In a world of constant change and uncertainty we all need some timeless truths to hang onto. In the absence of religious beliefs, or even alongside them, history can be a great comfort. To establish the facts of battle or a monarchy or a lost galleon beyond dispute can be very anchoring for us twenty-first century cyber-waifs -- as long as we hear about it first on Twitter.
So one has to rejoice with the English this week at the prospect of nailing down once and for all where King Richard III is buried, exactly how he died, and whether he was a hunchback. Unfortunately it will not settle the question of whether the last of the Plantagenets was a power-crazed villain, as Shakespeare, following Tudor propagandists, portrayed him, but that’s another story.
What’s happened is this. Archaeologists had a pretty good idea that Richard was buried 500 or so years ago in Greyfriars Franciscan monastery, which was torn down by Henry VIII, replaced by a manor and eventually, as a final indignity, survived as ruins deep under a council carpark. Comparing modern maps with historical ones helped pinpoint the site and, sure enough, excavation has uncovered a skeleton with evidence of severe head injuries (such as someone might sustain in a 15th century battle) and evidence of curvature of the spine.
The circumstantial evidence is very strong, say the experts, but they could never be sure -- except for another remarkable discovery: genealogists have identified a blood relative who is alive and well and living in London. Canadian furniture maker Michael Ibsen is descended from Anne of York, the king’s sister, and the experts are on tenterhooks waiting to see whether his DNA matches that of the bones. That will take a few months, so stay tuned.
The moral of this story? One suggestion: somehow it’s very important to us to know What Really Happened. History at its best is a search for the truth, so we can learn from it. But we will never know the whole story (Richard’s true character, for example) -- for that we await a greater miracle than DNA testing.
Our new articles: an interview with Priscilla Coleman, the main author of an important study of pregnancy outcomes and maternal mortality; my piece on a (important, I think) study of Catholic women and their attitude to contraception; Sarah Joseph examines the awful “Innocence of Muslims” film from the point of view of hate speech; and George Friedman looks at Israeli and American relationships with Iran.
Recently we ran an appreciation of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I believe that I read it at some stage, but I must have left out a couple of the chapters, because my contribution to the literature of time management is an unfinished draft of 37 Bad Habits of People Who Just Muddle Through.
That’s why I generally find myself sending off this newsletter too late and too quickly. To keep myself going I listen to slightly scratchy songs on Grooveshark, one of the great inventions of the internet. This is where I came across Dido, a British vocalist with only four albums to her credit but an amazing talent.
I don’t believe that I have ever heard anyone who conveys misery and sadness of today’s hook-up culture with such poignance. Her best songs are about abandoned lovers or the bitterness of casual relationships. “Honestly OK”, one of my favourites, is a piercing song about a girl whose loneliness is almost suicidal: “And I'm so lonely I don't even wanna be with myself anymore”. “Everything to lose” was an inspired choice as the theme song of the dreary film Sex and the City 2.
I think there is a point here. Her artistry reminds me that happiness can only come from loving commitment. The pain of drifting from job to job and lover to lover can be so overwhelming that it crushes people, making them feel worthless (the title of one of her songs) and abandoned.
When most other vocalists sing about broken hearts, they sound theatrical, belting out lyrics embellishing a bouncy tune. But the pain in Dido’s husky voice is the real deal. Check her out.
This week we feature articles by John B. Londregan on US immigration and myself on drones and targeted assassination. Francis Phillips reviews a book by a London journalist who beat addiction and Alma Acevedo analyses the hoary political cliché “I’m personally opposed, but…”
Well, it has been a high week for political rhetoric in the United States, with both Mitt Romney and now Barack Obama having made their pitch for election or re-election to the presidency. I won’t pretend that I have paid a lot of attention to them, but I gather that, amongst other things, they talked about economic goals such as job creation and foreign policy issues such as how to deal with Russia.
But in our Stratfor article this week George Friedman argues that the character of a political leader is more important than his or her policies. Even the most deeply held policies, he says, have to yield to unexpected events such as 9/11 or the financial meltdown of 2008, whereas a person of character will stick to his principles even while adapting his policies to circumstances. I think anyone could agree with that.
Of course, if a person’s character is formed by wrong-headed principles it is no advantage to man or beast that he sticks to them. That’s why many Americans will be guided by candidates’ principles regarding abortion, the nature of marriage and religious liberty in this election -- perhaps more so than before, because they have been put in contention by policies that are purely optional and not at all dictated by circumstances.
In any case, politicians of “real character” seem to be rather scarce on the world scene. That is why I was moved to read yesterday about Dr Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet minister, who is trying to shift thinking on how the country’s blasphemy law is interpreted and thus protect innocent people like the young intellectually handicapped girl who has been accused recently.
Dr Bhatti is the brother of Shabaz Bhatti, who was assassinated last year after advocating for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Dr Paul has given up a comfortable life as a surgeon in Italy to take on what can only be described as a highly dangerous job to carry on his brother’s work. Now, that’s what I call character.
In two other new articles Dr Rick Fitzgibbons explains the moral difference between adoption by same-sex couples and heterosexual couples, and Izzy Kalman comments on a New York Times article about bullying in medical schools.
MercatorNet is a fan of marriage, the traditional kind, that is, but there are limits. This week Carolyn Moynihan recalls the bizarre photographs of Moonie weddings –thousands of couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns in a stadium waiting for a blessing from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Some of those were rededicating themselves, but the newlyweds were often chosen for each other by Rev. Moon. This is definitely beyond the limits.
Also beyond the limits is same-sex marriage. This is a familiar topic for MercatorNet readers, but not everyone is so well informed. I have written a piece about Tasmania, which could become the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise it. What struck me is the glib and brainless way that politicians and the media have burbled on about the issue.
Hopefully history is not repeating itself. The one thing for which Tasmania is famed all over the world is the extinction of the native population within about 40 years after white settlement. (I once discovered a passing reference to it in a Russian novel written in the Stalinist era.) The generally well-intentioned colonists paid little attention to the disaster until it was too late. Ever since, a cloud of shame has hung over the state.
In other articles this week, Robert Hutchinson tells us to beware of fact-checkers in the US presidential election. Francis Phillips reviews a book about a man who resisted the Nazis. And Andrew Mullins gives us a lightweight introduction to the heavy topic of analytical philosophical philosophy.
Finally, in a couple of days we will be wrapping up our reader survey. This is your last chance to give us some feedback! Click here -- it will only take 3 or 4 minutes.
I was recently browsing a website of the intelligentsia called Edge and noticed a page promoting a collection of their essays called This Book Will Make You Smarter. It featured some quotes from reviews in leading magazines, all very enthusiastic. This is my favourite:
....As infinitely fascinating and stimulating as This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking is, its true gift … is in acting as a potent rupture in the filter bubble of our curiosity, cross-pollinating ideas across a multitude of disciplines to broaden our intellectual comfort zones and, in the process, spark a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself.
My word! Having written a couple of blurbs myself during the past year, when I read that I felt I had hardly done my friends justice in my praise of their (admittedly, less pretentious) books. But the standard is very demanding; it is not enough to be enthusiastic -- one has to be delirious and ready to fair swoon away with admiration.
It is not, however, a standard that real litterateurs admire. One of them writes:
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces.
Last year the Guardian book blog noted a particularly egregious example of effusion over a novel and invited readers to indulge in a little one-upmanship by blurbing on The Da Vinci Code, being “as grandiloquent, as pompous, as affected as possible”.
In my opinion, this was the prize-winning one (a little long, but I think you’ll enjoy it):
"As I sat in my office, wearing my black suit, my heart trembled with awe as I turned the last page of The Da Vinci Code and I placed it on the desk (brown) with reverent hands.
The mystery of this book is not in the spine-tingling, mind-wracking, hair-raising, heart-stopping twists and turns that the novelist book writer Mr Brown has wrought on these pages (white), but in why ownership of a copy has not been made mandatory by law. It's every individual letter is a pearl that novelist book writer author Mr Brown, who has sandy blond hair, has formed out of the excrement of our English language, which is not fit to grovel at the feet of this towering genius’s MacIntosh word processor.
I buried a copy of this book in my father's coffin and he rose from the dead. Her tears of ecstatic joy when I read it aloud to her washed away my grandmother's cataracts. My chronic eczema disappeared once I'd finished the first chapter.
Sandy-haired, polo-neck shirted novelist book writer author scribe Mr Brown is a god placed upon this earth and I having started a church in his name in recognition of the words he has graced us with."
Perhaps you would like to have a go at this yourself -- on the book of your choice.
We feature a couple of books in our latest articles (no affected praise, though). R. J. Snell reviews a tribute to “A Good Man” -- Sargent Shriver, a significant figure in twentieth-century American liberal politics -- by his son, Mark Shriver. And we run an excerpt from a new book edited by US law professor Helen Alvare in which Catholic women, including Dr Alvare, “speak for themselves” about their experience of living their faith.
Also, following a huge interfaith meeting in Rimini, Italy, Robert Reilly reflects on a deep theme, the relation between human reason and “the infinite”; and George Friedman writes about Poland in the light of its precarious history.
Finally, if you would still like to do the MercatorNet reader survey, just click here.
Whenever we looked at the moon in this last couple of days, it was hard to forget that the first man to walk there died on Saturday at the age of 82. JFK had made a vow in 1961 of “achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Five months before the deadline Neil Armstrong hopped gingerly onto the Sea of Tranquillity and said, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".
One day in 1969 changed Armstrong’s life, as NASA knew it would. He became an international celebrity, his opinion sought on every topic under the sun. But he hid behind a stoic modesty, never boasting, never taking advantage of his fame. He was content to “bask in obscurity”.
Neil brought his own qualities to the job – courage, nerves of steel, an icy calm – but he put the team first. "When you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to,” he reminisced, “you get an improvement in performance. And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off."
Then there is the other Armstrong, Lance, who departed from cycling for ever, in disgrace last Friday. After winning seven consecutive Tours de France and a bronze in the 2000 Olympics, he has had to forfeit everything he won since August 1, 1998 after declining to defend himself against doping charges. Worse than breaking the rules were the lies told to shield himself from years of allegations. He even used the allegations to inflate his reputation. A famous Nike advertisement -- “what am I on? I’m on my bike…” – makes sad viewing.
It’s a reminder that humility, or at least modesty, is the stuff of heroes. The most important thing is doing your job, doing it well, and supporting the team. Not coming first.
This week, a few articles have already sparked a number of comments. Neil Addison, a British barrister, offers a different interpretation of the Pussy Riot trial. Meg McDonnell comments on the controversy over Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape”. Margaret Somerville wonders why Canada still doesn’t have a law governing abortion.
Rick Fitzgibbons uses a threat made by another reader as an opportunity to sketch his reservations about same-sex marriage. And Constance Kong, from Shanghai, reviews two books on China.
At MercatorNet we like to keep our customers happy -- and to attract more. To this end we have devised a survey in which you can let us know what you like on our website, what you really, really like, and what you would like to see there in future.
We are also keen to know what devices and online media you use to access our articles and blogs, and how user-friendly or otherwise the site is. We know there is always room for improvement and we want to focus on the things that will be most useful to readers.
It’s not a long or complicated exercise -- it should take only 5-10 minutes -- and you don’t have to reveal everything about yourself from what you had for breakfast to how much money you have in the bank, so could I encourage you to click this link https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/P8DD8WB and have at it!
Our new articles deal with the US elections, same-sex marriage, virtues and Mexico. The indefatigable Michael Cook has written a most useful piece unpacking some of the fundamental concepts in the SSM debate. I have suggested that Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy should be judged on his policies, not his Mormon faith. Andrew Mullins writes a tribute to that genius of the self-improvement movement, Stephen Covey (a devout Mormon, by the way). And George Friedman looks at Mexico -- alas, still seemingly closer to the United States than to God.
Of particular note in the blogs is Sheila Liaugminas’ post-mortem on the Todd Akin abortion/rape ruckus, Katie Hinderer’s post in Tiger Print on “The abnormality of a virgin marriage”, Marcus Roberts on some dirty business on the demography front … Gosh, why don’t you just check them all out.
We would like to try a bit of “crowd sourcing” – collaborative journalism with the help of you, our readers. Here’s the idea. We recently ran a profile of P.D. James, the illustrious British crime writer, in our blog about euthanasia, Careful. (She may be a dab hand at planning murders, but she opposes euthanasia.) It was based upon an interview in the Guardian in which she was asked, “what’s the best thing about being a nonagenarian?” (That’s someone over 90, by the way.)
That is the sort of question which would flummox most people and even P.D. James was silent for a few moments. But it was an intriguing question. So here’s our proposal. Are you a nonagenarian? Do you know a nonagenarian? Would you – or they -- like to tell the world what is the best thing about being 90+?
We think it would be a great contribution to more respect for the growing proportion of elderly in our society. I am sure that there will be some interesting responses.
Now for this week’s articles. Justin Dyer expresses some scepticism about sport as a school of virtue. After extensive consultation, the staff of MercatorNet has put together a list of hefty books for holiday reading. Zac Alstin tries to unpack the notion of self-reliance. And I have commented on the tragic case of a British quadriplegic who wants euthanasia.
Most news outlets this week -- and we are among them -- have marked the passing of Helen Gurley Brown, a woman regarded by many as a “legend” for her role in the sexual revolution of last century. Having read and thought about her for a day or two I have written my verdict and believe she was probably better than her word.
But the person I really want to acknowledge right now is a contemporary of Ms Gurley Brown who is a complete contrast. I met Ellen McCormack in a Public Discourse article this week. Born and raised in New York, she was a wife, mother, homemaker, pro-life pioneer and two-time presidential candidate -- for the Democrat party.
Although many rank and file Democrats were pro-life, writes Michael J New, none of the big-name candidates in 1976 (e.g. Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey) “would commit to supporting a Human Life Amendment or any other legislative strategy to protect the unborn.” Since another experienced campaigner, Nellie Gray, was unavailable, Ellen McCormack agreed to step up and do her best to give the right to life issue the prominence it deserved.
The mainstream media, initially, ignored her, even though she won enough financial support in 20 states to become the first female presidential candidate to qualify for federal matching funds -- funds she used to run pro-life TV commercials seen by tens of millions of viewers. This outraged the Democratic Party’s leadership and the Federal Election Commission -- they went so far as to change the election rules to cut off her funds. But, says New,
In the end, Ellen McCormack’s campaign exceeded expectations. She ran in 18 primaries and received over 200,000 votes, 1.4 percent of the total votes cast. Her success in the primaries earned her 3 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, she received both a nominating speech and a seconding speech. When the results were tallied, she received 22 votes from the convention delegates. Her campaign educated many people about abortion and demonstrated that a sizeable contingent of Democrats was willing to support a single-issue pro-life candidate.
New notes some important lessons for today’s pro-lifers to be drawn from Ellen McCormack’s many campaigns, including her apparent belief in an incremental approach to victory in what was likely to be a long struggle. For myself, I find this pro-life heroine (who died last year at the age of 84) a reminder that crises always reveal women and men of great character who inspire the rest of us to fight optimistically for human dignity and true human rights. We can all think of someone like that, I’m sure. And in that other crisis now on our hands, we need them.
In other new articles: Allan Carlson, author of a new book on Evangelicals and birth control, outlines the historical steps which led to contraception appearing to be a “Catholic issue”. Matthew Hanley comments on an extraordinary, and probably fleeting, change of tune at the New York Times. And George Friedman highlights Israel’s strategic crisis.
Now that Paul Ryan has been selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, the battle lines for the 2012 campaign for the American presidency are clear. The size and role of the Federal government, especially financing for health care, will be at the centre of debates in the media, on the internet and on whistle stops across the country. The legalisation of gay marriage, which has already been endorsed by President Obama and will probably be part of the Democrats’ platform, is also shaping up as an election issue.
But there are other serious ethical issues which deserve voter scrutiny. One which interests me is the growing use of targeted assassination. In the first three years of the Obama administration, there were 241 secret drone strikes, compared to only 44 under President Bush.
Many would applaud the President for eliminating America’s enemies. But is this the right response? The drone program is secret. No doubt the government is trying to reduce civilian casualties, but how do we know if it has been successful?
The problem can be summed up in this name: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. He was a 16-year-old American citizen born in Denver and living in Yemen. On October 14 last year, he was killed by a drone strike. His father, also an American citizen, was a terrorist, but the teenager just happened to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, according to a US official. Something is wrong if the president is authorising the execution of alleged terrorists who are American citizens without a trial. Something is very wrong if innocent American citizens are executed and no one is brought to justice for it.
Whether the US is safer because of drone strikes remains to be seen. They seem to have forced al-Qaeda forces to hunker down. But where is this tactic leading the world’s most powerful nation? Mexico’s drug cartels are responsible for the deaths of far more Americans than al-Qaeda. Should they be put on Obama’s hit list? The 2012 campaign is a chance to put difficult questions like this on the table.
So far this week, we have published quite a range of articles. Graham Harris contends that instead of moaning about climate change, environmentalists need to create innovative solutions. R.J. Stove reviews a magnificent exhibit of the Napoleonic era in one of Australia’s leading museums. I have written about Singapore’s plummeting birth rate (222nd out of 222 countries). And Jennifer Roback Morse argues that Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day could mark a moment when ordinary people push back against political correctness.