynihan's analysis here.
I haven't read too much about this in the media. However, when Europe discovers how desperately it needs large families, these words will seem prophetic. They ought to be taken to heart in Italy, where (as Marcus Roberts reports) the country's health minister said "we are a dying country". Apparently 2014 saw fewer Italian babies born than in any other year since 1861 when the modern Italian state was formed.
Yesterday, the Pew fact-tank tells me, was the 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. While not an official holiday (though that seems a distinct possibility), says Pew, “Darwin Day” has been adopted by scientific and humanist groups to promote everything from scientific literacy to secularism.
Pew’s article goes on to look at the state of belief in evolution, so to speak, in America compared with some other parts of the world. However, my mind wandered off to the question of what the great scientist would think of the state of our social evolution today in the light of a certain publishing phenomenon, and the movie spinoff launched in many countries, including mine, on Darwin Day. I believe Darwin was quite a moral sort of man; might he think he had made a mistake and that humanity was sliding back into the primeval swamp?
However it is Valentine’s Day that the film has really hijacked, and Family Edge editor Tamara Rajakariar, soon to be married, is pretty angry about that. "A real man trumps Mr Grey any day," she tells FSG author E. L. James – see her piece today.
Frankly, I am sick of hearing the name of this porn franchise, but such is its popularity and the excuses being made for it by mainstream journalists, and all the winks and nudges accompanying them, that one cannot ignore the thing. On the contrary, the public acceptance of FSG calls for strong light to be shone on its dark assumptions and the harm of accepting them. We have done a bit of this already but expect more on the topic next week.
Meanwhile, to all real lovers: take back Valentine’s Day!
Stephen Fry is a very funny man. I think the first thing I saw him in was a BBC film (series?) called Old Flames, in which he played a lovably pompous dimwit lawyer. He made a deliciously superior Jeeves in another series. I don't agree with his lifestyle - and I'm sure he would hate mine -- but when he is just being funny he is a joy to behold. It's when he is being serious that he makes me shake my head and say, Oh dear! That's what happened today when I watched a short clip of a recent interview on RTE in which he was asked about what he would do when he died and met God. But Fraser Field has a very chariatble comment to make about that, as you can see for yourself in the article we have posted today. Charitable, and correct.
The other piece I want to highlight is about the war in Syria. It's very complex and the place is so dangerous that major news media don't have correspondents there any more. But while the world is transfixed by the staged executions of Isis, there's another Syrian conflict dragging on -- one with a terrible death and displacement toll that has sunk out of view. Goodness knows what the answer is, but we shouldn't forget the chaos from which Isis sprang and which, no doubt, is feeding that monster.
I have spent most of my life innocent of one of the great controversies of psychology – the early 1960s experiments of Yale professor Stanley Milgram, which seemed to prove that most people would inflict severe and even lethal pain on a fellow human under the direction of an authority figure. Milgram’s conclusions have been used to explain atrocities from the Holocaust to the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
It seems that people have been quoting and arguing about his work for 50 years – in the first place the morality of even conducting the experiment, which pushed some people to the extreme of virtual murder, and in the second place over just what Milgram’s data showed. Evidently it can lead to the opposite conclusion – that most people will disobey inhumane orders.
The fact remains that many people do go against their instincts and conscience even to the point of killing. In the experiments of Milgram and, later, Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, the authority invoked was almighty Science; today it is more likely to be the claim that social values have changed. That is what we see unfolding in the euthanasia movement that the Canadian Supreme Court has affirmed this week.
Who will resist? Only those who are used to obeying their conscience no matter how much bullying they suffer from experts, or how tempting the cultural consensus is. This is very much the issue of the moment. I wonder if the new films about Milgram and Zimbardo that Kathryn Millard writes about, grapple with it.
To close – a seemingly esoteric but very important question: Could Thomas Cromwell, hero of Hillary Mantel’s celebrated novel Wolf Hall, have known that Pope Calixtus III excommunicated Halley’s Comet in 1456? If your answer is, Who cares? you need to read today’s article by Basilides Melchischyros.
Yesterday we published a modest scoop: a report on freshly-minted research showing that opposite-sex parenting is superior to same-sex parenting, "The no-difference theory is dead". It quickly became the most read article on the site and has attracted nearly 100 comments. If you haven't had time to read it, here's your chance.
However, cold statistics don't give the full picture. In today's MercatorNet, we present an open letter to a Supreme Court justice from the daughter of a lesbian couple. She loves her mom and her mom's partner, but she says that should would rather have grown up with a mom and a dad. "Have we really arrived at a time when we are considering institutionalizing the stripping of a child’s natural right to a mother and a father in order to validate the emotions of adults?" she asks. It is compelling reading.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have read in comments and articles: "not one single study has proved that children of gay parents fare worse than children of heterosexual parents. Not one." Sometimes the writer flexes his logical muscles and adds, "not one single one".
Disproving this is easy: just produce one single study. As we have done below. I think that MercatorNet is the first to report it. It is unlikely to put a stop to the debate, but it may influence the deliberations of the US Supreme Court on same-sex marriage.
The folly of judging the quality of novels by their popularity has never been starker to me. Yesterday we highlighted the runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, which, the publicists tell us, has sold 100 million copies since 2011. To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved 1960 novel about racism and justice in the American South, has only sold 30 million copies over the past 55 years.
However the latter has been an inspiration for two generations of American seeking reconciliation between blacks and white. The former, I predict, will sink back into the swamp of oblivion after its foetid bubble of fame has burst.
In 2006 British librarians asked which book should every adult read before they die. To Kill a Mockingbird came first, followed by the Bible and The Lord of the Rings. I am not sure if I would agree with that, to be honest. My choice would be Scoop, on the theory that one should die laughing. However, Harper Lee’s first-and-only novel has a deep humanity and narrative skill which makes it a modern classic.
Well, not exactly first-and-only, just first. The world learned recently that she is to publish a second novel, Go Set a Watchman, 55 years after her first, at the age of 88. Below Richard Gray discusses the excitement in the publishing world.