Great drama Down Under yesterday. In the space of 24 hours the job of Prime Minister of Australia passed from Kevin Rudd to his deputy Julia Gillard in a bid by the Labour Party caucus to halt their government’s dangerous decline in popularity. A few months ago Rudd was the most popular PM in the country’s history; today he is sitting on the back benches wondering what happened. But that’s politics for you: as one wit observed, yesterday’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster. They say you need a thick hide to serve in politics, but most of all you seem to need humility; if it doesn’t prevent a disaster it can always save you from being destroyed by one.
As for Julia Gillard, her promotion to PM finally gives Australia feminist credentials that other countries gained as long as five decades ago: Sri Lanka, India, the United Kingdom, The Philippines … New Zealand. A source in Oz confirmed rumours that she is very intelligent, capable and charming, but has red hair that “will have to go”. Speaking of hair … I could envy Ms Gillard her live-in hairdresser, except that she is not married to him.
Not so long ago this might have counted against her politically, but not any more it seems. Personally, I find it detracts from her appeal as a female leader; the concession to cultural pressure to have a “partner” looks like a weakness. What’s wrong with the Florence Nightingale model? Or Joan of Arc, if you prefer. Being neither married nor properly single -- and one can serve one’s country equally well in either state -- will not recommend her to Aussies who want greater political support for marriage and the family based on it. My source tells me she is not engaged with the issue. C’mon, Julia, surprise us; girls can do anything, you know.
Someone who seems to be engaged with the family issue is British leader David Cameron, but as Joanna Bogle writes, there is some doubt about how deep his convictions in this area go. It’s all very well producing a “tough” budget, but what about being tough on the social habits that are dragging western societies into crippling debt?
Toughness is what it takes to stand up to the forces of secularism and relativism -- and when it’s a question of the European Court of Human Rights or the Quebec Ministry of Education we really are talking about “forces”. In other articles today Lithuanian Bishop Sigitas Tamkevičius challenges one, and Barbara Kay writes about an encouraging judicial rebuff to the other.
Then again, couldn’t Christians, for one, do more to promote the treasures of their own culture? As Michael Cook says in reflecting on two pretentious films about two legendary women supposedly victimised by the Church, “Why don’t fans of Christian history make their own films about well-documented events which display the heroism and humanity of Christian life?” He has some exciting suggestions for film scripts, and you are invited to add your own.
A very exciting World Cup this has turned
out to be, especially with Italy’s shock 1-1 loss to soccer minnow New Zealand.
Down Under we finally had something to crow about, after Australia had been
demolished by Germany 4-0. The Kiwis have 25 soccer professionals to Italy’s
3,541, and no doubt many in rugby-mad New Zealand were astonished to learn that
there were as many as that.
As for myself, I’ve never been a team man,
preferring individual challenges in extreme sports. There’s something thrilling
about facing danger and tension alone. My personal best came in 1963,
admittedly some time ago, when I was Old Saybrook County (Connecticut)
Watermelon Eating Champion. From time to time I have been ticked off for being
unduly self-deprecating, but I think this honour speaks for itself.
It was more of a sprint than a marathon, a
speed contest to see who could eat a quarter of a watermelon the fastest. I’m
in no danger now of giving rivals a leg up if I disclose that the secret is
swallowing the seeds in a continuous siphoning action. It takes practice and
dedication, but that is what sport is all about, isn’t it?
On to other things, Antonino Vaccaro asks
if BP was being reckless in drilling at the very limit of technology without an
effective back-up plan. Francis Phillips reviews two biographies of Cardinal
Newman, one obnoxious and one satisfying. And Sam Gregg warns that voters in
European welfare states may make it hard to reforms their economies.
Finally, I want to express MercatorNet’s gratitude
to Brian Lilley, our former Associate Editor, who has taken on a heavy load as Senior
Correspondent for Canada’s Sun Media. With his experience, skill and contacts Brian
was a great help in extending MercatorNet’s coverage and contacting new
contributors. Thanks, Brian.
In defending human dignity it not infrequently happens that MercatorNet writers find themselves tossing a jibe at one or other of those terrible twins, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Both crusading atheists, they always seem to be on the opposite side of the philosophical and ethical fence, making trouble for believers and transcendentalists generally. I have to admit that I took an instant dislike to Hitchens when I read a very nasty critique of Mother Theresa and her work that he penned nearly two decades ago. You could have knocked me down with a feather when he was later invited by the Vatican to testify in her canonisation process, although the (de facto) role of Devil’s Advocate seemed to suit him admirably.
Anyway, time passes, and Hitch, as he is affectionately known to his friends and followers, has written a memoir. Lucky for him, the job of reviewing Hitch-22 went to Francis Phillips who, besides being a country-woman of his (Hitchens is English, although he seems to have adopted America -- perhaps Britain is too small for him and Dawkins) is a temperate and charitable critic. Francis has produced one of her beautiful reviews in which she comes to the conclusion that the compulsive polemicist “is a bigger, more generous-hearted man than his prejudices and spleen suggest”. I think, with this, MercatorNet has paid Hitch his due.
Actually, the polemics of Hitchens, transparent as they are, pose much less of a threat to human dignity than the efforts of well-funded and competitive scientists who are pushing brain scans as a replacement for other types of evidence in courts. Michael Cook gives a comprehensive and fascinating update on this branch of neuroscience with its deterministic outlook and impatience to be rid of really human concepts such as fairness, altruism, love, beauty, God and of course, free will.
My article on the Gulf oil spill was prompted by a feeling that everything but the deeper ethical issues in this crisis are being discussed, and that they will remain unaddressed as the debate continues over the risks of oil exploitation to day.
I sometimes quietly thank my lucky stars that I am not growing up today.
It all seems very complicated. The main thing is that boys are expected to be
quite dexterous at video games and I am all thumbs. The last time I played Resident
Evil, for instance, hardly had I entered the first portal before I was knocked
off by squadrons of flesh-eating zombies. I certainly would have developed a
devastating sense of inferiority.
Another technological hazard is all the morally devastating rubbish
dished up to high school kids on mobile phones and the internet. Not that
things were all that innocent in my day, mind you. The dirty book du jour was
Lolita, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov which is still kicking around. A memoir of Iranian
repression called Reading Lolita in Teheran even spent 100 weeks on the New
York Times best-seller list.
Looking back, the popularity of Lolita is as
bizarre as it is shocking. For it is a novel about paedophilia. With all the fully
justifiable outrage over sex abuse by scout masters and priests and swimming
coaches, how was it possible for Time magazine to praise it not long ago as a “tragic,
twisted epic”? The subsequent success of Reading Lolita
in Teheran suggests that it has even become a symbol of intellectual freedom in
There’s a sick contradiction in attitudes
to perverse sexuality in today’s culture: the practice is repulsive, while the
theory is all but acceptable. If you think that this sounds extreme, read Carolyn
Moynihan’s dismaying exposé of the work of early childhood educators who want
to “burst the bubble-wrap shield” protecting childhood innocence.
Our other articles so far this week are
also fairly controversial. Michael Coren praises the luminous democratic
qualities of soccer at the beginning of the World Cup. It “occasionally
restores our faith that the world actually can come together without
bloodshed,” he says. What do you think?
Vincenzina Santoro also discovers a link
between the world’s richest man and population control. And Joel Schalit and
Keith Kahn-Harris ask whether Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian territories
is slowly undermining its robust democratic ethos. Comments, anyone?
It is World Cup kick-off day and no writing of an editorial nature can afford to neglect a tribute to the so-called Beautiful Game. I am sure I would not have thought of calling it that myself, but it certainly is nicer to watch than our own national game in Kiwiland. Rugby, I am sorry to say, looks rough, untidy and -- since it is often played in rain-soaked fields -- dirty. And for the life of me I cannot understand scrums, line-outs and other complications in the process of getting the ball from one end of the field to the other.
Soccer, by comparison, seems all simplicity and rationality (except for the bit where they jump into each others arms after a goal). Perhaps that is why a rather good article in Slate finds that it has become “a favourite pastime of the American intellectual”. What? In the land of baseball? (By the way, Sheila Liaugminas has a great, inspirational post on the big games.) Apparently it has something to do with being cosmopolitan, having players who look more like real humans than the “attenuated beanpoles” of NBA, and providing writers with clues to the geopolitical scene.
Before (reluctantly) leaving this subject I must draw your attention also to a review in the Wall Street Journal of a collection of essays called Soccer and Philosophy. It quotes a nice line from the legendary former manager of the Liverpool Football club, Bill Shankly: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed in that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” The review also recalls the Monty Python sketch about a soccer game between Germany and Greece in which the players are leading philosophers. I quickly found it on YouTube; have a look -- it’s very funny.
But let’s turn to some real philosophy. In an exclusive interview with MercatorNet's editor, Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney and one of the leading Catholic voices in the English speaking world, answers questions that are teasing Catholics and others the world over. Perhaps they all boil down to one: after the sex abuse scandal should the Catholic Church just give up? Cardinal Pell is a man of no mean intellect, spiritual stature and openness to dialogue with all comers. We are sure readers of all persuasions will be interested in his answers.
In other new articles John Robson explains why, 50 years after it was first published, the magic of To Kill A Mockingbird still captivates him; writing from Kampala (alas, so far from Joburg) Martyn Drakard gives us a glimpse of the role of the International Criminal Court in Africa; and Stratfor’s George Friedman suggests that divisions in the Arab world mean Israel faces few serious geopolitical consequences from the flotilla raid incident.
With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico still gushing, the euro still falling and the English language, according to a new organisation of pedants in its home country, still going to hell in a handcart, we would like to bring you something to raise a laugh. But the wit and comedy department of Mercatornet is laid up with the flu and the funniest thing I have seen today is Stephen Hawking saying that science will “win” against religion because it, science, “works”. Tell that to BP, I say. Anyway, that is not actually funny, only ridiculous, even though it comes from the genius who wrote his own version of the Bible, A Brief History of Time, which has sold 9 million copies and has been read to the end by at least 27 people.
Another best-seller that has certainly and unfortunately been read from cover to cover by millions of people and seen by even more as a movie is the subject of an article by Lucy Smith today. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels have attained cult status but they belong to a genre featuring sadistic violence against women that even the left-liberal UK Guardian worries about. Thanks to the reviewer for enduring the movie for the sake of alerting readers.
Returning to Europe and its financial crisis, Sam Gregg, research director of the Acton Institute, cuts through the technicalities to the moral problem undermining European monetary stability: politicians who say one thing and do another. Lying, not to put too fine a point on it.
It is a habit that the Philippines is all too familiar with and that the introduction of electronic voting in last month’s elections there might have helped to cure by providing a government with an undisputed mandate. But, as Linda Valenzona writes from Manila, some Filipinos are more suspicious of the results than ever.
It is late Friday afternoon in Auckland and the beginning of the Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend, which includes Monday. For reasons known only to themselves Australians observe this day off in honour of the British monarch on the second Monday in June, the British themselves on the first or second or sometimes third Saturday of this month (perhaps it depends on the weather) and the Canadians, just to be different, take a holiday in honour of Queen Victoria in May. The fact that Queen Elizabeth was born on April 21st has nothing to do with what is an early summer observance for the Brits and loyally endured in early winter in her Majesty’s former colonies.
A public celebration could possibly be the last thing that Elizabeth feels like in the wake of the latest royal scandal, involving her one-time daughter-in-law Sarah (Fergie) Ferguson. I sometimes wonder what the Queen could have done to deserve her embarrassing family. I have seen photos and film of her as a young girl, pretty and lively as a cricket, but long years bearing the weight of office and living in the public eye has turned her into a stoic figure who seems get little joy from life. All the same, she has kept her dignity and I admire her sense of duty.
There are Kiwis who would like to throw off the monarchy, declare a republic, and go completely local and indigenous. Some would like to rename the holiday after the late Sir Edmund Hillary, and perhaps the time is not far off when his mountaineering and philanthropy will seem more inspiring than anything the British royals can offer. One thing is certain: we need examples of personal, heroic virtue in these times and they seem to be in short supply -- as anyone inclined to canonise Al Gore (or his wife) discovered this week.
But if we can’t have virtue, perhaps we can have a bit of fun. If you need cheering up, take a look at our video spot on the front page and enjoy the best bit of electioneering you are likely to see this side of the United States primaries. Jon Gnarr’s campaign for the mayoralty of Reykjavik is a hoot; Iceland may be stony broke but he and his Best team are promising some inexpensive treats: free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo, a Disneyland (Disney will fund that) for the unfortunates, a drug free parliament by 2020, sustainable transparency… Go for it, Reykjavik!
In today’s articles Margaret Somerville challenges with incisive arguments fellow Canadians who prefer not to let facts get in the way of their abortion agenda; Brian Lilley gives us an early response to Monday's attempted run of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza and the ensuing deadly clash; Thaddeus Kozinsky reflects on a hiring controversy at a Catholic university and the contradictions of liberalism; and Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem sets out the geopolitical and pastoral challenges facing Christian minorities in the Middle East.
More news on the acculturation front. I
have not been lucky in my choice of suburbs in recent times. In Melbourne I was
living one street away from Lygon Street which has about 3,278 Italian
restaurants. In Chatswood, the numerous restaurants are nearly all Chinese,
with token sushi take-aways for cultural diversity.
To tell the truth, I am not fussy about
food, although I prefer Lebanese to nearly anything else. As long as there is
coffee, since that has all the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain
intelligent life. What I mean about bad luck, though, is that none of these
restaurants has an interesting name.
However, the other day, to my delight, I
spotted Wok on the Wild Side in North Sydney. Since then I have discovered that
Sydney is rich in imaginative restaurant names. There’s also Wok On Inn and the
Hard Wok Café. A superior one, though best pronounced with an Aussie accent is
Get It India. How about Balti Towers? The Codfather? Lentil as Anything? Pulp
For bad puns, the Thais have clearly cornered
the market: Thai Riffic, Thai Tanic, Thai Coon, Silk Thai, Thai Phoon, N Thai
Sing and so on. But my nomination for the most creative name is a restaurant in
the heavily Italian neighbourhood of Haberfield, I
Suggestions for other bad restaurant puns?
Leave a comment.
So far this week, we have posted three
articles. The first, by George Friedman deals with the dramatic raid by Israel
on a flotilla headed for Gaza. The other two both highlight a report from the
Institute for American Values on sperm donation. Carolyn Moynihan interviewed
one of the authors, Elizabeth Marquandt, and I highlight a few of the report’s
Not for the first time I was confronted early this week with my delinquency with regard to popular culture. From Sunday night, eastern United States time, and over the next couple of days it transpires that half the world watched the closing episode of a TV series called Lost. I had never heard of it until Monday morning when I skimmed my newsfeeds. OK, so I live under a rock and should be ashamed of myself.
But I am willing to learn. So I read a few of the zillion stories about it, thinking, I could hire the discs when they come out and catch up on what mesmerised umpteen million people over the course of five years… Uh-oh. There was one problem, for a start: 121 episodes. I could be dead or lost in my own world of senile dementia before I got through all that. The next problem was even bigger: nobody, after all that time, seems to understand what it was all about. What hope was there for me?
It turns out that Lost is a mish-mash of sci-fi and spirituality, complete with secret bunkers, sonic pylons, a clanking smoke monster (one of things no-one can figure out) and whole lot of religious references -- which seem to lean heavily (and not always tastefully) on Catholic iconography, as so much spiritual stuff in pop culture does. In the final episode all of the show’s main characters, and others from seasons past, reunite in a church as they make their way to the afterlife. A pastor who has written a book called The Gospel According to Lost says, "All the evidence in 'Lost' is pointing to existence of a truly good higher power, and, in turn, to the existence of evil."
I guess that goes to show that that the producers and the ABC network, at least, think the key ideas of religion still have some power over people’s imaginations, of not their daily lives. Personally, I think I would prefer The Lord of the Rings or Narnia for religious symbolism. And since sci-fi effects tend to be a bit rough on the nerves, a few straightforward battles might be preferable to a lot of creepy things with shocking sound effects.
Speaking of battles, you can get a good innings of those in Robin Hood. Bill Park has given the film (and its antecedents) thorough scrutiny and has come up with a generally favourable review. Don’t expect “edification and some effort to explore the mysteries of life”, though, he says. Thank goodness.
In other articles, Vincenzina Santoro updates us on family fun at the United Nations; Godfrey Hodgson offers a provocative piece on the “political duel over the fundamentals of the American system” that he sees shaping up; Dale O’Leary argues that lifting the ban on homosexuals donating blood would not be a good idea; and Francis Beckwith shows why the oft-used comparison between same-sex marriage and interracial marriage is false.
Mr Beckwith’s article is recommended reading for anyone wanting to understand and refute the arguments advanced for same-sex marriage.
We often get links to possibly useful articles
in French and Italian. Unfortunately I have noticed that what Google Translate
spits out is seldom reliable, especially for colloquial terms.
My first lesson in foreign colloquialisms
came when I was working in a mayonnaise factory during summer holidays at
university. It was mindless and malodorous. And an opportunity to practice my
Spanish. Actually I knew only three phrases in Spanish, which I had picked up
the previous summer in Cologne while studying German. Fellow students from
Barcelona kindly taught them to me as ice-breakers in exchange for tuition in
English, which seemed far more useful to them than Deutsch. So I didn’t learn much
Next to me on the assembly line was Rico, a
short, scarred, smiley, swarthy fellow from the Dominican Republic. His English
was sketchier than my Spanish so one day I dredged a phrase from my memory and
greeted him. It is possible, I learned at that moment, for a human face to turn
purple. This is not a figure of speech. Rico had just turned purple and was fumbling
in his pocket for an object. I had a Eureka moment and realised that the object
was his switchblade.
Fortunately I was able to convince Rico with
much gesticulation that the richly evocative phrase about his mother which
constituted 33% of my Spanish vocab was not a declaration of war. With great
firmness and unforgettable clarity he taught me another word which has stuck with
me, “Nunca” (never). The recollection of that day is one reason why I have
nunca been to Barcelona. I'm not very fond of mayonnnaise either.
Anyhow, I am not quite sure how I got on to
that. The articles in this week’s newsletter are much more interesting. I have
written about the biggest science story of the last week, the creation of
“artificial life” in an American laboratory. Then Juan Velez answers some
questions about Cardinal Newman in the lead-up to his beatification in England
later this year. Martyn Drakard reminisces about taxis in Kampala. And Francis
Phillips investigates the loopier side of Shakespeare studies.