Recently we ran a Mercatornet subscriber satisfaction survey
which a number of people kindly took part in. If you were one of them, many
thanks. We will give you some feedback on that next week, but in the meantime I
would like to highlight one aspect of our site which is passing under the radar
of many readers. I am talking about the blogs, the topical “diaries” that you
can find down the right-hand side of our front page.
Just to mention the first three: Careful! deals with
euthanasia, ReadingMatters with children’s books, and TigerPrint with fashion
and other young adult issues. The editors -- Michael Cook (Careful!), Jennifer
Minicus (ReadingMatters) and Katie Hinderer (TigerPrint) are working hard to
keep these up to date and relevant to the needs of special interest groups as
well as general readers. We highlight the latest entries at the foot of this newsletter
each time it goes out, but it seems many readers are not aware of at least some
of these blogs and are missing out on useful information and commentary. It can
also be entertaining!
To tighten the focus even more: there is a real treasure
trove of reviews building up in the books blog, Reading Matters, which
parents of young children through to late teens would be well-advised to
consult. Of the contributors, Jennifer Minicus is a mother and former teacher
who conducts book clubs for young children; Clare Cannon runs a book business
in Sydney and is very knowledgeable about books aimed at adolescents (see her review of Halo, a
Twilight look-alike); and Tim Golden also has long experience in children’s
literature. If you are dealing with children’s books at all, do visit the blog
and subscribe; that way each new entry comes to your inbox. Same with the other
Now to our latest articles: Michael Cook explains why Catholic bishops in Australia’s most populous state are warning voters not to
vote for the Greens Party in this weekend’s state election. Chinwuba Iyizoba
says Nigeria’s infamous email scammers are making life difficult for their
honest countrymen. Matthew Rarey is enthusiastic about a new biography of
American Founding Father Charles Carroll, a too much neglected figure. And psychology
blogger Denyse O’Leary is back with an update on the debate about free will.
Perhaps I should take a break from personal
reminiscences for a while in this column. It doesn’t take long for the mother
lode of an uneventful life to run out. This reminds me of Henry Lawson
(1867-1922), who is probably Australia’s greatest short story writer. He ran
out of puff relatively early. One sign of that was a detail in a story, “The
Drover’s Wife”, about a woman alone and afraid in the outback with her
children. She wants to have a good cry, but as she sobs into her handkerchief,
her fingers poke through the holes and she breaks into laughter. The same
delightful image crops up in another story late in his career, written as he
succumbed to depression, drunkenness and debt. The poor man’s creativity had run
dry and he was forced to recycle his insights.
Anyhow, there is plenty to discuss in this
week’s MercatorNet. Alistair Nicholas contends that the managers of the
Fukushima Daiichi power plant were ill-prepared for an emergency, despite the
catastrophic consequences of failure. Ronan Wright reviews Matt Damon’s latest
film, The Adjustment Bureau. George Friedman wonders how the Libyan War will
turn out. And finally, Babette Francis has written a hilarious piece about the
23 sexualities whose rights the Australian Human Rights Commission is trying to
protect. I always thought that there were only two. How wrong I was!
It has been a dramatic week, with its mixture of natural and
man-made disasters. While thousands of Japanese earthquake and Tsunami
survivors wait in emergency accommodation for things as basic as water and food
supplies, frantic efforts to prevent catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear
power plant have riveted world attention.
Nuclear energy is the debate of the moment, and George Friedman’s article explains why
Japan took the nuclear option. But there is a question about the natural
disaster that many of us find ourselves pondering and which Michael Cook is bold enough to ask: Why
them? It’s a question that some of the commentariat ridicule, but I’ll bet that
many Japanese are asking right now, Why us? We may not -- and probably should
not -- have a ready answer, but in solidarity with the suffering we ought not
to dismiss the question.
The Libyan revolution meanwhile has suffered a disastrous
reversal but a last-minute UN resolution imposing a “no-fly zone” over the
country (this means -- I had to look it up -- that US and other warplanes can
bomb Libyan air defences to prevent them being used against the rebels) has
given new heart to the rebels. Other Middle Eastern countries are on the boil
and the situation is changing from day to day. Goodness knows what will come
out of all this. It would certainly be a good thing if oil ceased to rule the
The disaster theme also runs through Constance Kong’s review of a book called When A Billion Chinese Jump -- an allusion to the environmental impact
of China’s headlong modernisation. And in Germany, writes Paul Miller, politicians and ethicists are divided over the use of
a technique to screen IVF embryos for genetic disorders -- so they can be
aborted -- this in a country where the memory of Nazi barbarities is very much
Finally, for something completely different, I interviewed British
TV personality Aggie MacKenzie about
what she has learned from sorting out filthy houses and helping put their
inhabitants back on their feet. Aggie is a keynote speaker at a London conference (March 17-18)
about professional approaches to housework. What a difference it would make to
the world if more homes were clean and orderly!
Before I take my leave to catch up on some neglected chores
-- please note that the Demography
blog is up and running again, thanks to Marcus Roberts and Shannon
Buckley, two fellow Kiwis who are giving a hand.
I lived in the southern island of Kyushu
for couple of years as a small child, so I have always had a soft spot for
Japan and its culture. My memories are dim, apart from fighting with my brother
over a dish of fresh fish eyeballs and an excursion to volcanic hot springs. I didn’t
appreciate at the time that with volcanoes go earthquakes and tsunami.
ga nai” – it can’t be helped – is a common
expression in Japanese. They will get on with the job of rebuilding their
shattered seaside towns and cities. Hopefully the emergency at the nuclear
reactor will soon subside, although twittering journalists are sending
nerve-racking news. Zac Alstin and I have commented on aspects of this
But we shouldn’t forget the Ivory Coast and
Libya, two countries we have highlight in recent articles. The tsunami has come
at a good time for Moamar Gaddafi. The world has only so much capacity for
horror and Japan’s distress is distracting attention from his vengeful advance on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
There will be a bloodbath if the insurgents, whom he calls "rats and
terrorists", are defeated. Nature is stern, but man is malevolent.
In other articles Katie Hinderer asks whether the current girly-girl culture of
adolescent and ‘tween girls will keep them from becoming independent, free
thinking, and strong women. And Lea
Singh, a Harvard Law School grad and now a stay-at-home mother, argues that
home life is a real career.
I woke up this morning with this newsletter on my agenda and some thoughts ready on the unfolding of the Christchurch earthquake story, only to find that the devastation of that city has been eclipsed by an 8.9 earthquake that hit off the coast of northeast Japan yesterday afternoon (evening New Zealand time) sending huge walls of water surging into cities and washing away nearly everything in their path. Tsunamis travelling at up to 800 kilometres an hour fanned out across the Pacific basin causing goodness knows what damage to islands in their path, though having very little expected impact here. I don’t need to rehearse events that will be on your television screens all day, except to say that living at the edge of the Pacific has begun to feel somewhat insecure.
More important, right now, is to feel and show solidarity with all those suffering the effects of these natural disasters. This has been demonstrated in a wonderful way in response to the post-quake situation in Christchurch, and no doubt the world will now rush to the support of Japan (search and rescue experts from there have only just returned home from Christchurch).
But what can be done for Libya and its freedom movement? Or the Ivory Coast, which today’s headlines indicate is descending into a bloodbath? Or any of the countries shaken and devastated by internecine rivalries and warfare? Anti-intervention sentiment is strong in the West and it is not clear, in the wake of Iraq, what good it would do on balance. We have two articles on Libya today which examine this question and give very helpful background.
In other articles, Pedro Dutour gives us a glimpse of the human heart of Mexico -- a country about which we hear almost exclusively bad news. In this one, two groups of women from very different social groups respond to basic human needs. From Australia, where it is a live political issue, Mary Joseph offers a helpful Q&A on same-sex marriage; Alistair Nicholas gets indignant at Hollywood, and I take a look at the world’s billionaires and the woes of the super-rich.
Today is both International Women’s Day and
Shrove Tuesday. The first of these is a topic which I prefer to leave to
Carolyn Moynihan. She has written a cri de coeur in exasperation at how little
feminism has delivered after 100 International Women’s Days. I have also made a
small contribution for the occasion – an article about three very different
women and euthanasia.
The second is problematic in Sydney, which
hosts a world-famous Gay Mardi Gras every year, a festival of vulgar depravity
which leaves the inner city knee-deep in litter and filth. In the words of a
weary garbo last Saturday evening, “Mate, the rubbish… it's like a tsunami.” In
more ways than one.
The traditional way of
celebrating Lent makes more sense. At this time of year, I always think of my Irish grandmother
whose tales of the old country set us an standard of inimitable austerity. She came from the isolated settlement
of Inishmore, the westernmost of three islands in Galway Bay. From what I
recall of her stories, during the 40 days of Lent her family dined exclusively on salted
codfish and black tea. There might have been dried kelp for dessert and maybe a
potato on Sundays.
It sounds a bit like the Monty Python skit
of the Four Yorkshiremen,
but if you have ever seen Robert Flaherty’s stirring documentary, Man of Aran, about life
on those cold-to-the-bone, wind-lashed, cliff-edged limestone islands in the 1930s, it
seems credible enough. I hope none of our Irish readers demythologises it for
me. Anyhow, now that most moral arguments are settled by the argumentum ad
carbonfootprintem, it’s clear that the traditional Lent wins hands down over
the ghastly LGBT variety. My grandmother and her large family would have taken a carbon footprint and used it to season their leathery codfish.
Other developments on MercatorNet this week
include my brief article on the revival of eugenics, George Friedman on the
future of distant land wars in Asia, and Constance Kong on her children’s brush
with political correctness.
A couple of years ago, the editor of Arena,
a Melbourne magazine which called itself “the voice of the Australian Left”
asked me to write a feature on the euthanasia activist Philip Nitschke. I would
be taking a rather dim view of his activities, I said. “Great, mate,” he
replied. “Can’t shovel enough of it on that bloke.”
I wrote the article, which was long and not
just dim but dark, and soon afterwards found myself timidly entering the Arena
Christmas party. It took me a while to locate the dingy-looking workingman’s pub
in a bohemian quarter of Fitzroy. But inside there were splendid polished wood
floors, boutique beers and fried tofu, the hallmarks of what Australians call
I bought a beer and the editor introduced
me to two of his comrades as “our token Catholic conservative who’s just
written a brilliant feature on euthanasia”. Without seeking any more detail, the
comrade on the right immediately volunteered, “Euthanasia, that’s a good thing.
I remember me Dad, he was pretty crook, so I called the doc and had a word and
he gave him a needle and that was that.”
Perhaps it was the beer, but I was ill-prepared
for this conversational gambit. So I fell to conversing with the comrade on the
left, who was 60+ with his grey hair tied back in a long pony tail. It turned
out that he was the one of the last of Melbourne’s unreconstructed Stalinists (Joseph
Vissarionovich was a
much-misunderstood thinker, it seems). He waxed eloquent about the merits of Fichte,
a German philosopher of unfathomable obscurity whose complete works he had just
finished reading in order to understand Marx better. It was an interesting
Anyhow, the point of this is, possibly,
that it is unwise to pigeonhole people as “liberals” or “conservatives”. Arena’s
editor’s passion was defending the downtrodden, forgotten and marginalised. To
him, this included potential victims of euthanasia. It plainly wasn’t the way his
friends approached the problem, but at least we found a patch of common ground.
And this leads me to Dr Nitschke. He is
still in the same business but now wants to become a stand-up comedian. I have
given him a few helpful hints. Also in this issue Ronan Wright reviews Oscar-nominated
127 Hours; Rebekah Hebbert asks whether Canadian polygamy is good for kids;
Michael Kirke reviews an amazing court case about the place of Christianity in
Britain; and Caroline Wells gives some background to a looming civil war in
The other day I realised how much the world
has changed for the better in the last half-century or so. I was speaking with
a fellow in his early 20s who asked me why I have a limp. “I had polio when I
was a kid,” I replied. “Polio?” he said. “What’s that?”
What a great world to live in: one where
you have never even heard of polio. When I was growing up, parents would panic
at the word. Everyone knew children hobbling down the street on crutches;
everyone had seen photos of vast hospital wards with scores of kids imprisoned in
wheezing iron lungs.
I actually benefited from my brush with
polio. In high school I was spared having to do compulsory Phys Ed. I was never
in any danger of conscription. And it’s easy to pick me out in a crowd. But
other than that, it’s really not such a great idea.
So while I enjoy blood sports
like bashing international agencies such as Unicef and the World Health
Organization or private philanthropists like Bill Gates as much as the next guy, I must thank them for bringing
the world to the brink of eradicating polio. In 1988 350,000 children worldwide
were killed or paralyzed by the disease. Last year only 1,500 were. Only in
four nations -- India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan –- is the disease actively
being transmitted nowadays.
But as long as there are pockets of the
disease anywhere, it can easily come back. "Polio's only a plane ride
away,” in the words of one expert. That’s why Bill Gates deserves to be
applauded for giving US$200 million and for coordinating other organisations
and countries to mount a final push. "Clearly, I'm betting money,
reputation, energy, everything we have, to help polio eradication this
year," he says. Here’s hoping.
Back to this week’s MercatorNet. British
scholar Archie Brown reviews the achievements of former USSR President Mikhail
Gorbachev for his 80th birthday. Vincenzina Santoro reminds us that the world’s
real problem is not too many people, but too many old people and too few young
people. And James S. Cole sees a glimmer of hope in President Obama’s decision
not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act.
Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch. Picture: David Wethey/NZPA, via Associated Press
There is only one thing that a New Zealander can talk to the
world about this week: the shocking, ruinous earthquake that struck the city of
Christchurch on Monday only six months after the big one whose epicentre was
out under the city hinterland. This one was, technically, an aftershock, of
which there have been hundreds, and of a magnitude (6.3) that experts
predicted. But it was so long in coming that they had begun to think the region
would be spared. Alas; when it came, at lunchtime on a business day, it was
shallow and it hit near the Port of Lyttelton, causing massive damage there and
in the CBD. So far 113 people are confirmed dead, 228 are missing, and search
and rescue workers from around the world are trying to find them in the rubble
of multi-storey buildings. It truly is a dark time for the city and our country.
Earlier this evening we pulled an old analogue telephone out
of storage in our basement to send to Christchurch, where a quarter of the city
is still without power. We will send some money. Kiwis everywhere are joining
the relief effort. A guy in Wellington has organised a bake-a-thon to send
cookies to ChCh this weekend. University students there have all turned out -- again
-- to shovel “goo” off front lawns and driveways in suburbs swamped by
liquefaction. But it is going to be a huge national project to rebuild the
city, and the confidence of its residents.
One can’t help thinking, Why them? Last month it was floods and
a cyclone in Australia -- who’s next? Silly question; we simply can’t know. But
we can be prepared. Every time I look at the pictures of the collapsed
buildings and think of the people who haven’t made it out, that wise saying about
living each day as though it were your last comes to me. If a building suddenly
collapsed on me, would I be doing what I ought to be doing, or…? Which remands
me that I ought to finish this newsletter, as it is getting late.
We have an interesting assortment of articles for you.
Robert Moniot writes about an amazing robot called Watson which won a quiz show
last week, but is not, he assures us, about to take over any vital human
function. George Friedman suggests there will be a slow transition to democracy
in the Middle East -- but not of the Western kind. Zac Alston defends our moral
instincts (the Yuck factor) against Peter Singer’s disdain. And Theron Bowers sees
the Tucson shooting as a consequence of our crazy modern ideas about freedom.
We revisit the Live Action v. Planned Parenthood controversy
in articles by Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor. One is critical of
the group’s sting operation and one defensive. The debate has moved on from
there and I encourage you to follow it up on the Public Discourse website. My
piece is a tribute to the courageous abortionist-turned-pro-life-advocate Dr
Bernard Nathanson, who died this week. May he rest in peace.
Is there anyone who is not baffled by the
uprisings in the Arab world? From the Atlantic to the Gulf, all those nations
appeared to be politically stagnant regimes governed by corrupt, self-serving autocrats.
They were cautiously supported by the West because radical Islam seemed to be the
most realistic alternative.
And now the Arab street has overthrown Ben
Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi could be next. Jordan,
Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria are nervously repressing dissent. And, just as in
1989, no one predicted it. Everyone was caught by surprise, from Western democracies like the United
States to Muslim fanatics like al-Qaeda.
What comes next? Western-style democracy? Mad
mullahs? Another round of autocrats? To me it is a reminder that human freedom
makes history quite unpredictable. Over the past 500 years there have been many revolutions. Perhaps they are explicable, but only in hindsight – the
Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the
Industrial Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the dissolution of the USSR… Is
this turmoil in the Arab world another game changer?
We all have a tendency to believe in what
the Arabs call “maktoob”, it is written. But we are free and no one’s destiny
is written – not the survival of Arab despots, not the survival of creaky Chinese
Communism, and not even the survival of the anti-dignitarian secular humanism
which we critique in MercatorNet.
We touch on these themes in our articles so
far this week. Michael Coren warns of the danger posed by the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt. Michael Kirke discusses Hollywood and history in the
films The Way Back and There Be Dragons. And Margaret Somerville asks whether
grandmothers should bear their own grandchildren.