Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The war against Pope Francis

Guardian/UK                  27 Oct. 2017

Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.

But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private”. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives.

The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to renounce this effort. Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.

But Francis’s cautious reforms seem to his opponents to threaten the belief that the church teaches timeless truths. And if the Catholic church does not teach eternal truths, conservatives ask, what is the point of it? The battle over divorce and remarriage has brought to a point two profoundly opposed ideas of what the church is for. The pope’s insignia are two crossed keys. They represent those Jesus is supposed to have given St Peter, which symbolise the powers to bind and to loose: to proclaim what is sin, and what is permitted. But which power is more urgent now?

The Catholic church has spent much of the past century fighting against the sexual revolution, and in this struggle it has been forced into the defence of an untenable absolutist position, whereby all artificial contraception is banned, along with all sex outside one lifelong marriage. As Francis recognises, that’s not how people actually behave. The clergy know this, but are expected to pretend they don’t. The official teaching may not be questioned, but neither can it be obeyed. Something has to give, and when it does, the resulting explosion could fracture the church.

Appropriately enough, the sometimes bitter hatreds within the church – whether over climate change, migration or capitalism – have come to a head in a gigantic struggle over the implications of a single footnote in a document entitled The Joy of Love (or, in its proper, Latin name, Amoris Laetitia). The document, written by Francis, is a summary of the current debate over divorce, and it is in this footnote that he makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion.

With more than a billion followers, the Catholic church is the largest global organisation the world has ever seen, and many of its followers are divorced, or unmarried parents. To carry out its work all over the world, it depends on voluntary labour. If the ordinary worshippers stop believing in what they are doing, the whole thing collapses. Francis knows this. If he cannot reconcile theory and practice, the church might be emptied out everywhere. His opponents also believe the church faces a crisis, but their prescription is the opposite. For them, the gap between theory and practice is exactly what gives the church worth and meaning. If all the church offers people is something they can manage without, Francis’s opponents believe, then it will surely collapse.

No one foresaw this when Francis was elected in 2013. One reason he was chosen by his fellow cardinals was to sort out the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Vatican. This task was long overdue. Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as a relative outsider with the ability to clear out some of the blockage at the centre of the church. But that mission soon collided with an even more acrimonious faultline in the church, which is usually described in terms of a battle between “liberals”, like Francis, and “conservatives”, like his enemies. Yet that is a slippery and misleading classification.

The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church. Those are ideal types: in the real world, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most of them, one will predominate.

Francis is a very pure example of the “outer-directed” or extrovert Catholic, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. His opponents are the introverts. Many were first attracted to the church by its distance from the concerns of the world. A surprising number of the most prominent introverts are converts from American Protestantism, some driven by the shallowness of the intellectual resources they were brought up with, but much more by a sense that liberal Protestantism was dying precisely because it no longer offered any alternative to the society around it. They want mystery and romance, not sterile common sense or conventional wisdom. No religion could flourish without that impulse.

But nor can any global religion set itself against the world entirely. In the early 1960s, a three-year gathering of bishops from every part of the church, known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, “opened the windows to the world”, in the words of Pope John XXIII, who set it in motion, but died before its work had finished.

The council renounced antisemitism, embraced democracy, proclaimed universal human rights and largely abolished the Latin Mass. That last act, in particular, stunned the introverts. The author Evelyn Waugh, for example, never once went to an English Mass after the decision. For men like him, the solemn rituals of a service performed by a priest with his back to the congregation, speaking entirely in Latin, facing God on the altar, were the very heart of the church – a window into eternity enacted at every performance. The ritual had been central to the church in one form or another since its foundation.

The symbolic change brought about by the new liturgy – replacing the introverted priest facing God at the altar with the extroverted figure facing his congregation – was immense. Some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the reorientation, among them the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who has been touted by introverts as a possible successor to Francis, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’ most public opponent. The current crisis, in the words of the English Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite – a passionate partisan of Francis – is nothing less than “Vatican II coming back again”.

“We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human,” Sarah said at a Vatican gathering last year, in a denunciation of Francis’s proposals, “but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You can not join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”

In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women (more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry) and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy. After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.

Church attendance plummeted in the western world, as it did in other denominations. In the US, 55% of Catholics went to mass regularly in 1965; by 2000, only 22% did. In 1965, 1.3m Catholic babies were baptised in the US; in 2016, just 670,000. Whether this was cause or correlation remains fiercely disputed. The introverts blamed it on the abandonment of eternal truths and traditional practices; extraverts felt the church had not changed far or fast enough.

In 1966, a papal committee of 69 members, with seven cardinals and 13 doctors among them, on which laypeople and even some women were also represented, voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI overruled them in 1968. He could not admit that his predecessors had been wrong, and the Protestants right. For a generation of Catholics, this dispute came to symbolise resistance to change. In the developing world, the Catholic church was largely overtaken by a huge Pentecostal revival, which offered both showmanship and status to the laity, even to women.

This is the first section of a very long article. You will find the full article at:

Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize

Nicola Davis                Guardian/UK                        27 October 2017

On 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was on board the Soviet submarine B-59 near Cuba when the US forces began dropping non-lethal depth charges. While the action was designed to encourage the Soviet submarines to surface, the crew of B-59 had been incommunicado and so were unaware of the intention. They thought they were witnessing the beginning of a third world war.

Trapped in the sweltering submarine – the air-conditioning was no longer working – the crew feared death. But, unknown to the US forces, they had a special weapon in their arsenal: a ten kilotonne nuclear torpedo. What’s more, the officers had permission to launch it without waiting for approval from Moscow. Two of the vessel’s senior officers – including the captain, Valentin Savitsky – wanted to launch the missile. According to a report from the US National Security Archive, Savitsky exclaimed: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

But there was an important caveat: all three senior officers on board had to agree to deploy the weapon. As a result, the situation in the control room played out very differently. Arkhipov refused to sanction the launch of the weapon and calmed the captain down. The torpedo was never fired. Had it been launched, the fate of the world would have been very different: the attack would probably have started a nuclear war which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of civilian deaths.

“The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,’’ Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the Boston Globe in 2002, following a conference in which the details of the situation were explored. Now, 55 years after he averted nuclear war and 19 years after his death, Arkhipov is to be honoured, with his family the first recipients of a new award.

The prize, dubbed the “Future of Life award” is the brainchild of the Future of Life Insitute – a US-based organisation whose goal is to tackle threats to humanity and whose advisory board includes such luminaries as Elon Musk, the astronomer royal Prof Martin Rees, and actor Morgan Freeman.

“The Future of Life award is a prize awarded for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time,” said Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT and leader of the Future of Life Institute.

Speaking to Tegmark, Arkhipov’s daughter Elena Andriukova said the family were grateful for the prize, and its recognition of Arkhipov’s actions. “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism. He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation,” she said. “He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.” The $50,000 prize will be presented to Arkhipov’s grandson, Sergei, and Andriukova at the Institute of Engineering and Technology on Friday evening.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel peace prize-winning organisation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Arkhipov’s actions were a reminder of how the world had teetered on the brink of disaster. “Arkhipov’s story shows how close to nuclear catastrophe we have been in the past,” she said.

The timing of the award, Fihn added, is apt. “As the risk of nuclear war is on the rise right now, all states must urgently join the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons to prevent such catastrophe.” Dr Jonathan Colman, an expert on the Cuban missile crisis at the University of Central Lancashire, agreed that the award was fitting.

“While accounts differ about what went on on board the B-59, it is clear that Arkhipov and the crew operated under conditions of extreme tension and physical hardship. Once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it is hard to imagine that the genie could have been put back into the bottle,” he said. “President Kennedy had been very worried about the possibility of a clash between American warships and Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and it is absolutely clear that his fears were justified,” Colman added, noting that certain decisions at the operational level were out of his control. “Ultimately, it was luck as much as management that ensured that the missile crisis ended without the most dreadful consequences.”

Monday, 16 October 2017

Faith, Reason, and Democracy

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                Oct. 13, 2017 

With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris

Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Winston Churchill considered it “the worst form of government except for all the others”. And said the best argument against democracy is “a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country – and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well. There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as “socialist” and “conservative” slipped into the background. Even “left” and “right” nuanced into “progressive” and “stable” – though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human well-being? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?

One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm. National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of “welfare” to one of “social investment”. This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency – and if that’s what it takes, so be it.

Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal. The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of health care, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.

Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to “the other lot” (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, Trumpeting [Subs: cap is intentional] a fictional $11.7-billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.

But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.

Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP Parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Till 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years. True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won.

However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities. Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the “stories” that drove politics in the 20th century – Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism – inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls “the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid”.

Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through “a politics of belonging”– Monbiot’s new story – would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here. Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

I wanted to know why racists hated me, so I met some Klansmen

By Daryl Davis                    Sydney Morning Herald               2 October, 2017

One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. "I really enjoy y'all's music," he said. I shook his hand and thanked him.

"This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis," he continued. I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learnt his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn't buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, "This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man."

Why? "I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognised the Klan's symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn't even know me?

I decided to figure it out by getting to know those who felt hostility towards black people without ever having known any. Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I'd got the grand dragon's contact information, James gave it to me.

By then I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: how can you hate someone you've never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, Klan-Destine Relationships, was published in 1998.)

I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. As per my instructions, she did not reveal the colour of my skin.

The grand dragon agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a motel in Frederick, Maryland, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the colour of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.

Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon's bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. "Hello," I began, "I'm Daryl Davis." I offered my palm, and the dragon shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves.

We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, "What did you just do?" The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.

My secretary realised what had happened: the ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch. It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could have led to gunfire had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.

Even though the grand dragon,had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.

Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hell-bent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.

There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But afterwards I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.

Imperial wizard Frank Ancona, who headed one of the largest Klan groups in the country, would also become a very close friend. When Frank was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with murdering him), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan's invitation to participate in his funeral service.

Three weeks after this summer's violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was invited by the leaders of the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of Ancona's branch of the Klan to speak at their national Konvocation. I accepted, spoke and took audience questions after the lecture. Whether or not anyone there immediately changed their minds, we talked as people - and we all benefited from that.

I am not so naive as to think everyone will change. There are certainly those who will go to their graves as hateful, violent racists. I never set out certain that I would convert anyone. I just wanted to have a conversation and ask, "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"

What I've learnt is that whether or not I've changed minds, talking can still relieve tensions. I've seen firsthand that when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may be yelling and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. Violence happens only when talking has stopped.

And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, the Klan leader from the motel interview, whom I watched go from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologised for having been a member.

He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood - one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing. [Abridged]

Daryl Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships and the subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy, is an award-winning musician, actor, lecturer and race relations expert.

Reclaiming the Truth About Vietnam

Robert C. Koehler                  Pub by Common Dreams            2 September, 2017

Just the other day 89 senators voted to pass the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signing off on a $700 billion defense budget, which ups annual military spending by $80 billion while also authorizing the production of 94 F-35 jets, two dozen more than the Pentagon requested.” And of course there’s no controversy here, no demanding to know where the money will come from.

The Full Disclosure campaign rips away the lies that allow America’s wars to continue. The U.S. Air Force dropped over 6 million tons of bombs and other ordnance on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1964 and 1973, more than it expended in World War II, Howard Machtinger notes at the Full Disclosure website. And more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals, including the infamous Agent Orange, were dumped on the Vietnam countryside.

“Accurate estimates are hard to come by,” he writes, “but as many as three million Vietnamese were likely killed, including two million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, millions of internally displaced, croplands and forests destroyed: incredible destruction — physical, environmental, institutional, and psychological.

And then there was the war’s effect on the soldiers who fought it and the “moral damage” so many suffered: “To date,” Machtinger writes, “estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000 to 150,000, the latter almost triple the number of U.S. deaths during the actual conflict.” So I pause in the midst of these numbers, this data, letting the words and the memories wash over me: Agent Orange, napalm, gook, My Lai.

Slowly, the powers that be regrouped, redefined how we fought our wars: without widespread national sacrifice or a universal draft; and with smart bombs and even smarter public relations, ensuring that most of the American public could watch our clean, efficient wars in the comfort of their living rooms. Eventually, endless war became the new normal, and blotting the shame of our “loss” in Vietnam from the historical record became a priority.

The Full Disclosure campaign is saying: no way. One aspect of this campaign is an interactive exhibit of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers rounded up and killed more than 500 villagers. The exhibit was created by the Chicago chapter of Vets for Peace, which hopes to take it on a national tour and rekindle public awareness of the reality of war.

A slice of that reality can be found in a New Yorker article written in 2015 by Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the story some four and a half decades earlier. In the article, Hersh revisits the story of one of the GI participants in My Lai, Paul Meadlo:

After being told by (Lt. William) Calley to ‘take care of this group,’ one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier ‘were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.’ When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, ‘Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, “Waste them?” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley ‘opened up and started firing.’ But then Meadlo ‘started to cry.’

And that’s the war, and those are our values, buried with the dead villagers in a mass grave.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Election Voting 2017

by Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times               Sept. 8, 2017

Before we settle on which political party to support, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves, urges Ian Harris.

An election is traditionally an opportunity to ask questions of would-be politicians. More fruitfully, it’s an opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. Questions to candidates will then follow, but the self-examination is actually the more valuable for democratic engagement. That’s because a healthy democracy involves more than ticking a box on a ballot paper once every three years. It thrives when we give serious thought to what kind of society we want to live in, and what changes we are willing to contemplate to bring it about. If you think you already live in an earthly paradise, of course, you will want nothing to change at all.

That’s unlikely, so here’s a check-list to get you started: 

■ What values are core for you – so important that they will determine your vote? Do those values tilt more towards yourself and your own advantage, or towards society and the common good?
■ Do you think economic considerations outweigh social issues? Moral issues? Environmental issues?
■ Are you content with the New Zealand that 30 years of neo-liberal economics have produced, and therefore want more of the same? Or do you favour a more inclusive economic model?
■ Are you open to good ideas, no matter which party offers them?
■ Is this invitation to self-reflection a waste of time, because you always vote for the same party regardless?

Only when you have held up the mirror to yourself are you democratically primed to turn your gaze outwards and evaluate the parties, their programmes, and the candidates who aspire to represent you in Parliament. And there, as often as not, a trade-off begins. No party is perfect, and there will always be unintended consequences from whatever policy is implemented. That’s why the values shaping those programmes should be the crucial test and measure.

A previous column highlighted the values of care, community and creativity. So another question: How important are those values to you? Will you apply them to assess the parties and their platforms? There are plenty of other questions touching on New Zealand and its place in the world. One bears directly on the kind of country that we’d like to pass on to our children and grandchildren, but it is distinguished by hardly figuring at all: a comprehensive population policy to give stability and direction as we move steadily forward into a globalising world.

For many years the prime focus has been on growing the economy, as though that were sufficient in itself, without worrying too much about the overall effects on people and the land. One result has been a tight lid on wages through ramping up immigration. That’s totally inadequate. A population policy would settle on a desirable level of immigration, taking into account the diversity and balance of ethnicities, the country’s bicultural foundation, what will be needed in housing, health care, schools, social welfare as the numbers grow, increasing pressures on the natural environment, the impact on productive land as cities sprawl into orchards, market gardens, and farms.

The market-driven emphasis on growth, growth and more growth has a lot to answer for, and one serious effect is its colonisation of head-space, closing out other options. Let’s strike a blow for freedom by unhitching “wealth” from its present connotation of amassing piles of money, and restoring its original meaning of “well-being”, both individual and social. That is a prime concern of all major religions, and people of faith should want to see that truer concept of wealth applied across the board.

Politicians won’t usually look to the prophetic poetry of the Bible for guidance, but a distinguished American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, thinks voters can and should. He says the poetry of the prophets urges people: Don’t let anyone tell you that the dominant ideology is a given. It may suit the moneyed elites of the day to say so, but you can maintain a zone of freedom in your lives that allows you to imagine otherwise – and then act accordingly.

Your vote is an excellent place to start. Child poverty in a land of plenty, housing too expensive for many to contemplate, rivers too polluted to swim in any more, health care unavailable to many who need it, a tepid response to climate change, not requiring a living wage for the lowest-paid – these are not inevitable states of nature. They are the result of political decisions based on economic theories serving those who already have the most. How different all these would be if care, community and creativity were central! It’s time they were. 

The best weapon to de-radicalise Isis returnees? Our own humanity

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini                     Guardian/UK               15 September 2017

With relentless air strikes and ground attacks against Islamic State in Syria, hundreds of their foreign fighters and supporters are massing on the Turkish border, trying to get out. Of the at least 20,000 foreign fighters estimated to have been in Syria, 2,500 were thought to be Europeans, of whom 850 were British. Many may have died, but those who remain are likely to try to return home at some stage. The looming question is: what now? How do we treat them? Even if they say they are repentant, can we trust them? What if these former fighters are returning to form sleeper cells and plan attacks on home soil? It is easy to dehumanise: these are the ultimate bad guys, dressed in black, killing and maiming with glee.

However, there is more to them than meets the eye. For years researchers and activists have delved into why people have been radicalised. Some went to Syria out of compassion for the plight of Syrians at the hands of the Assad regime, and profound anger at the seeming inaction of their own governments – ignoring the thousands of Syrian civil society activists who begged them to stay away. Others, particularly, the younger women, wanted to free themselves of the shackles of familial expectations, and were lured by a mix of online sexual grooming and the promise of empowerment. Many were petty criminals evangelised in state prisons. Undoubtedly some have mental health issues, and others are simply opportunists.

So what do we do? Many might assume they will be imprisoned. But prisons are key sites for recruitment and radicalisation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis founder, was a two-bit nobody until he landed in an American prison in Iraq. The humiliation he experienced at the hands of US forces motivated his founding of Isis. Prisons in the UK, Belgium and France could enable them to recruit a new cadre of supporters.

In Pakistan the Paiman Trust, a non-governmental organisation, combines psycho-social care with religious literacy, livelihood-skills training and even civic education to teach the reforming Taliban about their multiple identities and cultures as Pakistanis, Pathans and Muslims. Recognising their humanity is at the core of any of these programmes. “I wish them happy birthday, because no one has ever done that. They call me Baba,” says Shafqat Khan, of the Paiman Trust. It turns out caring brings the best outcomes. But it is painstaking work, and families can face tremendous stigma. Some may be ashamed to reclaim sons – and especially daughters – who have transgressed acceptable social norms. Others may be fearful of constant police surveillance. There is doubtless much anger, pain and sense of betrayal.

To avoid a backlash against minority communities, the government and media must emphasise that these returnees represent a minuscule minority of the 2.7 million Muslims in the UK. Some Muslims, like any other Britons, may have felt similar grievances as those who were radicalised, but they have gone on to lead normal lives – so rehabilitation programmes cannot be perceived as rewarding violence. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear

Ultimately, we must be mindful of our own humanity. Extremists can be violent because they separate themselves from “others”. They lose empathy and compassion. As we face the prospect of Isis returnees to the UK, we must challenge our own perceptions. It would be easy if they were all one-dimensional, Bond-movie bad guys – but they are not. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear. Instead our collective task as a nation is to find our own deep well of decency and humanity, to be fair and compassionate, just and kind, and perhaps above all to care: about the victims, the perpetrators, and those who are both victim and perpetrator. [Abridged]

• Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is the co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The most arrogant people in Australia are business people and we're sick of them

Ross Gittins                     Sydney Morning Herald                      September 6 2017

How the worm – and the world – turns. When the Abbott government came to power just four years ago, it claimed its arrival signalled the "end of the age of entitlement". Don't laugh, it's happening – but in the opposite way to what treasurer Joe Hockey had in mind. As Hockey saw it, the sense of entitlement we'd acquired, but which could no long be afforded, applied to the social needs of individuals and families.

We saw the results of this attitude in Tony Abbott and Hockey's first budget of 2014, which got an enormous thumbs-down from the public and the Senate, so that pretty much all that remains of the attack on unwarranted entitlement is the unending crusade by the government's Don Quixote, Christian Porter, and his loyal Sancho, Alan Tudge, to root out the last welfare cheat.

Not content with the grand stuff-up that was the "robodebt" use of unguided computers to collect amounts that may or may not have been overpaid, the pair are now hot on the trail of drug-taking welfare recipients. Drug testing isn't cheap, so it's likely the exercise will cost the taxpayer more than it saves. And drug care experts – who weren't consulted - say addicts can't be successfully coerced into treatment.

Trouble is, successive governments have been cracking down on welfare cheats every year for decades, so there can't be all that many of 'em left. Why do I get the feeling that cracking down on welfare cheating is, at best, what governments do when they want to be seen to be cutting their spending but aren't game to. Or, at worst, when they want to exploit the popular delusion that we could all be paying less tax if it weren't for the massive sums being siphoned off by dole bludgers and the like.

Sorry, the people doing by far the most to keep welfare spending high and rising are known as age pensioners. And no one has a stronger sense of entitlement than an oldie fighting for the pension. "I've paid taxes all my life . . ." But though one of Aussies' less attractive traits has been our proneness to "downwards envy" – the delusion that people worse-off than us are doing it easy – polling by the Essential organisation suggests it may be wearing off, replaced by disapproval of wealthier tax dodgers.

They used not to be so arrogant, but more than three decades of neoliberal ideology – under which governments should do as little as possible to burden the private sector or restrict its freedom – have left business people convinced they're demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation. They're the source of all jobs, and thus entitled to have their every demand satisfied.

The developed world is still recovering from the carnage of the global financial crisis, caused by letting American banks do hugely risky things in the pursuit of higher profits and bonuses, confident in the knowledge that, should things come unstuck, the government would bail them out. Meanwhile, journalists are uncovering a remarkable degree of lawlessness by other businesses: young people paid less than their legal entitlement, exploitation of foreign workers on visas, employers failing to pay in their workers' super contributions. It's as though business people see themselves as so economically virtuous as to be above the law. Just a bit of red tape those gutless pollies have yet to clear away.

What's changed with the end of the era of neoliberalism, however, is the willingness of politicians on both sides to toughen up on the banks and other businesses. They'll be paying more rather than less tax in future, and governments are already far less hesitant to regulate them more closely. I see a lot more coming. Why? Because voters have got sick of arrogant business people. [Abridged]

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

There’s a disaster much worse than Texas. But no one talks about it

Jonathan Freedland                Guardian/UK                  3 September 2017

In this story America is not the victim. Along with Britain, it is on the side of the perpetrator – helping to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

What is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, in Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet. As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.

That there is a disparity in the global attention paid to these two natural disasters is hardly a novelty. It’s as old as the news itself, expressed in one, perhaps apocryphal Fleet Street maxim like a law of physics: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”

But I’ve not yet given an answer to my quiz question. Full marks if you put your hand up to say … Yemen. In July the UN determined that it was “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. If you think it’s hard to get westerners interested in flood victims in Nepal, just try talking about Yemen.

The scale of the suffering in the Arab world’s poorest country is clear. Since it became the site of a proxy war in March 2015, 10,000 people have been killed, with 7 million made homeless. The UN is especially anxious about cholera, which has already killed 2,000 people and infected more than 540,000. It threatens to become an epidemic. That’s no surprise, given that sewage plants have been among the infrastructure bombed from the sky. The Saudi-led coalition has kept Sana’a airport closed, which means food and medicines cannot get in and the sick cannot get out for treatment. Pictures of gaunt children, listless babies and starving mothers recall the worst of Africa’s famines – but this disaster is entirely human-made. Nor is this a remote story utterly unconnected to us. On the contrary, the Saudi government is armed to the hilt with weapons supplied by the UK and the US: £3.3bn worth of British firepower in the first year of this vicious war alone. And yet Yemen has barely registered in the western consciousness, let alone stirred the western conscience.

Of course, there are all the usual factors explaining public indifference to horrible events far, far away. But there is one that is relatively new. Before 2003, whenever word came of some distant catastrophe that posed no threat to our own safety, a discussion soon followed on what “we” should do about it. The two sides would take up their positions: the “something must be done” brigade pitted against those who argue that, however awful things are, it is none of our business and we will only make matters worse. Sometimes the latter camp would prevail – think of Douglas Hurd and mid-1990s Bosnia; sometimes, the former: witness Tony Blair and Kosovo.

After Iraq, that changed. Thanks to the invasion, as well as the bloodshed and mayhem in Afghanistan and Libya, the argument is now settled – and the non-interventionists won. The test case is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people – more than Saddam ever did – and yet has been allowed to retain his throne untroubled by outside challenge. There’s not much interest even in pressuring London and Washington to stop arming the Saudi regime that is responsible for the country’s torment, despite the warnings that Yemen risks becoming the next Syria: its soil soaked in blood, rendered fertile for the next generation of violent jihadists.

It is worth noting one consequence of this shift: it’s as if, now that we know that we will do nothing about these distant tragedies, we have lost interest in them altogether. If we are not going to act, then why bother knowing about them? The result is that the children of Yemen are dying cruel deaths, while the rest of the world ignores them. They are dying under a hot desert sun, killed by our allies – and by our inattention. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Jesus and Christ, Part 2

By Ian Harris                       Otago Daily Times                      August 11, 2017

Jesus and Christ are linked but not the same, says Ian Harris. So be sure to place the Christ within the human thought-world where archetypes belong.

There’s only one great, interconnected world. But there are worlds within that world, and two biggies stand out. Theologian Sir Lloyd Geering identifies them as the physical world of nature and science, and the world of human thought. The physical world takes in geology and biology, physics and chemistry, quantum physics and everything where the laws of science apply. The thought-world is very different. It’s all we experience that isn’t subject to the scientific method of observation, experiment, and replication in order to reach a predictable result. It’s the realm of emotion, imagination, reflection, interpretation, dreaming and creativity. It’s the realm that produces a Shakespeare or Beethoven or Mandela in a way no scientist could predict. It’s the realm that prompts people to affirm values and look for purpose in life.

Obviously there would be no thought-world without the physical world, because we’re physical beings – but the fact of being flesh and bone doesn’t go anywhere near to telling us who we are. Obviously, too, our physical brains and bodies affect our thought-world, just as our thought-world impacts on our brains and bodies, as in helping or impeding healing. Traditionally, God was located in that physical world – creating it, intervening directly in it, to cause good harvests, trigger earthquakes, help this person recover from illness but let that one die, protect from danger, bring sunshine or rain. Lots of prayers still assume so.

Today, however, many people see God rather as a product of the human thought-world, finding the concept relevant as they reflect on their experience, seek meaning and purpose, think about values and what is ultimate for them, and wonder about the dynamic interconnectedness of all life. That’s the world of religion, because religion belongs within the world of human thought and consciousness rather than the physical world. The human Jesus belonged in the physical world in the same way as we do, but he contributed to the thought-world in a massively positive and empowering way. So did the apostle Paul. He built on Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God by tapping into a powerful and universal archetype latent within the thought-world: an archetype of love, grace and transformation, which he and others of his day called “the Christ”.

For Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, an archetype is a primordial image or motif that has evolved in the collective experience of humankind and identifies a basic human model or experience. Examples are the hero, the mother, the wise old man, the caregiver, the one who delivers from bondage, the lover, the visionary. They crop up repeatedly in dreams, in mythology, and in religion. Jung’s term wasn’t available to Paul, but the messiah or Christ as an archetype of the bearer of love, grace and transformation was at the heart of his thinking – just as those qualities were the core of Jesus’ teaching in his metaphor of the kingdom of God. So it’s not one or the other, Jesus or Christ, but a fusion of both, with the practical purpose of furthering Jesus’ vision for bringing wholeness to individuals, societies and the world. It’s a wholeness in one’s very being, from which good deeds will flow.

Paul gives that vision wings in a phrase he uses like a signature tune: “in Christ”. Again and again he urges action and reflection “in Christ” as archetype of love, grace and transformation. He greets Christian communities “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus”. Why not “in Jesus”? Because that would shift the focus to the historical Jesus, a man in the physical world, whereas an archetype belongs in the collective subconscious of the thought-world. Hence Paul talks of “Christ dwelling in you and you in Christ”, echoing Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches, each a living part of the other so that the vine might bear much fruit. This Christ would mean nothing without Jesus behind it. But as an archetype, it lies deep within the human psyche. It has a dynamic that offers a new way of being, empowering and energising right at people’s core.

The Christ, then, is Christianity’s archetype of the lover, the caregiver, the visionary, and the one who sets free, working out in acts of love and grace, and transforming lives. Other world faiths have their equivalents, and whatever name they give it – such as the Buddha within – it’s the same primordial motif or experience they’re drawing on. And as archetypes, they belong normally and naturally within the framework of the human thought-world that spans every age, including our own.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Engagement With North Korea Works

by Kerri Kennedy                    Common Dreams                     July 19, 2017

With a little will, both sides can take small steps to ratchet down the pressure — and avoid a war. 'We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy,' writes Kennedy, 'and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at an all-time high — and continue to escalate following North Korea’s test of a missile that can supposedly reach Alaska. It’s still possible to turn down the heat with small steps that could lead to more robust diplomacy later on. But this requires the political will to engage instead of trading threats. "Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war."

While the Trump administration once signaled an interest in diplomatic engagement, since then their saber rattling has pushed us even closer to the brink of war. There’s another, better way forward. Observers have noted that when the U.S. has opened lines of engagement, North Korean missile tests have been scaled back or stopped all together. Simply put, engagement works. open lines of dialogue. Addressing humanitarian concerns, for example, could lead to political progress, as it has between the U.S. and other countries.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of engagement to open important doors. I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization that’s had a presence on the Korean peninsula since 1953, when we responded to calls for refugee assistance. In particular, AFSC is one of the few U.S.-based organizations that’s kept a presence in the North since the 1980s, and we’ve done it through exchanges of delegations hoping to reduce tensions.

When famine struck we sprung into action. Because we’d opened lines of communication and identified the crisis early on, we were ideally positioned to help. Since the end of the famine, we’ve been working with farmers in the region on sustainable agriculture practices. Ours has been the most continuous example of a successful relationship between U.S and North Korean-based organizations. And we’ve seen that engagement lead directly to opportunities to address a humanitarian crisis and save lives. Peer-to-peer exchanges like those we participate in have the potential to open diplomatic lines of communication. But this requires a willingness to do the work of engagement from those in political power.

What other options might be on the table? Retrieving U.S. veterans’ remains from North Korea and reunifying Korean families divided by the war are both important and viable. Hhumanitarian issues that need to be addressed before time runs out, as survivors of the Korean War are aging. Working together on those goals could prime the pump for further diplomacy. Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war. We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy, and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

We know what we need to do to begin to address this conflict in a productive, non-violent manner. What we need now instead of military threats is the political will for real engagement. [Abridged]

A collection of quotes

To hide behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an act of fallacious sophistry. Toasters don’t make toast, people make toast. True. But toasters exist to make toast: guns exist to kill people. [Gary Younge, Guardian 6/2/2017]

Thomas Merton: You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. [Quoted by Revd Brenda Rockell] 

Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up in yours and we can only be human together.”

Wilfred Owen:
“Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Cultural Divides:
“Whether that’s an ethnic or a religious divide, or to do with gender or politics, there are power-mongers at every level of society, who succeed best when they demonise the ‘other’."  Brenda Rockell

“If Thou humblest Thyself Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.”

Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks:
Four months after Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island he came to Detroit as part of a U.S. trip to promote sanctions against the South African government… Mandela came off the plane amidst the cheering crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers, and froze when he saw Mrs Parks. Slowly he began walking towards her chanting “RO-SA PARKS! RO-SA PARKS! The two seasoned freedom fighters embraced.” [From “The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, P. 231 Highly recommended.]

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jesus or Christ?

By Ian Harris                 Otago Daily Times               July 14, 2017 

It’s not either/or, says Ian Harris – both are central to Christianity. 

At a Progressive Spirituality conference in Napier last year the keynote speaker, Dr Robin Meyers of Oklahoma City, ended his final address by asking: “Are you followers of Jesus, or worshippers of Christ?”

The question was well received. Many Christians today think following Jesus is quite sufficient, thank you, so are not drawn to worship Christ. This has led to a significant movement in some churches away from any serious contemplation of the Christ. In those churches the emphasis is on living the Jesus way, which its adherents find both appealing and relevant. Jesus they can relate to, a good man, a superlative teacher, a sage – such a pity their religion is identified as “Christianity”, a name derived from the Christ.

Game, set and match? Not quite. I asked Meyers afterwards what lay behind his question. “Well,” he said, “on the one hand you have the man Jesus and his teaching about bringing in the kingdom of God here on Earth, on the other a divine Christ who was born of a virgin, performed one miracle after another, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven.”

I said I wasn’t enamoured of that either – but what if the Christ was rather Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation, and therefore the inner dynamic for living the Jesus way? Meyers said he had no problem with that at all. Which left me wondering why he set up the alternatives in the way he had. After all, the gospels attribute all those stories about a virgin birth, miracles of healing and supernatural power, bodily resurrection and ascension, to Jesus, not Christ. So how come Meyers and others insist on dislodging them from Jesus and heaping them on to the Christ? 

The title “Christ” is used mainly in the four gospels to refer to the leader Jews longed for, commissioned by God to free them from subjection to Rome, restore their unique identity as a people, and bring in God’s rule. That’s highly political and down-to-earth, not evidence of divinity and the supernatural.

Some sleight of mind seemed to be happening here. Actually, “Jesus” and “Christ” are both intrinsic to the New Testament as a whole. The significance of each individually is indelibly linked to the other, but they lose something when treated as if they were just alternative names for the same person. They need to be uncoupled, first to appreciate Jesus in the fullness of his humanity, and then to discern why his earliest followers found it appropriate to claim him as “mashiach” or messiah, or in Greek “Christ”. That happened primarily as they tried to make sense of their experience of Jesus, especially the shock of his crucifixion – and then, somehow, their continuing experience of him. 

This was the earliest period of Christianity, when Jesus’ Jewish followers were still part of the synagogue and worship was steeped in the Jewish scriptures. That setting goes far to explain why they came to regard Jesus as their messiah. Their scriptures told them of others who had been “anointed” (that’s what “mashiach” means) to lofty tasks of leadership as kings or high priests. There was even a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, accorded the title. Nearly 600 years before Jesus’ time, Cyrus had freed Jews long held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return home. He was their deliverer, to Jews a messiah.

The apostle Paul had a prime role in developing the vision of Jesus as messiah, and today some see this as perverting Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God. Rather than promoting the kingdom as such, he preached Jesus as its harbinger, using the Greek word for anointed, “christos” or Christ. It is a matter of historical fact that Christianity took root as a religion because Jesus and his teaching were conveyed more through the imaginative possibilities of a universalised messiah or Christ than the bare memory and wisdom of Jesus’ teaching.

Some scholars surmise that without the Christ concept, the Jesus movement would have faded away by about 500 AD, like many other groups of his day. Paul took Jesus and all he represented and projected them into the future through gatherings of people in which Jesus was felt to be dynamically present as the messiah or Christ. If psychiatrist Carl Jung’s term “archetype” had been around, Paul might well have used it, because that’s very much in tune with his thinking. Such a link carries the Christ concept forward into our own day and age – more on that next time

NRA Issues Call for White Supremacy and Armed Insurrection

By Bill Moyers, Michael Winship 30 June, 2017 Pub. Common Dreams

The gun lobby's new "recruitment ad" is really a call for white supremacy and armed insurrection, deliberately crafted to stir anger and fear. Take a look at the ad below and ask whether the National Rifle Association can go any lower. Ponder this flagrant call for violence, this insidious advocacy of hate delivered with a sneer, this threat of civil war, this despicable use of propaganda to arouse rebellion against the rule of law and the ideals of democracy.

On the surface this is a recruitment video for the National Rifle Association. But what you are really about to see is a call for white supremacy and armed insurrection, each word and image deliberately chosen to stir the feral instincts of troubled souls who lash out in anger and fear:

Disgusting. Dishonorable. Dangerous. But also deliberate. Everything deplored by the NRA in the ad is committed by “they” — a classic manipulation turning anyone who disagrees with your point of view into “The Other” — something alien, evil, foreign. “They use their media to assassinate real news,” “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler,” “They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.” “And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance.”

This is the vitriol that has been spewed like garbage since the days of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blasted from lynch mobs and demagogues and fascistic factions of political parties that turn racial and religious minorities into grotesque caricatures, the better to demean and diminish and dominate.

It is the nature of such malevolent human beings to hate those whom they have injured, and the NRA has enabled more injury to more marginalized and vulnerable people than can be imagined. Note how the words “guns” or “firearms” are never mentioned once in the ad and yet we know that the NRA is death on steroids. And behind it are the arms merchants who profit from selling automatic rifles to deranged people who shoot down politicians playing intramural baseball, or slaughter children in their classrooms in schools named Sandy Hook, or who massacre black folks at Bible study in a Charleston church, or murderously infiltrate a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Watching this expertly produced ad, we thought of how the Nazis produced slick propaganda like this to demonize the Jews, round up gypsies and homosexuals, foment mobs, burn books, crush critics, justify torture and incite support for state violence.

It’s the crack in the Liberty Bell, this ad: the dropped stitch in the American flag, the dregs at the bottom of the cup of freedom. It’s a Trump-sized lie invoked to bolster his base, discredit critics, end dissent. Joseph McCarthy must be smiling in hell at such a powerful incarnation on earth of his wretched, twisted soul.

With this savage ad, every Democrat, every liberal, every person of color, every immigrant or anyone who carries a protest sign or raises a voice in disagreement becomes a target in the diseased mind of some tormented viewer. Heavily armed Americans are encouraged to lock and load and be ready for the ballistic solution to any who oppose the systematic looting of Washington by an authoritarian regime led by a deeply disturbed barracuda of a man who tweets personal insults, throws tantrums and degrades everything he touches.

Look again at the ad. Ask yourself: What kind of fools are they at the NRA to turn America into a killing ground for sport? To be choked with hate is a terrible fate, and it is worst for those on whom it is visited. Take one more look, and ask: Why do they get away with it? What is happening to us? How long do we have before the fire this time?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Angela Merkel shows how the leader of the free world should act

Suzanne Moore                  Guardian/UK                 30 May 2017

There’s a statesmanship – a vision, a morality and a core – to her that was thrown into sharp relief by Donald Trump’s shambling visit to Europe

Angela Merkel – or “leader of the free world” as she is now to be known – did not wait long to see the back of Donald Trump before she made it clear that things have changed. She told a rally of 2,500 people in Munich where she kicked off her campaign to be re-elected that the EU must now be prepared to look after itself, that it could no longer depend on the UK or America. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over … I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans have to take fate into our own hands.”

This is a truly dramatic statement from a leader who doesn’t do drama. She is not going to be holding Trump’s hand any time soon. He may be relieved to hear that, but then the underestimation of Merkel as a dowdy physicist has often allowed her to run rings around egotistical male leaders.

It was said to be a coincidence that she met Barack Obama the same day as Trump. It took a while for her to establish a friendship with Obama. She apparently disliked the “atmospherics” around him when he was first elected and wanted a more “conversational” relationship. She got it.

Watching her at the G7, her statesmanship, her ease, her ability to broker deals and relationships is ever more impressive. More and more I hear people say they that they like her. Even those on the left respect her though she is a centrist. While Trump shambled around Europe with his goon display of ignorance of other languages, cultures or even basic manners, Merkel was in her element. While he was trailing behind in a golf cart as he lacked the stamina to actually walk anywhere at all, she strode out with the other leaders.

Every gif of Trump shows him vacantly bumbling away, arrogantly shoving or being batted away by Melania. Gifs of Merkel, on the other hand, are a delight: her bemused expression when she has to deal with him, that twinkle, that little shrug she gives. She is at the top of her game – a game he has no idea how to play. Vladimir Putin knew she was afraid of dogs, so brought a labrador to meet her on 2007. She didn’t flinch, later observing: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man … He’s afraid of his own weakness.” No wonder Emmanuel Macron pulled off that wonderful swerve last week walking straight to Trump but greeting Merkel first.

Of course not everyone likes her. The Irish, the Portuguese, the Greeks, the Spanish and the Italians have felt the force of her pushing through stark austerity measures as the price of EU membership. At one point Greek protesters portrayed her with a Hitler moustache. Her expansionary politics, whereby every other country should seek to be as wealthy as Germany, have come at a huge price to countries she sees as fiscally irresponsible. Critics in Germany say she achieved a kind of “paralysed consent”. They complain about the number of opinion polls she has commissioned and her methodical, scientific way of dealing with politics. et this, in reality, is why Mutti is considered so good at crisis management. Theatrics don’t interest her but there is a vision, a morality, a core to her that meant she could push through a policy of taking in refugees that required real guts.

Asked if she was a feminist while sitting next to Ivanka Trump, Ivanka immediately raised her hand to say she was, and Merkel, who has done so much for women, hesitated and then said: “If you think that I am one, go and vote on it.” Friends say that she always considered herself emancipated by her studies and growing up in East Germany, where it was normal for women to work. Her husband, professor of theoretical chemistry Joachim Sauer, needs no security. They lead an unshowy life. The pictures of Merkel nipping out for chips, ecstatic at the football, drinking beer, are not set up. It’s what she does, though she no longer smokes or bites her nails to the quick in the way she did when she was younger. This all added to the geekiness that helped her to rise up through the party.

And look where she is now, unlike our prime minister, able to oppose Trump directly and to say his America is not a friend of Europe. What an extraordinary woman. There are no problems, she says, only “tasks” to be solved, as she sits rapidly texting in meetings. Refusing to see herself as a female leader, she prefers to think of herself as part of a class of political heavyweights. Increasingly she is in a class of her own and watching her, one thought comes to mind: this is what strong and stable actually looks like.

Saying 'enough is enough' is to misunderstand terrorism completely

Waleed Aly                   The Age                 8 June 2017

Terrorism once seemed isolated, each attack hitting us like a massive thud, now it is a drum beat: steady, regular, some whacks combining to form a relentless sound track to our time. The exasperation is thorough, real and pervasive. You probably said those words to yourself well before you heard May say them. “Enough is enough.”

But they're also misleading. "Enough is enough" implies a level of control. It's what you say to a misbehaving child just as you decide it's finally time to impose a punishment. It's what you say when you decide to quit the job you hate. But terrorism is nothing like that. It does not exist merely because we haven't yet decided to extinguish it.

To see this, consider that we've been saying this kind of thing more or less since the September 11 attacks. That, you will recall, was meant to be the moment that changed the world, that ushered in a new war unlike anything we've seen. "There was before 9/11 and after 9/11", explained a former CIA director of counterterrorism. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." So we rushed off to two interminable wars. And we've been taking gloves off ever since, introducing new counterterrorism legislation to a drum beat of our own, steadily expanding the power of the state, and its ability to gather intelligence. Still the attacks come. Indeed, they increase.

Australian counterparts haven't quite got to the point of adopting Nazi terminology, but we're flirting with the internment idea. Here it takes the form of proposing special courts for terror suspects in which they can be held indefinitely precisely because we lack the evidence to convict, as both Tony Abbott and retired army general Jim Molan did this week. To be fair, Molan refused internment as a description of this, accepting the "appalling back story" that word implies. But we are talking about incarcerating people on suspicion and without trial. With respect, I'm not sure what else to call that.

"We are at war" tweeted one of Sunrise's regular commentators – who was quite prepared to call it internment – by way of support, as though it was some urgent, original diagnosis. But we've been using that exact phrase, and building policy on it, since at least September 12, 2001. This approach has failed because it has always made the same fundamental miscalculation that terrorism is some more-or-less static, finite evil that can be isolated and destroyed. When Katie Hopkins says "we need to start incarcerating, deporting, repeating until we clean this country up" she's imagining a day when the last potential terrorist is imprisoned, where we've finally caught all the bad guys, and anyone we think might one day become one.

But when the attacks continue because some 14-year-old kid wasn't on the radar, or because authorities monitored someone and decided he wasn't a serious risk, we'll then expand the circle. Even the most fleeting levels of suspicion will become enough grounds for detention. Then, when that doesn't finish it, we'll go for people we think should have known about an attack on suspicion they're supporters of terrorism. Eventually, we'll decide it's all too hard sorting the benign from the malignant and propose the internment of Muslims altogether. This, after all, is the logical extension of the idea of banning Muslim immigration. And then, when potential terrorists start masquerading as non-Muslims to avoid incarceration, what will we do?

What exactly is our end point here? Because there will always be a case to make. Take Iran: an awesomely brutal security state that has shown no compunction in imprisoning and torturing dissenters, and which defines its security threats extremely broadly. However tough we might want to be on terrorism, we will surely never match that. And yet Iran has just now witnessed a major IS terrorist attack of its own, despite being an overwhelmingly Shiite nation scarcely known for housing masses of IS supporters. The truth is that while hard police power is important, the track record of governments trying to eliminate terrorism predominantly by force isn't an encouraging one.

That's because at terrorism's heart is the narrative that sustains it. That narrative is itself a complex of things: social circumstances, an array of grievances and crucially, an ideology that makes these things coherent and directs that anger towards an enemy. Islamism is currently potent because it does this so efficiently. You can't imprison that potency out of existence. You can only try to make it ring less true, so fewer and fewer people are attracted to it. And given one of Islamism's most common conspiratorial motifs is that Western societies are out to destroy Islam and will never accept Muslims, the road to internment seems a fraught one to walk. We're fortunate for now such ideas are marginal in our politics. But we're heading that way unless we can at some point look at our instinctive, visceral responses and say enough is enough. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Faith Evolves

Ian Harris                      Otago Daily News                   May 12, 2017

I was startled to learn recently that I’m engaged in a war on truth. Really? I thought I was engaged in a search for truth. But no, one Paul Thomas, writing in The Listener, declares that “the biggest battalions in the war on truth are those deployed by religion”. That’s because it “elevates belief above rationality and groupthink above independence of mind”.

He then fires the same broadside at religion’s “secular equivalent ideology” (is there only one?). Both, he says, make claims that defy logic, cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and impose the mindset that “if you have commitment to the cause, you won’t need evidence to know these claims are true”. Then the clincher, a Dawkinsesque recourse to “a fundamentalist Christian who believes Earth was created 5000 years ago and Adam and Eve were real people”.

Poor Mr Thomas, bobbing blithely on his backwater! Apparently he is unaware that a progressive theological current has been running within all the mainstream churches for more than a century, and thinking has moved a long way from the dogmatic bunkers of the past. Doesn’t he believe in evolution, which includes the evolution of Christian thought? But he’s not alone. A letter-writer asserted in this newspaper that in Christianity truth has never mattered very much, and tilts at the Bible as “essentially just a collection of fables, full of nonsense”.

It isn’t, actually. It’s a 1000-year record that shows people of integrity wrestling with the great questions of life – meaning, purpose, destiny – in light of the knowledge and understanding of their own times. They teased those questions out in myth, poetry, song, drama, parable, history, law, ethics, philosophy, teaching, preaching, interpretation. In other words, their Bible is a very human book – and a model for moderns to do likewise in our vastly changed world. To literalise the myths, as some conservative Christians and the letter-writer do, is to miss the mark by a country mile.

Reflecting on such distortions, Irish-American theologian John Dominic Crossan says the point is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”. Yes, there are churches still stuck on the reefs of medieval beliefs about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, and they give oxygen to those who dismiss religion on grounds of rationality and logic. I share a distaste for that style of religion, but it’s far from the whole picture.

So why do the critics focus solely on that segment of the spectrum? Is it too much trouble, in pursuit of truth, to see the Christian enterprise in all its diversity, and see it whole? Their approach is akin to judging science by its capacity to build nuclear weapons and wage biological warfare, while ignoring its advances in medicine, astronomy, transport, communications and much else. Besides, finding meaning and purpose in life, and determining the values that will be central to the way one lives, was never a science project, and isn’t now.

Rationality is one platform for this, but the search also draws on emotion, imagination, creativity, dreaming. How very human! The knowledge explosion of the past 200 years does not jettison the deep human wisdom of the ages, as if nothing counted until we came along, but provides a basis for re-interpreting and re-integrating that wisdom in the light of new knowledge. There is truth for living that is different from the truths of scientific experiment and discovery. And that is the sphere of religion.

All that is meat and drink to those on the liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum, looking to the future rather than trying to shore up the past. The modern world poses questions about aspects of the tradition that once seemed self-evident truths, but may now be regarded as the cultural embroidery of a past age, centred as it was on a theistic God, a supernatural reality, a heavenly after-life. The quest for truth leads many Christians to quietly abandon those assumptions, and build on new understandings that make sense within their secular world.

Christianity then comes down to earth with a bump, and is freed to evolve in fresh ways. It’s all less tidy now, but the motive power is still the same: a truth for living based on relationships impelled by love, respect, freedom and concern. That is central to what the apostle Paul means by “living in Christ” – which is the beating heart of the Christian lifestyle

Corbyn is Right - Manchester was linked to British foreign policy

Simon Jenkins                Guardian/UK                26 May 2017

We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us, claiming our motive was ‘to keep terror off the streets of Britain’

Jeremy Corbyn is
perfectly right to relate this week’s Manchester terrorist atrocity to British foreign policy in the Middle East. Whenever Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron struggled to explain why British blood and finance had to go on toppling regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, they were explicit: it was “to prevent terrorism in the streets of Britain”. The reason was given over and over again: to suppress militant Islam.

When that policy clearly leads to an increase in Islamist terrorism, we are entitled to agree with Corbyn that it has “simply failed”. Regimes were indeed toppled. Tens of thousands died, many of them civilians every bit as innocent as Manchester’s victims. Terrorism has not stopped.

Whenever al-Qaida or Isis seek to explain their atrocities, reference is usually made to British intervention and the military killing of innocent Muslims. It is mendacious to try to sanitise our overheated and jingoistic response to domestic terrorism by pretending that it is unrelated to British foreign policy. It was we who made the link, and before the terrorists did.

Of course this does not exonerate anyone. Yes, militant Islamists are seeking to subvert the west’s sense of security and its liberal values. Yes, the west’s continued bombing of markets, hospitals, weddings and villages is “accidental” – albeit inevitable, given the nature of modern air war.

But we used the language of “
shock and awe” in bombing Baghdad in 2003. We gave the current era of Islamist terrorism a cause, a reason, an excuse, however perverted. We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us.

Where Corbyn spoils his pitch is in relating terrorism not just to foreign policy but to domestic austerity. He stoops to Theresa May’s level in seeking to make electoral capital from a tragedy. Were he not grandstanding himself, he could accuse her of peddling the politics of fear by flooding the streets of the capital with soldiers. He could plead with the Muslim community to do more to combat and expose terrorist “grooming”. But there is no evidence that the security services are impeded in their work by staff shortages. It is the one aspect of policing that has been showered with money.

Politicians who exploit moments of public tragedy play a risky game. Whether Corbyn was tactful to return to the election campaign by citing
Manchester is moot: he would have been wise to wait a few days. But Islamist terrorism is related to foreign policy. However hateful it may seem to us, it is a means to a political end. Sometimes it is as well to call a spade a spade.