MercatorNet is a clearing house for good ideas and we like to feature great reading from our partner sites -- people who are on the same wavelength and deserve wider circulation.
One of those sites is a blog by Karl Stephan called Engineering Ethics. Don’t be misled by the four-square sounding name; Professor Stephan’s philosophical reflections on his profession (and lifelong passion) bring an attractive personal perspective to the often momentous changes in his field and the social issues that arise from them. He is a real thinker with a gift for writing.
In the piece of his we published today about the American electronics chain, Radio Shack, he recalls going to a newly opened store in his hometown of Forth Worth (the first Shack outside of New England) as a boy and being transported into the seventh heaven. This leads him into some interesting and important observations on hobbies, how to cultivate future engineers, and the value of spontaneous, grass-roots things – a bit like Radio Shack itself from his account.
Actually, the grass-roots are a bit of theme this week as several articles look at democracy from that angle. Earlier in the week there was Anthony Esolen’s article about what a “progressive” used to be – someone who defended the smaller units of society against being swallowed up by the greater. My article today, responding to an Economist essay about the current ills of democracy, deals with the same basic issue: recognising the authority of homes and communities. And David van Gend, an Australian doctor, recounts a personal brush with forces that want to extinguish free speech – and his spirited push-back against them. The video on the front page also happens to fit the theme.
Of all the other interesting items I'll highlight just one, and that’s Shannon Roberts’ blog post on the famous IVF specialist Lord Winston of Hammersmith, who is in New Zealand telling school students the most remarkable things about fertility. Remarkable because they are good advice and so unexpected coming from such an expert. Worth a read – and there’s a video link as well.
The story dominating the news is still Russia’s response to a turbulent Ukraine. It appears that President Putin has dispatched troops to Crimea to assist in a referendum about which country the residents wish to belong to. I suspect that the answer will be Russia, especially with all those balaclava-clad troops walking through the streets.
There is of course another side to the story, which can be read (thanks to the internet) on the Russian site Pravda (which means “the truth”). In the good old days, it was the official Communist newspaper and sold millions. Now it struggles to stay afloat. The on-line site is compelling reading. You can find articles like “Washington's Arrogance, Hubris, and Evil Have Set the Stage for War” and “Do Americans have compassion?” (the answer is No) along with some very seedy advertisements. Pravda has fallen among thieves in the post-Soviet era.
What I found surprising was that these savage attacks on the integrity of America, its allies, and the EU were not written by Pravda apparatchiks, but by cantankerous Americans. John Fleming, a freelance writer from St Louis, Missouri, writes “Look at them. Look at the unhappy, self-seeking uncompassionate Americans! Amidst a sick society of moral chaos and social disintegration, they drift aimlessly and recklessly from one sensation to the next in vain pursuit of peace of mind that lifelong proves elusive.” Etc, etc. Even in its heyday, I’m sure that Pravda seldom hit these high notes of exaggeration and distortion.
It’s a good reminder of how important it is to check on the credibility of one’s sources in learning about developments in other countries, especially the ones on the other side of a language barrier.
It is International Women’s Day again, but if the idea does not convulse you with joy and optimism you are probably quite normal. Pretty well every day is an occasion for some bigwig to utter a bromide like “Equality for women is progress for all” – the slogan for this year’s UN observance – and familiarity tends to breed, well, boredom. “Women’s rights”, “gender equality” – how deadening these abstractions are. One longs for something fresh and startling from our dear leaders, like, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” How totally revolutionary that idea has become.
Next week it will be business as usual in the corridors of female power, as both the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the European Parliament’s Commission on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality pursue the agenda Caroline Farrow critiques in her article today: “unless women are in the workplace, including in prominent positions, in the same proportion as men, they may never be deemed to have achieved true freedom or equality.” Repeated constantly for decades these manufactured ideals have had their effect and if you took a poll the majority of women (and men) might agree. But the decisions they make about their own lives (when they are free of serious social and financial pressures) tell us something else. Take a look around you -- and tell me what you see.
It’s amazing how some women’s rights campaigners overlook certain forms of injustice. I wonder, for example, whether the high-powered committees meeting next week will be brave enough to discuss, let alone condemn, the exploitation of women that Melinda Tankard Reist highlights in her piece on the burgeoning surrogacy industry.
Indeed, one has to be brave to hold out against these new trends that owe so much to the confusion about sexuality that has grown in recent times – not least because of the denial of real and legitimate differences between men and women. Same-sex marriage – something unimaginable to nearly everyone less than a dozen years ago, and completely insane – seems to be sweeping all before it. One can be tempted to think its victory inevitable and turn to negotiating terms of surrender.
But that is what such a pessimistic view is, a temptation, and one way to resist it is to read Michael Cook’s rousing argument against giving up the fight: "No white flag. Ever." It’s great stuff.
As I write, Ukraine is on a knife’s edge. Troops in unmarked uniforms have taken over military installations in Crimea. They are clearly Russian but President Putin insists that they must be local militia protecting local interests. There are rumours that Russia will invade Ukraine itself, which are, of course denied by the Russians. Editorial writers in the West are churning out denunciations of the sinister figure in the Kremlin and his shameless exploitation of Ukrainian weakness.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic with Ukraine in a showdown with the Russian bear. Why can’t it be left alone to stew in bankruptcy and political corruption? Now that its government leans toward the West and integration with the European Union, there seems to be a clear-cut case for supporting it and imposing tough sanctions on Russia.
But things are never as clear as they seem. The legitimately elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, seems to have been unconstitutionally deposed. He has run true to form as a greedy, mendacious, incompetent politician. But booting out a president seems an odd way to introduce the rule of law. Invading Crimea echoes Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or the US invasion of Iraq – but if a referendum is held, the locals may very well vote to join Russia rather than stay with Ukraine.
All countries in that part of the world have suffered incredibly in the past hundred years, with millions murdered, borders arbitrarily changed, millions of harmless civilians deported, religion crushed, insane economic policies which robbed the poor to enrich their rulers. It’s rash to support one side without understanding the history of the conflict. Rather than sending tweets, most of us need to consult our history books.
I have been reading and writing about marriage the last couple of days and the results can be found here. It is impressive how much scholarship and thought is going into the subject these days. Hardly a week goes by without a report or major article on the subject being highlighted in the mainstream press. You needn’t agree with all of it to value the effort to “save marriage”, as one scholar puts it.
For instance, you could get the impression from some experts that the so-called egalitarian marriage, where home and market roles are shared more or less equally between husband and wife, is the ideal to which most couples aspire. It turns out that when you really look at the data and ask people the questions, it is not. Find out what Brad Wilcox discovered through his research by having a look at my article – and his!
Also today we have a piece from Sean Murphy in Canada about the need to stand up for freedom of conscience – something that is developing as a major theme in MercatorNet. The state of democracy and a George Friedman analysis of the situation in the Ukraine are other leading topics.
Oh, and the most important news: as you will see from the Facebook gizmo at the right-hand side of the first article you read, MercatorNet has crossed the 5000 fan threshold and is 30 likes on the way to 6000. Thanks very much, and please ask your friends to give us another push.
People often ask me how I survive the bitter cut and thrust of office politics and still have time to put out MercatorNet. To tell the truth, there's not a lot of action around the MercatorNet water cooler, particularly at the moment while we slowly relocate to a different office.
However, as in every workplace, there can be subtle and hidden tensions. For example, one thing on which Carolyn Moynihan and I do not see eye to eye is the imminence of the Zombie Apocalypse. We tiptoe around the topic but I intuit that she believes that it is not very realistic and it's just not gonna happen, ever, period.
My feeling is that, well, we should never say "never" about Doomsday scenarios. I bet the guys in Pompeii were all saying, “Volcano? Shmolcano!” until it started raining ash. Whenever I go downtown on Friday evening, there are a lot of folks staggering around and acting erratically. Perhaps the zombies have infiltrated the financial district. It's always a mistake to be too categorical.
But there is a third way of looking at the Zombie Apocalypse: that it may not be real but that it is an effective metaphor for modern life. This is Zac Alstin's insight in this week's MercatorNet. Anyone interested in the future of the world as we know it should have a look. It's probably the finest analysis of the zombie craze that I have ever read.
As always, there’s lots of good reading below. If you haven’t liked MercatorNet yet, do it straight away. You could be the one who breaks the 5,000 barrier for us.
Animated films are not usually at the top of my must-see movie list. There has to be a wildly enthusiastic and persistent young person in the vicinity to persuade me to watch a movie about a pig, an ogre, a mouse or a lion – though I have seldom been disappointed when I did. This week I discovered a another reason to watch cartoons – especially if they have been made by Disney: it annoys a certain type of academic.
The folks at Family and Media, a European group on the same wavelength as MercatorNet, inform us in an article today that the said experts have done several studies which have convinced them (or, being convinced, have done several studies which confirm their convictions) that Disney films are too violent (have they seen Peter Jackson’s Hobbit?) foster gender role stereotypes (no Lion Queen), propose idealised beauty models (particularly irritating for ageing gender feminists) and project a narrow view of good behaviour (no drugs or sex?). Worst of all, the behaviour of characters is not "pro-social". Really.
However, if you are now wondering what on earth you can let your kids watch, be reassured. Carolina Canales and Norberto Gonzalez describe a well-designed study published last year that contradicts the PC crowd and confirms what you probably worked out for yourself already. But the details are worth a read – in case you run into someone who’s just been mugged by a media studies course.
As for other victims of the education system, you could refer them to Jeff Langan’s essay on what’s really causing the ecology crisis. Then there's Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal talking about the war on religious freedom in the US. We have reproduced the greater part of his recent speech on the subject, just because it is so refreshing to read such straight talk from a politician on what is -- after the problem of Disney films, admittedly -- the central public issue of our time.
And while we are on the topic of American politics: if you have not caught up with the news in Sheila Liaugminas’ post, you really must. It’s extraordinary; the Obama administration plans to send researchers into newsrooms around the country to find out from station owners and editors how they decide which stories to run. And here we were, thinking they were already doing their utmost to please the government. How much more toadying can there be?
Every month, wrapped with The Australian, a newspaper, which relishes controversy and maintains a reasonably high standard of journalism, comes a glossy magazine called Wishwhich maintains a high standard of conspicuous consumption. The paper is superb; the photography is superb; the content is luxury – watches, clothes, cars – which cost more than most people earn in a decade. It’s revolting. I treat it as pornography and rip it into very small pieces.
I realise that the Fourth Estate survives by pandering to the Second Estate, but it’s almost obscene to covet priceless status symbols when people are starving. Perhaps I’m in a bad mood, brought on by reading a report released today by a United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea.
It’s stomach-churning. So much so that the commission suggests that Kim Jong-un and his henchmen should be hauled before the International Criminal Court for systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to “Nazi-era atrocities”.
Well, actually, the commission is wrong on this point. It was standard operating practice for Stalin and Mao to use starvation to punish, control and exterminate. But three generations of North Korea's Supreme Leaders have refined the methods of their masters. As recently as 2012, more than 10,000 people reportedly died of hunger in a region which used to be called the country's breadbasket.
In the late 1990s, it was even worse. “It’s as vivid as if it happened yesterday,” one witness told the commission. “In one day, 80 people from [my neighbourhood] died. So many people died that we didn’t have enough coffins so we borrowed [traditional burial boards] to give them burials. We didn’t have any wood to even give tombstones. That’s how many people died.”
All food, officially, comes from the government, and it can be and is withheld, as a punishment, or simply to save money for more important things, like guns and cosmetics. According to the report, in 2012 the North Korean elite spent an estimated US$645.8 million on luxury goods. Perhaps they subscribe to Wish magazine.
It’s only fair to give the other side of the story, though. The North Korean Mission in Geneva, says that that the findings are “an instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.”
It is St Valentine’s Day but we seem to have missed the loveboat this year. Sorry to all you romantics out there. My excuse is that I have been hosting relatives from Ireland this week. Mary and Dennis (sister and brother) are second cousins, which is lucky, because it is about as far as my grasp of degrees of consanguinity reaches. Our grandfathers were brothers, born in the same house on the same family plot in County Kerry in the second half of the 19th century.
No, we are not that old. Large families and youngest children played their part in the saga, but it is slightly awesome to think that two steps back in the generations takes me to a forebear who was born in 1857-ish. Potato famines, the unspeakable English overlords and general hardship no doubt played their part in Matthew Moynihan’s emigrating to New Zealand, followed by several brothers and sisters. Only the youngest son was left back home on the farm.
But, like a few others from Down Under, I found my way there, and two of Mary’s daughters have found their way here at different times, so new connections have been forged and, well, it’s the gathering of the clan tomorrow and I must think about preparations.
There’s lots of good meaty reading in today’s articles. Read Michael Cook’s story about the other international organisation that is dragging its feet on child abuse. And Michelle Cretella’s rebuttal, based on mainstream scientific evidence, of the claim that professional sexual orientation change efforts are harmful. (Dr Cretella is the Vice-President of the American College of Pediatricians and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.) There’s also a very helpful review of Robert Reilly’s new book on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, and a hard-hitting essay on the “fifty-year fraud” that is the sexual revolution.
I nearly forgot that it is Chinese New Year, too. It’s too late to greet our Chinese neighbours but I will do so tomorrow. There are three generations living together next door, which I think is fairly common among Chinese immigrants. I do admire their sense of family – in spite of everything that might have worked to undermine it.
I trust that you are watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Most of the pre-games publicity in the English-language media has focused on Russia’s attitude towards gays. The great and good are falling over themselves to turn the event into a gay pride protest movement, as Carolyn Moynihan points out in her article.
This has been an irritating distraction from the grand spectacle of the games themselves. I see that the Netherlands has already won gold, silver and bronze in men’s speed-skating. Well done! Their country often cops a hiding in MercatorNet over some of its liberal social policies, so I am delighted to cheer them on.
But what I always find most interesting is the minor competitors. The Jamaican bobsleigh team is competing again this year. But they are veterans compared to 19-year-old skier Yohan Goutt Goncalves, from East Timor or Luke Henri Steyn, another skier from Zimbabwe.
Then there is Togo, an African country with no mountains, let alone snow. The Togolese Olympic committee contacted Mathilde Amivi Petitjean, a cross-country skier, and Alessia Afi Dipol, an alpine skier, through Facebook. They have grit. “We have come here to win medals, that’s a reality,” says the committee vice-president. “We have come here to dazzle the world and show what Togo is all about. We might not have everything but we are competing.” That’s the sort of can-do audacity we can all admire.
And sole competitor from the South Pacific island nation of Tonga, Fuahea Semi, is a rugby player who officially changed his name in 2009 to Bruno Banani as a marketing ploy for a German manufacturer of skimpy underwear. Bad taste? Yeah, but would a Tongan be able to finance a spot in the world’s most expensive Games any other way? A couple of hours ago he lost, but 32nd out of 39 is not bad for a Tongan luger. Way to go, Bruno!