Please don’t ring me tomorrow evening
between 8pm and midnight. There’s an Australian Federal election and being a
politics junkie, I plan to be eating pizza in front of the television until
there is a winner.
This election promises to be a cliffhanger,
as the conservative coalition opposition is nearly neck and neck with the Labor
government. Unfortunately the Greens, a conservationist party which has adopted
radical social policies like abortion and gay marriage, could hold the balance
of power whoever wins government. A 5-metre saltwater crocodile named Harry has
predicted that the incumbent Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will be returned.
This week we have posted the last tranche
of articles in our “world’s most dangerous idea” forum. It’s a
thought-provoking selection. Deputy Editor Carolyn Moynihan reckons that the most dangerous
idea is that all family types are the same, married, unmarried, gay or
whatever. Zac Alstin echoes an idea which provoked lots of comment recently:
that bombing Hiroshima was the wrong decision. For Thaddeus Kozinski, the most
dangerous idea is agnosticism, and for Margaret Somerville the notion that man
is just a more sophisticated robot or a more intelligent animal.
There’s more, of course. We could hardly
ignore the brouhaha over the mosque in Manhattan. My feeling is that New York
is better off without it. I await readers’ brickbats. And Canadian pharmacist Cristina
Alarcon says that she resents being told to leave her conscience at home when
she goes to work.
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There is only so much one can say about a social evil without losing people’s attention. Truly evil things are going on in the world today -- wholesale abortion, experimentation with human life, deliberately depriving children of a father, attacks on marriage -- but one cannot harp on them every day. So many people lack a coherent moral code by which to judge these things that they feel hypocritical about voicing their misgivings.
And yet some silences are so calculated that they cannot be ignored, and I have dealt with one of them in my article about women’s capacity for violence. It was prompted by new research showing that thousands of ordinary German women during World War II went off to work in occupied territories, diligently doing ordinary jobs as mass killings of Jews happened more or less before their eyes. One feminist writer’s response to this was to acknowledge that women are capable of violence, but then to offer rather trivial current examples, making no mention at all of the most obvious contemporary parallel: women who co-operate in the abortion industry.
As for the general silence and apparent tolerance of abortion, a poll this week reminds us that it does not signify approval. The Rasmussen survey shows that nearly half (48 per cent) of American voters continue to believe that an abortion is too easy to obtain in their country. The figure among women is 53 per cent, while 58 per cent of them think that abortion is morally wrong in most cases. It is not at all futile to turn the spotlight on this issue from time to time; only, not all the time. There are many other ways to build a culture of life.
In other new articles Michael Kirke writes from downbeat Ireland about the upside of new media; Vincenzina Santoro finds that two small European countries which have battled their way out of economic holes are setting an example for the US and the rest of Europe; and George Friedman focuses on Iran in his latest geopolitical forecast.
Parents and teachers, don’t forget to check out our Reading Matters blog for great kids’ books -- and subscribe!
We’ve had a very interesting exchange of
comments beneath this week’s article on the 65th anniversary of the bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are well worthwhile reading.
My own view is that President Truman was
wrong, although the pressures on him made his decision all but inevitable. We
don’t feel those pressures so we can consider the matter more coolly. The main
issue, it seems to me, is that only morally good actions promote human dignity.
There are not three categories of action: good, evil and unfortunately
That path leads towards utilitarian ethics,
in which no action is intrinsically good or bad. There are only good or bad
outcomes. A slide towards utilitarian reasoning has been responsible for a steady
decline in the moral life of the Western world and has to be resisted. If our
discussion of bombing Japanese civilians alerts readers to this danger, I think
it has been well worthwhile.
As promised, we have published the first
instalment of our Forum on the world’s most dangerous idea. Theron Bowers says
that it is the notion that being human is nothing special. Robert Moniot argues
that it is the fire hose of information from the internet. Jeffrey Langan says
that it is capitalism. (I expect a lot of comments on that.) And Matthew Hanley
contends that it is relativism. More contributions next week.
Finally, Constance Kong picks up the thread
of our critique of utilitarianism by criticizing the ruthless indifference of
Chinese business to consumer safety. What China needs is a vigorous consumer
PS -- Some readers have complained that the
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displays a message "key_characters_disallowed". The bad news is that
we are still trying to find the bug which causes this. The good news is that
you can easily fix it, if you delete all MercatorNet cookies. (See your
preferences or options to do this.) Please tell us if it happens to you to help
us in diagnosing it.
Last week we splashed on the decision of a
Federal Court judge in California that no reasonable arguments exist to ban
same-sex marriage, so I have been following this issue more closely than
It came as a rather painful surprise to
read Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times hesitantly endorsing the
decision. Douthat is a talented young writer, and one of the Times’s token
conservatives. Perhaps I’m too dense to understand the finer points, but his
argument boils down to this: the romantic and Christian ideal of one man and
one woman united forever with their children is beautiful, but just too tough nowadays -- for
everyone, not just homosexuals. It’s time to throw in the towel.
There seems to be genuine perplexity among
political conservatives about what marriage is. This is hardly surprising. Half
a century of no-fault divorce and widespread contraception have changed many
people’s understanding of marriage. As Douthat ruefully points out, “a culture
in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially
connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of
Rather than despair and give up, as Douthat
has done, however, MercatorNet regards this as a “teachable moment”. It’s an
opportunity to deepen in our understanding of marriage and sexuality and to find
the words and reasons to defend traditional values. We don’t intend to waste
So far this week, though, we have managed
to stay off this topic. Instead, Angelo Stagnaro comments on the concept of
de-baptism; Thomas C. Reeves put the boot into Wikipedia; and Christopher
Tollefsen returns to the appalling decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima.
Keep in touch, as later this week we will
be running a forum on “the world’s most dangerous idea”. Several of our regular
contributors will be putting forward their nominations. I hope that there will
be lots of comments.
We live in a topsy-turvey world, no doubt about it. I have spent most of today at conference run by a New Zealand pro-family group during which we heard about some of the less-recognised pathologies of our western societies. These include the sexualization of girls and the pornification of culture; the erosion of children’s physical, intellectual and affective wellbeing through too early and too much exposure to “screen time”; the collapse of parental authority and the rise of an unhappy generation of children who know no boundaries for their behaviour and no security.
It was not just well-meaning people sounding off. Dr Aric Sigman -- who talked about screens and parental authority -- is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Melinda Tankard Reist is a respected Australian researcher, writer and activist on behalf of women and girls. Both of them presented heaps of evidence -- pictorial, documentary, statistical -- for their claims and have published their findings in books.
And here is the point: talented and smart people like this have to work flat out -- usually without the security of an academic position -- to gather evidence for things that are plain common sense. They have to convince the professional and political establishment, and even the general public, that it is harmful to dress young girls like porn stars; to leave infants in daycare and little children in front of TV sets; to let kids dictate what they will eat for dinner; to treat all types of family structures as though they were equal. Single-sex education advocate Leonard Sax, whose book about girls I have reviewed this week, is another of them. These people stand out from the mainstream and risk their comfort and sometimes their reputation to defend what ought to be taken for granted, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
The need for experts who can explain what is essential to human wellbeing but no longer obvious has been demonstrated again this week with the release of a judicial decision that strikes down a democratically inspired ban on gay marriage in California. Michael Cook has written about this and how the judge was able to use the credentials of a bunch of professors to support his case -- and scoff at the weakness of the defence case. “Where were the academics defending the conviction of America's heartland?” he asks. One of them, Professor Walter Schumm, is doing his darnedest and comments on some of the evidence for us in his article.
Finally this week Stratfor’s George Friedman suggests that the fierce debate over Arizona’s new immigration law tends to treat the issue as something internal to the United States, when it is really a geopolitical issue between two nation-states. History and foreign examples need to be considered.
Tomorrow Kenyans vote on a new
constitution. The old one dates from independence from Britain in 1963. For
Americans, whose constitution is 221 years old, trading in an old model after
only 47 years may seem a bit hasty. But in fact, the average national constitution
lasts only 19 years, according to US legal experts who assisted in drafting a
new constitution for Kenya.
It seems likely the new proposal will win,
as it is backed by both the President and the Prime Minister, who represent the
two major tribes. Despite some very positive changes which will hopefully
defuse tensions over land distribution and ethnic rivalry, there are
significant problems with the draft. Its fuzzy language could very well allow
abortion and same-sex marriage and it will also permit the creation of a parallel
Muslim legal system. And in a very peculiar move, it stipulates that
international treaties and conventions, if ratified, become part of Kenyan law.
Truckling to external pressure from UN
committees and conventions is something that Americans passionately resist. Nonetheless,
the Obama administration strongly supports it in other people’s constitutions.
"Dare to reach for transformative change, the kind of change that might
come around only once in a lifetime," Vice-President Joe Biden told
Kenyans a few weeks ago. What sort of transformation does he want for Kenya? To
be more like Massachusetts or California? Kenya is quite distant from here, but
I would advise voters there to reject the draft.
After the results are in, we’ll report on
So far this week, we report on three men
who have made history. Francis Phillips reviews a biography of the talented, complex
and cranky historian of Nazi Germany, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Michael Coren defends
media magnate Conrad Black, who has just been bailed from prison where he was
doing time for fraud. And Alistair Nicholas attacks the former CEO of BP, Tony
Heyward, as an example of bad leadership in a crisis.
Tossing up over whether to write a few lines on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding this weekend (Congratulations, Chelsea!) or Barack Obama’s birthday on the 4th (I received an invitation from Michelle to sign an online birthday card for him during the week) I found my thoughts wandering off to northern Spain. To Catalonia, to be precise, a place I happened to visit early this year and found quite fascinating.
One of the original autonomous regions of Spain, it still harbours a strong movement for independence and this week found a unique way to get its message across to the Spanish government: its parliament banned bullfighting. This ritualistic national sport is actually in decline in Catalonia, so it seems like a politically safe move -- just like bans on the burqa recently passed by several municipalities, even though the garment is rarely seen on Catalan streets. What will the politicos ban next? asksThe Economist.
It strikes me as quite typical of our rulers to resort to such tactics when they are scared to take the bull by the horns in those arenas that properly belong to them: the economy, for example. In Spain, the government has been busy for several years legalising things that really should be banned, notably abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly in other countries. In the US President Obama has shown himself friendly to civil unions if not gay marriage and his compromising stand on this issue is one reason I don’t feel like wishing him “many happy returns”.
In her article, Mary Rice Hasson looks at evidence that homosexual unions are already contributing to a “reinterpretation” of monogamous marriage. Dr Miriam Grossman protests at the debased and dangerous sexual information now proposed even for very young children. And moral philosopher William May helpfully explains the theoretical background to such trends and how we can rationally discuss them with others.
In other articles Leonard Franchi reviews a new book about the infamous Dreyfus affair and what we can still learn from it today, and Rebecca Gould insists that disenfranchising 5.4 million Americans who have had a felon conviction is unjust and has severe consequences for their rehabilitation and the democratic process. I must say I am on her side.
The story of the week is the release of
92,000 classified documents about the war in Afghanistan by Wikileaks, a
website for whistleblowers founded by anarchist and hacker Julian Assange. (For
better or worse, he is an Australian.)
This leak raises many questions. Is it
ethical to leak classified material? Is it ethical to publish it? Are the
documents placing soldiers’ lives at risk? The lives of Afghans who collaborate
with NATO forces? Is this David defying Goliath, or pipsqueak grandstanding?
I’m inclined to think that publishing the
documents is a serious crime. It endangers the lives of US soldiers and their
allies, as well as Afghans who work with them. Even if the documents have added
nothing new to what any intelligent analyst knew from reading the New York
Times regularly, they give the enemy a far better understanding of how US
But there’s another side to the story which
no one has picked up. An avalanche of 92,000 documents into the public domain
is simply not intelligible. It is just data. Sifting and assessing them all
takes wisdom and experience. The media and their readers are stumbling by night
over rough roads lit by flares of dramatic anecdotes. They don’t see an open
and intelligible landscape by daylight. America’s spies find it hard enough to
collate the Mississippi of information which gushes into their computers. How
much more do voters understand about Afghanistan after the leak than before? It
distorts public perceptions of the war. It may be going well; it may be going
badly. But the disturbing stories in the documents really leave us none the
Anyhow, in this week’s article, George
Friedman, an intelligence analyst, tries to make sense of what has emerged from
the Wikileaks. And there’s more. Francis Phillips reviews a book by Melanie
Phillips which takes a caustic look at growing irrationality of contemporary
culture. Michael Casey asks why we should feel responsible for the sins of our
grandfathers. And Thomas C. Reeves has reservations about how bad teachers were
recently culled from the Washington DC school system.
Four hundred years ago this month a young Italian artist who, a few years before, had been the most famous painter in Rome, died, probably on his way back there to obtain a pardon from the Pope for killing a man in a brawl. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was only 38 when his notoriously unruly life ended, but his original use of the chiaroscuro technique to portray the physical and psychological reality of moments ranging from The Supper at Emmaus to The Beheading of Holofernes had already marked him as a genius. Rediscovered, or at least rehabilitated in the 20th century, he is recognised as one of the most influential Italian artists. An exhibition marking his anniversary closed in Rome last month, and a possible work of his has just been discovered in a Jesuit property there.
This art history lesson (for which I am indebted mainly to Wikipedia) is inspired by a certain similarity between Caravaggio and the film actor, producer and director Mel Gibson, which I have used in my article about the latter. Maybe their genius is not in the same league but their morality has some points of convergence. It is too late for moralising about Caravaggio, but not too late for Gibson to be told exactly what is wrong with him, as many media sermons testify. But what is it about Mel that most needs changing? That’s the question raised by certain criticisms and really what my piece is about.
The fact is that artists and other celebrities tend to get away with an awful lot when it comes to their personal failings, and even crimes, as Jeremy Pritchard notes in his piece on the Roman Polanski case. He writes: “It is hard to imagine celebrities defending a paedophile priest on the grounds that his crime was a long time ago, he’s been otherwise good, and he delivers engaging homilies.” Indeed.
On a more upbeat note, Bill Muehlenberg in his article finds a charming connection between the World Cup winners and Down syndrome -- one that the Aussies could learn something from. Thomas Reeves has some sobering thoughts on internet messages that look informed but don’t bear close scrutiny. And George Friedman examines the interesting question of nationality and dual citizenship.
It is election time in Australia. Our new
prime minister, Julia Gillard, has announced that we go to the polls on August
21. If you read newspapers here for anything besides sport and politics, you are out
of luck for the next few weeks.
I have never been a member of a political
party, but a few years ago I did hand out how-to-vote cards at an election
booth in Tasmania for a friend who was standing as an independent. These cards
are important in Australian preferential voting, as they somehow suggest which combination
of preferences will help your candidate most. Anyhow, there I
was on a cold and drizzly Saturday morning shoving damp strips of coloured paper
into the hands of voters.
It wasn’t busy and I chatted with the Opposition as they handed out their own propaganda.
The pleasant fellow from the Labor Party (like the Democrats, for US readers)
was dressed like a teacher on his day off. Which he was. The fellow from the
Liberal Party (like the Republicans, perhaps) was the owner of one of the
biggest businesses in the state. He was a natty dresser: a blue blazer with
gold buttons, cream slacks and loafers. His wife, a carefully coiffured blonde,
had a faux leopard skin coat set off by gold-trimmed black pumps. Mr Liberal kept
looking at his watch. He was going yachting that afternoon and couldn’t be
Most interesting were the Greens
(treehuggers and social progressives). A young woman with long braided hair looked
as though she had been to numerous “Save the orange-bellied parrot” demonstrations. She wore
a long, loose hand-knitted jumper. After her came a fellow who may have rushed
back from a bushwalk. He was balding, and what remained of his white hair
was tied back in a long ponytail.
I’m not sure which stereotype I fit into. I
just remember being cold and wet. But my friend was re-elected. The Liberals sank like a stone.
By some coincidence, the theme of our
articles so far this week is politics. Cristina Alarcon writes about conscience
rights in Washington State. Dwight Duncan reviews an important new book about
the impoverishment of contemporary poltical discourse. Godfrey Hodgson claims
that inequality is becoming entrenched in the US after the GFC. And, in our
non-political story, priest-psychologist Giovanni Cucci analyses the troubling
issue of paedophilia.