A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to
view the World Press Photos 2011 in Sydney. This is an annual event, and on
Sundays the State Library was packed with people admiring these stunning works
of art. Last year it was wonderful, too, but there was a focus on androgyny –
ambiguous gender roles – and that spoiled it a bit.
This year, however, the theme, if there was
one, was dignity. There were a number of memorable portraits of people –
especially Africans -- who made you rejoice that you breathe the same air as
they do. For me the best was a
photo of cellist Josephine Mpongo lovingly practicing in a muddy driveway behind a fence as
passers-by trudge down a pot-holed boulevard. Her serene absorption in her
music is unforgettable.
YOUTUBE_VIDEO_MIDDLE I discovered that she plays in Central Africa’s only
symphony orchestra, the Orchestre
Symphonique Kimbanguiste in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic
Republic of Congo. A German team has made a documentary in which they perform
Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with homemade instruments. Here is the trailer. It’s
an inspiring witness to their dedication and art.
this week we have focused on World Youth Day in Madrid. I have discovered seven
reasons for optimism inspired by the event. AndJ.
José Alviar contrasts it with Nietschze and Marx in a very original interpretation.
O’Leary continues her examination of neuroscience by asking whether women
would perform better than men on the trading floor. In the lead story, Margaret
Somerville relates a troubling encounter with political correctness and
we are still endeavouring to find the bug which doesn’t allow some readers to
open the links below. We have made some adjustments. Have they made a
difference? Please tell us.
I learned a new word this week: graupel. It’s neither snow nor hail but something in between and it is what fell on parts of Auckland early this week during a cold snap, the likes of which New Zealand has not seen for decades.
Further south where snow fell heavily, kids who had never seen the white stuff in their backyard were out building a variety of creatures with it. At one school they even attempted an igloo. Office workers emerged onto the streets to get the feel of it, and teenagers took pictures of themselves strutting around in swimsuits. We know because they ended up on the six o’clock news.
There had been enough advance warning of the polar blast for farmers to make provision for their stock, including spring lambs (poor things), and for others to lay in supplies. As a result, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. It was nice to see people in the news clips smiling and larking about for a change instead of complaining about the cost of milk and rugby jerseys. Inside every whinger, it seems, there’s an unspoilt kid trying to get out and have fun.
Spoilt kids, some of them more than 30 years old, continue to feature in the postmortems being conducted on the British riots. The circumstances of one of these older delinquents has prompted Zac Alstin to reflect further on the state of the family in Britain. Reports from marriage scholars in the States prompted me to explore a related theme: the marriage gap that has opened up between college educated and other Americans. Francis Phillips, coincidentally, reviews a book encouraging larger families that turns out to be rather disappointing. And Ronan Wright’s film review also has a family angle.
Moving out into the global village, George Friedman reminds us that the Arab Spring is turning into autumn and no regime, as distinct from particular rulers, has yet fallen in the Middle East. He draws some sober conclusions about the democratic potential of the uprisings. And I have posted a few thoughts on World Youth Day, which is currently making Madrid one of the most joyful places on Earth.
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Also, if you still have a “best opening sentence in English-language fiction” to throw into the pool, could you post as a comment on the article “It was a dark and stormy night…”?
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no
language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’”
That is one of the entries for our nominations for best opening sentences for a
novel this week. (Check the rest of them out here.)
Even in Hobart, which I visited over the
weekend, this is a maxim whose truth I have often pondered. However, this time
was different. I was amongst the first dozen or so off the plane and as I
walked through the narrow door, past the fruit and vegetable sniffer beagle, I found
myself surrounded by a couple of dozen ladies, apparently South African,
singing a hypnotic chant in parts. Some of them were dancing and all were
swaying to the rhythm. Cameras and smart phone were clicking. Every two or
three verses a couple of girls would begin ululating. The music was
overwhelming and exuberant and lifted the airport into a different space
I am no mug and I was alert enough to realise that this was
not a reception for me, but for a wedding couple returning from their
honeymoon. All the boring folk of Hobart looked slightly embarrassed
and gazed at the ceiling or stared at the gum spots on the carpet. The singing
grew louder and louder and the ululating more piercing. It was pure joy and it
lasted many minutes. If this is the pay-off for increased immigration, the more
the better, I thought.
Anyhow, down to business. Most of our coverage
this week is devoted to the aftermath of the London riots. It could be a
watershed moment for Britain. We have reproduced a very significant speech by Prime
Minister David Cameron about the destructive effects of the welfare state. I
express some scepticism about achieving his ambitious goals. AndRebekah
Hebbert suggests that the problem is post-modern ethics. On another tack, Colleen
Carroll Campbellasks if Victoria and David Beckham are really eco-villains
for bringing a fourth child into the world.
To continue the literary theme of the last couple of newsletters: one of my favourite English writers is Anthony Trollope, and I say that on the strength of reading only his Barchester novels. But the BBC has made some terrific television series from the books, which suggests that they are all pretty good. The 1982 Barchester Chronicles series starring Donald Pleasance as the Rev Septimus Harding and Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Proudie is absolutely delightful and I have watched it more than once.
In this story the two old men, Mr Harding and Bishop Grantly, who represent the Anglican establishment at its most graceful (if not most socially aware), have the habit of terminating their conversations by quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes. One of them would say, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and the other would chime in.
I was reminded of this during the week when watching news bulletins about the rioters in London who were bent on grabbing top brand sportswear and electronics from the shops they wrecked and burned. There was such a bizarre juxtaposition of vanity and violence, of means and ends. From photos I have see it looked as though some of those arrested wore their new gear to court appearances. The Adidas label was quite prominent.
The same uber-brand has caused ructions in New Zealand the past week over the price of supporters’ gear -- scarves, beanies, jackets and jerseys etc -- it has produced for the Rugby World Cup (coming up here next month). I guess one of the messages from London and Birmingham is that there is an inalienable right to wear the in thing. Vanity of vanities, I say.
Joanna Bogle, who lives in London, gives us her take on the riots in our leading article and I think she has nailed the key issue. In other articles: Sue Alexander-Barnes, who has a family link to the event, marks the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall; Ronan Wright reviews Captain America: The First Avenger; Denyse O’Leary completes her series on religion and science; and George Friedman tracks what is happening with the financial crisis.
Don’t forget to send us your best opening sentences for our forthcoming book feature. We have some, but the more the merrier.
I almost forgot. Thank goodness I didn’t.
It would have been like forgetting to take booster shots. I mean checking out
the results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton
Fiction Contest. This is a competition which recognises the minor art form
of creating excruciatingly bad opening lines of novels. It was named after Lord
Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford opens with the immortal words,
“It was a dark and stormy night…”.
This year’s winner, the shortest in the
competition’s history, came from a woman in Oshkosh, Wisconsin: “Cheryl’s mind
turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like
thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten
The runner-up is more typical: “As I stood among
the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the
senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and
everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no
matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this… and when
I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.”
There is something compelling about pungently
awful prose. Check out the
other winners on the Bulwer-Lytton website (warning: a few are quite
rancid). If you are the creative type, consider composing an entry next year.
However, in MercatorNet we are trying to
cultivate a more elevated standard. So we are working on a feature for which we
need your help. What are your favourite opening sentences for a novel? Please
send them to me or Carolyn and we will publish them when we have reached the
quota. Thanks in advance.
And so far this week, we have published
four articles. Ronan Wrightreviews Terrence Malick’s ambitious film about absolutely everything, “The Tree
of Life”. Timothy
Lynch asks whether the debt crisis has doomed President Obama. Carolyn
Moynihan compares the achievements of two very different women who died in
the past week. And I have penned a
response to a scathing report on Aboriginal welfare in Australia.
At the beginning of the year I made a resolution to go out and see more movies. I have to confess that I have not got very far with that, managing a score of one so far. I am doing a little better with another resolution -- to read more books. It’s not easy when there is so much news and commentary to keep up with, and old favourites (in a cache at my bedside) like Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man to re-read, but I have managed at least three.
They are an odd bunch, none of them new: Gunnar’s Daughter, the first historical novel of the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset; a novel based on the life of St Benedict by Louis de Wohl; and Daughter of Persia, the fascinating and highly educational memoir of Sattareh Farman Farmaian. My next venture takes me to China with Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s famous family history. The copy I have borrowed from the library is somewhat daunting at over 600 pages and six centimetres thick, but it’s a real book, with hard covers, large clear type and it has been read enough for the pages to stay open easily. I am looking forward to starting it -- straight after this newsletter.
Next to a good book I do like to read an essay, something philosophical that drills down to the bedrock of culture and exposes the flaky layers on the way. Our articles in this half of the week all have something of that about them.
Allan Carlson argues the interesting proposition that families need to reclaim some of the functions that they have outsourced to other institutions in order to be strong. Italian sociologist Sergio Belardinelli walks us through the reasons why the “traditional” family is an irreplaceable social resource and not something just “private”. Anthony Esolen shows us why the sexual revolution is founded on a big lie. And if you are looking for a university where your kids might learn to deal with philosophical issues, you might check out Macquarie in Sydney; its Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz, has some interesting things to say about what they are attempting there.
The blogs are buzzing. Katie Hinderer has her finger on the pulse of young adult lifestyle issues. Our Kiwi Demography scouts Marcus Roberts and Shannon Buckley take us to Ireland, India (where there are 15 times more phone subscribers than taxpayers!), China and Zimbabwe. Sheila Liaugminas has updates on the contraception-as-preventive-health debate in the US.
Please tell your friends about the blogs. They really deserve more traffic and subscribers, especially among the younger set.
The world has been preoccupied with
negotiations over the US budget. Armageddon has been averted, thankfully, but I
am afraid that I was tracking our own budget more carefully than Mr Obama’s.
We are still receiving funds from our last
appeal. Quite a number of people responded generously and we are on track for
the first half of the year. However, I realise that many of you cannot
contribute financially, at least at the moment. But perhaps you might be able
to help in other ways. It is vital for us to boost our visibility on the
internet and our list of subscribers. Here are some suggestions for lending a
Click the “recommend” Facebook button
whenever you like a story on MercatorNet. Your Facebook friends might read it.
Bit by bit, it all adds up.
Tell five friends in your address book to
subscribe to MercatorNet. Just five.
If you are a really keen internet surfer,
leave a link to a MercatorNet story in a comment or on a blog at least once a
week. Building up “backlinks” helps to promote the site.
And if you have the wherewithal, what about
designing a simple iPhone app for MercatorNet? More and more people are
browsing the site on their cell phones.
You have to be patient in growing a site
like MercatorNet. Every little bit helps, believe me. Do you have any other ideas?
This week, Kevin
Ryan heads up the page with an action agenda for the silent generation – the
children of the baby boomers. Denyse
O’Leary discusses current neuroscience research which appears to show that
religion shrinks your brain. She takes a rather dim view of it.
I have written some reflections on a trend
for writing Hippocratic
Oaths for journalists, scientists, call centers and whoever. Ronan Wright
reviews the final instalment of the Harry Potter series – a bittersweet moment…
Glance examines Google Plus, the new social network.
While governments and financial markets have spent the week worrying about debt, the dollar and the euro, we at MercatorNet decided to worry about something no western government seems to care about at all: the impact on children and young people of the new sexual revolution signposted by same-sex marriage laws.
The two issues -- the economy and sexual culture -- are linked, of course. Some very smart people have been pointing that out lately and it makes sense that disorder at the level of the family is going to have consequences for the whole of society. In my country we are now talking the need for the government to feed tens of thousands of schoolchildren their breakfast, if not lunch as well. Pretty soon we will be building dormitory blocks at schools so the kids need not bother their parents at all.
The popular reason for this is poverty, but when you look into the reasons for poverty you pretty soon run into broken families -- or families that never really got off the ground. It’s very sad, very bad for kids, and very expensive at the same time.
We’ve gathered three articles together under one banner. Margaret Somerville sets out in a systematic way a case against same-sex marriage based on the rights and welfare of children. My piece illustrates how a growing campaign to legalise polygamy basically ignores that question. And Mary Rice Hasson, in a revealing and rather shocking article about a campaign aimed at “LGBT” youth, shows how troubled young people are being exploited by siren messages about the joys of deviant sex.
It’s extremely ironic that while all this is going on the Irish Prime Minister has worked itself into a frenzy over a report on the sexual abuse of children, blaming it on the Pope, as Michael Kirke writes. Apparently people still care about children when they are used for their own gratification by priests.
Next week we will try to have some more cheerful subjects for you -- debt ceilings etc permitting.
With two important events for youth
looming, this week we focus on youth. The two events couldn’t be more
different. The first is in New York and has been convoked by Ban Ki-Moon; the
second is in Madrid and has convoked by Benedict the XVI. At the first about
one thousand are expected; at the second about one million. Francois
Jacob, of the World Youth Alliance, compares the two events and concludes
that the Catholic Church is far ahead of the UN as a beacon for young people.
O’Leary looks into a report that religion makes teenagers stupid. She is
not convinced. What might make them stupid, however, is the internet, I contend
comment on last weekend’s tragedy in Norway. And finally, Kevin
Ryan looks back with a bit of nostalgia to 1968 and the young demagogue
Mario Savio. At least young people were engaged back then.
Heard any good jokes lately? I sometimes think that they are in short supply these days. Perhaps that is because, as Ronan McDonald suggests in his article, so many of them were at the expense of Irishmen, Jews and Blacks, and making fun of ethnic groups is no longer considered good form.
I must say, though, that one of the cleverest jokes I’ve heard was an Irish joke with a difference. (I have never been good at retelling tall tales but I’ll give this one a go.) Paddy and Mike are in Auckland (Sydney, Los Angeles…) and looking for work. They come to a building site with vacancies for labourers and they approach the foreman. He looks them up and down dubiously and asks, “Can you tell me the difference between a girder and a joist?” “Ah,” says Paddy, quick as a flash, “That's aisy. Goethe wrote Faust and Joyce wrote Ulysses!”
By the way, we have Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks in the video spot on our front page today -- just for a laugh. I watched it earlier on and it worked; I cracked up all over again.
Seriously, although it may be politically incorrect to mock ethnic groups, that does not stop rather blatant discrimination against certain classes of people today. Mark Leach reminds us about the attempt to wipe out Down syndrome by prenatal testing and abortion, and Dale O’Leary reviews a new book that documents the mishandling of the AIDS epidemic -- not least because of prejudice against Africans.
We also have a film review: Mark Thomas Lickona finds that a screen adaptation of comic superhero Green Lantern brings on an attack of déjà vu in its effort to inject emotional relevance into the plot.
Then again there's lots of interesting stuff in the blogs: a Spanish doll that is causing a furore; the Planned Parenthood funding debate in the USA; kids books; centenarians; and fashion advice.