Sunday, 6 August 2017

Game of Mates

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  We all know that.  The question is, how do they do it?

A couple of years ago I reviewed French economist Thomas Piketty's opus, Capital in the 21st Century.  Piketty shows, using an impressive dataset and some simple equations, that the normal state of capitalist economies is that capital generates larger returns than labour, meaning that over time more and more of the resources in a society go to those who have capital.

In Western societies this process was reversed in the immediate post-war decades by a combination of factors.  Rapid economic growth was driven by the recovery from two world wars and the Great Depression.  This led to wages growth and inflation, which redistributed income away from capital and towards labour.  To add to this, governments funded the reconstruction through high rates of inheritance tax, limiting the ability of capital to accumulate across generations.

Since the end of the resulting boom in the 1970s the situation has returned to something more normal - economic growth has dropped back to a couple of percent, wages growth has slowed, and capitalists have succeeded in persuading governments to wind back wealth taxes and provide them with further tax breaks.  As a result inequality has grown steadily and is likely to continue to do so in the absence of any meaningful government intervention.  Calls for economic growth so that 'the rising tide will lift all boats' are just a diversion - unless we tax wealth and support high wages the rich will continue to get richer at the expense both of the poor and of cash-strapped governments.

I've just read a far shorter and more accessible Australian book that deals with the question from a different angle.  It is called Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation, by Cameron K Murray and Paul Frijters.  Murray is a Brisbane-based economic consultant and teacher, while Frijters is an academic at the London School of Economics.  How is it, they ask, that Australia has gone from one of the most equal societies in the Western world to one of the most unequal in the space of a generation?

Their answer is that the Australian economy is controlled by a group of mates, to whom they attach the collective name of 'James', who operate across government and business to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Australians, who they collectively dub 'Bruce'.  Of course neither James nor Bruce is exclusively male, or exclusively Anglo-Celtic, but the names allow them to speak simply about some very complex and opaque relationships.  Rarely, if ever, has a book about serious economic issues been this entertaining.

They illustrate how this mutual enrichment works in a number of different industries - property development, transport, mining, superannuation and banking, as well as a few others they look at in less detail. The Game of Mates operates a little differently in each industry, but the basic processes are the same.

Firstly, there is the giving of grey gifts.  These are opportunities to make money which are conferred by the Jameses in government to their mates in private industry at no or minimal charge, and at the expense of Bruce.  In the property development industry these take the form of land-use planning decisions which confer windfall gains on developers.  In the transport field they take the form of the shift from publicly provided road infrastructure to infrastructure provided by Public-Private Partnerships.  In mining, they take many forms - subsidised infrastructure, low levels of tax, and criminally small bonds for environmental clean-up which leaves huge legacy costs for government.  In banking they take the form of regulatory arrangements which favour the Big 4 banks over smaller financial institutions and keep out foreign competition.

Secondly, there is the network of mates.  If you look at any of these industries over time, people at various senior levels move back and forth between government and the private sector.  Retired government ministers sit on the boards or serve as executives of companies whose industries they oversaw in government.  Property developers become local government councillors.  Retired bank CEOs conduct inquiries into the banking industry.  Government urban planning managers depart for well-paid jobs in the development industry, or vice versa.  They mingle via industry forums, private dinners, consultation events and so forth.  In the process, they provide one another with favours, not through corruption or illegality, but through a shared understanding of what is good for their mutual interest.

All this is bolstered by a set of convenient myths.  The mining industry provides jobs.  Public-Private Partnerships are more efficient.  More housing supply will improve affordability.  Lower taxes are good for everyone.  Lower wages produce more jobs.  Governments must balance their budgets.  These myths, actively promulgated by James and promoted in our media (also owned by James) help to shield Bruce from the truth about how the Game is actually played.  Indeed, many Jameses believe these myths themselves, genuinely convinced that what they are doing is for the best.

How much does all this cost us?  This is a difficult question to answer precisely, but Murray and Frijters have a go.  Their method is to compare Australian practice with national or international 'best practice' in each of the industries.  For instance, in property development they compare the situation in most of Australia with that of the ACT, where a leasehold land-title system enables the ACT government to charge developers for development rights which those in other states get for nothing.  If equivalent charges were levied on developers across Australia they would net our governments an extra $11b per year in revenue which could be spent, for instance, on affordable housing or homelessness services.  In the mining industry, in addition to $36b  in subsidised infrastructure and unfunded environmental liabilities a 'best practice' taxation system based on Norway's would yield an extra $20b per year.

Transport infrastructure is a particularly interesting comparison.  Prior to the 1990s, all Australia's major road and rail projects were planned and managed by government.  Their projections of demand and use were generally accurate (in fact, slightly too conservative) and the infrastructure created was generally well used and fit for purpose.  However, in the 1990s governments, in a bid to avoid debt (in line with the myth that government debt is bad) shifted to using public-private partnerships. Murray and Frijters analyse 38 major projects built using this model and find that on average their actual use was 40% below what was projected during the planning stage.  Some of the resulting losses are borne by government in the form of implicit or explicit guarantees and ongoing maintenance contracts on under-used infrastructure.  Some is borne by ordinary travelers in the form of inflated tolls, 'funneling' away from less expensive public roads and greater congestion.  Their estimate of the total extra cost of these bungles is $42.8b.

And so it goes on from industry to industry, with the total cost of the Game of Mates well north of a hundred billion each year.  This is cost that is paid directly or indirectly by ordinary Australians in increased charges, more tax or reduced services.  However, every dollar lost by Bruce is not necessarily a dollar gained by James.  Much of the money is frittered away in inefficient processes and other forms of waste.  If Bruce loses $100 and James gains $50, this is a good deal for James, and he controls the game.

What can be done?  This is a difficult question, because James controls the organisations that should be fixing the problem.  Hence, more regulation just plays into James's hands not only because he is able to manipulate the process of creating new regulations, but has a monopoly on the expertise needed to comply.  Changing the government will not help because both major parties are in on the game.  Still, there are ways to change the game.  We can reclaim the value of grey gifts through charging for them, or keeping them in public hands.  We can create public competitors for private Mates to keep them honest.  We can open the way to disruptive new players by keeping barriers to new competitors low.  We can disrupt coordination between Mates by rotating key personnel, using overseas regulators for major decisions, and bringing in stricter laws to limit politicians' post-politics corporate and lobbying activities.

Us ordinary Aussies are being ripped off.  This is not because James is a bad guy.  Only rarely is he breaking the law.  In his position, most of us would do the same.  He often sincerely believes that what he is doing is for the best.  We don't need to change the players, we need to change the game.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fighting Hislam

The hounding of Yassmin Abdel-Magied is one of the more shameful incidents in the catalogue of Australian media misbehaviour.  Abdel-Magied is a young Sudanese/Australian woman who is proudly Islamic, wearing flamboyant bright-coloured headgear and speaking her mind. Her crimes, if such they be, are twofold.  During an episode of the ABC's Q&A program Senator Jacqui Lambie expressed her well-aired fears about sharia law, and Abdel Magied interrupted to explain forcefully that Lambie knew nothing about sharia and that Islam is 'the most feminist religion'.  A few months later she drew further ire by briefly posting a critical comment on Anzac Day.

 Now it's probably fair to say that she was a little rude in interrupting Senator Lambie, although I doubt the senator would be much phased given that we see worse behaviour every day in parliament. Indeed, later in the same episode the pair joined forces to critique the Coalition Government's changes to early childhood education. And I'm really not sure when it became verboten to use Anzac Day to draw attention to the downside of war.  Yet the two events launched a systematic character assassination in the News Ltd papers of the kind that organisation has honed to a fine art, and a tirade of social media abuse which included threats of rape and murder and urgings to leave the country.

Of course to some extent she is just caught up in forces that have little to do with her.  She is the latest victim of the long-running News Ltd campaign against the ABC, of which she happened to be an employee.  There are also a lot of people who have a stake in keeping us afraid of Muslims, and she is telling us we don't need to be.  Still, you can't help feeling that the reason she was a such an easy target is that she ticks so many boxes on the 'people to target' list.  Muslim? Tick. Female? Tick.  Young? Tick. Brown skin? Tick.  It's so predictable its sickening.

Amidst all the trash it's easy to lose the substance of her argument with Lambie - that Islam, far from being oppressive to women, is more feminist than any other faith.

Islam to me is the most feminist religion. We got equal rights well before the Europeans. We don't take our husbands' last names because we ain't their property.

For those of us who are fed a diet of images from Saudi Arabia and the Taliban this statement seems counter-intuitive.  Surely this is not a faith that liberates women?  Yet here in front of us is a well-educated, articulate Islamic woman who is living evidence of her own claim.  How can we untangle this conundrum?

Susan Carland helps us with this task.  She is an Anglo-Australian woman who converted to Islam in her teens and is on the staff of the Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies.  She also has a high public profile but while she has been targeted to some extent, she has so far managed to escape the type of full-throttle persecution her younger compatriot received.  She has just published a book called Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism which throws a lot of light on the question.  What Abdel-Magied tried to compress into a few short sentences Carland explores in 150 pages.

Fighting Hislam is a 'lay' version of Carland's PhD thesis on Islamic feminism.  The heart of her research was a set of interviews with 23 prominent Islamic anti-sexism advocates from Canada, the USA and Australia.  Rather than talk to critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who have left the faith and critique it from the outside, she sought out women who are 'faith-positive' - who remain practicing Muslims while working to overcome sexism within the faith.  Some were happy to speak openly, others chose to be represented pseudonymously for various reasons.

Her first point is that the fight against sexism is not a purely Western phenomenon, and Muslim women did not learn it from the West.

The fight against sexism in the Muslim world is indigenous and is an endeavour that sprang from the soil of Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and has now grown and spread throughout countless communities around the globe.  It's also a fight that Muslim women have been carrying out for themselves, by themselves, against the very real injustices they experience in their varied communities, since the beginning of Islam more than 1400 years ago.

There are such women throughout the Islamic world but Carland focused on those in countries like Australia. The 23 women she interviewed were of various ages and had varying life experiences.  Some were migrants or refugees from Muslim-majority countries, some were born in the West into Muslim families, some were converts.  They were all active within Muslim communities, some as academics, some as writers and publishers, some as leaders of women's organisations and founders child care centres or women's support services.  All of them were highly educated and articulate, many like Carland with doctorates and university careers.

Her interviews, and her own experience, don't lead her into a magical or rosy view of what it means to fight sexism in the Muslim community.  Indeed, many of the woman were driven into activism by the experience of very real sexism in the Muslim community.  For instance, Ify Oyoke became active when she went to pray at her local mosque in Washington DC and was shocked at what she found.  Not only were women required to pray in a separate room in the mosque:

When Ify went to pray there she found they had chained the door to the women's section shut from the inside.  If a fire broke out, there would be no way for the women to escape.  She contacted the mosque board to raise her concerns, but they ignored her,  Frustrated at the way this mosque shunted women into a secluded space for prayer, Ify and her female friends decided to pray in the men's section, still behind the men, as a form of peaceful protest.  She called them 'pray-ins'.  The mosque committee was so enraged they called the police on the group for trespassing.  Calling her a 'troublemaker' and a 'rebellious woman', they banned Ify from the mosque.

Not all the women experienced this level of resistance, but all of them had to struggle for what they believed was right against male resistance.  So why persist?  'Waajida' (a pseudonym), the head of an Islamic women's organisation in Australia, puts it as follows.

...the first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is: because we exist.  We have a right.  We are human beings.  Allah created us, we worship Allah and our love for the deen (way, religion) just makes us come out and serve.

Thus the women serve in various ways - by making a place for women in the mosque, by educating women, by working in their communities to combat domestic violence, by publishing magazines and websites that give a voice to Islamic women.  Along with all of this, many of them are active in the work of developing feminist Islamic theology, building a solid, Qur'anic alternative to the male-centred interpretations that are common in the faith.  For instance, Laleh Baktair, an American/Iranian writer, produced a widely-read English translation of the Qur'an called The Sublime Quran which uses inclusive language, and which translates the controversial verse 4:34, widely read as authorising a man to beat his wife, as meaning 'to go away from' not 'to beat' - based not on her whim, but on solid although contested Arabic scholarship.  Other women have written widely on Islamic theology, contesting 'patriarchal' interpretations of the Qur'an.

While these women experience a lot of resistance in their communities, they also gain a lot of support, not only from other women but from Islamic men.  Many of the women cite their fathers, husbands and imams as their greatest sources of encouragement, and many also see the resistance as generational - older men may resist, but the coming generation are much more open to women's equality.  This means many are hopeful about the future, even if the older women may not live to see their dreams realised.

One of their dilemmas as Muslim women is what Carland refers to as the 'double bind'.  As expressed by 'Karima' (another pseudonym), an Australian professor of anthropology:

I don't want to give ammunition to Islamophobes, but I can't remain silent if something needs to be corrected.  But we need to be tactful and work quietly and persistently rather than being too outspoken and noisy about it.

The dilemma for these women is that they see that the Islamic community as a whole is under attack, and they necessarily stand in solidarity with other Muslims against these attacks, while still needing to address sexism within their ranks.  Their task is made more complex by the fact that 'feminism' is seen in many parts of the Islamic community as a western import, a colonial imposition on Islamic society.  Hence, many of the women reject the feminist label, using Islamic language and frameworks rather than secular feminist ones.

The women choose their words carefully, all the more as they recognise that whatever they say could wind up on the internet, read and heard by people far beyond the intended audience.  For instance Amina Wadud, a highly respected African American Islamic theologian, says this.

I must locate my discussion, that is, give my definitions of Islam, I have to recognise the presence of Islamophobia, I have to recognise the presence of Wahabi-salafism, I have to recognise those things, locate my work relative to those things, and then make my comments.  So by that time 45 minutes is up and I've got 15 minutes to actually make my point...

Addressing sexism among men who feel insecure and under siege themselves means the women have to manage both sets of sensitivities.  In discussing a conference organised to address the way imams limit women's roles and keep them housebound, Adelaide woman 'Latifa' chose to focus on the stories of women who had successfully overcome these restrictions and then invite various imams to comment and be part of discussing solutions.  Carland comments:

Instead of loudly condemning the imams - which, no doubt, would have garnered the attention of the media - Latifa was tactful and gentle in her approach, giving the imams a stage but carefully orchestrating the scenario in which they spoke in order to get her desired outcome.

Carland herself admits to having started her research project tired and frustrated but she came away inspired by the stories of the women she interviewed.  It's worth quoting part of her conclusion.

Negative, condescending attitudes towards Muslim women abound in Western discussions, as does disbelief that fighting sexism within Muslim communities exists.  Muslim women have been fighting sexism within their own communities from a faith-based perspective for a long time - as long as Islam has been around - and for nearly as long, have faced criticism from others for doing so.  What these women are doing is the very definition of jihad.  Far from the gross caricaturisation of 'war against the unbelievers', as it is so lazily mis-defined, jihad is struggle, or exertion of effort, to change oneself and society for the better, and to stand up against oppression.  The Muslim women I spoke with, and so many before and around them, were and are engaged in an important daily jihad - the struggle against sexism....When sexism destroys and limits, this responsive jihad builds, heals and protects.  These women, and this jihad, is changing the world.

This, then, is what Yassmin Abdel-Magied was trying to communicate in the few sentences which are all you have time for on Q&A, and for which she was vilified.  Interestingly, after this incident but before the Anzac Day sequel Carland wrote a strongly worded article in support of Abdel-Magied.  Her point was that this young woman is precisely the kind of Muslim conservative Australians say they want - a modern, educated woman who loves Australia, is committed to following its laws and who promotes a liberating, enlightened view of Islam.  Yet the vilification makes it seem as if the Australian Right actually prefers Islamic fundamentalism.

So what is the take-home message from all of this?

First of all, I think it serves as a reminder to us non-Muslims that Islam is not one thing.  It is a complex, diverse faith, influenced differently by the different cultures in which it is followed, with its own internal divisions, tensions and debates.  In fact, it is a lot like Christianity.  After all, as Christians we have a long history of debate and conflict over the role of women which still goes on today - what in some church circles is called the 'complementarian/egalitarian' issue.  The Anglican Movement for the Ordination of Women struggled for decades to achieve equality in church structures and the struggle continues in many places.  To this day there are still pastors who advise women to stay with abusive husbands, believing this is what the Bible says they should do.  Before we try to take the speck from the collective Islamic eye, we should attend to the log in our own.

Secondly, a lot of our external commentary on Islam is unhelpful and counterproductive.  Islam will not be changed from without.  The more the Ayaan Hirsi Alis and Jacqui Lambies of the world criticise Islam as a whole, the more Islamic leaders will be driven to bunker down and close ranks, and the harder it will be for change agents like Susan Carland and her interviewees to do their work.  If we really want to neutralise the threat of violent extremism within the Islamic community, we need to give them room to breathe and do their work without uninformed attacks from without.  The demonisation of Yassmin Abdel-Magied plays into the hands of the extremists who tell their potential followers that the West is at war with Islam as a whole.  Apparently, we really are.

And this leads straight to the the third thing.  There are powerful elements in our society who actually want us to see Muslims as our enemy.  This demonisation serves a number of purposes.  It bolsters support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are driven by not-so-explicit economic and geopolitical concerns which would never garner majority support.  It distracts us from important issues like increasing inequality, climate change and global hunger, the solution of which would require powerful vested interests to lose some of their wealth.  It leaves progressive forces divided and uncertain, unsure whether we should be pro- or anti-Islamic (the issue, for instance, means I wouldn't vote for Jacqui Lambie despite her strongly expressed support for a more generous welfare state).  In short, the more we fear an external enemy the more we unite behind nationalistic policies, the strong suit of the Right.

We shouldn't fall for the trick.  We certainly have Islamic enemies but we also have Islamic friends.  We should welcome them, make them comfortable in our culture, applaud them when they succeed and mourn with them when they fail.  We should be willing for them to learn what they can from us, and we should also learn what we can from them.  This is how diverse, democratic societies work.  Every time we demonise an innocent outsider we diminish our own democracy and take a step towards totalitarianism.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The (Universalist) Lord's Prayer

Often discussions about universal salvation get bogged down in things like the meanings of particular words and the correct interpretation of certain Bible verses. Duelling lexicons, clash of the commentaries.  If universalism is just an alternative intellectual framework, what's the point? If we remain as exclusive and dogmatic in our practice as we ever were, then no-one's gained by the change.

I've been thinking, then, about how a universalist faith affects our lives. How should it change the way we relayed God and one another?

Perhaps, for instance, we might pray Lord's Prayer a little differently.

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name.

God is righteous and powerful but his righteousness and power are shown above all in love. We come before God in full confidence. Certainly we have shame and perhaps, because of that, some trepidation. But we need not fear, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. We know that whatever punishment we receive will only be for the purpose of our and God's greater joy.

As we see this love and compassion of God and praise it, our greatest praise will be our desire to emulate it. Jesus asks us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We earnestly want to love as he does.

Your Kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as in heaven.

In desiring God's Kingdom to come we pray fervently for the reconciliation of all things and all people. God's Kingdom doesn't rule by the sword and crush its enemies, it rules by the word of love and is reconciled with its opponents. This includes those of other faiths, those of no faith and those that hate faith.

We don't just wait for this Kingdom in heaven, we work for it and try to bring it about here on earth. We pray for the strength and wisdom to bring God's inclusive, all-embracing Kingdom into our daily lives, to see his face in everyone we encounter, to know, "here is someone God loves without fail".

Give us today our daily bread.

When we pray the word "us" we should see not just our family, our tribe, our nation, our fellow Christian, but God's "us". God's universal love is not a theoretical construct, it has urgent practical implications.

Many of God's beloved children do not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, a safe home to sleep in. This is not the way of God's Kingdom! As we pray for the Kingdom to come, so we will do all in our power to ensure the fair distribution of his good things to his beloved children. All of them.

Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.

Once again, when we pray that "our" sins be Forgiven, the "us" is as inclusive as God makes it. We confidently ask God to forgive humankind our many sins, knowing that he wishes it and will do it.

Not least of the sins which require forgiveness is our own unrelenting thirst for revenge. When we pray for the grace to forgive those who sin against us we don't only mean those who have slighted us in everyday life - our over-bearing boss, our schoolyard rival, the sibling with whom we have argued. We also mean those who want to kill us, or dominate us - the terrorist who explodes a bomb in the heart of our city, the enemy soldier who plunders our countryside and overthrows our government, the drug runner who exploits and destroys our vulnerable young people, the paedophile who preys on our children.

This forgiveness is hard and costly. It is easy to recommend it to others but deep hurt is not easily erased  We should not waste time pointing out the speck of unforgiveness in our brother or sister's eye, we should concentrate on the log in our own. This is why we need to pray for it in the same breath that we remind ourselves of God's forgiveness and what it cost him.

Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

We know that we can only stay away from evil with God's help. On our own we are selfish, tribal, unforgiving, dictatorial. We punish those who are not like us, and try to make the world in our own image, imagining ourselves to be God. We even try to make God in our own image.

We beg God to spare us from our own unkindness, our own desire for dominance, our own selfishness.

It is only with God's help that we can truly pray this prayer, and mean it as Jesus meant it.  It is a hard prayer, a challenging prayer, a prayer the fulfilment of which would turn our world upside down.

Do we truly desire God's inclusive Kingdom, or a little principality of our own?

Do we want all God's children to be filled, or are we happy for Lazarus to starve outside our gates as long as we and ours eat our fill?

Do we love our enemies enough both to forgive them ourselves and to plead for them before God, or do we pray and work for their defeat and destruction?

Do we wish to be delivered from our sins, or do we love them and hold onto them as if they were God's own desires?

To some or all of these questions, if we are honest with ourselves, we will answer the second, not the first alternative. This is why we pray this prayer, not once for all time, but over and over, knowing that one day in God's good time it will be fulfilled and we will not need to pray it ever again.

For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Four Days of Easter

Easter stretches over four days, with the day measured from sundown to sundown - for us it begins on Thursday evening and stretches through to the close of the day on Monday.  It is an emotionally harrowing time for those who take it seriously and hence requires preparation, which is why Christian traditions include Lent, a period of fasting and reflection, in the month beforehand.

The period describes the four literal days of Jesus' death and resurrection, but also four figurative days or periods of time, four states of being in which Jesus' followers live and which we pass through over time.  Let me explain.

Easter Friday is a day of fear and anxiety.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, defenceless and surrounded by powerful enemies who are closing in on them.  The idyllic, hopeful life they lived as a band of brothers and sisters, travelling together and creating a new Kingdom of God, appears to be collapsing.  As the day progresses, things get worse - they are ambushed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested, put on trial and finally crucified.

I often feel that we are living through Easter Friday right now.  I feel very pessimistic about the future of our world and our culture, groaning under the pressure of climate change, resource depletion, global inequality and the rise of right wing nationalism.  Of course for many these are very "lefty" concerns but although other people's unease takes a different form, its emotional content is the same - a fear of the rise of radical Islam, the loss of cultural identity and the collapse of traditional moral frameworks.  We disagree about diagnosis and prescription, but we share the fear and anxiety.

Throughout Easter Friday, the death is avoidable.  Other decisions can be made, it is possible to turn back from the brink.  This is what we campaign for, and what we pray for.  It may yet come about, but also it may not.  Jesus was crucified.  We often skip over the pain and fear of this event in our worship, mashing the crucifixion with the resurrection, but this will not do.  We have to live through the pain of Friday and Saturday before we get to Sunday.

I imagine that this kind of fear and anxiety is what people were living through in the 1930s.  They could see that their society was groaning under multiple stresses and strains.  The global economy had gone belly-up and ordinary people struggled to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.  Various countries were re-arming and becoming more aggressive.  But who was the greater threat - was it the rise of fascism, or was it the rise of communism?  Across the decade people rode a roller-coaster of hope ("Peace in our time!") and despair up until the Germans invaded Poland and all hell broke loose.

Easter Saturday is the day of mourning and despair.  The worst has happened, Jesus has been crucified, the one who was the source of hope is dead and buried.  There is nothing the disciples can do but live through it.  Inside they feel empty, hollowed out, barely able to even put one foot in front of the other, or prepare and eat the food their brains know they need but their bodies reject.  They huddle dejectedly in their borrowed room and dare not think about the future.

It is, to some extent, analogous of the years from 1939 to 1945.  The war had come.  It would not end until millions had died, soldiers and civilians, old and young, from bullets, disease and famine, and millions more had been displaced, their homes destroyed.  Those who survived could only watch in horror and feel that numbness of trauma and grief.

Yet there is another side to this moment, expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he wrote in his German prison.

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,
are bound; in helplessness now you see your action
is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing
to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.

The challenge of faith becomes real because now there is no alternative, you cannot take action, you can only trust in the power above you or beyond you, whether that be God, or Fate, or History.  Your action is on hold, you can only watch and wait in pain and anguish.

Easter Sunday is the day when hope breaks through.  The hope is tentative.  The one the disciples  thought was dead appears to have risen from the tomb.  At least, the tomb is empty and reports are circulating.  Can they trust them?  They're not sure.  It seems absurd that it could be so, especially after they have resigned themselves to despair, when their grief and mourning are still fresh and raw.  And what does this new hope mean?  They hoped before, when they were travelling with Jesus through Galilee learning about the Kingdom and attempting to practice its life among themselves.  Look what happened to that!  Surely the enemy will snuff out this new hope in the same way.

So they still can't do anything.  They can still only wait and see, perhaps cautiously investigate a little to find out the truth, but still keeping a low profile, knowing the authorities are still watching them.  Yet this is a different waiting.  There is still fear, there is still some level of despair and pessimism, but there is also a glimmer of hope.

I imagine that this is how people felt in 1945 as news of the war's end started to filter through.  At first people would not credit the truth.  After all, they had been living the war for six years.  Then for some it was a huge relief, and there was dancing and partying in the streets as the truth of peace started to dawn.  But for others it was not so joyous.  Where were those loved ones they hadn't heard from for so long?  Would they come home, or were they gone forever?  Could the threads of the old life really be taken up again after so much death and destruction?  The war had ended, but what would the peace be like?  Big Country capture it well in their song, Come Back to Me.

The day they had a party
Right out in the street
Flags and flowers and singing
For the homecome hero's treat
I sat in the kitchen
Without a fire on the range
I knew this house had lost the cause
To ever make me warm again

Come back to me
Days are all too long
Come back to me
You never should have gone
I was so young and full of pride
And you were wild and strong
I never knew how weak I was

I watched them gather round him
When he stepped down from the car
While tears fell on my cigarette
He handed out cigars
I have your child inside me
But you will never know
I never will forget you
While I watch that child grow

When we go to church on Easter Sunday we should not be too quick to celebrate as if it was all over.  There is no easy escape from the fear and pain of Friday and Saturday.  Many of those who walk through the doors of our churches are still mourning.  Indeed, many of us like me are still living in Easter Friday, still looking at the future with trepidation.  Many are still grieving over actual losses of various sorts.  Peter's painful realisation that he was not as courageous as he thought still resonates on Easter Sunday, his personal loss will not heal overnight.  Many things have been lost forever.  Resurrection or not, those days in Galilee are gone and will not return.  It is a new hope, born out of pain and renunciation, hope still tinged with and indeed born in grief and loss.

Many of us have experienced the easy joy of evangelical conversion, and found it wanting.  We were assured that Jesus had risen from the dead and so all was well, but as time passed we realised that all is not well.  Hope is not to be so easily won.  It is a discipline which needs to be learned and practiced amidst fear, uncertainty and grief.  Easter Sunday reminds us that even when it seems otherwise hope is still possible, rebirth is still part of the story.

Easter Monday is the day for beginning the rebuilding.  This is not simply restoring what was lost.  There will be no return to those heady days in Galilee.  Their Master will no longer travel with them in the flesh, although they feel him with them in the spirit.  Instead, out of the ruins of the old they build the new.  The old ended in Jerusalem and this is where the new begins, in the very teeth of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus killed, and from there they build not a replica of their Galilean life but something wholly new and different.  What they build is not perfect.  There are many tensions and divisions, and over time it is partly subverted by the Powers that Be.  Nonetheless, the resurrection, the rebirth of hope, allows them to build, and continues to allow rebuilding time and again.

This was also the task of 1946 and the years and decades that followed.  The dead could not be brought back to life, but their widows and orphans could be provided for.  The bombed out buildings could not be rebuilt, but something else could be built in their place.  Many considered it unwise to try to pretend the war had not happened.  The ruins of Coventry Cathedral were left in place as a reminder of the destructiveness of war and the new cathedral built next door.  The Nazi concentration camps were not bulldozed but turned into harrowing museums of genocide to remind later generations not to do the same.  But new social and political relationships were devised, new political and social institutions were built, whole new nations emerged, new infrastructure was put in place.

If we forget Easter Monday we leave the job incomplete.  New hope remains just that if it does not give birth to new life.  We are not asked to rejoice at the mouth of the empty tomb, we are asked to "go into all the world".  Jesus says, "As my father sent me, so I send you".  We have work to do.  This work is informed by grief and pain as well as by hope, and comes out of living through all three and looking them squarely in the eye.  It is not naive optimism, it is clear eyed determination to bring good out of evil, to answer destruction with rebuilding, to respond to death with life.

The four days of Easter need to be understood as a cycle not just of death and new life, but as a four step process that encompasses all of life.  Sometimes in our lives we will experience the fear and anxiety of Friday, sometimes the grief and emptiness of Saturday, sometimes the tentative but exciting new hope of Sunday, sometimes the energy and determination of Monday.  Sometimes we will feel a bit of all four.  Easter reminds of to observe all four steps, to look out for where our fellows are on the journey and respond with love and understanding.  It reminds is that where we are now is not where we will always be.  If we hope or are full of energy now a day will come when we suffer and mourn.  If we suffer and mourn now, new hope will dawn and we will be re-energised.

Wherever you are on the cycle, may you have a blessed Easter.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Everybody Loves Me, Baby

Lately I've found myself singing this little gem to myself as I go about my business.

Unless you've been under a rock for the whole of the last 46 years you would surely have heard Don McLean's 'American Pie', his cryptic song about late 60s rock music and the death of Buddy Holly.  You've probably also heard 'Vincent', a beautiful tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.  However, you could be forgiven for not having heard this song, which appears on the same album.

It's funny reading about it on the internet because so many reviewers fail to see what it's about, suggesting it's about an ego-driven singer or self-centred lover.  You have to wonder if they actually listened to it.  Perhaps they are so mesmerised by the album's title track that everything else just goes straight over their heads.  Or perhaps it's true that Americans just don't get irony.

Fortune has me well in hand, 
Armies wait at my command
My gold lies in a foreign land 
Buried deep beneath the sand
The angels guide my ev'ry tread, 
My enemies are sick or dead
But all the victories I've led 
Haven't brought you to my bed

You see, everybody loves me, baby, 
What's the matter with you?
Won't ya tell me what did I do to offend you?

Now the purest race I've bred for thee 
To live in my democracy
And the highest human pedigree 
Awaits the first-born boy baby
And my face on ev'ry coin engraved, 
The anarchists are all enslaved
My own flag is forever waved 
By the grateful people I have saved

Now, no land is beyond my claim 
When the land is seized in the people's name
By evil men who rob and maim, 
If war is hell, I'm not to blame!
Why, you can't blame me, I'm Heaven's child, 
I'm the second son of Mary mild
And I'm twice removed from Oscar Wilde, 
But he didn't mind, why, he just smiled

Yes, and the ocean parts when I walk through, 
And the clouds dissolve and the sky turns blue
I'm held in very great value 
By everyone I meet but you
'cause I've used my talents as I could, 
I've done some bad, I've done some good
I did a whole lot better than they thought I would 
So, c'mon and treat me like you should!

Because everybody loves me, baby, 
What's the matter with you?
Tell me what did I do to offend you?

In 1971, when this song was  released, Richard Nixon was US President and the US was mired in the Vietnam War.  Of course many Vietnamese were not too enamoured of the Americans, who kept bombing them and defoliating their jungles with Agent Orange.  Nor were the young Americans who were protesting against the war on the streets and at their various university campuses, trying in their clumsy idealistic way to build a world based on love not guns.

Not surprising that the song comes to mind in 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House and the US (along with its allies) mired in wars in both Iraq and Syria.  Trump shares Nixon's love of the use of force, his relentless conservatism, his paranoia and his rather casual acquaintance with the truth.  This week he announced his first budget, with cuts to health, welfare, education, environmental protection and overseas aid funding increased military spending and the absurd wall along the Mexican border.

Trump, like Nixon, talks about putting Americans first and suggests (although not in so many words) that if you don't love America you should leave it.  But his actual policies put his cronies first and sell Americans further down the river, leaving poor Americans poorer as well as reducing employment for professional Americans and making everyone live in the midst of worse pollution and ecological degradation.

Meanwhile, as a kind of compensation, they have more chances to enter military service where they could be killed in the various overseas engagements that Trump's sabre-rattling seems intent on provoking.  Which Americans will benefit?  No doubt defence contractors, construction companies (someone has to build that wall) fossil fuel companies and the big businesses whose taxes will be cut.  Including, of course, the Trump family.

Forty-six years after McLean wrote this song, Trump and the rest of the American establishment are still baffled at why everyone doesn't love them.  They are, after all, the fount of wealth and democracy, the guarantor of world peace, the benevolent master race which oversees our globe.

Yet just yesterday, we received news that a mosque in the Syrian village of Al-Jineh was hit by a mysterious air strike, killing 46 civilian worshippers.  In a typical piece of obfuscation, the US first denied that it was responsible for the attack, claiming that it merely coincidentally carried out an attack on Al Qaeda militants in a neighbouring village.  Later it confirmed that the strike which destroyed the mosque was indeed the same strike they were talking about earlier, but disputed the details of the story and promised to 'investigate all civilian casualties'.

This is not an isolated incident.  In January of this year, the US government acknowledged that 188 civilians had been killed since 2014 in its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.  These are only the deaths for which the US has accepted responsibility.  Human rights groups put the total much higher.  UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 399 civilian deaths in just one offensive.  Airwars, an independent monitoring operation, estimates the minimum number of civilian casualties caused by the coalition since the campaign started as 2,590 and still counting.

Now there may be excuses or even justifications for these deaths.  The figure may be higher or lower.  Some reports may be true, some may be exaggerated.  Other people may also be killing civilians.  That is not the point.  The point is that if you think a nation's military is killing non-combatants in your country, province or town, you will not see that country as a paragon of virtue.  You will not love it, however much it wants to be loved.

And over the 46 years since 1971, there are plenty of countries that have had that experience - in South-East Asia, in South America, in the Caribbean, in the Middle East, in Africa.  Not to mention American obfuscation and disruption on global climate agreements, American companies' domination of global trade.  So many things for poor nations not to love.

So maybe it's true that many Americans don't get irony but this is obviously not true of all of them, otherwise how could Don McLean have written this song?  They may have failed to notice, but he has skewered them good and proper and the song is still as true now as it was then.  America is not the great nation it thinks it is.

If even McLean is too subtle, perhaps you should try this little subversive gem from Jimi Hendrix's performance at Woodstock in 1969.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Who Is My Neighbour?

By way of crafting a response to the wasps of mistrust, it's worth taking a close look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37.

The story arises out of a question asked of Jesus by one of the Jewish teachers of the law.

‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Jesus) said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

The lawyer has given the orthodox response to his own question.  However, he follows it up with a classic lawyer's question - what exactly is the definition of the key term, 'neigbour'?  The lawyer wants to know who he should love and who it is OK to not love, even to hate.  

If I understand right, the orthodox response to this follow-up question was that your neighbour is your fellow Jew.  What if you don't know whether the person is a Jew or not?  You are freed from your duty to love. 

See how the responsibility to love is whittled down into tribal loyalty?  Jesus characterises this way of thinking in Matthew 5:43. 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”

He has no patience with this kind of legal slicing and dicing.  Instead, in typical fashion he responds with a story.

Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

When we hear this story, we more or less automatically identify with the Samaritan.  After all, what he does is so obviously right while the actions of the priest and Levite are so obviously wrong.  We like to think that in the same situation we would act as the Samaritan did.  But would we?

In March 2006, a 62-year-old woman named Delmae Barton (pictured on the left) lay for five hours next to a pool of her own vomit beside a busy bus stop in the middle of Griffith University's Nathan Campus.  She had suffered a stroke and was unable to speak coherently to ask for help.  As she lay there she was passed by hundreds of people before a group of Japanese students finally stopped to check if she was OK and called an ambulance.

Why did the others not stop?  They were in a safe, public location, there was no chance that stopping would place them in danger.  They were not criminals or fools - they were university students and staff, people who in general are among the more privileged members of our society.

She believed it was because she is Aboriginal and they saw her as a stereotype, a drunk homeless Aboriginal woman passed out by the roadside.  She wasn't drunk or homeless - in fact she is a respected community leader who worked as an Aboriginal elder for the university providing advice and guidance on cultural matters.  But even if she was homeless and drunk, does this mean she didn't need help and could be ignored?

What would I have done?  I like to think that I would have stopped to help, but I'm not self-deluded enough to be sure.  I would have been on my way to an appointment.  I would have had a busy day planned.  Who knows what commitment would be asked of me if I stopped?  My day would be ruined.  Perhaps I would be entangled with a person I didn't really like.  And who knows, maybe she was just resting in the sun or sleeping off the effects of alcohol and would resent me interfering?  So many excuses come to mind that I suspect I would at least have been tempted to use some of them and keep walking.


To understand Jesus' story, you have to understand how his audience would have viewed the Samaritans.

They were the Jews' nearest neighbours and their fiercest rivals.  They lived to the north of Judea in a piece of territory centred around the city of Samaria.  They saw themselves as the descendants of the northern tribes of Israel, the remnant left after the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in the late 8th century BCE.  The Jews saw then as a bastard race created from a mixture of Jews left behind after the invasion and other peoples moved in to repopulate the area (you can read the Jewish version of the story in 2 Kings 17).  Like the Jews they were worshippers of Yahweh, but they had their own scriptures, their own priesthood and their own temple on top of Mt Gerazim which they claimed was the original location of Yahweh's sanctuary, before Solomon set up the rival temple in Jerusalem.

Usually the rivalry simmered just below the surface but occasionally it broke out into open conflict.  Between 113 and 110 BCE the Hasmonean Jewish King John Hyrcanus conducted a brutal conquest of Samaritan territory.  His army destroyed Samaria and enslaved its inhabitants, and also destroyed the temple on Mt Gerazim.  Herod the Great and ultimately the Romans inherited this unstable situation, with all its possibilities for resentment and revenge.

Josephus records an incident closer to Jesus' time - in 9 CE a group of Samaritans desecrated the Jerusalem temple by scattering human bones around its precincts, possibly prompted by the long-nursed grudge over Hyracanus' destruction of their own temple over a century earlier.

All this meant that Jews and Samaritans mistrusted each other and went out of their way to avoid one another.  This was literally the case with Jewish Galileans like Jesus and his apostles, who would go the long way around on their regular journeys to Jerusalem to avoid passing through Samaritan country.  The Jews, of course, believed that they were superior.  They were the pure bloodline of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they had the pure law of Moses.  The Samaritans were both bastards and heretics, and hence even more impure than the mere Gentiles who couldn't be expected to know any better.

There are four characters in Jesus' story, travelling along the notoriously unsafe road between Jerusalem and Jericho.  The original traveller who is accosted by thieves and left for dead is presumably a Jew although Jesus doesn't say.  Three men pass the same spot as he lies there helpless from his injuries, possibly dying or even (for all they know) dead.

The first two are Jewish temple officials - a priest and a Levite.  These are men who would be schooled in the Law and dedicated to upholding it.  They are also possibly on their way from their homes in Jericho to do their rostered duty in the Temple.  For this, they would have to retain their ritual purity.

They have much motivation to avoid the man.  If they stop, the bandits could attack them too, and even if they don't and the man turns out to be already dead or a living non-Jew they would be required to undergo a period of purification after touching him, rendering them useless in the Temple.  Against this, what of their duty to the injured man?  Well, they don't know if he's a Jew (and of course they have carefully passed to the other side of the road so they can't tell) so they are not breaking the law by leaving him there.

This behaviour may be a caricature, but it echoes Jesus' general critique of the Jewish leaders and teachers of the Law - that they are hypocrites, that they follow the letter of the Law while violating its spirit, that they are more concerned with appearing righteous than being righteous.

He uses the Samaritan to shame them.  This heretic and enemy of the people, without the benefit of the true Law of Moses and the teaching of the scribes, spontaneously does much more and shows himself to be much better than the supposedly superior custodians of Moses' legacy.  He doesn't pause to ask whether the man is of his own race, whether contact might make him unclean, or whether he might himself be attacked by bandits.  He simply does the right thing.

What you absolutely must understand is the visceral reaction of Jesus' Jewish listeners when he said the word 'Samaritan'.  For them, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.  They would have the same visceral reaction Australians often have when passing a group of Aboriginal people in the street, or a woman in a hijab out with her family.  The reaction is immediate and instinctive, even for those of us who should know better.

In my youth some friends of mine performed a theatrical version of this story called 'The Parable of the Good Punk Rocker'.  If you were telling the story to 21st Century Israelis you would almost certainly make it 'The Parable of the Good Palestinian'.  I guess for 21st Century Australians you would have to tell 'The Parable of the Good Muslim' or perhaps, to heighten the fear, 'The Parable of the Good Wahhabi'.  Or the old standby would work in any era since colonisation - 'The Parable of the Good Aborigine' (with apologies for the abrasive language).

At the most superficial level, the message of this parable is simply that we should provide our help to those who need it, whoever they may be,  At a deeper level the message is much more challenging - it is a version of the message of enemy-love which Jesus sets out in Matthew 5:43-48. 

You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy'.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, he is providing another pathway into this same idea.  "Why," he is asking, "are you, with all your advantages, not able to perform a simple act of charity such as this despised Samaritan does?"  He punctures their sense of superiority and calls them to repentance and to a true obedience to the spirit of the Law, not just its letter.  For Jesus, righteousness is not loyalty to your own tribe.  Being children of your Father in heaven means acting like he does.

...for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.


When we feel under stress, our responses are relentlessly tribal.  Look at the rise of right-wing movements all across the world, from One Nation here in Australia to the UKIP in Britain, the National Front in France and the Trump regime in the US, to name only a few.  Not only do these parties gain seats and followings themselves, their ideas bleed into the rhetoric and policies of mainstream parties.  Their message is always the same - we must put our nation first, protect ourselves from threatening outsiders and leave others to solve their own troubles.

What is the nation they are putting first?  It is not the sum of all the people who live within our borders, it is a vision of a 'pure' nation - Anglo-Australia, white America, Britain for the true Brits, Gallic France, Jewish Israel.  Those who don't fit the mould - who have dark skin, who wear a hijab, who pray towards Mecca, who speak with an unfamiliar accent or in a different language - are strangers and outsiders who must conform or leave.  Even if they have been here for generations.  Even if their ancestors were here before ours.

If they are challenged about the illiberality of their policies, these politicians will tell us that they're defending freedom.  They will tell us that us Westerners have fine democratic traditions which are being threatened by undemocratic Islam, or uncontrolled Aboriginal criminality, or foreigners wanting to bludge off our over-generous welfare systems.  They make, in other words, a claim to moral superiority.

We need to subject this claim to what I've started to think of as "the Samaritan test".  Do we perform the simple acts of neighbour love that the Samaritan in the story appeared to perform without question?

If we pass a sick Aboriginal woman in the street, do we stop to help, or pass by?  Furthermore, when we learn that many Aboriginal people in Australia live in third world conditions and that their young men are imprisoned at an alarming rate do we pull out all the stops to solve this problem?  Currently the answer is no.

When we see that there are people sleeping on the streets of our cities and towns, do we make it a national priority to get them housed?  No we don't - instead we go on rewarding the speculative investment boom that exacerbates the problem while cutting housing assistance.

When people come to our country seeking protection from war, dictatorship and persecution, do we help them?  Currently, the answer is no - we detain them indefinitely in terrible conditions.

When we witness global poverty and suffering, do we put extra resources into trying to combat it and build a more just, equal world?  Currently the answer is no.  In recent years we have cut our spending on overseas aid even as we have increased our military spending and got involved in more foreign military operations.  We are more ready to bomb people than help them.

Of course its not all such doom and gloom.  There are plenty of Australians who pass at least one of these tests, many who pass all four and more like them, or at least are trying.  I have friends here in Brisbane who have been willing to go on the journey with Aboriginal people, who have worked hard to combat homelessness, who have gone out of their way to build relationships with Muslims, who have supported poor communities around the world in a range of concrete ways.  We are not perfect, but we are trying.

Still, I feel sad that the overall direction of our society is away from this light, not towards it.  We are becoming increasingly tribal, increasingly willing to shut out difference and to say '(Anglo-) Australia First'.  If we want to be true followers of Jesus we will have no part of this, we will repent, and we will attempt to learn and live the simple but oh-so-difficult message of the Good Samaritan.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Opening Pandora's Box

I'm sure you all know the story of Pandora's Box.

It's an ancient Greek tale, found in Hesiod's Works and Days.  Pandora was the first woman on earth, wife of Prometheus' brother Epimetheus.  Zeus, who was angry about Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, gave her a beautiful box as a wedding gift, with the instruction that she was never to open it.  What would you do?  Of course she eventually gave in to the temptation. Inside were all the evils of the world, in the form of flying creatures that I have always imagined as tiny, vicious wasps.  They swarmed out of the box, stung Pandora all over and then flew off into the wide world.  Once out, they could never be recaptured.

This is, of course, a Fall story, much like the story of Adam and Eve.  It provides a metaphorical description of the entry of evil into the world and the irreversibility of the process.  But I have a feeling Hesiod got it a little bit wrong.  I'm not convinced that the box is a binary object with only two states, 'open' or 'closed'.  What if instead, it was possible for Pandora to open to box just a little bit - enough to see the troubles buzzing around, but not enough to let them out?  Or what if, in taking a little peek, a couple of the pesky things got out, but she quickly slammed down the lid before the whole swarm could follow?  She, and the rest of us, would get away with a few stings, but we would be OK.  It's even possible that in their urge to get free they wouldn't stop to sting Pandora at all - especially if she stood carefully to one side as she peeked - and would fly straight out of the window to sting some innocent passer by.

Nor am I convinced that there is only one box.  On the contrary, there are as many of them as there are people.  The box is in our heart, and we can choose to let the wasps out through our mouths, or even through our fingertips.

There are lots of varieties of wasp in these little boxes, but the one I am concerned about is the wasp of mistrust.  It has a few sub-varieties.  One is racism and xenophobia - fear of those who have a different faith, different customs, different languages, different modes of dress.  Another variety is mistrust of evidence and science, which we see more than anything else in climate skepticism but is also present in other forms, like anti-vaccination campaigns and young earth creationism.  These two forms of mistrust are capable of interbreeding, producing a wide-ranging suspicion of anything that upsets our comfortable, insulated worlds.

This pernicious little insect both induces and feeds on fear.  The more we are stung, the more we fear.  The more we fear, the more the wasps sting us.  The more we are stung, the more we open our mouths to scream and let out more wasps.

Some people, of course, have bigger wasp boxes than others, and higher platforms from which to broadcast them.  Thus in 2001, in the middle of an election he was in danger of losing, Australian Prime Minister John Howard claimed that a group of asylum seekers in a leaky boat had thrown their children into the sea in order to force the intercepting naval ship to take them on board and ferry them to Australian soil.  No matter that the story was untrue - the wasps were released, asylum seekers were conniving, cruel sub-humans attempting to infiltrate our pure society.  The resulting wave of xenophobia pushed Howard back into government and gave him a mandate to release more wasps.

Once the wasps are out they cannot be put back, as Kevin Rudd discovered some years later to his cost.  His noble attempt to wind back the resulting program of imprisonment of asylum seekers was received by the infected population, not as the triumph of humanitarian governance it actually was, but as a sign of weakness and a threat to the nation.  For all his own relative freedom from these same stings, Rudd was forced to back down and reinstate Howards's policy.

But we can't blame either Rudd or Howard alone, because the wasps have been steadily released by less prominent individuals over a number of years and decades.  We can't even blame Pauline Hanson.  Although she released plenty of wasps of her own she also inadvertently stumbled into a pre-existing wasps' nest, a congregation of the creatures which had been slowly seeping into our environment from a wide variety of low profile sources, flying stealthily into ordinary suburban backyards and stinging unsuspecting guests at church services, birthday parties, in supermarket queues and increasingly in the online world of facebook posts and fake news.  A Hanson, or a Howard, can only fly on the wings of a million ordinary wasps.

Of course there are situations in which people benefit from the wasps and develop systematic programs for their release.  This is what Howard and Hanson and their cronies have done, of course, to gain power for themselves.  Fundamentalist Christians have been releasing skepticism wasps for decades, trying to convince their followers and others that thousands of scientists are evil or deluded in their claims that life evolved gradually over millennia.  Their reach has been limited, but where they have taken hold, they have become firmly established, changing whole ecosystems to accommodate themselves.

This provided a fertile breeding ground for the fossil fuel industry when they started to get serious about promoting climate change skepticism.  They, of course, had more venal, cynical motives for their actions.  They wanted to continue to make big profits from fossil fuels for as long as possible, and the environment be damned.  But they found a willing, perfectly primed audience in those who had already been convinced that scientists were not to be trusted.  Once this particular sting injects its poison, no amount of evidence can counteract its effects.

This illustrates why these things are so difficult to undo.  It helps us understand, for instance, why Barack Obama had such limited success.  Obama himself, as an African American, has been on the receiving end of racism.  Nonetheless, he was unable to undo racist policies which disproportionately imprison African Americans and needlessly detain and deport Latin-Americans.  Nor, despite his own faith in the scientific method, was he able to introduce more than modest emissions reductions programs.

Both he and Hilary Clinton did a kind of dance with the wasps.  They feared them.  They tried to fight them as you would fight an opposing military power, with a mixture of force and diplomacy.  They would at times launch frontal assaults against them, but at other times they would negotiate and compromise with them, allow them some space while trying to hem them in and stop them from spreading.  Their influence was limited, but they continued to grow.

Donald Trump and his friends are, of course, another matter.  They love the wasps.  They have long since opened their own caskets to the sky and have taken up the art of wasp cultivation.  They have stormed into power on the back of a huge, virulent swarm.  Components of this swarm are buzzing up and down the corridors of the White House, pouring out of the windows, following Air Force One in a huge cloud and interbreeding with the local wasps wherever it lands.  They are joining up with similar swarms in Australia, in Russia, in Europe, in the Middle East.  We are entering an era of the ascendancy of the wasps.

What can be done?  The likes of Obama, Clinton and Rudd have tried to stem to flow of the wasps, but they have not succeeded.  This is in part because they have not been fully committed to the cause.  On the one hand, they would not like them to triumph.  On the other hand, they want to triumph themselves, so much so that if they can benefit from a little wasp power they will do so.  Bit by bit the wasps infiltrate further into our laws, into our policies, into the psyches of our leaders and into our daily lives.  Our best intentioned leaders become their captives, our most cynical ones their servants.

Wasps are not vulnerable to mass campaigns.  They can't be rounded up and herded back onto their boxes.  They fly where they will.  They hide, when they need to, in cracks in our walls, in the hollows of trees, in the cavities of our ceilings, under our bridges and along our deserted creek banks.  They can only be rooted out patiently, with great determination, one nest and one swarm at a time.  They need to be fumigated, and their victims need to be gently nursed and inoculated against their poison.

The task will not be easy, and it will not be glorious.  There will not be an ultimate, final victory, only progress, only small successes.  But it is important.  Wasps can seem benign, even pretty, but their sting is deadly.

Those who are alert, and know the story, will know that we are not without help.  After the wasps vacated Pandora's box, the last creature left inside was a frail white moth which fluttered out uncertainly and followed in their wake.  This moth was Hope, and it is still at large in the world.  Whenever a new swarm of wasps is released, there is alongside it a new birth of this frail, peaceful creature.  We have to follow this hope.  It may seem fragile, but it is immensely powerful, and immune to wasp stings.  We need to learn to admire its beauty, follow in its wake and aid it in its good works.  It will never fail or surrender, and neither should we.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Farewell, Barack Obama

So, after eight years Barack Obama's presidency is over.

Nothing on my Facebook feed is as polarised as the reaction to Obama's departure and the man who will replace him.  Some are mourning, others are celebrating.  Some are praising his graciousness and his lovely family, and dreaming of his wife Michelle launching her own candidacy in 2020.  Others are celebrating wildly, rejoicing that his destructive reign is finally over.  And that's just my Australian friends.

I'm certainly not a fan of Donald Trump (I'll get to him in a moment) but I find it hard to join in the full-throated weeping for Obama.

To my mind, Obama's presidency is summed up in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009.  At the time he had been President for less than a year.  The Nobel Prize Committee cited 'his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples', his 'vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons', the fact that under his Presidency 'the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.'  'Only very rarely,' they said, 'has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.'  'The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."'

In other words, they gave him the prize for his fine words and noble intentions.

Of course no one person can rule a country.  Even the most ruthless and powerful dictator needs the consent of key elites to remain in power and this means they have to compromise.  For his entire two terms, Obama had to negotiate with a Congress dominated by his opponents.  They were often more intent on thwarting him for their own political purposes than on good governance.  Hence, when we talk about Obama's record this is really shorthand for the record of the US government during his Presidency.

Bearing this in mind, how did they go delivering the hopes of the Nobel Prize Committee?  It started out well, with Obama claiming to have ended the war in Iraq.  In fact, as David Kilcullen points out, they just left it.  The result was not more peace but a rapid deterioration, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its transformation into Islamic State.  His meddling in Syria made matters worse, encouraging rebellion but then not following through with any action, ensuring the country's descent into civil war.  In Israel strong words about settlements and the Road Map for Peace were not matched by any action - settlements went on apace and the blockade and invasion of Gaza destroyed its infrastructure, deepening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the point where it seems all but insoluble.

Are you sensing a theme here?  Obama and his offsiders talked about peace and diplomacy, but the result was war and chaos.  Was this just incompetence, or something more sinister?  Noam Chomsky suggests that this is part of the ongoing deliberate pattern of US foreign policy, which is primarily aimed at protecting and promoting US corporate interests.  Others suggest more charitably that Obama was just too tentative and timid, and perhaps a little naive, in the face of more ruthless rivals like Putin, Assad and Netanyahu.

Either way, Obama has shown himself as someone whose words promise much but whose actions deliver little.

Is it the same in US domestic policy?  There seem to be some genuine gains.  On energy, he reversed Bush's refusal to address climate change and brought in some modest emissions reduction measures.  On health, he managed to run the gauntlet of a huge and baffling campaign and introduced subsidised health care for the country's poorest citizens.  There are a number of other small programs that do some good.

However, as Matt Taibbi shows, the 'War on the Poor' has continued unabated.  Poor people are subject to summary arrest and punitive welfare policies, while undocumented immigrants (on whom much of the economy depends) are harassed and deported.  Meanwhile, corporate criminals get away with fraud and misconduct on a grand scale.

Whenever there was a mass shooting - and they happen far too often in the US - Obama would say something like "this must stop" and talk tough about gun control, but in eight years no effective limitation on access to firearms has eventuated.  Unarmed African Americans continue to be shot by police officers at regular intervals, but there are no changes to policing practices.

Have I said enough to paint you the picture?  Obama is a convincing orator.  He interacts with people respectfully, he talks reasonably, he rejoices at justice and condemns injustice.  He respects facts and knows how to build an argument.  He doesn't steal from the people, he doesn't have affairs, he is a respectful loving husband and a caring father.  He is the personification of sanity.

Yet behind his calm, sane, rational words is a whole world of crazy.  Obama's biggest achievement has been to make it seem somehow less crazy than it really is.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.

If anything is clear about Trump, it is that he will not provide a veneer of sanity on anything.  With Trump, the crazy is right up front.  The question is, what will he do?

Unlike Obama, Trump has a Congress which is at least nominally on his side, although they do not love him.  They were quick to turn against him when they thought he was going to lose the election.  If he wants their cooperation, he will have to earn it.

When he wants to introduce pro-business legislation, cut welfare and cut taxes they will be waving the legislation through.  They will be with him 100% as his cabinet of wealthy climate skeptics dismantles emissions reduction measures.  They will not have to block attempts to improve gun control because he will not present them with any.  On the other hand, Trump has promised that he will simultaneously cut taxes and spend billions on infrastructure, and Congressional Republicans have been loud and proud deficit warriors.  Will they change their tune?

This is important because where Obama's symbols were reassuring words it seems that Trump's will be buildings.  After all, he has achieved fame and fortune by placing his name on huge, ugly monumental structures.  His much hyped wall along the Mexican border is a perfect example.  US immigration policy is already harsh and punitive.  In practice a wall will add little of value beyond a minor logistical challenge for those wanting to cross it.  I imagine Plan A will involve ladders.  Or planes.  It will, however, look strong and reassuring and convince voters Trump is serious.  Incidentally it will also be a bonanza for construction contractors, many of whom will probably employ Mexican wage labourers.

Our best hope out of all of this is that once all this crazy is put on public display, Americans will decide they don't like what they see.  In the short term it will not be hard for Trump to undo the modest good that Obama has achieved.  He could, indeed, do some serious damage of his own, especially beyond America's borders where if left to his own devices he will be like a heavily armed wrecking ball swung by a crane with no driver.  But as I say, things are already pretty crazy.

Hilary Clinton, like Obama, would mainly have tried to make the crazy look sane, probably with less success.  Our best hope is that a Trump Presidency will persuade the Democrats to endorse a candidate who will actually try to change the crazy.  In 2016 Bernie Sanders seriously challenged Clinton for the Democrat nomination by refusing corporate donations and mounting a passionate grassroots campaign.  Sanders will not be back - he will be 79 in 2020 - but his supporters will.  Perhaps after eight years of reassuring words and four years of open craziness, Americans will finally get the opportunity to vote for real change.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Phillip Hughes: Cricketers' Grief

It being summer I've been watching copious amounts of cricket and avoiding anything too intellectual or work-related.  As an additional aid to this vegetative process, I've been reading some of the cricket memoirs that have been released over the past few months.  There is Michael Clarke's My Story, Chris Rogers' Bucking the Trend and Mitchell Johnson's Resilient.

I find the thought processes of elite athletes fascinating.  To succeed at their sport, they have to be really focused - not just when they are performing at the elite level, but on the way up.  They have to make sacrifices, as do those around them - their parents, siblings, partners and children.  They have to do this amidst a huge amount of uncertainty.  They might not make the grade.  An injury or an illness can end their career at a single stroke.  Their best may not be quite good enough.

These three men travelled quite different pathways to the top.  Michael Clarke was perhaps the most focused and single-minded.  From an early age he was obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of all else.  His Dad ran an indoor sports centre and he spent every moment he could hitting balls and bowling with whoever would have him.  He was also a golden boy of NSW cricket, given express passage through the junior representative and academy system and all the way to the Australian team, where he made his debut at 23.  He seemed destined for cricket greatness and to a large extent he achieved it.

Chris Rogers' career was a less turbo-charged version of the same pathway.  He was also focused on cricket from an early age and his Dad also ran a sports facility - he was General Manager of Perth's WACA ground.  But he wasn't given the same smooth ride as Clarke.  He was turned down for an academy place and had to work his way through Perth grade cricket and English league cricket before finally establishing himself in the West Australian team and in English country cricket.  Despite making mountains of runs, he was granted only a single Test at the age of 30 and then had to wait another five years for a second crack and a short but successful stint at the top.

Mitchell Johnson's pathway was the outlier in this trio.  It is rare for Cricket Australia's talent scouts to get their first sight of a promising player at age 17 - they have almost always played junior representative competitions and put their names in lights.  Instead, Johnson spent his early years dreaming of winning Wimbledon.  When he gave up his tennis dreams in his mid-teens he started playing club cricket for a bit of fun.  His family were so poor that they couldn't pay for cricket gear or coaching.  Yet the older heads at the Wanderers club in Townsville must have had some idea of how good he was, because they rounded up the money to send him to a fast bowling clinic in Brisbane run by Dennis Lillee.  It took only three deliveries for Lillee to call his old mate Rod Marsh at the Australian Cricket Academy and talk him into making room for the young man.  He arrived with a collection of heavy metal T-shirts but no cricket shoes.  He was soon playing Australian Under 19s and being fast tracked into the Queensland and Australian teams.

Of course it was hard work.  Clarke had to deal with his bad back and a knack for falling out with team-mates.  Rogers had to deal with short-sightedness, colour-blindness and the burden of being more intelligent than the average cricketer.  Johnson had to deal with chronic stress fractures early in his career, and a loss of form and confidence mid-career.  All their families had to put up with them being away more often than they were home - Clarke and Johnson had tolerant, long suffering partners while Rogers remained single.  Yet all of them embraced it - after all, what else would they rather be doing?  Clarke dropped out of school at 16.  Johnson finished Year 12 without distinction and was toying with a military career.  Rogers had a go at university but dropped out, although he did complete a journalism degree later on.  Travelling the world being paid (quite handsomely, in Clarke's and Johnson's case) for playing your favourite game  beats just about anything else.

There is a lot of diversity in these stories but the most intense point of each is the same - the death of Phillip Hughes. Young Australian batsman Hughes died on 27 November 2014 of a massive brain haemorrhage after being struck in the neck by a cricket ball.  By this time, Hughes had been in and out of the Australian team for a couple of years and had played State cricket for NSW and South Australia.  By all accounts he was a very popular team-mate, a friendly, easy-going young man who got on with everyone and didn't have any enemies - unusual in the tense, competitive world of elite sport.

Of course everyone was shocked by his death.  Australian, NSW and South Australian players gathered at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the days after his accident, supporting one another and trying to come to terms with what had happened.  A few days later they travelled to his home town of Macksville in rural NSW for his funeral.  His death was a public event, sparking a viral tribute in which cricket lovers around the country put cricket bats on public display in his honour.

But when someone dies, other lives don't stop.  There was a packed international schedule of matches to be played and broadcasting contracts to be honoured - four Tests against India, a 50-over World Cup jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, a tour of the West Indies, an Ashes series in England, plus various bilateral one-day tournaments and T20 games, all packed in between December and August.  The most they got was a delay of a couple of weeks on the start of the first India test, and then they were back playing.

It was difficult for them to put their hearts into it.  Mitchell Johnson puts it best. love of the game was put into perspective before the start of the 2014-15 season.  Not many people loved cricket as much as Phillip Hughes did.  When he died - two days after being struck in the neck by a ball - it was hard to love it or play it the same way I had when he was alive.  That horrible tragedy changed many things.  I feel so awful for his family.  The impact his passing had on the rest of us is irrelevant by comparison but its there.  I was never the same bowler after Phillip died.

Johnson's problem was that Hughes was killed by a bouncer, a ball deliberately aimed at his head.  It was bowled by a moderately fast bowler called Sean Abbott.  Such balls are designed to intimidate the batsman and perhaps even bruise him but not, of course, to kill him.  Mitchell Johnson could bowl a good 10-15 km/h faster than Abbott and intimidation was his thing.  Batsmen knew that if they faced him, the ball would be flying around their ears.  Plenty had bruises to show for it.  South African captain Graeme Smith had his fingers broken twice.  In 2013-14 Johnson blasted Australia to an Ashes whitewash on the back of the most consistently hostile fast bowling seen in Australia since the heyday of Lillee and Thompson.

Yet now the game had changed.  It was one thing to have opponents jumping around and feeling sore.  It was another to think you could kill them. Off the field Johnson is a gentle introvert.  All of a sudden, every ball was a test of nerves.  He had to try and dismiss the thought of harm from his mind, go back to bowling the way that had made him successful.  Every time he hit someone on the helmet his heart missed a beat.  He played on to the end of 2015, but he never returned to the intimidatory heights of 2013-14.  Of course there were other factors at play - he was getting older, he was getting worn down by flat pitches, he had just become a dad - but he was also relieved to not have to walk that tightrope any more.

(Incidentally, if Mitchell Johnson felt this way, spare a thought for Sean Abbot!)

Rogers had the opposite problem.  He was an opening batsmen like Hughes, and every time he batted he was peppered with short balls.  He had, of course, been hit a few times.   Early in his career he lost several teeth after being hit in the jaw playing county cricket.  He had always felt confident in his ability to handle it, but now it started to worry him.  What if he went the same way as Hughes?

Right on cue, he started to get hit more often.  During the Indian series he was fielding at short leg and a full blooded pull shot cannoned into his helmet.  He spent time off the field with concussion.  Then on the tour of the West Indies he was hit again during net practice, and the concussion was worse - he missed both West Indies Tests as he recovered.  Back in the saddle for the Ashes in England he was hit again at Lords, and although he seemed fine at the time he had to go off later in the game when he saw the stadium wobble.

That was enough for him.  He played out the series, scoring plenty of runs along the way, but called it quits at the end.  No-one was surprised, and no-one tried to talk him out of it.

You will notice that both these stories are not about Hughes, they are about Johnson and Rogers.  They are not about grief, they are about anxiety. Neither Johnson nor Rogers was close to Hughes.  They had both shared Australian dressing rooms with him - Johnson more so that Rogers - and liked him, but they lived far apart, they were team-mates and colleagues, not close friends.  They had to put themselves back in their performance bubble as quickly as possible to do what was expected of them.  This meant shutting out the grief in the same way they shut out other distractions.  Shutting things out is what elite athletes do.

But grief cannot be simply shut out.  If it is denied entry by the front door it will climb in through a window, and this window is often anxiety and depression.  Their anxieties were not totally irrational but nor were they totally objective.  The chance of the freak accident that killed Hughes being repeated was very slim.  But when someone you know personally has been killed in just such an accident, probability means nothing - the anxiety is visceral, an echo of your grief.  You can never face the same task in the same way again.

Johnson and Rogers were not close to Hughes, but Clarke was.  He and Hughes bonded from the moment they met at NSW training.  Hughes shared Clarke's house for a while, they socialised together regularly in and out of the cricket season, they exchanged text messages constantly.  When Clarke referred to Hughes as his "little brother" he wasn't playing to the crowd.  This was how he really felt.

There was also a lot else going on for Clarke at this time.  While Johnson and Rogers were at high points in their careers, feeling secure and satisfied with where they stood, Clarke was struggling.  His performances were still good enough, but the degenerating disk in his spine was reaching breaking point.  Over the previous year he had begun to miss more cricket and his physio sessions got longer and more intensive.  There were days where he couldn't do up his own shoelaces.  In the lead-up to the scheduled opening Test of the 2014-15 summer he was struggling to be fit and doing battle with the team heirarchy, who insisted that he prove his fitness and then kept shifting the goalposts on how he needed to do so.  This was just the latest in a string of tensions over his fitness and his training regime.  Clarke felt under siege.  His response?  To tough it out, to plough ahead, to follow his own course doggedly and insistently.  He shut out the distractions.

Hughes' death fed into this siege mentality.  As Hughes was taken to hospital and placed on life support, Clarke rushed to be at his side.  He spent most of the next two days at the hospital, acting as go between for the Hughes family with the throngs of media and team-mates who hung around the hospital waiting for news.  Later, at the funeral back in Hughes' home town, he visited with the family again and delivered a moving eulogy for his "little brother".

After such a calamity, and Clarke's leadership in responding to it, it was impossible for the selectors to leave him out of the team for the rescheduled first Test, which unfolded as an extended tribute to Hughes.  Against their better judgement they allowed him to play.  He scored an emotional century but was clearly in pain throughout the game, and as often happens his back stiffness put strain elsewhere and he tore a hamstring while fielding.

The resulting enforced break from cricket could possibly have been a time for Clarke to step back and process his grief, and maybe re-evaluate where he was going.  Sadly, he was not yet ready to do this.  Instead, he threw himself into an intensive rehab process as only an obsessive, driven athlete can.  His aim was to lead his team to success in the World Cup and then lead them in the mid-year Ashes tour.

He achieved both - just.  He missed the start of the World Cup but was back in time for the important games, scored runs and led his team to victory.  It seemed like a vindication and he soldiered on, leading the team again in the West Indies and England.

However, by the time he got to the UK the adrenaline was running low.  He was in constant pain.  The tension within his team continued to grow and he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  His technique deteriorated and he couldn't buy a run. The team lost the Ashes with calamitous batting collapses in two successive games.  He hated the modified helmet he was forced to wear after Hughes' death,  feeling trapped by it and unable to see properly through the restyled grille - a perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional bubble he had placed around himself to keep the grief at bay.  By the end of the series he had had enough and announced his retirement to everyone's huge relief, not least his increasingly concerned partner.  Finally, he was able to allow himself to grieve.

What these three men all had in common, of course, is that they were getting older.  Clarke's back could no longer stand the strain.  Rogers could feel his reflexes slowing.  Johnson felt increasingly apathetic at the thought of slogging through long days on flat pitches.  Johnson and Clarke were both becoming parents.  Father Time was breathing down their necks.

There is nothing like a death to make us aware of our own mortality, especially when the deceased is younger than us.  It is one thing that is guaranteed to change the way we see our lives.  We see a big hole, an empty chair where our friend used to be, and we think, "Who will be next?  Will it be me?  If I died tomorrow, would I be happy with my life?"  Priorities change.  Hitting a piece of cork and leather with a piece of wood can suddenly seem less meaningful than we previously thought.

I was reminded of Hughes again as I watched the most recent Sydney Test a couple of weeks ago.

David Warner, another man who was close to Hughes, was fielding close to the bat when Hughes was struck.  He was one of the first to realise that something was seriously wrong and he rushed to his side, signalling frantically for medical help and then riding beside him on the medicab as he was taken from the field, already comatose.

After Hughes' death a plaque was put up in his honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground, just beside the race the players walk along on their way out to bat.  Every time Warner goes past it he touches it with his hand and thinks of his friend.  This January he touched the plaque as usual and then set a new record by scoring 100 on the first morning of the match.  Grief doesn't go away, but we learn to live with it, it becomes part of our own personal growth and if we are healthy, it makes us better people.

Rest in peace, Phillip, and may your friends and family continue to be comforted.