Something called the Reading Agency in Britain has come up with a novel idea for helping people suffering from anxiety, depression and related mental health problems. It has drawn up a list of 30 books which have been assessed as “effective” in helping people with relationship problems, sleep problems, social phobias, stress, binge eating, bulimia nervosa and other disorders which might land them in the doctor’s surgery.
The idea is that these people can discreetly approach their friendly local librarian who will recommend an appropriate book to read instead of going to the doctor -- an expensive and possibly embarrassing step which they might well find they can do without if the book or books recommended work their magic. GPs support the scheme and librarians are no doubt thrilled to have more to do than show people how to looks things up on the computer.
Approved titles range from the very boring Overcoming Relationship Problems (for the people having trouble getting to sleep) to feel-good old favourites such as Cider With Rosie (this is Britain, remember), Chicken Soup for the Soul, Goodnight Mr Tom and To Kill A Mockingbird.
There’s a very sound instinct behind the latter “mood-boosting” selection, it seems to us at MercatorNet. Laughter, as the old saying goes, is the best medicine. With this in mind we have been working on our own lists of “just what the doctor ordered” books and films. Today Michael Cook introduces a selection of cheerful films -- not necessarily laugh-out-loud material but films that can “bring joy into your life”. There will be more cheer and some gloom and doom to follow -- the latter as a reminder that, even when things seem bad, they could always be worse… Your nominations in both categories are welcome.
In addition today we some St Valentine’s Day good advice from Caitlin Seery of the Love and Fidelity student network; Izzy Kalman explains why someone like Christopher Dorner, a model 21st century character from many points of view, could turn into a murderous avenger; Karl Stephan tells the largely unknown story of the Navajo men who worked for two decades in a uranium mine in New Mexico unaware of the dangers of radiation; and I look at the mixed (up) world health agenda of Bill and Melinda Gates.
Please check the blogs and remember especially to sign up for Harambee. We would like to make it so famous that Bill Gates gets to know about it.
Always expect the unexpected. Abdication is not a tag which we ever used much on MercatorNet. Now, in two weeks, two heads of state have announced that they are stepping down – Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Benedict XVI, of the Holy See.
The Pope’s resignation came out of the blue even for the most obsessive Vaticanologist. After all, no Pope had resigned for almost 600 years – and then only under duress. Benedict XVI was the first to retire of his own free will, without external pressure of any kind. Since this was the lead story in nearly every paper in the world, we have also splashed on the news.
Fr Robert Gahl Jr, an American theologian, reports straight from Rome. Alex Perrottet, a New Zealand journalist who met the Pope during World Youth Day in Sydney, adds his reminiscences. And I have written an analysis of Benedict’s legacy to the Church he led for eight years.
That’s not all, of course. Raffaele Chiarulli reviews The Last Stand, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the big screen. And from France Mary O'Neill Le Rumeur describes the impact of a stirring speech against same-sex marriage.
It’s almost certainly him. Archaeologists leading the hunt for the long lost remains of the English king, Richard III, confirmed early this week that the bones found in a shallow grave in a ruined church under a Leicester carpark are his, as far as science and genealogy and history can ascertain.
For me, the location has a special resonance as, around the time that the excited academics were making their announcement, I and three friends were wandering from floor to floor in a parking building adjoining a cinema and shopping complex in suburban Auckland looking for the car we had arrived in three and a half hours earlier to see Les Miserables. (The film was great, by the way.) Exiting to the mall and trying to retrace our steps only made us more thoroughly disoriented.
There are few things more dismal and offensive to reason than being lost in a nearly empty carpark, but I have found it remarkably easy to do and I suppose others have as well. I daresay that in another 500 years it will be common for archaeologists to find in the ruins of these devilishly confusing buildings the skeletons of exhausted customers who gave up their search in despair.
But back to Richard III. I suppose there are some people who couldn’t care less about whether Richard III Plantagenet gets properly buried in a cathedral, or whether he really was the villainous usurper who contrived the deaths of the Two Little Princes who stood in his way to the throne, as he is generally believed to be, but Angela Shanahan is not one of them. A history enthusiast, she is fascinated by the resolution of this “cold case” and has some interesting reflections in her article on the way contemporary science aids historians in the search for truth, and both of them in helping us understand our identity.
Still in England, Peter Smith writes about this week’s vote (not final) in the House of Commons on a same-sex marriage bill and the rift it has caused among Conservative MPs. (Honestly, the kings of old might have done some Very Bad Things but they have nothing on today’s politicians.) Moving across the Atlantic, Dale O’Leary backgrounds developments in the related field of gender theory. In other new articles Brendan Malone reviews the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty -- about the Osama bin Laden assassination last year, and Nathaniel Peters reviews a book about the just war principle.
We have new posts on our Africa blog Harambee (please read and subscribe) Conjugality, Family Edge, Reading Matters and Demography.
Carolyn Moynihan and I recently resolved to run more articles which put a smile on the dial, a spring in the step, a song on the lips, etc. But smiley-face journalism is hard work. The best-read articles on MercatorNet, or any other magazine, make readers boil with rage. Righteous wrath has few rivals as a propellant for reaching lift-off velocity into the blogosphere.
Anyhow, my resolution didn’t survive a train trip to work yesterday.
As anyone who went to the Sydney Olympics knows, the rail system here is a marvel, almost Swiss in its efficiency. As anyone who stayed on afterwards knows, standards have dropped ever since.
After a coffee with a friend at Wynyard, I found confusion on the platform. A recorded voice on the PA system helpfully informed the crowds that services would be interrupted next Sunday for track maintenance. The voice did not venture an opinion on the current interruption.
Finally we were directed to take a train to North Sydney (across Sydney Harbour, past the Opera House, for non-Sydneysiders) where we would catch a bus. We waited about half an hour on the Bridge while the train inched forward to North Sydney. There we rushed up to the buses.
We collided with three thousand other work-bound commuters waiting on a narrow footpath. And no buses. A few harried railway workers were making hoarse and unintelligible announcements and gesticulating to the right. We shuffled along, hoping for the best. After half an hour or so, a bus did arrive. I was nearly the last one to board. At last I was on my way.
I overheard the driver telling a passenger that his last trip, normally 10 minutes, had taken an hour and a half. All of us standing in the aisle looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Then came an announcement. The trains were rolling. Passengers were moving. The ones who missed the bus, that is. Not us. We were stuck in a colossal traffic jam.
Have you ever watched this scenario unfold in the movies? Breathlessly boarding the last train from the doomed city, the fleeing hero and his girl escape the savage avengers. While they halt in a mountain pass, the camera shifts to the city – the cavalry has arrived; the city is safe. The camera shifts back to the train -- engulfed by an avalanche; the hero and his gal are kaput. Ah, fate!
But let me don my smiley-face. With the exception of a well-groomed young woman who let fly with a few choice expletives, no one complained. No one at all. Half of the stranded passengers were updating Facebook or listening to music. The other half was zoning out, staring zombie-like into space. It was still inspiring to see how heroically Sydneysiders behave under adversity. They can cope with First World Problems with the best of them. Or was it that none of them really wanted to get to work?
Anyhow, not to worry. I did get here eventually.
So far this week we have posted three stories, none of them of the smiley-face variety, I’m afraid, but all quite informative. Carolyn Moynihan summarises the finding of a major report on family breakdown and religious belief. From Belgium, Tom Mortier has written a moving account of the euthanasia death of his mother – which should be required reading for the politicians who want euthanasia in Tasmania, as I explain in my article.
There is a story about Africa that is all too familiar for anyone who reads international news: the sorry tale of a still largely “dark continent” with horrendous poverty caused by out-of-control population growth and attended by high infant and maternal mortality, all stoked by political corruption and tribal and religious wars… You know how it goes. And while there are germs of truth in it, this story is also warped by myopic westerners with their own crabbed agendas for the world.
But there is another story about Africa, an optimistic story, and I am delighted to inform you that this week MercatorNet has launched a blog dedicated to telling it. The blog is called Harambee, which means “pulling together” and it’s edited by Eugene Ohu a Nigerian freelance journalist with a colourful CV. I can’t do better than quote him on the vision behind this venture:
Africa has more than one story. When we get to know it well and completely, we surprisingly discover a continent that is big, joyful, generous, enthusiastic and optimistic. It is today the darling of many foreign investors, and the world's superpowers are competing to lay first claim to it, not now as lords as in times past, but with a desire to be first to be regarded Africa's friends. So much has it grown in many facets, economy included, that it portends hope for many peoples.
A one-word Ibo proverb “Nkoli” loosely translates to “tell your own story”. Harambee blog sets out to contribute local brush strokes to build the real story about Africa told by Africans themselves.
There is much hope Africa can offer the rest of the world; from its love of life and family, to the heroic examples of people who have withstood great odds with a smile on their lips, and great stories of innovation achieved with limited resources.
I urge you to read Harambee and comment and -- especially if you are one the hundreds of Africans who frequent our website -- seize the opportunity to send in your own news and reflections. This is your chance to sound off about the Africa you know and love.
One of those “heroic examples” that Eugene talks about is the subject of a post on the blog today. Margaret Ogola, who died last year of cancer after an all to short life packed with service to her family, to Kenya and to the world at large, is one of MercatorNet’s heroines. She has had a fourth book published posthumously this week which is reviewed on our front page by Tom Odhiambo. My appetite has been whetted and I am hoping to get hold of it, perhaps electronically.
Just a quick mention of other new articles now: there’s my piece on Queen Beatrix stepping down from the Dutch throne; Densye O’Leary finds that the principle of subsidiarity could have stopped a spat over cats going to court (sorry, cats seems to have a way of insinuating themselves into my newsletters); Karl Stephan says universities have work harder to stop cheating; and George Friedman writes on North Korea -- there doesn’t seem to be much else one can do about that strange and sad place.
The blogs are humming again -- a special mention for Tiger Print and Katie Hinderer’s post on the weird and not very wonderful world of New Adult books. (“New Adult” seems to be a term for high school girls. How odd.)
Being an editor is not such a big deal. You do have to drink lots of coffee and get to work before noon, but otherwise, most tasks are not very onerous – stuff like surfing the internet and thinking up puns for headlines.
But there is a serious side. In the never-ending war for better communication, editors must defend the English language against jargon, bureaucratese, woolly and wilful ambiguities, verbal flatulence, run-on sentences, needless repetition and the vampire bats of boredom and cliché. Against these enemies, any editor worth his salt has taken a solemn oath to pursue them, come what may, into their foetid burrows and do them to death.
On the positive side, editors are honour-bound to showcase the robust beauty of English. One of these is what grammarians call preposition stranding – moving prepositions away from their object. This is a quirk which non-native speakers are not good at and which generations of English teachers have looked down upon.
Winston Churchill, a master of muscular English idiom and a Nobel prize-winner in Literature, despised such narrow-minded prescriptivism. An over-zealous editor once blue-pencilled his text and he scribbled indignantly in the margin "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Touché.
Now that we are dabbling in French, I gather that preposition stranding has spread to Québec, where people are wont to say things like: j'avais pas personne a parler avec (I had no one to talk to).
Which brings me to the question of the maximum number of prepositions one can end a sentence with. Even the hardy Québécois are not game to add more than one on. The most I have seen in English is seven. A boy complains to his father: "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up from under for?"
Any other nominations?
So far this week, we have posted five articles. Meg McDonnell wonders when some Millennials are going to wake up to the big lie about reproductive freedom. Robert Reilly has some harsh words for the new US policy on using women as frontline combat troops.
Izzy Kalman reviews a documentary about workplace bullying and Andrea Valagussa reviews a powerful drama from Canada about a primary school teacher. Finally, John G. West explains why C.S. Lewis was sceptical of the overweening ambitions of some scientists.
We have added several stories at this end of the week, making it a bumper one. Margaret Somerville made a special effort to view and review a much acclaimed French film about euthanasia, Amour, and has come up with a sensitive but ethically searching assessment. Michael Cook’s piece takes us to Belgium and the lessons to be drawn from a real euthanasia case -- the 45-year-old identical twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem whom doctors agreed to kill because the brothers were going blind.
Andrea Mrozek, writing about the two-parent family and educational achievement, gives us a taste of the fascinating new report on patterns of family life around the world (more of this to come); Peter Smith reviews a book by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on the state of religion in America; and Matt Hardy writes about the Algerian hostage rescue mission.
But look, what you really want to read about is cats. I know, because top of the New York Times most emailed list today is the story of Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who got lost at Daytona Beach, Florida, and found her way back 200 miles to her fond owners in West Palm Beach. This is not the most amazing return-of-the-cat story ever reported (Murka, the Russian tortoiseshell, is said to have travelled 325 miles, and Howie, the Australian Persian, a mind-blowing 1000 miles) but it is a pretty impressive one, and I would not be surprised (I haven’t looked) if Holly has her own Youtube channel by now and has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. She deserves every minute of her fame.
My tribute to Holly is not inspired by wholly frivolous motives; I feel I owe it to the species because sometime before Christmas I made an invidious comparison between donkeys and cats, implying that the latter were rather self-centred creatures. A couple of readers pulled me up for this thoughtless jibe at the domestic moggie, pointing out (1) that one cannot compare a predator with a herbivore and beast of burden. (2) To speak of a cat being in love with itself is a horrid anthropomorphism. (3) “When a cat adores you, it's a high honour” (which is also an anthropo-whatsit but a much nicer one). (4) Well, I’ll have to quote this one:
Just to let you know that not all cats are self -centred. My cat, Mr Ginge is stretched out beside my computer as I type this email, purring in harmony with the ever-present whoosh of the lap-top. He is certainly not one that hangs around only at meal time. Mr Ginge would have been 'on duty' at the manger in Bethlehem…
Finally, I have to admit, indeed assert, that I am a cat lover and have seldom been without one around the house. They do add a touch of serenity as they snooze in their favourite corners, and of mystery, provoking wonder at what is going on inside their tiny brains as they stare at you. Even animal behaviourists can’t work them out: they have no idea how Holly and Murka and co. navigate those long distances. Thank goodness there is something still to marvel at.
There’s lots going on this week – Martin Luther King Day, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Australian Open… But of course the Inauguration was unmissable.
I was looking forward to another splendid performance from one of the great orators of our age. In the years leading up to 2008 Barack Obama rescued American rhetoric from the swamps of cliché. He turned turns of phrase into weapons. He soared. He inspired. But he was most eloquent when he attempted to persuade – which is, after all, what rhetoric is all about. He used to mull over an issue with his listeners, examine both positions fairly, and – with a sigh of regret at differing with his antagonists – take his stand. His best speeches were reasoned arguments.
This year’s inaugural address was different. There was no persuasion, no acknowledgement of legitimate differences. It was a professor’s victory dance over the carcases of his opponents. What struck me was the glitter of hollow rhetorical gestures – repetition, echoing the founding fathers and Martin Luther King, alliteration, homely vignettes… But the magic was gone. It was a store-bought speech, not one baked at home. Obama could have been another Abraham Lincoln. Instead he might end up as Edward Everett, the seasoned orator who spoke for two hours at Gettysburg and is forgotten.
Two themes stood out for me.
It was impossible to miss the President’s insistence that “you didn’t build that”, in the much parodied words of his campaign gaffe. But it wasn’t a gaffe at all. It was his conviction. America ought to be a collectivist society in which “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people”.
Together. It’s an ambiguous word. It can be invoked by heroic leaders – and by bullies. It’s an ominous start for a President whose second-term agenda includes removing conscientious objection from healthcare.
Mr Obama also insisted that gay rights are a fundamental part of American freedom, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.” (I have read this phrase over and over and I still can’t understand it, a sure sign of his failing rhetorical skill.)
He underscored this by selecting Richard Blanco, a Hispanic gay poet, to recite a poem composed for the occasion. As a poem “One Today” is not bad. As the anthem of Obama’s America it is superb. It closes with the lines, “of one country -- all of us --/facing the stars / hope -- a new constellation /waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it -- together”. Together. That word again. Is togetherness really what Americans want from their Commander-in-chief? It will be an interesting four more years.
As I said, it is a packed week and we have published twice as many articles as we normally do. Margaret Somerville and Paul Russell each tackle euthanasia. James S. Cole and Jennifer Roback Morse both examine aspects of the same-sex marriage debate. G. Tracy Mehan looks at Roe v. Wade (more on this later in the week).
Finally Alma Acevedo makes some tart observations on people who send texts during tragic moments in Les Misérables. Even though this made me feel quite guilty, we still published it, which, I feel, is a stirring testimony to our broad-minded editorial policy.
I have just returned from holidays and I am happy to report that I am feeling refreshed, energetic, and ready for lots of improvements in MercatorNet this year.
My idea of a good holiday activity is a hot and sweaty bushwalk culminating in the discovery of an Aboriginal rock carving. The hot and sweaty part is too easy lately. Right now it is 44.8º Celsius outside the office – that’s 113º Fahrenheit for US readers. A few days ago, the average temperature for the whole country (ie, the whole continent) was 40ºC (104ºF).
Bushfires happen when it gets this hot. The word “apocalyptic” is getting a stiff workout in the evening news lately. But when you see TV footage of incandescent skies, treetops exploding into balls of flame, towering walls of fire racing through the bush, and houses collapsing into ashes in minutes, the anchors can be forgiven for the poverty of their vocabulary. It really does look like the world is about to end.
It was on one of those days that I foolishly chose to visit Cattai National Park. The rangers had blocked the road and expelled the campers to prevent fires. So we walked in. A hundred metres from the entrance was a sign pointing to an “Aboriginal site”. Sure enough, half-hidden off the main track a life-size rock carving of a kangaroo had been etched onto a bare patch of sandstone.
I always find sites like this eerie. Between 200 and 5,000 years ago, a group of Dharug people gathered near the Hawkesbury River and celebrated a complex and time-consuming ritual. But after 1788 the tribe was all but obliterated by smallpox epidemics, violence and alcohol and with it died the secret of their kangaroo carving.
Who were they? Who sent this mysterious message from a lost culture? We’ll never know. Only that men and women lived here for thousands of generations, turning land into landscape, animals into art, dreaming the same dreams as we do about love and family and the hereafter. And vanished. Utterly. Except for these enduring works of art. A pity that most Sydneysiders are ignorant of the treasures of their sunburnt country.
Since there was no newsletter earlier in the week, we have accumulated ten articles. Lorna Tilly, an Australian archaeologist working in Vietnam, describes how much care hunter-gatherers put into caring for disabled comrades. Disability is also the theme of James M. Thunder, who comments on the euthanasia of deaf and blind twins ain Belgium.
Raffaele Chiarulli reviews an Oscar nominee, The Master, a thinly veiled portrait of the founder of Scientology. Francis Phillips reviews a touching book drawn from a cache of love letters written from Stalin’s gulag.
Margaret Somerville and William West both take up the cause of prison reform. George Friedman and Denis MacShane ponder the dangers of radical Islam. From London, Peter Smith writes that religious freedom has taken a hit in British courts.
Finally, a world exclusive: an interview with Timothy Reckart, the 26-year-old director of an Oscar-nominated animated film. It has a strong pro-marriage message! I hope that he wins when the awards are announced at the end of February.
Thanks to our one-newsletter-per-week holiday regime we have a rather large meal to set before you today -- with a variety almost rivalling Bilbo Baggins well-stocked larder (the opening scene of The Hobbit is, like the rest of the movie, marvellous in its detail; if they would just go a bit easier on the sound…).
Because I’m about to rush off again for a week, I want just to highlight two articles in particular. One is the interview with Reynaldo Rivera of InterMedia, a MercatorNet partner, about his intriguing study of young Spaniards and Italians, their life online and attitudes to bullying. This is positive research that comes with an educational programme which I am sure we are going to hear more about.
The other big story is the study by Elard Koch and colleagues of abortion and maternal mortality in Mexico. I am acquainted with several Mexicans, and can vouch for the fact that their country is a lot more complex and interesting than certain ideologues would have you believe. Among the latter is the Alan Guttmacher Institute which, you will hardly be surprised to hear, has over-estimated illegal abortions in Mexico at probably 10 times their actual rate. Read the interview and get a hold on the facts!
Michael Cook (who is supposed to be on holiday) has written a terrific piece on utilitarianism and its outworking in an officially recognised BDSM club at Harvard. We have two book reviews -- Zac Alstin has enjoyed reading an important new biography of Chesterton and Francis Phillips thought a work on Lady Astor was also quite good fun. There’s a film review too: Laura Cotta Ramosina, a new reviewer, takes a look at Life of Pi. George Friedman has some penetrating comment on the crisis of the American middle class; and Maureen Condic counters the claim that science has nothing to tell us about the human rights of the “fetus”.
In the blogs, Sheila Liaugminas has an excellent suggestion for a New Year’s resolution; Family Edge has a very positive story about prisoners, and Tiger Print has some more ideas on this topic.