As someone who lives more than 18,000 kilometres, or 11,000+ miles, from her Queen (Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth) and is seldom troubled by anything she does, it was probably a bit rash of me to write today about the Spanish monarchy, which is just as far away and even less relevant to my life. But there is something irresistible about the idea that that there are still kings and queens other than Elizabeth in Europe and that they occasionally do something dramatic, like abdicate or ascend the throne.
The passing of the Spanish throne from King Juan Carlos I to his son Felipe VI is such an occasion, accomplished this week on the very day that the Spanish soccer team lost to The Netherlands – something that clearly was not meant to happen after their great win last time. (“Cemetery of Kings,” read one Spanish headline yesterday of the World Cup defeat, according to a New York Times report.) The euphoria of a football win would have provided a terrific start for the new King – good try, Spanish Royals, sorry it didn’t come off.
Anyway, in spite of everything I think I am a royalist, and on top of that I am pro-Spanish. There is so much that is vibrant and attractive in the culture that I really want to see the country strong again – and that is the reason I have stuck my neck out and offered some tips to King Felipe.
BTW I asked the editor whether he thought it was a good topic and he replied, Yes. (Actually, he said, “Royalty sells.”) Then he wrote this: “My plan is constitutional reform so that Princess Mary of Denmark (born and raised in Hobart) will become Queen of Australia so that we will not have to curtsey before that dreadful Charles.” It sounds unlikely, I must say, but I agree with the sentiments…
In March and April 2003 an allied coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq to topple an appalling dictator, to neutralise weapons of mass destruction and to crush al-Qaeda. Iraqi soldiers melted away and within a few weeks, the Coalition had occupied Baghdad.
Eleven years later, Iraqi soldiers have melted away and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a group more appalling than Saddam Hussein and more vicious than al-Qaeda, is approaching the gates of Baghdad. It’s a most dismaying spectacle. Did 5,000 coalition troops and somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 Iraqis die in vain?
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister who sent his country’s troops into Iraq, says that it wasn’t his fault. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven't … The problems of the Middle East are the product of bad systems of politics mixed with a bad abuse of religion going back over a long time.” Nothing to do with us, nope, not at all.
I’m afraid that my sympathies are with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and a contender for the Tory leadership. He responded in the London Telegraph: “In discussing the disaster of modern Iraq he made assertions that are so jaw-droppingly and breathtakingly at variance with reality that he surely needs professional psychiatric help.”
The disaster zone which is Iraq (and Syria) today is a monument to the tragedy of good intentions. It was quite foreseeable that the tensions which built up under Saddam would explode with the force of an nuclear bomb when he was vanquished. It was negligent beyond belief for the Coalition to assume that ancient hatreds would subside as soon as the defeated Iraqis were delivered relief parcels labelled “freedom” and “democracy”.
I realise that this is a contentious issue with no easy solutions. Leave your comments here…
Keeping an eye on the news headlines today has induced a kind of schizophrenia. On the one hand Islamic militants are over-running Iraq and Russian tanks are rolling into Ukraine, as though World War III is about to break out. On the other, half the world at least has its attention riveted on a football tournament in Brazil, as if there were nothing left to do but play or be entertained.
It is a sad thought that many millions of people today, who would otherwise have passed a few innocent and enjoyable hours watching the World Cup opening rituals and game with family and friends, are living in extreme (in the case of Syria and Iraq) or relative (in the case of Eastern Ukraine) misery because of incompetent leaders and power-crazy usurpers. The latter could learn something from the history of soccer.
Brazil is a real melting pot of peoples, with plenty of reasons to be at each others’ throats, but, according to one of the articles below, during its “golden period” Brazilian football “transcended the country’s racial, ethnic and religious structures – not because they won internationally, but because of the style in which they won.” Mere “futbol” became a “beautiful game” which lifted people’s spirits and unified them.
Argentinian coach Carlos Menotti said in 1978 after his team beat the Dutch, “You can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing attractive football.” In other words the Dutch played beautifully too.
People do not respect leaders and parties that play the ugly game of winning at all costs. They might surrender to them but they fear them and wait for their downfall. Putin has everything to gain by playing a more beautiful and dignified game over the issues with Ukraine, one that would stop the fighting and killing for a start. It will be interesting to see how Russia’s team plays in the World Cup.
As for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”, it is doubtful that beauty and dignity are in their vocabulary. Or if they are, it is with meanings that half a million Iraqis fleeing in front of them find strange and threatening. We who are free and comfortable should not forget these and a multitude of other refugees and those in war zones as we watch the football – or whatever we find more attractive.
If you are Croatian, or you otherwise need cheering up, do play the Shrek video in Martin Fitzgerald's piece on Dawkins and fairy tales.
I went to the New South Wales Art Gallery on the weekend. It’s not exactly the Louvre, or the Prado, or the Hermitage, but it has a fine collection of Australian colonial, impressionist and modernist paintings. Plus a few prizes from Victorian England. My favourite is “The Widower”, by Sir Luke Fildes, an illustrator of Dickens. It is a massive canvas depicting a farm labourer who has obviously just lost his wife. Talk about misery! The house is squalid; the five children are dirty; the one in his arms looks terribly sick.
Modern paintings are not supposed to have morals, but “The Widower” does: children thrive in an intact biological family with a mother and a father. The Victorians were absolutely convinced that children were at risk of abuse and poverty if they were separated from their parents by death or illegitimacy. The wretched life of an orphan is the theme of many of Dickens’s novels.
This is true no matter how well-meaning the managers of an orphanage are. This is the real message, I think, of the controversy over a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Tuam, County Galway, which closed in 1961. There are claims that 796 children are buried in a mass grave. It has become clear that this is nonsense, but I am sure that life was very rough for the children who grew up there. There is no substitute for a mother and a father, not even a kindly nun.
This is another reason why the drive for same-sex marriage puzzles me. The experience of centuries upon centuries is that it takes a mother and a father to raise children. If they lack either or both, they are definitely at risk. Same-sex marriage deliberately excludes a mother or father from the child’s life. Nothing can come from this but disaster. If you don’t believe me, read Oliver Twist, or Bleak House, or David Copperfield.
On another note, we are rolling out a new commenting system, called Disqus. Most of the old comments have been imported. The new system has a few small advantages: the person who is being replied to is shown on the comment heading; hovering the cursor over the up or down vote symbol shows who has voted the comment up or down; and a share button below each comment allows it to be shared on Twitter, Facebook or Disqus.
History has made some of the biggest stories in the news this week: the World War II D-Day landings; the crushing of the Tiananmen Square students protests 25 years ago; and shocking revelations about a mass grave in Ireland containing the remains of nearly 800 infants. While the thousands killed in Normandy in 1944 and the hundreds killed at Tiananmen Square died for noble causes – liberty in one form or another – the little children were victims of heartless and criminal neglect by Catholic nuns running an institution for unmarried mothers and their babies. At least, that is the story you will have read in your daily paper.
According to this account, while brave soldiers were battling the Nazis in Normandy, the Sisters of Bon Secours were doing something at least as bad as the Nazis: callously letting children die and “tossing” (that’s the word the journalists keeping using) their little bodies in a disused septic tank, simply because their mothers were sinners in the eyes of the Church – a church which would not even baptise their innocent babies.
Now, if you find this narrative plausible, Michael Cook’s call to suspend final judgement while all the facts come to light will probably offend you. Doesn’t everyone already know how ghastly the Irish Catholic Church has been? Who needs to hear any more excuses? But if it strikes you that even Irish (or French and Irish) nuns deserve a fair hearing, then you can find many things to ponder both in Michael’s piece and this comprehensive post on Caroline Farrow’s blog.
For myself, the story got my Irish up. My paternal great-grandparents came separately to New Zealand from an Irish populace that after five centuries of British rule could hardly feed its children, and a Church suppressed and demoralised by penal laws that had lasted until 1829. Poverty was still widespread through the first half of the twentieth century and government funding for institutions like the Tuam home for mothers and children was tight. Nuns were cheap labour.
There was a lot wrong in Irish society of that time and its Church, but the same could be said of many places. History will judge our own time for its crimes against the unborn child, and the public figures and journalists who defended them. We have our excuses now; they had theirs then. We should at least try to understand all the circumstances.
To change the subject completely: The only story this week for teenagers, it seems, is the release of the movie version of The Fault in our Stars – a book that has a huge fan club among young people. For this reason Clare Cannon, editor of the Good Reading Guide and contributor to our Reading Matters blog, has gone to a lot of trouble to review the book and offer a really cool discussion guide to use with teens. Such a discussion is highly recommended. As Clare says, most teens have read it and they will want to see the movie. The only question is, What will they take from it?
There are some authors whose words spring up over their grave in groves and forests, like Shakespeare or Tennyson. Some, however, are remembered for a sole spindly shoot. This is the case with Julien Benda, a French journalist and public intellectual. In 1927 he wrote a prophetic book called “La Trahison des Clercs”, loosely translated as “The Treason of the Intellectuals”. Apart from a handful of academics, most people have forgotten the book.
But the title remains useful. By it Benda meant that intellectuals of his day had repudiated the ancient ideal of a disinterested search for truth and had thereby paved the way for 20th century totalitarianism. It’s a phrase which could be applied to the many judges who have effectively legalised same-sex marriage in many American states and to the governors who declined to defend the law they have sworn to uphold. It is a betrayal of the rule of law, of justice, of democracy and of common sense.
It would be hard to find a better example of this than the text of a recent decision deeming Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. I am no lawyer, but it reeks of grandstanding from its opening sentence: “Today, certain citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are not guaranteed the right to marry the person they love.” As far as I can see, the judge’s logic is basically that love=marriage, a formula which allows a range of options, beginning with polygamy. Perhaps lawyer-readers can set me right about this.
Momentous changes call for momentous arguments. The cloying language of the Pennsylvania decision, however, reads like the brochure for a Las Vegas wedding chapel. In his haste to please the crowd, the judge has also betrayed intellectual rigour. It is worthwhile fighting same-sex marriage every step of the way, but it becomes much harder if the legal profession is wilfully blind to the idea that marriage is the bedrock of our society.
Today my sister had a cataract operation. It’s no big deal, unless you have to pay for it. I believe local specialists charge around NZ$3000 to do one, while the Fred Hollows Foundation does them in the developing world for $25. (He was a Kiwi, by the way.) I have come across many people who had cataracts removed but never quite got the hang of how it’s done. But now I know and it really is a little miracle.
Frankly, the idea of a surgeon’s knife or anything surgically sharp coming at me sends me into a blue funk, and the thought that the target organ might be my eye is terrifying. I keep thinking of a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem (Binsey Poplars, a lament for the destruction of the English countryside)in which occur the lines:
Since country is so tender To touch, her being so slender, That, like this sleek and seeing ball But a prick will make no eye at all, Where we, even where we mean To mend her we end her, When we hew or delve:
But that was written in 1879, long before medicine discovered 101 quick and painless ways of getting under your skin, or cornea. This, my sister assures me, is one of them. So I am feeling a little braver, against the day when it’s my turn, as I suspect it will be eventually.
More wonderful than this clever surgery, of course, is the structure of the eye itself, which the cataract information booklet revealed to me again after a lapse of many years. One takes so much for granted.
The human body is a marvel, an entire system of inter-related marvels, but so often today it is disrespected, exploited, manipulated, treated – like Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars – as a piece of property that we can do what we like with. Something like this is happening through the gender revolution that is gathering momentum and has prompted one of our new articles. It’s well worth a read and a comment – along with the others.
I have no intention of shuffling off the mortal coil any time soon, but I have been attending more funerals lately and my thoughts have turned to my own. In particular: no eulogy (this can be quite dangerous); no Elvis; and no Times Roman.
This last is non-negotiable, assuming that I shall be in a position to negotiate. Without exception, service booklets for funerals are printed in a bland and boring serif typeface called Times Roman. I’d like something with a bit more flair like Garamond, Goudy Old Style, or Baskerville. The Economist recently featured a font of legendary beauty called Doves Press, in which only a handful of books were printed because its mad designer threw the type into the Thames. I’d be very happy with that, but one has to pay for it and the others come free with Microsoft Word.
It was the PC which eroded people’s appreciation of the beauty of typefaces. Until recently, laser and inkjet printers would only reproduce versions of Times Roman, Arial, Palatino and a ghastly, unusable, spidery abomination called Zapf Chancery. Of these only Times Roman was suitable for funerals.
Then came the internet, the typographic equivalent of the Vandals sacking Rome. Because of the variety of screens and devices, most of what we read on the Web is published in Verdana or Trebuchet, fonts which sacrifice subtlety for readability. Beside them, Times Roman looks positively gorgeous.
The beautiful fonts are available, but as people read less on the printed page and more on screens, the drab Times Roman has become the benchmark for printed material. To my mind, this is a cultural loss. A beautiful font enhances enjoyment, elevating book reading to a plane above the drudgery of skimming through reams of photocopied reports printed in Arial.
Who am I to stem the tide of font philistinism? I feel as helpless as King Canute. But what I can do, I shall do. My funeral booklet is going to be printed in Goudy Old Style.
Please don’t forget our fund-raising drive. You may receive a letter later in the week.
Having spent a few hours over the last two days boning up on domestic violence research I am grateful that a group of conscientious social scientists started a journal just a few years ago called Partner Abuse. One of the first things they did was commission an exhaustive review of all the recent (post 1990) literature on the subject and the results are very illuminating.
So in its own way is the – totally unexpected – Journal of Fat Studies, that an alert reader tipped me off about recently. I have not had time to read any articles yet but the titles in Volume 3, Issue 2, 2014, are an education in themselves. A sample: “X-Static Process: Intersectionality Within the Field of Fat Studies”; “Fat/Trans: Queering the Activist Body”; “Mothers at Large: Responsibilizing the Pregnant Self for the ‘Obesity Epidemic’” (obviously something they don’t believe in); “Fat Bodies in Space: Controlling Fatness Through Anthropometric Measurement, Corporeal Conformity, and Visual Representation” – and on they go.
I am not making this up; there are people holding down jobs, perhaps in a university near you, who write whole papers deserving of such bloated and incomprehensible names. It’s good to keep an open mind about research, but a list like this gives one the spooky feeling that some academics live on another planet. Which would be all right if they weren’t teaching kids and shaping public policy and getting paid for it. Can society really afford a “Journal of Fat Studies”?
Actually, universities come in for a couple of broadsides in our most recent articles. Kevin Ryan is provoked by the Commencement Silly Season in the US into questioning the leadership of these institutions. More serious – fatal -- events drove a Canadian student to write to her university president and send a copy to us. (Well done, Maria!)
There are many other good and salutary things to read, but I will mention only one more: Robert Reilly’s wonderfully sane piece on the illogicality of gay marriage rhetoric. I’m sorry we couldn’t think of a title in the same league of creativity as those in the Journal of Fat Studies, but the substance will not disappoint you.
I just noticed that the results of Prospect magazine’s poll of the world’s leading thinkers have been released. Of the top ten, there is one each from Israel, South Korea, Argentina (the Pope), China, two from the United Kingdom, and four from India. Of course a list like this is easily manipulated and is more entertainment than information. But it is a sign of the growing influence of Indian culture, prosperity and power.
That’s why we should all be interested in India’s future after the landslide victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With more than a billion people spread across a huge country, just conducting a free and fair election is a testament to the strength of Indian democracy. After decades under an increasingly corrupt Congress Party and slowing economic reform, voters clearly wanted the business-friendly policies which made Mr Modi so popular in his home state of Gujarat.
However, there are reasons to be wary as well. While Mr Modi himself has risen to the top from a very modest background, he has to ensure that prosperity reaches the villages where most of India’s people live. The novelist Arundhati Roy, Number 3 on the Prospect list, warns darkly that Modi is a tool of business interests and that he will polarize Indian society.
But even The Economist, which approved of Modi’s pro-business stance, refused to back him because he might not be able to restrain the fundamentalist and intolerant element among his following. In 2002, a thousand Muslims were massacred in religious riots while he was chief minister of Gujarat. He did nothing to allay Muslim fears when he told Reuters in an interview last year that was in no way responsible for the deaths. He did regret them, though – as if his car had run over a puppy.
It would be a tragedy if a country with India’s youthful dynamism were to sink into paralyzing religious strife. I wish Mr Modi well, but I hope that he governs for all Indians, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and all the other faiths in his great country.