Saturday, 15 September 2018

Dark Emu

One of the prevailing myths of Australian history is that the European invaders who arrived after 1788 were the first to 'settle' the land.  In this story, the country's original inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers, wandering randomly over the countryside plucking its riches without doing anything to create them.

It's a myth that dies hard.  Our recent Prime Minister Tony Abbot (now, ironically, the government's 'special envoy on Indigenous affairs') loves to celebrate the wonders created by the arrival of the First Fleet.

I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, great southern land.

The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent.

Yet over recent decades, historians have steadily chipped away at this myth.  Most Australians now know that Aboriginal people did not roam randomly, they travelled on a seasonal rhythm between different areas in a carefully defined country.  Henry Reynolds and others have made us aware of the fact that Aboriginal people did not simply passively accept the peaceful settlement of their lands, they fought and lost a fiercely contested war in which thousands were killed.

More recently we are starting to see a similar dismantling of the myth that Aboriginal people lived passively on the land, accepting whatever it gave them.  As far back as 1975, Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads documented the huge impact Aboriginal burning had on the nature of Australian landscape.  Blainey's depiction seems to suggest that this burning was indiscriminate, but in 2011 Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth carefully documented the highly intentional, skillful strategies involved in Aboriginal land management, with the judicious use  of fire allied with other management strategies to produce a carefully tended patchwork of different types of environment across a nation's various terrains.

I've recently come across a fantastic little book which boldly develops this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion - Dick Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black seeds, agriculture or accident? published in 2014.  Pascoe is a man of Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage who grew up in Victoria.  He is mainly known for his fiction writing, publishing a number of novels for adults and children, and spending a number of years as publisher and editor of Australian Short Stories.  However, he has also written widely on history.

In Dark Emu he takes the hunter-gatherer myth head-on.  The starting point and in a sense the cornerstone of his account is the descriptions of Aboriginal society contained in the diaries of early European explorers.

For instance, there is this from George Grey, travelling in the Kimberley in 1839.

As we wound along the native path my wonder augmented; the path increased in breadth and its beaten appearance, whilst along the side we found frequent wells, some of which were ten and twelve feet deep, and were executed in a superior manner.  .  We now emerged upon a tract of  light fertile soil quite overrun with warran (yam) plants, the root of which is a favourite article of food for the natives.  This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root.... passed two native villages,or as the men termed them, towns the huts of which...(were) built and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.

Wells constructed 'in a superior manner'.  Root vegetables grown in monoculture.  'Fixed places of residence'.  Does this sound like a hunter-gatherer culture?

Or this from Thomas Mitchell in Queensland's Belyando River district.

We crossed some patches of dry swamp where clods had been extensively turned up by the natives.... The whole resembled ground broken with the hoe.... There might be about two acres in the patch we crossed and we perceived at a distance other portions of the ground in a similar state.

Or from Charles Sturt, exploring the Murray-Darling Basin in 1845, when he saw

...grassy plains spreading out like a boundless stubble field, the grass being the kind from which the natives collect seed for subsistence at this season of the year...large heaps that had been thrashed out by the natives were piled up like haycocks.

Haycocks? Or this, also from Sturt.

Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being the back of the other, and it appeared to be a singular but universal custom to erect a smaller hut at no great distance from the large ones.

Pascoe describes how the members and search parties associated with the Burke and Wills expedition found food.

King...found a store of grain in an Aboriginal house, which he estimated at four tons.  John Davis, a member of one of the search parties...reported on the vast quantities of nardoo seed waiting to be harvested on the dry floor of Lake Coogiecoogina in the Strzelecki Desert, reminding us that 'desert' is a term Europeans use to describe areas where they can't grow wheat and sheep.  

Pascoe is not the first to comment on the irony that Burke and Wills and their companions starved in the midst of plenty, even scaring off the Aboriginal people who were trying to help them.

There is much more of this from various explorers and early landholders in various parts of the country in the mid to late 19th century.  Put together with the findings of archaeology and the traditions of Aboriginal people themselves, a picture emerges that is very different to the 'hunter-gatherer' story we heard in school.

  • Aboriginal people did not simply pluck or dig the food plants they found along the way, they actively cultivated them.  Yam fields were carefully tended, the soil regularly dug to ensure a harvest each year, while various native grasses were cultivated and managed for their seeds.  The explorers describe this quite clearly - fields of grain or root crops, piles of stalks that reminded them of European hay-ricks, and storage huts in which large quantities of grain were placed for future use.  There is also strong evidence that they traded seeds and seedlings, resulting in productive plant varieties spreading across the country.
  • They practiced extensive aquaculture, including building elaborate fish traps, diverting streams to channel fish into these traps, and building pools to trap floodwaters and provide a confined environment to breed fish for food.  Coastal peoples also cultivated cooperative fishing with dolphins and orcas, training these animals to herd fish and even whales in-shore and rewarding them with a share of the catch.
  • Although they did not actively herd kangaroos as Europeans herd cattle or sheep, they did use fire management to cultivate pastures, strategically located at the distance a group of kangaroos would travel in a day so they could predict fairly accurately where they would be. 
  • To support this agriculture they built permanent villages, with sturdy huts made of timber, earth or stone.  
In addition to these evidences of settled agriculture there was a system of governance which, over a period of 40,000 years or more, allowed the Aboriginal nations to co-exist in relative peace - while nations did clearly fight from time to time, there is no evidence in archaeology, traditional stories or genetics to suggest there was invasion or conquest in Australia prior to that of the British, and their system of governance enabled cooperative land and resource management across national boundaries.

So how did we come by the story that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter-gatherers?  Part of Pascoe's answer is that the invaders were persuaded by the social Darwinism popular in their day to see Aboriginal people as inferior and this coloured what they saw.  Hence Sturt uses the term 'subsistence' despite clearly describing a system of agriculture, and Burke and Wills failed to see the rich food system through which they were travelling.

However, this was perhaps just a superficial justification of more base economic motives.  The explorers were not looking for scientific knowledge or a civilisation with whom to trade.  They were seeking pasture for cattle and sheep, and fertile soil for wheat.  The livestock thrived in the lush grass, and the wheat grew prolifically in the former yam fields.  It suited them to believe, and to tell others, that all of this just occurred naturally.  

Yet before too long the hard hooves of the sheep and cattle, and the neglect of the new 'owners' of the country, had degraded these same fertile fields and pastures, fouled the water sources and drastically reduced the amount of grass that grew each year.  A system that had proved sustainable for thousands of years was replaced by an unstable economy that Jared Diamond perceptively compares to mining.

Pascoe's message is primarily historical, but he also looks forward.  Our degradation of the country and the changing climate present serious challenges to agriculture based on European models.  Pascoe thinks traditional Australian agriculture can help solve these problems.  For instance, while native grasses don't yield the same amount of grain as wheat, they can grow in much drier conditions.  Yams, which are now only found in disturbed places like the edge of roads or railways, can be successfully grown in a range of conditions.  Kangaroos similarly can survive in fairly arid conditions, have less impact on the country than sheep and cattle, don't produce methane like cattle do, and yield tasty, lean meat which is better for us than beef or lamb.  The revival of these crops is still only at the experimental stage, but Pascoe believes it has huge potential.

Of course many, like Tony Abbott and so many ordinary people, will never read this book, or Gammage's, or any of the sources they refer to.  They will continue to see Aboriginal civilisation as an optional prelude to the main story which begins with Captain Cook and the First Fleet.  Myths die hard, especially convenient ones.  The idea that Aboriginal people had nothing and lost nothing in the British invasion is comforting to us British people who have benefited from it.  But those of is who value truth and justice need to resist this seduction and acknowledge the truth, even if it hurts.  It won't hurt us as much as it hurt those who were dispossessed.  

In fact it may even help us, not just to a clear conscience, but to address the environmental problems we have created.  It was unwise, to say the least, for our forebears to so carelessly disregard the knowledge of managing this country that Aboriginal people built up over millennia.  Much of this knowledge has since been lost, but some survives and some can be recovered and re-learnt.  It can help us feed ourselves into the future, better manage bushfire risks, recover soil fertility and water quality, and make better use of native flora and fauna.  Aboriginal people were and are not stupid, and millennia of history and learning must be worth something.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

57, and 500

I turn 57 this week.  I'm at the stage of life where each birthday is not so much a cause for celebration, cake and presents, as a reminder of the passing of time.

My father lived to 77, so if this is any indication I might have about 20 years of life left.  Of course I am healthier than my Dad.  He smoked, and was overweight, and he died of heart failure.  I don't smoke, am barely overweight, and ride my bike to stay fit.  So perhaps I might live longer.  Maybe I have 30 years.

Then again, my Mum was also much healthier than my Dad.  She didn't smoke, and never carried an ounce of extra weight.  But she was cut down by a brain tumour, and died at the age of 71.  So who knows, perhaps I only have 14 years.

Perhaps next time I go for a ride I'll get cleaned up by a careless motorist and die on the spot.

No-one knows the day or hour of their death.

This might sound maudlin and a bit creepy, but I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, to be honest.  I have a good life, I'm happily married, I have two fantastic adult kids, two lovely kids-in-law, and two gorgeous grandkids.  I have interesting and satisfying work to do.  I have good friends.  What will be, will be.

Still, as the clock ticks I'm more inclined to wonder if I'm using my time well.  Is it a good use of my life to be writing policies and procedures for little organisations, or facilitating strategic planning sessions?  Do those arguments about important issues on Facebook really amount to anything?  Should I be getting my finger out and writing that book I keep talking about and running over in my head? And if so, which book?

The illusion of immortality is definitely wearing off.

Coincidentally, or serendipitously, this is the 500th post on Painting Fakes.  Which I suppose is cause for some celebration, or reflection.

I could give you some stats.  For instance, Blogger tells me that I have had 147,260 visits to the site since I started writing it in early 2008, although I don't really believe that statistic.  A post I wrote in 2013 about the Newman Government's anti-bikie laws had over 4,000 reads thanks to a friend sharing it on a biker chat group.  One I wrote just last year about naive charity had over 1,800 visitors after I shared it myself on my Linkedin page - something I don't do very often, given this is not a work blog.  And a little piece I wrote in 2011 about how Aboriginal people were described in a pamphlet we were given on arrival in Australia back in 1967 has kept attracting readers, who now number almost 1,500.  I am always surprised what gets readers and what doesn't.

I'm also often surprised that anyone reads it at all, so if you are reading this- Thanks!  Other times, I wonder if the small number of people who do read it justifies the effort I put in.  I don't have a word count, but I suspect the 500 posts between them probably equal about 5 books.  Maybe if I had started with those books back in 2008 instead of frittering away 10 years here, I would now have five books in print.

Or maybe not.  Time is an arrow which only moves in one direction.  The clock ticks.  57 years.  20,819 days. 499,662 hours.  29,979,720 minutes.  1,798,983,200 seconds.  500 posts.  No books so far.  But in the year to come, who knows?

Friday, 24 August 2018

Deja Vu

So, it seems that Scott Morrison is our new Prime Minister, less than a year out from the latest possible date from our next election.  This is hardly strange.  Each of our last four Prime Ministers has ascended to the post in exactly the same circumstances, unceremoniously booting their rival mid-term only to be booted just as unceremoniously some three years later.  The last PM not to lose their job this way, unless you count Kevin Rudd's mercifully brief second attempt at the role, was John Howard way back in 2007.  Old fashioned type that he is, he lost his job in the time-honoured manner by leading his party to a crushing election defeat and then retiring gracefully.

In an immediate sense, each of these internal coups has been fuelled by dramas with opinion polls.  In each case, consistent polling over a number of months has shown that the government will lose power if it faces an election.  Mostly (especially with the switches to Rudd and Turnbull) they switched because the alternative leader was popular and would immediately boost the government's chances of survival.  However, the coup itself immediately damaged this popularity and the government only just survived - both Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull, after deposing their predecessors, led their governments to the narrowest of victories and three years of tenuous governing.

What's different this time around is that far from being more popular than Turnbull (who still remains preferred PM against all comers from his own party or his opponents), Morrison attracts single figures in any 'preferred PM' survey.  So why is the Liberal Party turning to him rather than sticking with their current relatively popular figurehead, or switching to someone like Julie Bishop or Tony Abbott who most Australians could at least pick out of a police line-up?

I think the answer points to a number of worrying things about our increasingly diverse and divided political landscape.

1. We are becoming increasingly tribalised.
When I started writing this, it looked like Peter Dutton would become PM.  Mainstream Australia might only know Dutton, if at all, as the unprepossessing political hard-head who says provocative things about immigrants as Home Affairs Minster.  However, for those in the tribe Dutton is a hero.  People on the right of the Liberal Party have been touting him as their preferred PM for a a couple of years now, flaying Turnbull at every opportunity and begging their great white hope to step up and replace him.

In the end, they got part of what they wanted.  They got rid of Turnbull, and although their hero didn't end up winning the job he forced a shift to the right.  Morrison is just as right-wing as Dutton and when he was Minister Against Immigration he was just as inflammatory, but recently he's been treading softly and running interference for Turnbull in the name of stability.  This means that for the right he is a sell-out and we can expect the sniping to continue, but the liberal 'moderates' could at least stomach him as leader and he won with a slender majority.

Of course we get the leaders we deserve.  Other tribes are just as compartmentalised.  The Labor Left and Right have barely papered over their cracks since the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd serial fiasco.  Even the Greens are starting to fray, splitting into their own tribes of inner urban environmentalists and old-style left activists.  As for the far right, it's hard to keep up with the constant warfare that is One Nation, the bizarre alternative worlds of the likes of those who were briefly caught up in Clive Palmer's substantial orbit, the progress of the merger between Family First and Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives, or who exactly it is that supports David Leyonhelm.

But we shouldn't blame this entirely on our politicians.  Neo-liberal economic and social policies have driven us further apart.  There is an increasing divide between rich and poor, between urban and regional, between inner and outer suburbs, between recent migrants and earlier ones, between Aboriginal people and those who displaced them.  We have fewer and fewer opportunities and venues to get to know people in other tribes.  So we increasingly look for politicians who represent our tribe, not who will look after us and our mates in other tribes.

2. Our major parties are pretty much done converging.
With Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and Malcolm Turnbull leading the Liberals back in 2008-09, there was a moment when you honestly couldn't tell who was leading which party.  They seemed in lock step on so many issues - wobbling about on same sex marriage, implementing a bold and expensive National Broadband Network, demonising people smugglers and their customers, continuing to intervene in Aboriginal communities in a way popular with everyone but the Aboriginal people themselves, and most importantly tackling climate change via an ETS. 

Of course the last of these was a bridge to far for the Liberal right and they replaced Turnbull with Abbott.  This signalled the fracturing not only of the consensus on climate change but of the idea of consensus politics in general.  For Abbott, attacking the Labor Party was priority number 1, and he pursued it relentlessly.  Many people thought this made him a great opposition leader even though he turned out to be a hopeless Prime Minster.  I beg to differ.

The accepted wisdom in Australian politics past was that to win government, you needed to capture the centre.  Left voters would vote Labor, right voters would vote Liberal or National, those in the centre would swing one way or another and decide elections.  So each party fought fiercely over this centre.

In the process, however, they left their flanks unguarded, and others attacked.  For Labor, they now face a well-organised Green party on their left, eroding their base in the inner cities and taking valuable Senate seats from them.  The Liberals have the same problem on the right, with assorted right wing movements led by the likes of Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Clive Palmer taking their air away, especially in the regions.  This sees the parties swinging like a pendulum, trying to capture the centre in moments when they feel confident, then swinging back to the right or left when they feel under siege.  The divisions within each party widen under the strain.

3. No-one really wants the job anyway.
Membership of all our major political parties is declining, and their pool of available candidates is shrinking.  Maybe I'm just looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but there doesn't seem to be a Whitlam, a Fraser, a Hawke, a Keating or even a Howard among our current group of politicians - someone who can drive an agenda and take people with them, who can unite people around a program, who can forge the necessary compromises to get a reform program implemented and entrenched.

Instead, we are left with B-grade leaders and tribal warriors.  This is not just the party leaders - their ministers and backbenchers are busy jockeying for position, promoting their factional interests within the party, playing to their 'base' and shoring up their own positions.  This means that leaders with vision and ideas, like Rudd or Turnbull, have to spend so much time herding cats that they get lost and are replaced by factional warriors like Abbott, Morrison, Gillard and Shorten.  Our followers get the leaders they deserve, leadership (and politics in general) becomes a poisoned chalice.  People who lack the temperament for vicious factional warfare stay away.

4. Scapegoating is a thing.
We have seen the rise of scapegoating in our politics in recent years.  Mostly, the scapegoats are the usual powerless outsiders - Aboriginal people, Muslims, 'African gangs', 'dole bludgers'. This scapegoating plays into our increasing fragmentation, mentioned above.  Peter Dutton is a master of the art and Morrison is a dab hand at it too although a little out of practice lately.

Yet we also see leaders themselves scapegoated for the failings of their parties.  Abbott was called a great leader, but the party dropped in the polls and the people who put him there dropped him like a hot potato.  Then, under his bitter influence, the right of the party systematically undermined Turnbull for three years (despite his efforts to appease them) then blamed him for the party's plunge in the polls.  The problem in the Liberal Party is not poor leadership, it is poor followers.  A new leader won't change this, even if Menzies himself were to rise from the dead.

As I have often said, we have a Westminster system, not a Presidential one.  It only works if the government, as a collective, works together in the interests, if not of all people (that would be nice, but perhaps too much to expect) at least of those who elected them.  It's been a decade since we've had a national government do that.


So what sort of Prime Minister will Scott Morrison be?  I find it hard to care.  The only realistic answer is that he will be a short-lived one.  There has to be an election by May next year, but his party is imploding so his chances of lasting that long are slim.  It only takes one person to cross the floor in the House of Representatives and he will be gone.  I don't think he'll wait for that to happen.  He'll call an election, and we'll have a Labor government.  So the real question is, will we then have Rudd/Gillard/Rudd all over again with new names in the old seats?  Or will the Labor Party give us a pleasant surprise and get on with fixing some of the mess they will inherit?

I think it's probably extreme to say our political system is 'broken'.  To me Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria define broken - countries so fragmented that rival factions are literally at war.  We should celebrate the fact that despite the rhetoric all our major players, even the outliers like Hanson, still accept the need to play by the rules, we live at peace and the basics of government still operate.

However, there are clearly some problems and our revolving door of leaders is a visible symptom of these.  As Parker J Palmer writes, public spaces (town squares) are replaced with private spaces (shopping malls).  Voluntary organisations (churches, trade unions, sports clubs, service clubs, etc - including political parties) have declining membership.  Schools and universities are refocused onto performance and vocational training instead of broad education. In each case, our opportunities for democratic engagement outside our 'tribes' are reduced.  All this makes us very vulnerable to manipulation by the wealthy people and companies who control our mass communications, or to the conspiratorial type of thinking that does the rounds on social media.

This means I don't think the problem can be solved long term by a change of government, much less a change of leader.  We've tried that a couple of times now, and it hasn't worked.  It needs to begin in our local communities with processes of engagement and debate, respectful listening and creative compromise.  This type of process needs to then be taken into our political parties, wresting control from the factional warriors, and then it will flow up from there to our leadership.  Things won't change overnight, but change is possible.  Let's make it so!

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The House of Islam

If you want a sympathetic, insiders introduction to Islam you could do a lot worse than Ed Husain's The House of Islam: A Global History.

Husain is British-born of Bangladeshi parents, and grew up in East London.  After a youthful flirtation with Hizb ut-Tahrir and radical Islam, he returned to his parents' Sufi teachings and studied Islam in earnest, travelling to Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia to study under various Sufi divines and explore the origins of Islam.  In 2007 he co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as a counter-extremism foundation, and he also consults for the US-based Council of Foreign Relations.  In sum, he is a devout Muslim who is implacably opposed to extremism.

In The House of Islam he provides an inside look into the Islamic faith.  He aims to both enlighten Western readers as to what Islam should be about, and is about for the majority of Muslims, and to challenge the growing influence of Salafism in the Islamic world.

The book is divided into four parts.  In the first he provides a historical introduction to Islam, including a summary of the most important Islamic beliefs and practices, a brief insight into early Islamic history including the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, the Sunni-Shia split, the current makeup of the Islamic population, an explanation of Sharia and an introduction to Sufism.

The middle two sections present his defence of Sufism and critique of Salafism, along with his explanation of why Salafism appears to be gaining ground in the Islamic world, why it is a perversion of Islam and what should be done about it.

In the final section he returns to Islamic spirituality, outlining the things he finds most attractive and engaging about Islam and the reasons Islam has survived and thrived for the past 1,400 years and continues to attract followers to this day.

Part of the key to his argument is his ability to make a clear distinction between the mainstream of Islam and the various manifestations of  extremism.  This thread runs right through the book.  For instance, he opens his account of Sharia Law with a story from one of the hadiths about an exchange between the Prophet and the man he appointed to lead the mission to Yemen.  The upshot is as follows.

When facing tough questions which require guidance, a Muslim refers to the Quran and the Prophet.  If an answer is not found then a Muslim exercises their independent reasoning, or ijtihad.

He goes on to cite stories in which the Prophet refused to provide specific answers to questions about how his followers should order their lives, either remaining silent or one one occasion responding, 'you know best about the affairs of your world'.

Muslim scholars would later see this as strong evidence that Islam did not seek to control every aspect of a believers life.  Instead, Islam sought to provide broad principles of good morality...

Over the years, of course, questions arose in Muslim societies and an increasingly complex and diverse body of legal interpretation arose.  These essentially identified five kinds of acts.

...obligatory acts, such as prayers or almsgiving....acts rewarded by God that are not compulsory, such as keeping streets clean....acts it is preferable to avoid, but which are not sinful, such as smoking cigarettes....acts that merited punishment by God in the next life, such as murder or theft.... (and two categories of) permissible acts.

Historically the vast majority of Muslim jurists agreed, as have most Muslims, with the principle that everything is Halal (permissible) except for a few limitations.... But the rise of literalism and extremism among Muslims globally has resulted in an important shift.  Now for Muslim puritans and their followers, everything is prohibited - Haram - unless it is specifically permitted.

So what is this Muslim puritanism which he critiques?  He identifies a number of aspects of this belief system.  First of all he identifies its origins in the 'hundred years of humiliation' of Islamic societies in the 19th century, beginning with the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon and ending with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1 and its replacement with a mix of arbitrary national boundaries and European protectorates which fragmented the Islamic homelands of the Middle East and North Africa.  This led to the breakdown of established Islamic authority, both political and religious, and developed fertile ground for radical movements.

Secondly, he identifies a range of versions of Islamism.

Just as Marxism, communism and socialism exist across a spectrum from violent democratic socialist, so it is with Islamism.... Islamists range from violent nationalists (Hamas in Gaza) to rebellious and repressed opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) to those who have moved away from Islamism and become Muslim conservatives, much like Christian Democrats.

The common factor in all of these is to assert a strong role for Islam in the governance of society, as a provider of laws and authority.  Not all Islamists are violent terrorists, but some are.

His second category is that of Salafis or Wahabbis.

Put simply, a Salafi is a Muslim who claims to be following the example of the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims.... After these three generations they consider that Islam grew corrupted through Christian, Roman, Persian, Greek and other influences.  To be pure, therefore, Muslims must adhere only to the practices of the Salaf.

These believers are often referred to as Wahabbis because Abd al-Wahhab was a 18th century Salafi teacher who became dominant in Saudi Arabia and whose teachings are still the official doctrine there.  These believers are often referred to in the West as fundamentalists.  Although the term is a Christian one it is apt, because Christian fundamentalists also recognise only the writings of the New Testament as authoritative, including the life and teachings of Jesus and the writings of those he taught directly, or who were mentored by his apostles - the first three generations.  Hence, ironically, Christian fundamentalists relate strongly to Salafism (which they fear) and find any other form of Islam inexplicable.

Two other elements complete the picture.  The first is the reinterpretation of the call to jihad, a Arabic word meaning 'struggle', from a word describing spiritual striving to a word for holy war.  Hence, Islamic extremists feel themselves called to fight for Islam, whereas historically Islam saw war as a necessary evil and viewed it in similar terms to those of Christian 'just war' theory.  Finally there is the use of takfir, the claiming of a right to declare other Muslims to be unbelievers.  We see this practice and its results across the Middle East, where Sunni extremists declare their rivals to be takfir, not Islamic and hence apostates, and then are entitled to kill them.  This is the justification for persecution of Shi-ites, Sufis and other Islamic believers who the extremists do not regard as pure enough.  Hence the primary victims of Islamic terrorism are not Westerners, or even religious minorities within Islamic countries (although of course both these have been targeted), but other Muslims who do not toe the Salafi line.

Along with these religious steps to extremism, he identifies a number of factors which fuel it.  A key one is a loss of Islamic confidence, which leads Muslims to close down and become controlling.  He points out, for instance, the Muslims historically had a largely peaceful relationship with Jews.  When a number of European nations expelled Jews in the late Middle Ages they found refuge in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where many became prominent members of society.  Yet now Jews are persecuted across the Islamic world.  Similarly, Christians, who were historically protected by Islamic regimes, are now facing increasing persecution.

This loss of confidence is also shown in increasing puritanism and particularly in increased strictures on women and sex.  There is no instruction in the Quran, and little in the hadiths, about women's dress codes, and what there is simply reflects normal Arabic dress of the time.  Sex and marriage are dealt with frankly and openly in early Islamic writings and early European travellers were amazed at the sexual freedom of the Islamic societies they encountered. 

Now the boot is on the foot - in the West we have more sexual freedom than ever, while much of Islamic society has moved towards veiling and segregating its women, placing all the burden of sexual misconduct on them.  He cites the horrific tale of the 2002 fire in a girl's school in Mecca in which the escaping students were barred from exiting the building because they were not appropriately veiled (having removed their veils in the women-only environment of the school) and 15 students and teachers died.  Yet this veiling and segregation neither protects women nor prevents male sexual misconduct.  In Yemen, a fully veiled society, 90% of women report having experienced sexual harassment, and such harassment is almost universal for women in Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, Salafi men are able to find any number of loopholes to authorise sexual misconduct - such as taking non-Muslim women as sex slaves in war zones, or contracting temporary 'marriages' with prostitutes on sex holidays to the West.

Husain estimates that Salafis may comprise as few as 5% of the global Muslim population.  Yet they wield disproportionate influence for a few reasons.  One is their stridency and certainty, and their mastery of modern communication.  The second is their control of Saudi Arabia, which has custody of both the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and of the world's richest oilfields, enabling it to spread Wahhabism around the globe.  The third is that in his view more moderate Muslim leaders have been slow to react to the threat - for instance, condemning the actions of extremists but not making attempts to expel them from the faith altogether.

Ultimately, Husain is wary but hopeful.  He has great faith in Islam and the power of its simple message to which he returns at the end of the book - submission to God, devotion to prayer, the centrality of the family, care for others and the promise of eternity.  In contrast to each of the perversions of Salafism he presents what he sees as good and beautiful in Islamic tradition.  Against stultifying legalism he presents the Sufi vision of deep spirituality and love for God.  Against the puritanical repression of women and sexuality he presents the frank eroticism of Arabic and Persian love poetry.  Against the Salafi destruction of monuments of other cultures and even Sufi shrines he presents the centuries of protection of such heritage in the Middle East.  Against the persecution of Jews and Christians he presents the protection of Christianity in early Islamic regimes and the protection offered to Jewish refugees in the late Middle Ages.

He is hopeful that extremists can be converted to a more moderate and mainstream view, as he was himself and as for instance Tunisia's formerly extremist leader Sheik Rachid al-Ghannouchi was after the Arab Spring.  Things need not always be as they are now.  If not, he believes that with the right approach from mainstream Muslims, supported by Western governments, the extremists can be isolated within Islam and denied legitimacy.

It is tempting for us in the West to see and fear Islam as a monolithic force which is out to destroy us.  Plenty of right-wing Western campaigners would like us to see it that way, because it boosts their own influence in Western societies and sidelines those who argue for inclusion and engagement.  But it ain't necessarily so.  Islam is not perfect and it has its share of violent extremists - perhaps even more than its share.  But it is possible for us to live at peace with wider Islamic society.  And isn't peace what we all at least say we want?

Friday, 20 July 2018

Nicodemus and the Rich Young Ruler

Shane Claiborne loves to quote his friend, the late singer and songwriter Rich Mullins, on the way Christians read the Bible.  Mullins used to say that it was as if we had highlighters for certain verses.  Jesus says, "you must be born again", so we must all be born again. But didn't Jesus also say, "sell all you have and give to the poor"?  Why don't we all have to do that too?

Since I read that, the story of the rich young ruler keeps coming up in my reading.  It features in two of Walter Brueggemann's collected sermons, as well as in the first two of the Second Series of George MacDonald's amazing Unspoken Sermons, where once again he is contrasted with Nicodemus.

All this started me thinking.  Are these stories alternative visions of Jesus - one 'spiritual', one 'political'?  Or is there something that holds them together?

The story of the rich young man is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with only slight variations.  Here is the version from Mark 10.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This is perhaps the earliest version of the story, and identifies the man as neither young nor a ruler - Matthew adds a reference to his youth, Luke describes him as a ruler but not as young.  What they all agree on, however, is that he was rich.  In first century Palestine, wealth and power went together.  This is someone who was a member of the Jewish elite, whether a young, up-and-coming leader or a mature established one.

Nicodemus is a similarly elite, powerful figure.  Here is the beginning of the story of his encounter with Jesus, from John 3.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?..."

John often provides more detail than the other gospels, so we see Nicodemus placed more precisely - a Pharisee, a member of the 'Jewish ruling council' (perhaps the Sanhedrin or ruling Jewish religious body) and a person who at least thinks of himself as 'old'.

So what ties these stories together at the most superficial level is that they are encounters with members of the Jewish elite - a man who is at least rich and possibly occupies a formal leadership position in the community, and one who occupies a powerful position in the Jewish hierarchy.  In addition, both seem to be devout, observant Jews.  Nicodemus is a teacher of the Law.  When Jesus provides a short list of commandments for the rich man, he replies, all these I have kept since I was a boy.

Of course Jesus has many encounters with the Jewish elite, but they mostly involve conflict. The Jewish leaders criticise Jesus, or attempt to trap him into self-incrimination.  In his turn, he accuses them of hypocrisy and of betraying the legacy of Moses and the prophets.  Jesus is the friend of outcasts and sinners, and the enemy of the hierarchy.

These two men are rare exceptions.  Both seem to be approaching Jesus in a spirit of openness and inquiry.  Both men seem to genuinely want to hear what Jesus says.  With Nicodemus, the night-time visit gives a sense of something clandestine, as if he is taking a risk and wants to avoid his fellow councillors knowing about the visit.

It seems that both can see that there is something lacking in their lives.  Both have wealth and position.  Both are also attempting, by the standards of their time, to be followers of God, keeping his commandments and in Nicodemus' case teaching others to do so.  Yet both come to Jesus.  The rich ruler wants to know how to find eternal life - he obviously has not found it in his wealth or his commandment-keeping.  Nicodemus doesn't say what he wants explicitly, but his visit itself speaks volumes.

So what is the content of Jesus' message to these two men, and how can the different messages be reconciled?  The answer is that both are asked to do something which seems impossible to them.  They are asked to give up their core identity and start again.

In the case of the rich man, Jesus tells him that in order to inherit eternal life he must give up his wealth (which may similarly be inherited) and then come and follow Jesus.  He must exchange one inheritance for another.  For the rich man this seems impossible and he goes away grieving 'for he had great wealth'.  Does this man's wealth cut him off from the life that comes from God (which is what 'eternal life' means)?  Well clearly it does, otherwise why would Jesus command him to give it up?  He confirms this by walking away sad - he sees the truth of what Jesus says, but is unable to comply.  Jesus' follow-up comments to his disciples reinforce and clarify the point: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. That is to say, it is impossible.  But then he adds a caveat: all things are possible with God.

Nicodemus is also set an impossible task - to be born again.  This is not unlike the task given the rich man.  Just as a camel can't possibly fit through the eye of a needle, so a full-grown man can't fit back inside his mother's womb.  But Jesus makes it clear he is not referring to physical rebirth but to spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus must be 'born of water and the Spirit' - in other words, through baptism and spiritual inspiration.  But to do this, he must start at the beginning.  He must exchange his current deep learning for a new learning in which he is a rank beginner, a novice, a mere infant.

So what we see here are two steps these two pious and well-connected men must take to begin their spiritual journey.
  1. They must renounce the things they most value and which define them.  The rich man must renounce his wealth, the very thing which provides him with security and position.  Nicodemus must renounce his status as a teacher and leader.  
  2. They must begin again by following Jesus.  The rich man must do so as someone who has nothing, reliant on others for his daily food and shelter.  Nicodemus must do so as someone who knows nothing, who is as a tiny child and must blindly trust his elders and learn the basics all over again.
A big part of this message is that we shouldn't underestimate how hard it is to follow Jesus.  Elsewhere he warns those who want to be his disciples that they need to count the cost.  Later on he tells them that they must take up their crosses to follow him.  The road to the kingdom of God is not easy.  It is not simply a matter of obeying some commands, as the rich man seems to believe.  It is not even just a matter of carving out a successful religious career, as Nicodemus did.  Rather, it involves confronting and changing who we are.

So is it OK for some people to keep their wealth?  Was it simply because this particular man idolised his wealth that he was told to give it up?  Maybe, but the thing is, you don't know how hard it is to give something up - how much you idolise it - until you are tested.  If you asked the rich man what he valued more, his wealth or God, he would almost certainly have said 'God'.  But when put to the test it became clear that he valued his wealth more highly.  Let's not fool ourselves.  How many of us rich Westerners would do differently?  Jesus has no doubts at all about how hard it is.

But it is just as hard to be humble, especially when you are perfect in every way.  After all his labouring over dusty manuscripts and memorising huge chunks of Scripture and interpretation, how easy was it for Nicodemus to accept the role of elementary student and relearn the very basics of faith?  His whole identity is bound up in being the one who gives instruction.  How prepared is he to receive it, especially from an uneducated Galilean peasant?

It is worth us focusing on this, as privileged Westerners, because by and large we are the rich men and women and the rulers of the world.  Our battles are not with poverty and suffering (although all of us will suffer at some point) but with wealth and status.  The challenges faced by Nicodemus and the rich man are those faced by most of us. 

Walter Wink says:

...rebirth is not a private, inward event only.  For it also includes the necessity of dying to whatever in our social surroundings has shaped us inauthentically....

Those born to privilege and wealth may miss life by having been installed at the centre of a universe revolving around their own desires.  Others, born to merciless poverty and the contempt of the ruling class, may miss life by never feeling really human at all.  If the advantaged must die to their egocentricity the underprivileged must die to their hopelessness, fatalism and acquiescence in their own despoiling.

Rationalists may need to die to idolatry of the mind; dominating personalities to their power; proud achievers to their accomplishments.....Even those whose lives have been stolen from them must lose their lives to find them.  They must die to what has killed them.

This is not an easy road.  Not for any of us.  If we had to do it alone, we would soon give up.  Fortunately God does not leave us alone.  After his encounter with the rich man Jesus assures his disciples:

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.

More cryptically, he tells Nicodemus:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

You don't control the wind (the Greek word 'pneuma' means 'wind', 'breath' and 'spirit') it blows where it will, it is greater than you are.  And in his coda to the story John assures his readers, in the words we were all taught to memorise as young people:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

We don't know anything more about the unnamed rich man, but later in the story John has Nicodemus assisting Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus' burial, and Christian tradition names him as a believer.  He held rebirth to be impossible, but this did not prevent him from at least trying to follow that path.

We are assured again and again that we are not alone, that this is not our fight but God's.  So however difficult the way, we know he is with us on it and will not leave us to struggle alone.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

12 Rules for Life

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has flooded our consciousness over the past few months.  Snippets of his talks keep popping up on my social media.  His book tour attracted national interest.  People on the right love him, those on the left hate him.

None of this is accidental.  He has been carefully curating his public profile for years, posting prolifically on his Youtube channel, speaking publicly and making himself available to media outlets of all kinds.  He has a devoted following and earns a decent income from Patreon via donations from viewers of his long and complex videos.  

His reputation is as someone who thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the significance of ancient mythology for the problem of Being.  However, he has been pushed into the mainstream in the guise of a champion of the Right courtesy of his embroiling himself in a rather strange and silly war in his university over the use of pronouns.  In the process he has become a champion of that most favoured and misused slogan of the Right, freedom of speech.  Right on cue, he has published a book.

I'm not one to listen to endless hours of people talking on Youtube.  I lose concentration after about 10 minutes.  Frankly, for a person with a reputation as a deep thinker Peterson's politics are surprisingly conventional.  Freedom of speech divorced from any care about which vulnerable people you might hurt, the equation of anything progressive and collective with Marx/Stalin/gulags, the glories of strong individuals.  The usual guff you hear from conservative, privileged white men.  

Fortunately his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not much about politics and a lot about his actual area of expertise, clinical psychology.  This meant I could read it right the way through and quite enjoy it, not to mention find a lot of food for thought.

If you were to assign 12 Rules for Life to a genre, it would be self-help, or perhaps pop psychology.  You know: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus; The Five Love Languages; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Games People Play.  These books aim to take the findings of psychology and communicate them in simple language in a way that might help readers towards self-understanding, improved relationships or greater success.  They typically revolve around a simple idea and use this idea to analyse a range of situations and dilemmas.  They are sometimes helpful, but often they are illustrations of the old adage, 'when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail'.  Accessibility can slide into vacuity.

Peterson's book certainly looks like this kind of book.  Its title promises you a finite and manageable number of things you should do to make your life better.  His introduction outlines a simple idea - that human life represents a tension between order and chaos, and the secret to an authentic life is to walk carefully along the boundary between the two.  

The chapter titles (the 'rules') also promise simplicity, helpfulness and sometimes a little bit of fun.  Some have a 'motherhood and apple pie' feel to them - stand up straight with your shoulders back, treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping, make friends with people who want the best for you, tell the truth, assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't.  Others promise a bit more fun - do not bother children when they are skateboarding, pet a cat when you encounter one in the street.  And there is just enough there to hint at something a little more challenging - do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them, pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient), be precise in your speech.

However, once you dive in, you quickly realise that this is not your normal self-help book.  He draws from a wide range of sources - the stories of the Old Testament (especially the story of the Fall and of Cain and Abel), the history of 20th Century dictatorships, the lives and experiences of his friends, neighbours and family and, of course, his own specialist area of clinical psychology.

Much of the attention in my social media circle has fallen on his sympathetic use of stories from the Bible and other ancient mythologies.  His only other book is a detailed exploration of the meaning and use of such mythology and he talks about this a lot in his lectures and interviews, as well as in 12 Rules.  However, he is not an orthodox believer.  His use of the stories most reminded me of Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand  Faces drew on a wide selection of mythical stories to outline an archetypal 'hero's journey' which ordinary people could use as a guide for living.

When you draw on mythology in this way you are not taking the stories on their own terms or trying to discern what their authors meant by them.  Rather, you are using them to illustrate conclusions you have already reached, often from quite different sources.  In Peterson's case, his primary source is his own field of clinical psychology, in particular the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and Jung and their philosophical predecessor Nietzsche, with additional references to evolutionary psychology.

This yields a lot a valuable stuff.  For instance, 'stand up straight with your shoulders back' provides a fascinating description of the prevalence of dominance hierarchies in the animal world and ultimately also in human societies.  'Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them' is a common-sense explanation as to why we should teach young children self-discipline and the results when we don't.  'Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't' discusses the value and importance of listening genuinely and sympathetically to others, not just in formal counselling sessions but in our day-to-day lives.  'Treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping' shows us ways to guard against self-sabotage and to allow ourselves to grow and develop as people. 

Yet there is more to it than this.  Psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, has a long tradition of shading into philosophy.  If you spend your life trying to help troubled patients adjust to reality, sooner or later you have to ask yourself what exactly is the nature of this reality and whether it is truly worth adjusting to.  The centrepiece of Peterson's exploration of this question, and for me the high point of the book, comes right in the middle - 'pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)'.  This chapter is worth the price of admission on its own.  He explores the way our systems of meaning collapsed in the 20th century as our religious certainties were stripped away by the advance of science and reason.  This left us dangerously close to the edge of chaos.  He talks about the life-denying thoughts of people as diverse as the Columbine killers and the academic he shared a platform with who described humans as cancer on the face of the planet, and the tragic effects of the attempt to rebuild order through the all-encompassing secular philosophies of fascism and communism.  For Peterson, this is not a simple problem.  We can't retreat to the earlier certainties without colossal self-deceit.  However, in his view we need to take up the challenge and find a way to live authentically, identifying what is meaningful and fulfilling for us and doing this as opposed to simply the thing that is easiest, most likely to please those around us or most likely to earn us a good income.

Other chapters follow on from this theme.  For instance, 'Tell the truth - or at least don't lie' is far from a simple exposition of the commandment about bearing false witness.  Rather, it explores the way what we perceive is not 'the naked truth', it is a highly processed and filtered interpretation of that truth.  New information, particularly shocking or traumatic information, doesn't only add to our knowledge, it changes our perception of reality itself.  For instance, a woman might see herself as a good dutiful wife in a happy marriage, but then discover her husband is having an affair.  This information is not simply tacked onto what she already knows, it puts the things she previously thought she knew into question - not only about her husband and her marriage, but also about herself and the people she thought were her friends.  Hence our task is not simply to 'tell the truth' but to discover it and rediscover it, and allow our discoveries to shape us and help us grow.

There's a lot to like here.  Peterson is indeed a deep thinker and a skilled, thoughtful psychologist.  He wants us to be better people, and provides us with a lot of insights that can help us achieve that.

However, he's not immune to the hammer-nail problem, and with him it takes the form that it takes for so many of his fellow psychologists.  A life spent thinking about and practicing the disciplines of individual growth and psychological wellbeing can make them think that this is the answer to everything.  If you think you are oppressed, stop letting people oppress you.  If you are offended, examine why and let the offence strengthen you.  If you are bowed down by past traumas, let those traumas teach you and contribute to your inner growth.  

It's all well and good but it's not enough.  People do need support to overcome the effects of trauma, but we should also act to prevent the trauma itself, for instance by not enabling sexual abuse and doing our best to avoid war.  We do need to be less thin-skinned, but it wouldn't hurt privileged white men to watch their words a little more carefully.  We do need to avoid gulags but not everything socialist or even Marxist is inevitably oppressive - and gulags are much more universal than Peterson seems to think.  We even have them in Australia.

Along with this classic psychologist's mistake, Peterson often allows himself to be seduced by various forms of the 'is/ought' fallacy - what is, must be.  Hence, the fact that men and women are unequal in almost every society leads him to assert that this is the natural order of things and we try to change it at our peril.  The prevalence of dominance hierarchies in nature leads him to think that inequality is natural and good and egalitarianism is a perversion of nature.  Along with his professional individualism, it's a recipe for not only conservatism but the kind of libertarian individualism that would do both Ayn Rand and his own hero Nietzsche proud.

I have seen recently (generally re-posted by right-wing people) that Peterson himself says he is not right-wing.  He can say what he likes, the cap fits, and perhaps he would do well to apply his own lessons and assume his progressive critics know something he doesn't. Still, none of us likes to be put in a box and such labels are clumsy at best.    Just because someone is on the right this doesn't mean they're always wrong.  Those of us on the left could also learn a lot from Peterson about self-examination, authenticity and careful listening, not least to people like him.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Is David Warner the New Moses?

For a short time, David Warner's Aussie cricketing mates called him 'The Rev', short for Reverend, after he announced his intention to moderate his combative on-field behaviour.  Over the last year that's gone out the window, and now he has been caught cheating along with some other team-mates and banned for 12 months.  So definitely not 'the Rev' now.  Much less a prophet.

Still, I can't help noticing the resemblance with Moses, the Hebrew stolen generation kid who ended up leading his people out of their Egyptian slavery.

There's a lot to Moses' story but you could see it as a spiritual journey in four phases.  In the first, he is oblivious to his true identity.  Not that he is necessarily ignorant of his Hebrew heritage, but he has grown up in a high-status Egyptian household and can confidently look forward to a career in the Egyptian hierarchy and a comfortable, successful life.  

In the second phase, he is awakened to the plight of his people, identifies with them and attempts to respond to their oppression.  He begins to understand that his life has a purpose beyond himself.  However, he goes about it all wrong.  He murders a lowly Egyptian official, becoming a dangerous pariah in the Hebrew community and a fugitive from Egyptian justice.  He ends up having to flee for his life.

In the third phase he lives in exile with a Midianite priest, looking after his sheep, marrying his daughter and learning to be humble and patient.  After his years in the wilderness he is called by God to return to his people, this time as a mature leader, and help free them from their oppression in earnest.

In the final phase, filled with the Spirit, he confronts Pharoah himself, with the backing of his people and with a clear strategy for negotiating their release, and leads his people out of Egypt and to the border of the promised land.  

Despite being 'The Rev' Warner may not understand himself as being on a spiritual journey, but he is on one nonetheless.  We all are.  The question is, what sort of journey will it be?  Will we do the good in the world that God has appointed for us?  Or will we refuse the call and instead end up floating in the sea of danger and chaos, or living a life of selfish oblivion?

Like a young Moses, Warner has just reached the gut-wrenching, fear-inducing transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3.

As a young man, he had prodigious gifts and used them as he pleased.  He attacked the ball with gusto, abused his opponents with gay abandon, and enjoyed all the perks and temptations of a travelling sports star.  It seemed that his talent and good fortune meant that he could essentially please himself.

As he got older he started to see himself as having responsibility to others and so entered Phase 2.  He met his wife Candice and became a dad, so he had a responsibility for the lives of others.  He shifted from young up-an-comer to senior player, and started to seek and fill leadership roles.  He coveted the role of captain.  He became, along with his brother-in-arms Steve Smith, the abrasive, combative face of the Australian cricket team.  

However, like Moses he went about it all wrong.  He thought his responsibility was to win at all costs, for both his team and his family.  On the field he became increasingly aggressive and abusive to opponents.  When his wife was subjected to personal attacks as a form of retaliation he thought his responsibility was to aggressively defend her, with his fists if need be.  He decided that any measures, even cheating, were justified to bring his enemies down a peg or two.

As a result, like Moses, he now has to go into exile.  His own team, and the country he tried to represent, has rejected him.  He will no longer play alongside his team-mates, with whom he is now apparently persona non grata.  He will no longer enjoy the luxury of his huge income as both his playing contracts and his various product endorsements are withdrawn.  It is likely he will have to sell his harbourside mansion and move to the suburbs, where he will need to get an ordinary job.  Like Moses, he will become a nobody in a strange land.

The question is, what lessons will he learn in the wilderness?  Moses found a wise mentor in the Midianite priest, and eventually he encountered God himself and came to understand his mission more clearly.  He left a well-intentioned hot-head, he returned a wise, Spirit-filled leader.  We are told little of the process he went through to get to this point, but we know his time in the wilderness was essential for the success of his subsequent mission.

This is the case with so many prophets.  Elijah had to flee to the desert to escape Ahab, and to suffer through drought and famine.  Jonah had to get thrown into the sea and be swallowed by a giant fish.  Jesus had to fast for forty days and forty nights, after which he had to face the Devil himself.  Muhammad and his followers had to go into exile in Medina before they could triumph in Mecca.  This testing was essential to strengthen them for what was to come.  John of the Cross tells us we must pass through our Dark Night of the Soul before we can emerge into the light of God.

Warner will have to discover this for himself in the twelve months or longer he will spend in exile.  Right now all he will be feeling is bitter grief and regret, but life must go on.  When one pathway is blocked our eyes can be opened to many more we never knew existed.  What is important is that he doesn't shirk the challenge.  It would be easy for his life to spiral downwards from this point, in which case he would be of no use to anyone, even himself.

What will emerge in the fourth stage of David Warner's life?  No-one knows.  Warner himself doesn't know yet.  It could be that he will return to the top of the cricket world a chastened, more mature person and become the type of leader and role model who does genuine good in the world.  It could be that he and his young family will do something completely different, away from the spotlight.  Perhaps he will even become The Reverend in earnest.  Whatever the outcome, I wish him well, and trust he will learn, grow and prosper.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Low Carbon and Loving It

There is one thing that keeps me awake at night - climate change.  I don't worry about it in the abstract, I worry very concretely that my two little grandsons will inherit a world that is hostile to human habitation.

I spend a day with my grandsons every week, and they are cheerful, innocent little people.  They enjoy life in the moment, trusting that the adults in their lives are caring for their needs.  But I think, perhaps we are not.  What if we are taking away the possibility for them to have peaceful, prosperous lives and storing up hardship and danger for them?

It keeps me awake at night.  Which is silly.  Not because the anxiety is irrational or unjustified - the science is quite clear, my worries are absolutely within the possible future consequences of our current behaviour.  It is silly because it achieves nothing.  My tossing in my bed does not save a single gram of emitted carbon, does not take a single micro-meter off the projected sea level rise.  I may as well sleep soundly, for all the difference it makes.  But what can I do that is more useful, more constructive?  I feel powerless in the face of the forces that drive us onward and the scale of the problem.

Mark and Tom Delaney have written a book on this very dilemma.  You can check it out here.  Don't expect me to be objective, they are my friends.  But I think it's a fantastic book, so let me tell you about it.

Mark and Tom are like me in a lot of ways.  They are both well-educated people, but neither is a climate scientist.  They are lay people who are deeply concerned about the future of the planet.  Mark is about my age and was once a lawyer.  His son Tom is in his early 20s and part way through a university degree.  Along with the other members of their family, they have spent most of the last two decades living in poor urban communities in India, with intermittent visits to Australia to reconnect with family and friends.

Their plan is to provide a simple introductory guide to climate change.  There is no technical language here, no complex statistical analysis, just plain English and straightforward concepts which non-scientists can understand.  Nonetheless, they are careful in providing references for each point and the end of each chapter has a 'Want to learn more?' section with references for further investigation. This is a book you could confidently give to, say, a teenager who wanted to understand climate change, but it's also useful for more mature people like me in the way it brings together a lot of different strands of information in a simple, accessible way.

The early chapters introduce the science of climate change.  They explain how the release of greenhouse gases warms the atmosphere, and how we know this is happening.  Along the way, they respond briefly to some of the common climate denial myths.  Take home message: climate change is definitely happening folks!

They then move on to summarise the consequences of climate change - in brief, rising temperatures, changed rainfall patterns leading to changes in agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, species loss and the likelihood of greater social conflict and unrest brought on by large scale population displacement and food insecurity.  Take home message: it will not be pretty!

Up to this point, I was mostly reading things I already knew about, and it wasn't making me sleep any easier.  However, although they are uncompromising in their call for action they are much more focused on discussing solutions than alarming readers about the scale of the problem.  To introduce the type of solutions needed, they contrast the carbon output of a typical Australian with that of an Indian neighbour of theirs.  Overall, the average Australian produces 23 tonnes/year of carbon emissions, while one of their typical poor Indian neighbours produces just over two.  The sustainable level if we are to avoid catastrophic warming is between 2 and 3 tonnes per person, so as Australians (and rich people generally) we need to get closer to the Indian level than our own.  How is this possible?

They focus on two types of solutions - 'big picture' economy-wide responses which focus on the major sources of emissions; and 'small picture' personal changes which each of us can make.

At the big picture end, our emissions basically come from four sources - transport and travel, power generation, agriculture, and manufacturing and mining.  Hence we need policies and technologies which lower our emissions in all these areas.  In transport, we need to shift to more sustainable modes - walking, cycling and electric cars and trains rather than petrol cars, diesel trains and aeroplanes.  In power generation, we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, primarily solar, wind and hydro power.  In agriculture, we need to stop the process of land-clearing and shift away from methane-belching cattle.  In mining and manufacturing we need to improve technologies to reduce and contain emissions.  In most of these areas there are technological solutions available and in many cases - like power generation and transport - they are now at the point where they are affordable and scaleable.  However, we are adopting them slowly as a result of short-term politics, powerful vested interests and social inertia.

It's tempting to think that the problem can be solved with such technical fixes, and that we can leave it all up to the government and corporations without doing anything ourselves.  However there are two reasons why this won't do.  The first is that the technological changes will only come if politicians and corporations see it as in their immediate interests to make them - and this will only come from an engaged populace who show with their voices, votes and wallets that this is important.  Secondly, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can get through the transition with our current lifestyles unchanged.  We are living unsustainably, and each of us needs to reduce our own impact on the planet.

These personal changes can be scary but it is largely fear of the unknown, a failure of imagination.  Mark and Tom already live a relatively low carbon life, both in India and in Australia, and as the book title suggests they find it more liberating than burdensome.  Hence the final chapters of the book outline practical things that ordinary people in the West can do to reduce our carbon consumption.  And indeed, there is so much that is easy and achievable - cycling or walking instead of driving, catching the train instead of flying, buying less stuff and using it until it wears out, eating less red meat, generating electricity on your roof.  You could be completely radical like them, living in a single room, not owning a car and not eating any animal products.  However, they don't recommend you try to start there if you are a typical high-carbon Aussie.  Take small, achievable steps and build up (or down) over time.

Where this book left me was with a sense of tentative hope.  We face a daunting task, and no matter what we do there will be climate change - it's only a question of how much.  There are powerful forces which want to keep things on their current mad trajectory.  Yet there are also solutions which can greatly improve our chances, if only we will use them.

Importantly for my own state of mind, this book provides an alternative to fruitless anxiety.  Instead of lying awake worrying about the state of the planet there is something concrete I can do.  I can lie awake, if I must, planning the public transport route to my meeting that week, or what else I can do to reduce power use around the house.

It's not world-changing stuff, but I shouldn't kid myself.  The world will not change much because of what I do.  It will change because of what we all do.  Low Carbon and Loving It provides a signpost towards what we should do together, and what each of us can do for ourselves, for each other and for our children and grandchildren.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Guns and All That

Another day, another US massacre by a problematic person with a licensed, high-powered firearm.  We have seen so many of them, and the aftermath is so tired and predictable, that they all become a blur.

Right now, in the wake of the Florida school shooting, there is a lot of hope. The survivors are young, intelligent upper middle class adults, and they are prepared to use the sudden media attention to push for change.  No politician, even Donald Trump, dare trample on their grief by dismissing them out of hand.  Perhaps they will succeed in making change.  Perhaps they won't.

As Australians we tend to feel a bit smug about this.  In 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre, the Howard government introduced tough new gun controls and there have been no mass shootings since.  Our crazy school attacks are carried out with knives, and no-one dies.  Then again, there were not many mass shootings in Australia before 1996 either, once Europeans stopped massacring our first peoples.  Conservative Americans look at our gun laws and think we are crazy. 'What, you mean you let your government disarm you, just because some fruitloop went mad and shot a bunch of tourists?'

Australia is different to the US in many ways, most of them superficial.  We are a little less individualistic.  We don't have a strong culture of gun ownership.  We didn't have a civil war where one half of the country imposed its will on the other half by force.  But we share a lot of common base assumptions which can help us understand the gun issue.

In other words, it's time for another World Diagram!

This one is modeled on the original World Diagram and its descendant, the diagram on Islamic terrorism.  This time it summarises the dimensions of the argument against gun law reform in the US, digging down from the overt politics to the underlying assumptions.  I would suggest that while the more overt layers of this - the top two segments of the pyramid - are distinctively American, the bottom two are commonly held across many societies, including our own.

Politics and Money
At the top level is the obvious play of political forces.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of America's most powerful and cashed up lobby groups.  It donates a lot of money to political candidates, including Donald Trump, who switched views on gun control in order to court its funding and favour during the Presidential election.  It purports to speak on behalf of gun owners (and perhaps even does represent the views of many of them) but its money comes from the arms industry - gun manufacturers and dealers who stand to lose a lot of money if there are stricter gun laws.

This is politics as usual - the tobacco industry spruiking the benefits of smoking, the fossil fuel industry opposing climate change policy, the Business Council of Australia supporting company tax cuts, the development industry opposing housing affordability measures.  Wealthy lobby groups will always support their own self-interest.  The question is, why does the wider population buy it?  Why are many ordinary Americans so adamant that gun control is anti-democratic, in the face of repeated preventable atrocities?

What I think drives this agreement or acquiescence (depending on your viewpoint) is a robust level of individualism.  All Western cultures are individualistic to some extent, but the US represents the pinnacle.  Australians were so shocked at the Port Arthur massacre that there was very little resistance to Howard's tighter restrictions and a high level of compliance with requirements to surrender firearms.  People recognised a level of shared responsibility, and that agreeing to tighten gun controls would make others safer.

Many Americans I have discussed this issue with don't buy this.  They are equally shocked at the killings, but they don't take collective responsibility for them in the same way.  'I've always owned guns,' they say, 'and I've never killed anyone.  Why should I be punished for the crimes of some crazy/bad person?  Guns are not the problem here, crazy/bad people are.'  This is individualism talking.  Each of us is responsible for our own actions, we need not take responsibility for the actions of others.

Now of course I disagree with this.  I agree that my debate partner is not a murderer, but easy availability of guns, and a huge surplus of them circulating in the community, enables those who want to kill to do so on a large scale.  This is not 'punishment' of innocent people - it is people of good will making some compromises to fix a collective problem.  But then I would say that, I'm both an Australian and one of those lefties.

Goodies and Baddies
Supporting this individualised approach to responsibility is a very black and white approach to people.  The world is divided into good people (like us) and criminals (them).  Criminals will get guns whatever the law says because they have no respect for the law.  It's fine for good people to have guns because they won't use them to harm others.  In fact, since criminals will have them anyway, it's better for good people to have them to protect themselves and others.  Hence the suggestion, recently taken up by President Trump, for teachers to go to school armed to prevent further shootings.

My four-year-old grandson views the world in these terms.  In his imagination, the goodies (generally the police) deal with the baddies by biffing them with cricket bats and locking them up.  He, of course, is or will become a police.

This is fine when you are four, but adults inhabit a far murkier world.  It is not always easy to tell goodies from baddies.  The Las Vegas shooter had no criminal history to speak of.   A seemingly nice quiet family man or a sweet gentle kid can rapidly turn into a psychotic mass murderer.  All of us, in moments of anger or grief, can do things we regret later.

And then, of course, the good can be simply incompetent.  If his story is to be believed (which by the way the police did not), Oscar Pistorius thought he was shooting at an intruder when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.  Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children) at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, did not own a gun.  The guns he used were owned by his mother, who was apparently a good person.  She was his first victim.  If she had not owned guns, or had stored them safely, she and 25 other people would still be alive.

Even the police, surely the goodies if my grandson is to be believed, frequently shoot and kill innocent people by mistake.  And they are trained for the job.  Imagine what armed teachers might do.  Especially on a rainy Friday afternoon the week after the teacher has discovered his or her partner is having an affair.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
Beneath these considerations is a phenomenon deeply embedded in most human cultures - what Walter Wink describes as the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  According to him, this myth 'enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.  It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.'  The world is full of evil and chaos, we are told, and this can only be restrained by good people (us) using force to control and repress it.

This myth informs so much of our approach to order and security, from 'tough on crime' policies and the criminalisation of drug use, to our approach to terrorism at home and abroad, all the way up to the idea of nuclear deterrence (if we don't have nukes, our evil enemies will get them and use them against us).  It also informs much of the debate around gun ownership.  'If I give up my guns,' the argument runs, 'I will be prey to all those evil people who also have guns.  How then can I defend myself against the chaos that will result?'

The problem with this myth is that it is untrue.  If we attempt to use violence to restrain violence we end up mirroring the very thing we fear.  Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte attempts to eliminate the drug trade by allowing the summary execution of suspected drug dealers - exactly the behaviour he deplores in the criminal gangs who run this trade.  In our efforts to eliminate terrorist organisations in the Middle East we bomb innocent civilians including children - the very thing we fear and are trying to prevent.

Part of the reason we do this is that we can't imagine a world run any other way.  We have been blinded by the myth.  Yet this is precisely the type of world the prophets of Israel encouraged us to imagine.  The prophet Micah provides a good example.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Micah urges us to believe that a better future, a future without fear and violence, is possible.  Jesus urges us to make a start right now.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat (or your under-garment) as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 

Wink makes it clear that Jesus is not advocating passive acquiescence to evil. He is not suggesting we lay down and let our oppressors roll over us. Instead he is asking us to resist our enemies while loving them, to stand up to them and shame them without becoming like them. He is calling us to a better way.


As long as we are trapped in the cycle of individualism, simplistic morality and redemptive violence we will struggle to make meaningful change. We may improve things at the margins. We may reduce the number or power of the guns in our community, and that will make us a little safer. But we will not learn to resolve conflicts peacefully or to build true redemption and reconciliation until we learn the skills to love our enemies not only in theory, but in the practical ways we interact with them.

This is just as true in Australia as in the US or anywhere in the world. We may be a little better in some respects, but we share the same fundamental problems and are addicted to the same non-solutions. We keep doing more of the same, hoping for a different result. We need to fundamentally change the game.