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.
Both the editor and I have been writing about Muslim issues this week, issues concerning Muslim women, their health, happiness, dignity and future in western societies. There can be hardly any western country that is not exercised to some degree by the challenge of integrating Muslim immigrants with their varied, often admirable, but sometimes unattractive and even cruel customs.
In the unattractive category is the veiling of women’s faces -- something practiced by a small minority from only a few countries, but disturbing to run into and a bone of contention in France and Belgium right now. Does it really matter if a few Muslim women go about with their faces hidden, or has it become an excuse for airing Islamophobia? I’ve thought carefully about this and conclude that it does matter, that the custom would be better dropped, but that the solution involves a change of attitude among western women as well. Correct me if I’m wrong.
In the cruel category, surely, is the practice of female genital cutting, even in its milder forms and even though women themselves may defend and celebrate it. Michael Cook looks behind the surprising and widely condemned decision of the American Academy of Pediatrics to drop their long-standing and categorical opposition to the practice in favour of a compromise “nick”. He sifts the facts, the reasoning of the AAP, the inconsistency of some critics, the ethics -- and comes to a conclusion that I think you will agree with. You can tell him if he’s wrong.
Before I leave the subject of attributing moral fallibility I should point out that psychiatrist Theron Bowers is in on this act as well, roundly condemning American TV anchorwoman Katie Couric for acting as a cheerleader for prescription drug abuse on a recent 60 Minutes. You will be astounded at what happened on this show (if you haven’t already seen it).
For those still scratching their heads over Greece, Germany, banks, debt and other mysteries of over-evolved societies Stratfor analysts Marko Papic, Robert Reinfrank and Peter Zeihan have it sussed. It took three of them though, this time.
Christopher Hitchens, the poster boy of the
new atheism, hasn’t had a very good run in MercatorNet, so it’s time that we
said some nice things about him. Three to be exact. In his columns, he makes a
point. He makes it vigorously. He makes it colourfully. Let me quote him on the
fall of the Berlin Wall: “we can draw on the memory of a time when civilized
peoples, so long forced to hold their tongues and hold their breath, all
exhaled at the same moment and blew the old order away without a shot being
Very eloquent, don’t you think? Of course, style
without substance can be deadly, but substance without style is soporific. I’m
tempted to say that’s worse. At MercatorNet we try to have both style and substance.
The source of these reflections is the
Sydney Writer’s Festival where Hitch is on a
panel savaging officialese. Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is such a
seasoned speaker of this dialect (and Mandarin, to his credit) that some of his
verbal glop was scooped up and used as the title: “Programmatic
Specificity We Can Believe In”.
Defending human dignity is a pretty good
gig, so you would think that it would be a cinch to write succinctly,
vigorously and colourfully about it. Not so. But it is certainly a skill to
cultivate. This is the era of sound bites and headlines. Clear, crisp sentences
are the foot soldiers of the culture war. Unless words are memorable, they
won’t be remembered.
Down to business. Talking of human rights,
Erin Manning asks about the right to be bored. Do kids really have to be
watching, listening, or participating 24/7? Seamus Grimes writes from Shanghai
about Matteo Ricci, the great go-between from the West. And Margaret Somerville
argues that political and social debate will be much poorer if religion is
excluded from the public square.
It has been an extraordinary week; I have made over a hundred friends -- more in a few days than, possibly, in the previous decade -- and all I had to do was lift a finger and click the mouse. Yes, it is all thanks to Facebook and MercatorNet editor Michael Cook, who is far ahead of me in the social networking stakes and generously undertook to introduce me to a swag of his online pals. I know it’s cheating a bit, but I did count some of them as friends already and had at least a nodding acquaintance with many others. And it's for the Good of the Cause. Now that I am properly launched I intend to be more proactive in making cyber friends.
Of course, most of these will never be intimates, so what is the point? I took some convincing but the longer I work in online journalism the more I understand that it is quite different to print. In the print media, it is true, one can be a personality and have a following but there is a distance between writer and readers created partly by time and partly by layers of editorial authority that makes the relationship impersonal on the whole (although email changes this).
Online, there is the feeling of inhabiting the same space and even the same time, as feedback in the form of comments or Facebook clicks can be almost instantaneous. The process then becomes a conversation among friends -- even when they don’t agree with you -- and it becomes clearer that writing is, or should be, a profession at the service of dialogue and a friendlier world and not the mere excitement of intellectual duelling.
And here is the point of my Facebook drive: to spread good ideas in the vast and chaotic worldwide web (MercatorNet’s mission) you need the help of a lot of friends, people who will pass the word along when they find something particularly helpful or entertaining (often, if not daily, we hope) and whose own projects you can support in turn. Quite quickly, it seems, this networking can have an effect that thousands of separate projects could not. As one online friend wrote to me, changing the world is about friendship, friendship, friendship. As for privacy on Facebook, Katie Hinderer is the expert on this as you can see from visiting Tiger Print.
What would Plato think of it all? He would think it was all hunky-dory so long as it was directed to discovering the Truth (“good ideas”) -- at least, that is what today’s article by philosopher David Oderberg suggests. It is the text of a presentation he gave at Oxford university on ‘Journalism and Public Responsibility’ earlier this year, and it is required reading for anyone interested in the future of the media.
To get a handle on developments in Europe we’ve enlisted Stratfor’s George Friedman again, and he has some persuasive thoughts on nationalism and history. My own piece on the contraceptive pill relies for its substance on a very provocative and, in my view, persuasive market analysis of sexual relationships in the contraceptive era by Denver economist Timothy Reichert.
President Obama has just nominated Elena
Kagan, his Administration’s Solicitor-General, to the Supreme Court. If she is
successful, every single member of the Supreme Court will have attended law
school at either Harvard or Yale. The incumbent president studied at Harvard; George
W. Bush studied at Yale and Harvard; Bill Clinton studied at Yale; and George
H.W. Bush studied at Yale.
Is there no talent outside Cambridge and
New Haven? Is it healthy for the American political elite to be nurtured at two
exclusive universities? Do we live in a democracy or an oligarchy?
Actually I went to Harvard, so I can claim
some expertise here. To tell the truth, I felt rather like Peter Sellers’
Num-Num" character in The Party – utterly out of place. How I scraped in, I don’t know. Harvard's selection process was rather opaque. Amongst my forebears was
one Thomas Dudley, who had signed Harvard’s charter back in 1650, and I was
eligible for a Dudley scholarship, so perhaps it was lingering nepotism.
Anyhow, I recall an
orientation week gathering with the guys across the hall. They had their faults but I mustn't malign them with accusations of diffidence or false modesty. After a couple of beers,
they started to compare their smarts. The
first fellow had been the top student in New York State; the second had a perfect
SAT score; the third was embarrassed to reveal that he was a couple of points
shy of a perfect… By that time I had slunk out.
However, subsequent events that year persuaded
me that these were not the sort of guys who ought to be running countries, with
the possible exception of uninhabited tax havens with like the Cayman Islands. IQ
isn’t everything. Isn’t it time that the diversity mantra was intoned in the American
judicial and executive branches?
By coincidence, three of our articles so
far this week deal with higher education: Christopher O. Tollefsen asks if
universities are really a bulwark against repression; Thomas C. Reeves asks
whether everyone should aspire to go to college; and Jack Martin points out
that a university education should hone one’s critical faculties. Finally,
Helena Adeloju tackles lower education – the downward slide of reality TV -- and Michael Coren analyses the British election.
PS – We have launched an editor’s blog
called Conniptions (that’s American for spitting chips, or doing your block, or
having a hissy fit, or losing it). This is where you can comment on the
editor’s message, send random acts of congratulation, or just have a conniption.
Click on the link below.