If you are not American and spend most of your time absorbed in the things that the majority of ordinary people do, such as holding down a job and caring for your family, you may not have noticed how the mercury is rising in the US human dignity barometer. In the five or six years since I began paying close attention to the United States I don’t think the pressure has ever been higher.
I don’t mean the roller-coaster of the Republican primaries, which are almost a sideshow right now to what used to be called the culture wars but now seem more like civilisational wars: the mammoth struggles going on over marriage and human fertility. Dr Jennifer Roback Morse, who is right in the thick of the action and whose instincts about this I mightily respect, describes the infamous White House “contraceptive mandate”, for example, as not only an attack on freedom of conscience but the establishment of a new state religion. (And remember, there is no old state religion in the US.) Read her powerful piece on our front page and see if you don’t agree.
Even if this attempt falls over it won't be the last one. What’s just as important as the current political struggle for human dignity is passing on the attendant values and virtues to the younger generation. This is the challenge Tom Lickona outlines in the conclusion of his review of a book about young adults and their tenuous grasp on moral principles. Mary Santangelo suggests that parental nagging, judiciously applied, can help. Rebekah Hebbert, from within the young adult camp, defies the gender equity brigade and finds that “Lego cupcakes totally rock”. That’s the spirit!
War, particularly as conducted nowadays, is a thorny moral issue. Jacob Shively, a PhD candidate in political science and a new contributor, examines the US campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan and throws some light on the justice (or otherwise) of the cause.
We await your comments on these issues, whether heavy or lightweight. But just to end on a nice note I recommend the video we currently have up on the front page. The Military Wives Choir (sent by Mary Cooney - thanks) is another perspective on war, and very moving.
Today, February 7, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. England is full of Dickens festivals and debates in the newspapers over whether 11-year-olds should be required to read his novels. His most recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, says that he is “amazingly relevant” – but feels that he is too demanding for schoolchildren. "Today's children have very short attention-spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes. They are not being educated for long attention-spans."
Is this the problem? For the past decade schoolchildren have been devouring volumes of Harry Potter, books which swelled to incredible lengths. As far as I can see, Charles Dickens was probably the single most important literary influence upon the series, with its immense gallery of grotesque characters, lively language and convoluted plots.
Exuberance is the first of Dickens’ great virtues, an Olympian quality shared by few other writers in English. He created characters with the cheerful prodigality of a drunken sailor. A Dickensian sentence is bursting with joy at the wrestle with language. He is credited with scores upon scores of new words, like flummox, rampage, butter-fingers, tousled, sawbones, casualty ward, footlights, dustbin, fingerless, squashed, seediness, Scrooge, Gradgrind, tousled and tintack.
The second is his anger. Most of his books are seething over the injustice dealt out to innocents by petty tyrants and the implacable law. He was unafraid to take sides, to be committed, to dream of a kind and juster world.
In fact, you cannot read Dickens – whether you are weeping or laughing or seething with indignation -- and fail to feel that being alive is an exhilarating vocation to slay the giants of injustice. There is no lack of giants today: abortion, euthanasia, the scandal of starvation in a world of consumerist waste, overflowing prisons, the drugs trade… Would that today we had novelists who combined Dickens’ vitality with his righteous anger.
So far this week we have published four articles. Jennifer Roback Morse reviews a stunning book about the consequences of China’s one-child policy; Frances Kelly asks whether language is being hijacked in the same-sex marriage debate; Joanna Bogle salutes Queen Elizabeth on the 60th anniversary of her coronation; and Jim Cole detects hostility to religion in the Obama Administration’s recent decisions.
While I was waiting for a fairy godmother to come and do this newsletter I read an article in the local paper (yes, a real newspaper) about Facebook’s US$100 billion public float, the basis of which I do not quite understand, even though I am one of the 800 million users who made it possible. The figure is quite astonishing for a Kiwi -- I mean, the value of our whole economy is only about $135 billion. Perhaps the government could do an IPO and raise the funds to make us top of the South Sea Island Paradise market…
What caught my attention more than all the facts and figures, though, was a sidebar with the five core values that Mark Zuckerberg has set out for investors:
Focus on impact -- by always solving the most important problems. The difficulty I see with this is knowing which are the most important problems. For example, in my article today about a Harvard Business School report, I find that business leaders seem to be unaware of the most fundamental problem of the US economy.
“Move fast and break things” -- If you never break anything you are not moving, ergo learning, fast enough. Personally, I find I break things by moving too slowly. If you listen carefully you may hear the sound of my New Year’s resolution to send this newsletter out before Kiwi and Aussie workers leave their desks on Friday shattering.
Be bold -- Building great things means taking risks. This I agree with completely; publishing your opinions to the world is along those lines.
Be open -- “A more open world is a better world because people with more information make better decisions,” says Zuckerberg. Hmmm. Disagree. Quality rather than quantity is what counts in information as in all areas of life, “and the wisdom to know the difference”. FB tests that wisdom to the limit; indeed, someone has suggested that TMI would have been a more fitting stock ticker symbol than the FB the company chose.
Build social value -- Facebook expects everyone to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do. Agreed, one hundred per cent. A high ideal but very much in sync with MercatorNet’s aims. We may have a slightly different idea of “value” but then, that is what the business of communication is all about.
I am sure you will find added value in Tom Lickona’s second article on emerging adulthood, and George Friedman’s interesting analysis of Germany’s role in the eurozone crisis. Among the blogs I have to say that Sheila Liaugminas is going gangbusters on the American political scene. Quite fascinating.
In my ceaseless search for distractions from Real Work, I moderate comments obsessively, surf for article ideas and post items on the MercatorNet Facebook page. These are demanding and time-consuming tasks, but somebody’s got to do the heavy lifting around here. Otherwise Real Work could fill up the whole day.
I confess that I had always avoided Twitter. Coming to grips with its appeal sounded more like Real Work than a genuine distraction. But after a dinner table conversation with @Blazes92 the other day the penny dropped. I had never actually met anyone who used MercatorNet’s Twitter feed (even though there are nearly 1000 followers – feel free to join them!). But he showed me how brilliantly useful it can be to keep up to date. Thanks @Blazes92!
This led me to visit MercatorNet’s Twitter page and I discovered that people have actually been messaging @MercatorNet. The good news is that this is seriously distracting, but the bad news is that tweets from Twitterers like To@IdaFlo, @Grimkjell, @dennygirltwo and @OLVKAmsterdam have been ignored. My apologies. Now you know the score.
Twitter is mostly a smartphone and tablet phenomenon. Up to now, it has been a bit painful to read MercatorNet on a smartphone. So I have the pleasure to announce that we have launched a mobile version of MercatorNet. Please check it out – m.mercatornet.com.
It’s straightforward and easy to navigate. If you have ideas about how to improve it, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks very much, Debasish Mondal, of Encyclomedia, for pushing this through.
So far this week, we have posted three articles. Peter Saunders writes from the UK about the nature of homosexuality. Francis Phillips reviews a history of World War II. And Margaret Somerville argues that the controversy over gendercide shows that abortion is not just a matter of choice.
Round about this time last year I announced a New Year resolution to see more movies as they came out. Well, I did, although it’s not hard to move up from zero. Looking at Michael Cook’s list of the best films of 2011, however, I find I haven’t seen one of them. Never mind; at least I have a better idea of what to spend my time and money on. Of course, the list is by no means the last word on the subject. As Michael says: You can never get complete agreement on lists of movies. In this annual feature, we try to select films which are worthwhile, entertaining and reasonably family-friendly. If you would like to nominate others, please make a comment.
From movies to morality. Young adults in Occupy Wall Street camps might be railing against greedy capitalists, but the moral constitution of youth is also under the microscope. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has written up a study of emerging adulthood (18- to 23-year-olds) focusing on its “dark side”, and the picture certainly doesn’t look good. We asked Professor Thomas Lickona, an educator who has vast experience in the field of moral development and character, to review what seems an important book and you can read the first part of his article on the front page. The rest will be published in subsequent weeks, and it is important to follow the series through since the picture might be better than first drawn.
By the way, take a look at the blog posts by Katie Hinderer on Tiger Print and Marcus Roberts on Demography (wonderful time-lapse video to view there) about the huge annual pro-life march in Washington on Monday -- with hundreds of thousands of young people.
If there’s one place where we would all fervently hope to find moral integrity it is on the bridge (or whatever they call it these days) of a ship carrying 4000 souls. But we cannot make its captain a mere scapegoat for the Costa Concordia disaster, Constance Kong decides in her article. Moral consistency is also highly desirable in the command of such important organisations as the United Nations. From that point of view Vincenzina Santoro challenges us to write to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. As for US policy towards Iran -- I’ll leave that horribly complex issue to George Friedman.
Shackled once again to the keyboard. Fingertips callused. Holidays now a distant memory. However, over the weekend I did manage to escape to Hobart and scored a bargain at my favourite second-hand bookshop. Just $1 for a nearly mint copy of N'Heures Souris Rames!
I will battle to persuade most of you that this was a bargain rather than an indulgence by an egghead with scrambled brains. The technical term for the contents of this precious volume is homophonic verse – the same sounds make sense in two languages. Thus, N'Heures Souris Rames (French) = Nursery Rhymes (English, about 30 of them). “Georgie Porgie, Pudding and Pie / Kissed the girls and made them cry” = “Georgie Port-régie, peu digne en paille / Qui se dégeule sans mais. Dame craille”. Ha ha, quite hilarious. Of course, the French suffers a bit and elaborate footnotes are required. Nonetheless, in both languages the words make sense, even if they are most meaningful in English.
Hang in there. There is a point to this carry-on. We have run several articles in MercatorNet over the past few weeks on same-sex marriage. After moderating hostile comments from critics of natural marriage, I have come to feel that we are speaking, so to speak, homophonically: the words of our articles make sense in English, but some people are reading them in a different language. There’s almost no communication going on.
I feel at a loss when commenters post comments like: “good and evil? Get over it.” Or “what so special about being natural?” Or “the purpose of sex isn’t about having babies anymore. What about IVF?” Or “you have your morality and I have mine.” To my mind, these suggest not just two different views of the same problem, but two different universes of logic. It’s important to deal directly with the issue of same-sex marriage – and a host of other issues which put human dignity at risk – but until we have reached agreement on fundamental issues of logic and meaning, we will be talking homophonically.
Anyhow, so far this week, we have posted three articles. Bryce J. Christensen decries a loss of freedom of speech in debates over same-sex marriage. James S. Cole explains a unanimous decision of the US Supreme Court which defended religious freedom. And Izzy Kalman has some advice for President Obama about anti-bullying strategies.
(Just thought I’d give the old greeting an airing.) During the week I went to see The Iron Lady, thinking I might write a review for MercatorNet. In the end there did not seem to be much to say. It’s always fun watching Meryl Streep impersonate historical figures, real or stock, whether the mother superior of a 1960s convent, cookery supremo Julia Child or, as in the current instance, Margaret Thatcher. (Although you can never quite forget that it is MS being awfully clever, this time she is brilliantly aided by make-up artist Marese Langan.)
Still, I had rather hoped to learn a little more about Mrs T (or MT as her husband Denis affectionately calls her in the film), to get a look behind the political clichés about her grocer’s-daughter love of hard work and thrift, her belief in purging the body politic (“The medicine will be harsh…”), and the jingoism that led her to go to war with Argentina over some bleak islands at the bottom of the inhabited world. But, after an hour and three-quarters of hallucinations and flashbacks, I found myself complaining, “Is that all?” If there was more to the Western world’s first female head of state in her heyday you are not going to learn it from this movie.
Nevertheless, I can’t leave the subject of Margaret Thatcher without repeating a joke that largely sums up the mother-knows-best way she is portrayed in the film: The cabinet goes to dinner at a swish restaurant. The maitre d' asks Mrs Thatcher what she would like. A steak, she says. Thick. Rare. And the vegetables, madame? They'll have whatever I have, says the PM.
We do have a film review this week -- Ronan Wright finds War Horse good in parts. Also on the media trail, Philip Elias wonders exactly what the 24-hour shutdown of Wikipedia was meant to prove.
With the world economy still front and centre of the global stage, we reproduce a paper by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, examining the moral roots of the current crisis, while David Peterson takes another look at a controversial economic proposal from some Catholic scholars. Looking at the US debt, Vincenzina Santoro asks why conscience-smitten millionaires don’t put their money there their mouth is. George Friedman keeps an eye on the Middle East and oil supplies.
Finally we have two articles on aspects of sexual politics. Susan Moore writes about the complementarity of the sexes and, in an article reproduced in partnership with Public Discourse, Angela Franks reviews a life of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger which glosses over her ideological commitment to eugenics.
A lot of reading there! Next week we will be back to two newsletters and a more normal routine, though some of us are still in partial holiday mode Down Under.
And since this is a time for fresh starts I might as well get something off my chest straight away: I have not been lovingly tending MercatorNet while Michael Cook has been having a richly-deserved holiday. Observant readers will have noticed that Michael, with his uncanny ability to do everything at once, has been tending the website while on holiday and I have only reappeared on the scene this week.
What have I been up to? Mainly, enjoying the company of younger relatives avoiding the European winter by taking an extended holiday Down Under (Australia and New Zealand). Unfortunately they ran smack into the worst summer we have had in a while, featuring copious rainfall interspersed with brisk winds. Still, we managed to have a good time. During a few days stay at the beach they took to the water with stoical determination and swore they enjoyed it. We did a day trip to an offshore island, a native bird sanctuary, and got soaked to the skin but came home very happy with sightings of the rare Kokako as well as an Oystercatcher and her newborn chicks -- among other winged wildlife.
I read a very nice book, Irene Nemerovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods, and made a start on a small classic, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich (catching up with Solzhenitsyn is an ongoing project of mine) but had to put it aside after a few pages as it seemed almost indecent to read about people being ground to powder in the gulags while sitting on the beach.
No time for any New Year resolutions yet except to learn to use my new smartphone. But I sense another one forming right now: getting this Friday newsletter out by 4.30pm. Little by little…
I hope you enjoy this week’s articles: Kevin Ryan on the apparent mental health crisis in US colleges; Ronan Wright on the new Mission Impossible movie; Robert Reilly on the dangers of wishful thinking about the Arab Spring; Thomas Reeves on digital natives and what the experts are saying about them; William West on what’s passed for adolescent viewing by film censors; Paul Rogers on US-Iran relationships; and Peter Smith on British Conservatives and same-sex, ahem, marriage.
In the blogs: Sheila Liaugminas has important updates on the US elections; Tiger Print features a great video of an adolescent facing death with serenity; our Demography bloggers are back and up to the minute; Reading Matters continues to roll out its guide to good reading; and Family Edge has unwittingly stirred up a debate on male circumcision (when we were really trying to talk about marriage).
The editorial staff of MercatorNet is still on light duties (supervising beaches, digesting Christmas cake and reading Russian doorstops) at the moment, so this is the first newsletter of 2012.
However, much to my relief, MercatorNet’s contributors are not taking the same lackadaisical attitude and we have an impressive line-up of reading for you. At the top are Zac Alstin’s New Year’s resolutions, all of which are quite sensible, even if they do not involve eating and exercise.
In that spirit, I’d like to share my own, although I think that they are better described as velleities rather than resolutions. Velleities (an extremely useful word) are feeble wishes or inclinations which do not necessarily lead to action. But, you never know, they might. Feel free to remind us about them during the year.
We would like to launch a focus blog, tentatively named Conjugality, about the same-sex marriage debate. We are looking around for the US$5,000 needed to support it. You are welcome to search for donors with us.
We would like to hold a couple of seminars in Sydney for students and young professionals on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and refugees. Any other ideas?
We would like to reach 10,000 MercatorNet fans on Facebook, assuming I figure out how to use Facebook properly. You can help here!
Disclosing New Year’s Velleities to all and sundry is not a smart idea because I might actually have to do them. But MercatorNet is all about the exhilaration of life on the edge.
Meanwhile, back at the home page, Canadian economist Doug Allen discusses the economics of same-sex marriage in an exclusive interview; Tom Reeves asks whether China offers a model for higher education in the West; Pat Schloss comments on Rick Santorum’s campaign for the Republic nomination; Martin Shaw makes New Year’s predictions; Lord David Alton critiques a sham UK report on assisted suicide; and Sue Alexander-Barnes reviews a documentary about an influential New Age writer.
We would like to send all of our readers best wishes for Christmas and the New Year. We’re very grateful for all your support during the past months. We often receive kind words from readers and they really buoy us up.
We’re especially grateful to our contributors. We could not have produced MercatorNet or any of our blogs without a lot of very professional help from dozens of writers around the world. A very special thank-you to them. May Santa fill your stocking to the brim!
We will be closing down the site for a couple of weeks and this will be the last newsletter for 2011. I’ll be on holidays for three weeks after Christmas and the indefatigable Carolyn Moynihan will be at the tiller.
Since this is the only newsletter this week, we have produced a bumper issue. Jeremy Prichard, an Australian criminologist, has a new strategy for combating internet pornography. W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt ask why parents with four-plus children are happier than those with just a couple. And I compare the reputations of two eminent public intellectuals who recently passed away, the controversialist Christopher Hitchens and Czech philosopher-king Vaclav Havel.
On a Christmas theme, we have reproduced a stirring speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron in which he declares that Britain is a Christian nation. However, Joanna Bogle questions this in a typically insightful piece. And finally I have discovered seven reasons why it’s better to say Merry Christmas than “Season’s Greetings”.
A very happy Christmas to all of you and your families.