The traffic in my part of Auckland early this morning was unusually light. It was slightly eerie. Had there been a national day of mourning announced and I hadn’t heard about it? After all, we lost the America’s Cup race yesterday, at the end of a week in which the American team snatched victory from jaws of death. Oracle Team USA did something to their boat halfway through the series when the score stood at 8-1 to Emirates Team NZ and that darned Yankee boat just began to fly.
The irony of it is, of course, that Oracle is half Kiwi, with large bits of it built here and a Kiwi manager, Sir Russell Coutts, who, though not on the boat, is being given much of the credit for the win. And the skipper, Jimmy Spithall, is Australian. The money however, is all American, flowing endlessly from the coffers of business magnate Larry Ellison. Anyway, he used it to good effect and the fastest boat won. I watched the last 10 minutes of yesterday’s race and it really was impressive. Well done, Oracle – and Team NZ!
As for losing, we’ll get over it. Worse things have happened at sea – think, Costa Concordia. And we won’t have to spend millions on a defence in Auckland. And now we can start watching rugby again… Gosh, I feel more cheerful already.
What really inspired me today, however, was a letter Emeritus Pope Benedict wrote to Italian atheist Piergiogio Odifreddi, a mathematician who seems to be the Richard Dawkins of Italy. In 2011 Odifreddi wrote a book criticising Benedict’s theology which was billed as “a luciferian introduction to atheism”. Benedict took the trouble to read the whole thing and write an 11 page response – which I am certain is much kinder than the original. It’s among our lead stories – judge for yourself.
Also worth special note is a very nice piece by engineering professor Karl Stephan who argues that if we really honoured work – any honest job – we would find a way out of the unemployment that is ruining so many lives. And Brendan Malone reviews a documentary film that gives a sad insight into the cultural cost of China’s totalitarian regime. Links below.
Like everyone else, I have been quite horrified by the carnage in an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall. The violence was primitive, but the terrorists from the Somali group al-Shabaab have a pretty sophisticated PR section. Even as their buddies were hunting down and killing old men and pregnant women, they were posting a running commentary on their Twitter feed and granting interviews to the BBC.
The situation is still very confused, but one detail struck me. Apparently the terrorists were gunning people down if they could not prove that they were Muslims. So Christians and Hindus will probably account for most of the victims. As we ought to know after recent events in Egypt and Syria, this is not rare. During the mall siege in Kenya, two suicide bombers ran into an Anglican Church in Peshawar, in Pakistan, on Sunday. Peshawar is off the beaten track for the Western media, so we’ve heard less about this atrocity, but nearly 80 worshippers died.
Although few people are killed nowadays for having no beliefs, Christians, often from poor communities in Muslim countries, are dying every day. Rather than rant on about this, I think that I shall quote a very moving speech by the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, to the House of Lords:
“I have followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening and surprised and distressed by the fact that it is not more widely known… The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life. None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God. May God protect Christians of the Middle East and people of faith who suffer for their faith, whoever and wherever they are.”
There is a boat race going on in San Francisco Bay that has New Zealanders in a state of high excitement. Our boat, Emirates Team New Zealand, took an early lead and by this morning was in a position to carry off the America’s Cup for a third time. Alas, the US team on Oracle had a clear win this morning bringing the score to 8-2 and extending the regatta until one of the teams reaches 9 wins. The thought that Oracle may chalk up more wins is almost unbearable with the Kiwi boat on the cusp of victory.
It’s very big, this America’s Cup gig; a win is worth zillions to the economy, they say. It has brought the media to a pitch of near religious fervour – “BELIEVE” the NZ Herald front page exhorted us this morning, and one enthusiast said team New Zealand’s 15-second win the other day was like “going to heaven without dying”. But is it sailing? Are those black machines with crews dressed like aliens and sails like flying billboards (a word from the sponsors) really boats? An intricately engineered catamaran skimming the surface of the water is fast, but is it graceful? Poetic? Heroic?
Not as I see it. It’s a great demonstration of technology and teamwork, but give me white sails and a single elegant hull slicing the water any day. Racing is indeed about who is fastest but there comes a point where speed is only gained by sacrificing beauty and a fair contest between human skill and the forces of nature. So it seems to me. I want that Kiwi “cat” to win, but it would be nice to see it done differently. Perhaps in Auckland…
Of course, technology is a wonderful thing. Just look what it has done for Stephen Hawking, who for 50 years has been able to work around disabilities caused by motor neurone disease to pursue a brilliant career in science. He has just published his memoir, My Brief History, which he “wrote” by twitching a cheek muscle that somehow activates a computer. This is the only way he can communicate these days, and it’s a marvel of bravery that he continues to do so.
Not all of Professor Hawking’s ideas are good, however, as Peter Saunders points out in one of our leading articles. One has similar reservations about that famous couple, Bill and Melinda Gates, who have received the prestigious Lasker Award for Public Service, particularly for their commitment to eradicating diseases that kill millions in developing countries. Matthew Hanley says the award puts them in line for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he points out a blind spot.
In other articles: Monty Patterson, whose teenage daughter, Holly, died after being given abortion pills to take at home, explains why the US Supreme Court is getting involved in this issue. Vincenzina Santoro notes that history is repeating itself at the Syrian town of Maaloula, and Sheila Liaugminas reflects on the media reception of Pope Francis’ interview with America magazine (and other Jesuit publications).
That’s not all the new stories, though. Check below, and if you are not in the habit of going to our home page, do take a good look today. You may get a surprise.
Another massacre, this time in Washington DC. A lone gunman reportedly equipped with a AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a police handgun opened fire on civilians arriving for work yesterday morning at a Navy complex. He was shot dead by police after killing 12 people.
What little we know about Aaron Alexis is full of contradictions. He shot out the tyres of a construction worker in Seattle in a fit of rage, but he was a convert to Buddhism who meditated and studied Thai. He was pleasant and chatty when he worked as a waiter but he played violent video games like Call of Duty and Resident Evil for up to 16 hours a day. People who knew him thought he was tense, but not unhinged.
Tomorrow everyone will be talking about gun control. Excellent. It’s a good idea to restrict hand guns and semi-automatics. I don’t know anyone outside the USA who thinks that this is a bad idea.
But this country will only be a less violent place if fewer violent people live there. That’s why the first question that occurs to me is not where Alexis got his guns or what video games he watched, but what sort of family life he had. But it’s not a topic that seemed to interest the media.
From what I can gather, his parents were separated and he had not seen his mother and sister in Brooklyn for years. It seems that Aaron was one of the millions of American children from broken homes, many of them directionless, rootless, and tormented. And some of them have guns.
So let the gun control debate begin. But let’s be realistic. In the long term, turning back the dial on divorce and absent fathers has to be part of a less violent future.
We’re still ironing out some of the bugs with the new website. Please bear with us. But there is lots more to read, I think.
Our features so far this week deal with the three big myths on which the sexual revolution is built (my contribution), 20 tips to make the most of your 20s for our Millennial readers by Ashley Crouch, and an optimistic look at the future of newspapers by George Brock.
Check out the website (comments welcome) or click on the links below for the complete range of stories.
Among the more trivial reasons that I am happy today is the fact that it is Spring in Auckland, the sun is shining after a couple of soggy days, our kowhai tree is in full flower and from the kitchen window I can watch the tuis performing gymnastic feats in order to vacuum out the nectar or pollen from each long, golden bloom, chortling and singing between forays. A glance at this spontaneous natural theatre always makes me smile.
Happiness is in the news this week because the United Nations has put out an update on its World Happiness Report, first published last year. It tells me that some of my more substantial reasons for satisfaction with life have to do with living in New Zealand, which is ranked 13th out of 156 countries. Weather, apparently has nothing to do with it -- with the exception of Australia, all the top 10 countries have long, bleak winters. (Iceland -- brrrr!) Generous social welfare systems do make a difference.
The UN project is all about sustainable development and measuring subjective wellbeing instead of just material prosperity, which seems basically a good idea. I haven’t read the whole report (170 pages illustrated with graphs and tables decreased my happiness somewhat when I first looked at it today) but it deserves a closer look because a lot of research going back 30 years has gone into it.
Media coverage of country rankings has highlighted criteria such as wealth, health, freedom to make life choices, having someone to count on in times of trouble, a country’s freedom from corruption, and the generosity of fellow citizens. But the research measures other things I find more important to my own wellbeing and to others around me –religion, for example, and family experience. What are the results there?
As far as religion goes, the research shows that it contributes more to happiness in those places where life is hard, or to individuals anywhere in times of hardship and stress. Some 68 percent of adults in the whole survey said religion was important or very important in their daily lives and about half had attended a religious service within the past seven days. Even in neo-pagan Europe recent research shows a significant positive effect of religion on wellbeing both at the individual and national levels.
As for the family, the report confirms that marriage and happiness are strongly correlated, although this may be partly because happier people tend to get married in the first place. However, marriage does give an extra boost and for those who never get divorced, happiness remains permanently higher than when they were single.
Children, as we have heard from some other surveys, do not seem to increase the happiness of their parents over all – but perhaps there’s a warning in this to be a little sceptical of the data that goes into these global surveys. Or again, it may be a sign that children really are becoming less valued in a (Western) culture where the abortion and fertility industries work to privilege adult desires over the rights and even the lives of children.
Two of our leading articles reflect that unhappy trend. Miriam Zoll and Pamela Tsigdinos, two women who endured years of failed fertility treatments write indignantly about the message of a reproductive medicine trade show in New York City called Fertility Planit whose tagline reads: “Everything You Need to Create Your Family.” And Peter Smith is ashamed of public authorities in the UK too scared of the abortion industry to prosecute doctors practising gendercide abortions there.
This letter is a tad long, so please check out the other new items using the links below.
Australia’s election on Saturday taught a hard lesson about politics in a democracy. As expected, the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott (profiled by Greg Craven this week in MercatorNet) thrashed the Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd promised everyone everything (including same-sex marriage) in an effort to avert disaster but the best he could do was to save the furniture, not the house.
The unexpected lesson was the election of three or four candidates from “micro” parties to the Senate. Each of the six states has 12 Senators and six of these were elected on Saturday. Australia has a preferential voting system which is too complex to explain here, but it was intended to give a voice to minor parties who could never win in a first-past-the-post system.
The problem is that an electoral genius named Glenn Druery stitched up deals between micro parties which allowed some of them to accumulate enough preferences to get elected. Hence Wayne Dropulich, of the Australian Sports Party, received 233 primary votes in Western Australia, fewer than the 500 members that his party needed to register, but it seems that he will become a Senator. (Preferences are so complex that it can take weeks to count the vote.) Mr Dropulich’s policies seem limited to fighting obesity and playing football.
The Coalition is horrified by the outcome, as these inexperienced, single-issue Senators could hold the balance of power and stymie its plans for reform.
What is the lesson? Democracy is a system for allocating power and it is always possible to game a system. By manipulating the rules, you can produce an outcome which is completely legal, utterly unfair and sometimes quite immoral. Democracy, said Churchill, is the worst form of government except for all the rest. From time to time it is salutary to be reminded of its deficiencies.
Anyhow, we are almost back to normal after an adventurous rebuild of the site. Feel free to comment.
It’s a temptation in journalism to use everyone else’s shorthand because then everyone knows just what you are talking about. We have been ticked off on this website over the years for referring to “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” without the inverted commas. But scare quotes are tedious at a certain point (and how many times would you have to use them in a whole article on this topic?) so one tends to think, Well, I’ve made my point so once is enough. Or, Everyone knows what MercatorNet thinks about this, so why use some circumlocution to say the same thing?
William May does not agree. A Catholic layman heavily involved in the marriage debate in the United States, particularly in California’s Proposition 8 case, he wants us all to get the marriage conversation right. In an email interview he points out that the issue we are fighting is not the status of homosexual relationships but the definition of marriage. Changes to laws about marriage don’t even mention “same-sex marriage” – they redefine marriage. They take out “a man and a woman” and replace them with “two people”. They obliterate, says May, the only institution that unites a man and a woman and any children born from that union. That’s what we have to talk about. There’s much more in the interview and it’s all extremely useful.
Australia goes to the polls tomorrow and everyone is forecasting a landslide to the conservatives, led by pugnacious Rhodes Scholar and ex-boxer Tony Abbott. Voting is compulsory Down Under, though, and there are always complaints from couch potatoes and libertarians. Philosopher John Armstrong explains why your vote matters. He points out that the idea of one man, one vote is a deeply Christian one.
The tragedy of Syria dominates the headlines at the moment. Will President Obama start “precision” bombing chemical weapons sites or won’t he? George Friedman looks at the role of the “Washington human rights faction” in the president’s current dilemma. Robert Hutchinson asks a question which seems to have slipped under the radar: will this be a just war? Or will it be just a war to sandbag America’s reputation? Sheila Liaugminas also offers a roundup of some significant voices on this issue.
It’s a pity, but human rights factions tend to be rather limited in their vision.Alana Newman, daughter of a sperm donor and founder of the Anonymous Us story collective for people like her deprived of knowing one r both of their parents, makes a compelling case that in allowing children to be manufactured to order in fertility clinics – and increasingly brought to birth by surrogate mothers – society robs them of fundamental human rights.
In two new Demography posts Marcus Roberts has a laugh at the arrival in Germany of the car assembly line with reclining swivel seats for elderly workers, and tests the idea of the British website NetMums that people turn into clones of their parents around age 32 against his own experience.
It’s informative synchronicity that this should appear at the same time as furor is erupting over the proposed charter of Quebec values, because reading what Atwood has to say could help us to place the Parti Québécois’ proposal into a larger context and, in doing so, provide otherwise unavailable insights. It could also cause us to ask whether Atwood is wrong in her claim that she is not a prophet.
I’m not a great fan of animated films, I must admit, so I don’t feel qualified to critique Monsters University, Pixar’s latest contribution to the genre. However, I did have a look at its promotional website as I posted Raffaele Chiarulli’s review.
It is really quite hilarious. Many readers in the United States will be preparing for another year of college and will find it quite familiar. It looks exactly like a thousand college websites, with links for Admissions, Academics, Campus Life and so on – all for the Pixar monsters.
What I found most entertaining, though, was the letter from the President, Victoria Gross. It caught exactly the tone and cadence of bumpf from university offices everywhere:
“we foster a willingness to challenge what is blindly accepted, and seek what is quantitatively true… At MU we also dedicate ourselves to ethical and responsible uses of financial, physical, and environmental resources. We continually remind ourselves to care for the fragile tapestry of our environment and to temper our needs for power with our desire to make our world a more sustainable place for all our future generations.”
It reminded me of some words from a sage I have forgotten: “the quality of commitment is shown by the strength of one’s refusals”. That is, what people really think is revealed in where they draw the line, not what they promise.
The sad thing about President Gross’s gaseous burblings is how accurately it depicts the lack of commitment to any serious ideas and ideals in many university environments. Perhaps you can come up with some better examples.
In other stories this week, Peter Jon Mitchell reviews a book with the latest research on fatherhood – they are still very much needed. Margaret Somerville paints an alarming picture of a Quebec government blindly bent on expelling religion from the public square.
And in a disturbing feature, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the world’s most expert analyst of the illegal organ trade, says that we are not taking the dreadful exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged seriously.
As forecast (numerous times, I am afraid), Big Changes will happen at MercatorNet this week.
No, I am not changing my photo, although it may come to that. We are changing the layout to showcase the increasing number and variety of articles, to make better use of social media and to make the site a bit more stylish.
So, later this week, probably between 9pm Thursday and 1am on Friday (Sydney time), the site will be out of commission. (That’s 4.30-8.30am in Mumbai, 12-4pm in London, and 7-11am in New York.)
There may be more disruption on Friday, but over the weekend, the new site will appear.
We welcome your comments and suggestions.
So far this week, we have posted several articles. Vincenzina Santoro informs us that September 5 has been proclaimed the first International Day of Charity. Who is already giving the most, she asks. If you are worried about security agencies reading your emails, you have only yourself to blame, writes David Tuffley.
An Australian activist has found a great way to save taxpayers’ dollars: euthanasia – Paul Russell reports. And in the wake of New Zealand’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, Carolyn Moynihan jots down some lessons for Australians across the Ditch. There are lessons here for Americans as well.