I am writing this as the American media and, to some extent, the world’s, focus on the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy. There can be nothing quite like the prospect of death to concentrate the mind on what is essential in life and what is peripheral and even worthless, and Ted Kennedy was lucky enough to have time for this.
Journalists and writers of books are people who should pray for time to repent of any tripe they have written; I have already had time to repudiate the worst of my own excesses, I hope. Actually, some of the best reads ever are the confessions of people who have completely changed their minds -- like Saint Augustine, who is commemorated today in the Christian calendar. Let’s hope the French author of No Kids: Forty Good reasons Not to Have Children, and writers of similar ilk, will live to think better of what Barbara Kay, in her article this week, aptly terms “lifestyle bumf”, and astonish us all with something wise and inspirational.
Astonishment was my first reaction when I learned from David Vincent’s article that the editor of that determinedly secular oracle, The Economist, had written, together with one of the journal’s correspondents, a book called God Is Back: How the Global Revival of fFaith Is Changing the World. “Religion is there whether we like it or not,” John Micklethwaite admonishes western journalists and intellectuals. He goes further, concluding: "Man is essentially quite a theotropic creature. If you leave people to it, give them a decent supply of religions, the chances are they will probably grasp one.” Wonders will never cease.
In other articles this week Francis Phillips reviews a book that tries to pinpoint the essence of “civilisation”; we re-run a speech by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was a UN special representative in Iraq, which also reflects on civilisation but makes human dignity the more universal concept. Marilyn Ryan wonders what’s behind a new breed of US public service ads; Richard Bastien defends moral absolutes; and Jennifer Roback Morse finds a movie, My Sister’s Keeper, posing ethical questions that scientists and politicians prefer to avoid.
The debate raging in the United States over health care reform has thrown up some strange sideshows, as Brian Lilley notes in his piece on the Whole Foods company and its CEO. Behind such episodes is the deep political divide in America over centralisation, or Big Government, but there are also major ethical concerns over issues such as end-of-life care. There is a well-founded suspicion that the explosion of health costs in an ageing population will lead to rationing measures biased against the aged and chronically ill. Having just attended my oldest sister on her deathbed, at the end of a long illness, I can sympathise with this view. Fortunately for us, her family, New Zealand still has a reasonably good health system, centralised, to be sure, but then we are a very small country with a history of socialism. To keep it that way as costs climb and the ideology of euthanasia gets more traction will be as much a challenge here as anywhere else, I think.
There are other ways to economise on health spending. One of them would be to stop wasting money on unethical research which seeks to justify itself by promising pie-in-the-sky cures for Parkinsons disease and Alzheimers, among others. Just before Michael Cook flew off to the States he posted an article on stem cell research, pointing out that although there are serious clinical hurdles in using human embryo cells as cures, and although many scientists have abandoned that quest, some Harvard professors and the like are still claiming such research is necessary. Since my recently deceased sister suffered from Parkinson’s disease most of her life, I feel I have a personal stake in this debate also. There is ethical stem cell research going on that is showing promise; that is where public money should go, not into the bank accounts of scientists who are too proud to admit that they have backed the wrong horse. I recommend Michael’s article, A tarnished gold standard, for those who want to be up with the play on this issue.
In our other articles this week Barbara Lilley gives a spirited defence of having children (necessary these days, I’m afraid), Andrea Mrozek reviews a new film warning of demographic doom, Jennifer Marshall argues the need for moral reasoning in our public debates, and Denyse O’Leary warns that, since the ease of publishing provided by the Internet makes us architects of our own bias, we could all end up talking to ourselves. Food for thought.
I shall be departing on a study tour in the US shortly, leaving MercatorNet largely in the hands of Carolyn Moynihan. During my absence William West, an experienced Sydney journalist who is an occasional contributor, will help with the editing. I will be back at work in early October.
I haven't been to the US for any great length of time for about 40 years, so I shall be interested to find out whether there have been any changes. I inquired at the consulate in Melbourne and it turns out that they still speak English, climate change is still measured in Fahrenheit, and "I Love Lucy" reruns are still popular. So I will probably feel at home.
This week we have a wide range of quality reading. Denyse O'Leary shines a light on the controversial "discoveries" of evolutionary psychology; ethicist Margaret Somerville questions whether we have to be "perfect"; and British philosopher Brenda Almond argues that IVF bears an uncanny resemblance to slavery.
We also have a minor "scoop" -- interviews with experts on Iranian family planning who say that the precipitous descent of Iranian birthrates is unprecedented in human history. Godfrey Hodgson expresses some doubt about whether President Obama can live up to his promise; and Alejo Sison sheds more light on the Pope's recent encyclical.
We've also added a new technical feature to the site -- tags. Clicking on them brings up a list of all related articles. It will take a bit of time to build up the list, but they will be a great resource for the site.
8 August 2009
Carolyn Moynihan kindly posted out the newsletter last week because I took a week off. And even more kindly she will be sending it out a few more times in August and September. After one break, I got a taste for more and I'll be spending about six weeks in the US. The official line is that I will be working -- promoting MercatorNet and BioEdge and scouting for contributors and book and film reviewers -- but I may fit in another break as well. So if you reside in the US and want to promote or contribute, get in touch. Perhaps we can organise something.
While I'm swanning around the States, there will be only one newsletter each week, on Friday or Saturday.
This week we return to our perennial theme of human dignity. Martin Fitzgerald gives some background to the Pope's recent encyclical and Filipino journalist Sheila Coronel assesses the career of the late President Cory Aquino. Tackling this theme from other angles, Austin Ruse and Piero Tozzi review the UN's views on "reproductive health" and Nuria Chinchilla tries to balance work and family life.
Finally, William West has some sound tips on how to public opinion by writing letters to the editor and Associate Editor Brian Lilley reviews a controversial art exhibit in Glasgow -- a long way from his native Ottawa.
Great reading for summer holidays -- if you live in the northern hemisphere!
Lithuania is a small, eastern European country of only 3.3 million people, still recovering from the Soviet era and with problems such as a low birth rate and emigration. But it has some good things going for it, as Bryan Bradley informs us in today’s leading article. Among them is a majority of legislators with common sense. Earlier this month they passed a law to protect young people from harm in the form of material that shows graphic violence and pornography, puts drug use in a positive light, and “ promotes homosexual, bisexual, and polygamous relations." You can imagine how the Taliban of modern sexual mores reacted to that. But that is not the only sensible -- and courageous -- thing Lithuania has done recently. So read the article and cheer yourself up. If western Europe crumbles on account of its own flakiness, it may be able to get some backbone cells from the east for a transplant.
Astonishingly, something similar happened in the Italian parliament recently. That notoriously unruly body called on the government to seek a resolution at the United Nations condemning forced abortion. The initiative was led by Rocco Buttiglione, one of the most well-known Catholic politicians in Europe, who subsequently gave an interview to an Italian newspaper that dismayed some pro-life people because they thought he had gone soft on other aspects of abortion. He hasn’t, but as he explained in a long interview with C-FAM’s Friday Fax, defending the unborn and child -- and the mother -- in national and international forums is something that cannot be done all at once. If it is possible to make “common ground” in one area with those who otherwise disagree, without compromising any principle, why not? I have put a link to this interview in our Media Watch column; in my view, it is well worth reading.
Another good news article this week was prompted by the unlikely eruption of common sense in an MTV series. Christopher Blunt, an American dad, watched 16 and Pregnant and found that it demonstrated some very true things. In other articles Barbara Kay and Margaret Somerville bring sharp wits and ethical perception to the subject of euthanasia; Theron Bowers looks at what’s behind the ever-expanding definition of mental illness; Anjalee Lewis writes from an India that has just legalised same-sex activity; and Francis Phillips reviews a new edition of a British wartime classic.
President Obama and his team are in the spotlight again today as Sheila Liaugminas reports on the way his health care reform bills could sweep away all remaining restrictions on abortions in the United States. What’s really in the limelight, though, is America’s wonderful pro-life movement which, a couple of days after the bills were published, “staged the largest pro-life web event in history, a night-time webcast that drew 36,187 into a brainstorming session and a call to action.” Everyone who cares about human life and dignity has to be grateful to the Americans for their leadership in defending these most basic of values against the tide of individualism and pragmatism.
The swine flu pandemic may yet challenge pro-life ethics from another angle, as Margaret Somerville points out in her article, Competing Sorrows -- a reference to an ethical dilemma “in which there is no response that does only good and not also harm.” OK, so H1N1 may turn out to be just another serious flu virus, but there are many other issues that force us to think about health-care rationing. (Not funding abortion would be a good start if we are forced to go along this path.)
Angela Shanahan takes us to Italy, where an ageing population will no doubt make care rationing an issue, if it is not one already, and where a hard-to-explain reluctance to have children, alongside large-scale immigration, raises questions like: What would the world be like without Italians? Or, without enough Italians to sustain their distinct culture and take care of that cultural legacy which makes their country the heart of western civilisation? Dreadful thought, isn’t it?
Surveying these and other problems of recent making, Rebekah Hebbert, a young Canadian, gives the baby boomers a piece of her mind. Fair enough, too. The world needs young people with their eyes wide open, brains tuned and hearts in the right place to tackle the “mess” (yes, it’s the right word) their elders have created. More power to them.
We hope you folks north of the Equator are enjoying your summer holidays. Spare a thought for us DownUnder, and don’t forget to do essential reading…
I wear two hats in this outfit, one as editor of MercatorNet and one as editor of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter (links to the latest stories are on the MercatorNet home page). Unsurprisingly, then, I have a soft spot for bioethics news. So I was delighted to run Barbara Kay’s article, “Messing with Mother Nature”.
In it she makes the very shrewd observation that the sum of effort, money and ink expended upon protecting nature is astronomical. But protecting human nature provokes a yawn. Shouldn’t politicians pay close attention to biological advances which threaten to change the human condition? I’ve made a small contribution to ringing alarm bells with a report on a new development in stem cell research. All this makes one hope that policymakers are competent and ethical. Denyse O’Leary expresses some misgivings about President Obama’s choice for director of the National Institutes of Health.
And in two other stories in this update, Barbara Lilley reflects on her struggle with diabetes and Martyn Drakard profiles a courageous Kenyan journalist. Great reading!
There is a strong feeling in some circles that dealing in narcotics should be legalised. Perhaps this has something to do with generational change. President Bill Clinton evasively said that he didn't inhale. President Obama has straightforwardly admitted that he did: "When I was a kid, I inhaled," he said. "That was the point." If its journalists are of the same age, it is no wonder that The Economist, my favourite magazine, uses every opportunity to promote drug legalisation. This week we are featuring three articles to oppose this view.
Despite the seductive attractiveness of legalisation (lower costs, less crime, no stigma, no Mafia), it is a pernicious proposal. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime sums up my feelings on the matter in one of this week's articles: "We are not counting beans; we are counting lives". And to learn from history, we present an account of the opium epidemic in China in the 19th century. Between 3% and 10% of Chinese were hooked on opium supplied mostly by British merchants -- a very tidy little business. Finally Carolyn Moynihan argues that the drug problem is basically a spiritual one and asks whether it can be solved without first curing the West’s insatiable appetite for instant gratification. These are very powerful articles. I recommend them.
And that's not all. Brian Lilley contends that the G8 is still needed; Bill Muehlenberg looks back on the French Revolution on the anniversary of Bastille Day; and Henryk Szadziewski reminds us of the plight of the Uyghurs, whose capital Urumqi has been racked with vicious riots between Han Chinese and the native Uyghurs.
As you can see from the photo to the right, I grew up somewhere between the dinosaurs and the building of King Cheops pyramid. It was a more settled time for children. Every grandmother I know thanks her lucky stars that she is not raising children nowadays, especially boys, in today's world. Kevin Ryan describes some of these difficulties in his witty piece, "Boys will be doofuses". Reading it struck a chord with me. Even back then as a Year 8 student, I can distinctly remember sulking that I would never, ever become a tidy, attentive, punctual, obedient, truthful and polite teacher's pet like Mary Lou Higgins. Perhaps that's why I've hardly ever been on time for anything since.
So far this week, we have posted three other articles. Chinwuba Iyizoba has written a chilling article from Nigeria about yuppies who have child slaves to do their housework. Godfrey Hodgson assesses Barack Obama's first six months as President. And Thaddeus Kozinski laments the coming of a new Dark Ages. Post some comments!
On another note, we would like to expand the coverage MercatorNet's sister publication, BioEdge, a weekly bioethics newsletter. We're looking for someone who might be interested in a day's work each week reporting on developments in bioethics -- issues like euthanasia, stem cell research, informed consent, and organ donation. A background in science or philosophy would be helpful, but not necessary. To be perfectly honest, the pay is not great, but it's a very exciting and influential area. Send me an email if you are interested -- mcook@MercatorNet.com.
With a new encyclical published and a meeting with President Barack Obama behind him Pope Benedict XVI might have time today to celebrate the feast of his patron, St Benedict, father of western monasticism and patron of Europe. The need for Europe to return to its Christian roots in order to make true progress and be of service to the rest of the world is a favourite theme of the Pope’s. It is expanded in his new encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, into an appeal to the global family of nations to base efforts for development on the foundations of love and truth.
It’s a long letter covering many topics and it will take more than the few days we have had this week to digest its wisdom. Fr Robert Gahl, a professor of ethics based in Rome, has given us a great start with his article, Money from love. Brian Lilley’s analysis of the headlines makes it clear that , in calling for “a new world body with real teeth” Benedict does not mean he wants UN boss Ban Ki-Moon – or, indeed, himself – to be some new kind of world emperor. Best to bite the bullet and read the original – there are links to it in the articles and in a post in Family Edge.
From the Holy Father to the father of evolutionary theory is a fair step, but Charles Darwin is back on the front page as we continue our occasional series marking the anniversary of his birth and his most famous book, The origin of Species. There’s a mixture of “good cop, bad cop” takes on Darwin in our articles. I’m no scientist, but I was considerably less ignorant on the subject of evolution after reading (more than once, to be sure) the piece by Spanish academics Natalia López-Moratalla and Esteban Santiago, both professors of biochemistry. That’s the “good cop” bit. However, Darwin emerges as “bad cop” in two other articles because of his connection with eugenics – a warped approach to human improvement that is still very much with us. Rebecca Messall’s carefully referenced review of the persistence of this idea from Darwin through to at least some figures in the field of evolutionary biology today gives much to chew on. It will also, no doubt, lead to fireworks in the “Comments” department, along with the other Darwin pieces. Well, the great man’s anniversary is not over yet and there is still time to generate more light than heat.
For light relief you might read Sheila Liaugminas’ roundup of Sarah Palin mania. The running mate of – what was his name? – in last year’s presidential race has resigned as Governor of Alaska, apparently to go fishing. What a great idea.