Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas DNA

Happy Christmas Everyone! Since it's Christmas and I've been reading a book on religious philosophy, here's a Christmas thought. We're told that Jesus was born to Mary even though she was a virgin. That is to say, she had never had sex, and so no sperm had ever entered her uteris to fertilise the egg. Yet the teaching of the church (both Protestant and Catholic) is that Jesus was fully human - hence that he grew from an embryo into a human baby like the rest of us.

Now we know that in normal circumstances an unfertilised egg is barren - it doesn't divide and grow, it just decomposes. We also know that even if it did begin to grow of its own accord, unfertilised, the outcome would be a girl, since it is the man who provides the Y chromosome. So, in the absence of male sperm, how did her egg get fertilised, and the required male DNA enter the ovum?

This problem leads sceptics, particularly those of a scientific persuasion, to dismiss this story as a "mere myth", a logical impossibility. We know of no way that a fully human person (or indeed any sort of person) can grow from an unfertilised egg. Within the bounds of science they are clearly right. How, then, is it that highly intelligent people, who know how babies get made, continue to believe this story? I think there are a number of possible answers - take your pick, some or all may be true.

  • You could just say "I don't understand it but I believe it happened because I believe in the Bible (or the teachings of the church) and God will make it all clear in heaven". I think this is fair enough - no doubt a god who created the whole universe could solve this little problem too - but I find it a little too glib.
  • You could say that God fertilised the ovum himself, so that Jesus carried God's DNA. This could be what is suggested by the angel's words in Luke, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you". This raises some very interesting questions - does God have DNA? I could speculate about this for pages but I won't.
  • You could apply the traditional Catholic reasoning about the communion to the virgin birth. The Catholic church teaches that at communion the bread and wine actually become (as opposed to merely representing) Jesus' body and blood. They do not change their appearance - they still look, feel, smell and taste like bread and wine - but their essence changes. Perhaps something like this happened with Jesus - he still looked, smelt and sounded like a human but in essence he was God. Essentially, it's a mystical technique for believing two mutually exclusive things which pretty much describes the dual nature (God/man) of Jesus - so it could just be right.
  • You could work backwards - Jesus showed himself to be God's Son in many ways, not least through his death and resurrection. How then could he just be born in an ordinary way? The story of the virgin birth is then a way to illustrate Jesus special relationship with God - the writers may not have intended us to take it literally (other great figures in history, like Alexander the Great, have also been given virgin births by their biographers for this reason) but they intended it as a way of saying right at the start of the story that this is someone out of the ordinary.
The point is that we are in a different realm of reasoning to the purely scientific. If only scientific knowledge can be admitted we could never know how to live, we could never come together as a community, we would never know to show compassion for one another, or reach out to the poor and lonely. These things all come from the realm and reasoning of religion, and for Christians from the teaching and example of Jesus and his followers. That's why we continue to celebrate Christmas, because without it our lives would just be an (ultimately fruitless) struggle for survival. Have a merry and compassionate Christmas, and don't take science more seriously than it deserves.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Steinbeck's Despair and Hope

Each semester in High School English we would study one main novel, and in Grade 11 we "did" John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I loved it (as I loved most of what we did in English) despite the curriculum. I was moved by the way the Joad family maintained their dignity in the face of the crushing poverty of the Great Depression and the absurdity and cruelty of their society. As a result I read quite a few other Steinbeck books in my youth, and they were just the thing for a sensitive young man.

Coming back to some of these stories as a supposedly mature person provides some interesting food for thought. Take, for example, The Pearl. This little novella, a kind of meditation on Jesus' parable of the pearl of great value, features Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son Coyotito, a poor Indigenous Mexican fishing family. One day Kino goes pearling and discovers an amazingly beautiful, enormous pearl, a find that should enable him to live out his dreams. Modest dreams they are too - new clothes, a proper church wedding for he and Juana, schooling for Coyotito, perhaps his own rifle. This, I think, is Steinbeck's version of the Kingdom of God - a simple decent life free from want.

However, the pearl buyers in his town, all agents of the one ultimate buyer (perhaps a stand-in for God) collude in telling him the pearl is of little value and offering him a token price. He knows they are trying to cheat him, and refuses to sell, planning instead to try his luck in the capital. When their attempts to trick him into handing it over fail, the buyers resort to violence, sending men in the night to take the pearl from him. Instead of acheiving his dreams he has his fishing boat destroyed, his grass hut burnt down, and becomes an outlaw after killing one of his attackers. In the end he and Jauna despairingly throw the pearl back into the sea.

Nothing relieves the despair of this tale. Its message seems to be that the wealthy - with God on their side - will conspire to prevent the poor from rising, will always allow their greed to triumph over their humanity. The best course for the poor, he seems to say, is to make the best of their lot and keep their heads low.

If this is the problem as described by Steinbeck, the solution may be found in his comic novels, especially Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. These books centre around a group of characters in a run-down street called "Cannery Row". There's the semi-homeless men of the Palace Flop-House and Grill; the prostitutes of the euphemistically named Bear Flag Restaurant; the successive proprietors of the local grocery store; and the hub around whom the action of both stories revolves, Doc, the owner of Western Biological, a supplier of specimens to educational institutions. Not all of these people are in the depths of poverty and none of them are trapped in it - if they are poor it's because they choose to be. Their low-level and transparent swindles, their clumsy and often disastrous attempts at doing good, are told with a wry humour and a sharp eye for the unexpected twist.

Yet for all the romanticisation of poverty there is a core here of what Steinbeck obviously sees as the good life - the community of Cannery Row is bound together by its members' care for each other. They often fail to do right by each other, but they try. When Doc's loneliness has all the residents worried, and Suzy, the new girl at the Bear Flag, is so obviously unsuited for the work, the community push them together. Their attempts are misguided, they almost succeed in driving the pair apart, but ultimately love blossoms.

This is Steinbeck's hope, and ultimately I guess its the same for all of us. We have comfortable lives. None of us is in the depths of poverty. But our comfort doesn't make us happy and depression and anxiety are at an all-time high in our community. As Larry Norman says "without love you aint nothin'".

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Laodiceans

Since last Sunday’s sermon I’ve been thinking about the letter to the Laodiceans. My wife grew up among the Brethren and we spent six years when we were first married going to a Brethren assembly. Most of them read the seven letters of Revelation as seven eras of the church, with Laodicea as our present era, the final one before Christ’s return.

I don’t go for this entire prophetic system – it’s way too forced – but it’s an interesting insight into our current age. We are lukewarm, neither one thing nor another.

I think the current debate about climate change is a great example of how this happens. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents the majority opinion amongst climate scientists, that global warming is happening and is caused by human-generated pollution. Governments try to act on this understanding, but there are plenty of dissenting voices, saying there is no global warming, or it's caused by something else, or it's way worse than the scientists say. Those of us who don’t know much about climate science are confused, and it’s tempting to just throw up our hands in despair and do nothing.

So many areas of our lives are like this – theology, social policy, health, international relations. We’re in an era where critical thinking and debate are the norm, where we have access to vast amounts of information and opinion. It’s hard for us to make up our minds about most things. How can we return to our first love and stop being lukewarm about everything?

The Brethren answer to this (along with so many other fundamentalists) is to block out the dissenting voices. They proclaim their point of view loudly, silence opposing views, and live in apparent confidence of their rightness.

This never worked for me. I couldn’t un-know what I knew. I couldn’t silence the questioning voice inside me. I’ll never be a member of a Brethren church again. So what to do?

I don’t think I really have the answer (of course!) but I think the closest I have come to it is to allow the questions and doubts to keep me humble. Not that I really am very humble, but I know I should be. The Lord says “you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”. Our inability to know and to understand is just one aspect of this – it’s what shows us that we are not gods. So we need to come before God in this humility, and we need to show that same humility and love to our fellow humans. All men will know that we are Jesus’ disciples if we are able to love like this.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Time Travel

In the 2002 movie adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine (which bears only passing resemblance to the book), its chief character is driven to complete the invention of his time machine by the murder of his fiancĂ©. Traveling back in time, he repeatedly attempts to prevent the murder, only for her to die in some other way. In despair, he travels far into the future and meets someone of highly advanced intellect who explains that since the murder triggered the invention of the time machine, it can only exist in a time stream where the woman dies.

Ever since Wells’ novella, time travel has been a staple of science fiction. Usually, as with Wells, the ability to travel through time represents a technological triumph, although ultimately a mixed blessing as various versions of the paradox perplex or endanger the participants.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, both the novel by Audrey Niffenegger and the recent film adaptation starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, makes it a disability. It even has a genetic marker and a piece of pseudo-medical jargon (“chrono-impairment”) to describe it. Henry DeTamble is not so much able to travel in time as unable to stay in the present. Without warning he will disappear, leaving behind an empty pile of clothes, and reappear stark naked at some other point on his lifeline, or occasionally just beyond. There he must survive as best he can for an unpredictable length of time (it could be only seconds, it could be weeks), until he returns to his proper time. His traveling is not completely random – he returns time and again to places and times of emotional crisis or joy – but it is completely beyond his control.

This is one of those genre-bending stories, a science fiction romance. It is a love story framed by repeated time slips. The result is a circular plot, and an interesting and perplexing meditation on determinism and free-will.

In an early nod to The Time Machine, Henry survives the car accident that kills his mother by time traveling seconds before the crash, returning minutes later naked but unhurt near the scene. Drawn back time and again by the trauma and his own survivor guilt, he tries unsuccessfully to prevent the accident.

At other times, the link between past, present and future is more complex and confusing. The adult Henry repeatedly meets his future wife, Clare, as a child and a teenager. Already married to her in his “present”, he gets to know her past self and nurtures her love for him, before the visits cease as she turns 18. Years pass until she finally meets him in the “present”, in what for him is their first meeting. Already deep in love with his future self, she asks him out and they leap into the romance which is a lifelong passion for her but completely new for him.

So, who made what happen? The story can be read as a creepy bit of grooming, with Clare brainwashed into childhood love by the adult Henry. Yet this Henry is already married to the adult Clare, who swept him off his feet in his 20s, and this love is what drives him back time and again to her childhood home. It’s like that Escher drawing where the steps climb continuously round a rectangle, with no bottom or top. Do they have a choice? When Henry proposes to her she says no – then laughs and says of course she’ll marry him, she was only trying it out to see if she could say no. It proves nothing, she marries him anyway, the circle continues.

This is the biggest, but not the only, circle in the plot. In each one, cause and effect, past and present mix together in a way that makes it impossible to know what caused what, and whether anyone ultimately has any other choice. If someone comes back from the future and tells you what will happen, has it already happened? Is such a question meaningful in the context of time travel? Can you create another future, or another past, or are your actions in both times already factored into the universe beyond time?

It could be depressing, but somehow its not, because both Henry and Clare embrace their fate. Despite hard times, they have a love to envy, a deep lifelong passion which is so rare in Hollywood romance. Perhaps that is the ultimate answer. The past and future, even the present, may be beyond our control. Yet even if we understand nothing, we can love and go on loving, leaving the rest to whatever powers are in charge.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Poor Edward

Apropos of pretty much nothing, I'm sitting here listening to Tom Waits CD "Alice". It has this great song called Poor Edward, the lyrics of which go like this.

Did you hear the news about Edward?
On the back of his head
He had another Face
Was it a woman's face
Or a young girl
They said to remove it would kill him
So poor Edward was doomed

The Face could laugh and cry
It was his Devil twin
And at night she spoke to him
Of things heard only in Hell
They were impossible to separate
Chained together for life

Finally the bell tolled his doom
He took a suite of rooms
And hung himself and her
From the balcony irons
Some still believe he was freed from her
But I knew her too well
I say she drove him to suicide
And took Poor Edward to Hell.

Very spooky! And fascinating. The two sided personality, good and evil co-existing in the one person. More fascinating - Mr Waits (or the song's narrator) sets you up to think that the sonmg is about Edward, but then at the end he says "I knew her too well". Your evil twin also has friends, or at least associates.

Isn't that us all over. Our evil twins drive us on. We can't be seperated from them, because it will kill us - they are us. They whisper in our ears at night. We hate them, but we have to learn to live with them. In the end, will we be free of them, or will we allow them to drag us down to hell?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Persecution?

I’ve recently heard a couple of sermons based on passages in the New Testament talking about persecution. The most recent was just this Sunday, based on Revelation 2:8-11 – the letter to “the angel of the church in Smyrna”. The Lord, speaking through John, says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the Devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Unlike most of the book of Revelation, the meaning here is unambiguous. They will suffer a severe official persecution, and they should stand firm (ie not renounce their faith) even on pain of death. The same message is repeated in other New Testament passages.

Preachers these days struggle to make these passages relevant to their hearers, and with good reason. In Western societies Christians haven’t experienced this kind of persecution for a long time (although they do in other societies!) What the preachers I’ve listened to over the last couple of years have done is relate the passages to the sorts of interpersonal difficulties we face in living out our faith – we may be teased, face disappointment or misunderstanding from our families and friends, be urged or pressured to do things which go against our beliefs, and so on.

This really grates with me, for a number of reasons. It downplays the fear and horror of genuine persecution. It creates in us a siege mentality, a feeling that we live in a hostile world which is out to destroy our faith. We can feel that if we are not experiencing persecution there is something wrong with us, we are not living faithfully enough. This eggs us on to seek conflict, to provoke persecution by being more outspoken and controversial in our faith.

Instead of this let me give you another way of looking at persecution. There are basically three ways for a society to view religion. These overlap to a considerable extent in practice, and I just present them as a way of looking at the issue.

In the first, religion is seen as integral to a society – the society and the religion are one. To be a member of the society you have to follow a particular religion, and divergence from this religion is seen as a crime akin to treason. While not always implemented in practice, this was the position to some extent in the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, where the emperor was seen as a god and participation in his cult an act of patriotism. The emperor was only one god among many, but refusal to acknowledge his divinity could be dangerous, particularly in times when the emperors felt insecure – such as the reign of Nero, and that of Domitian which was probably the background to the Book of Revelation. This position has also been held by regimes as various as the Reformation-era European nation-states which persecuted rival Christian belief systems, and 20th century Communist states which enforced (with more or less vigour) atheist materialism at the expense of any religion.

In the second view, religion is a matter of community and heritage – so within a society there may be a number of religions, and you may be born into any one of them. One of these religions may be dominant and the ruling class will be drawn from this religion, but the practice of other religions is tolerated and even encouraged within the context of their own community. In this situation, it is not dangerous to practice your own religion, but it could be dangerous to attempt to convert others from different religions, particularly for a minority religion to attempt to evangelise members of the dominant faith. It can also be dangerous to invent a new religion, since this upsets the established pattern of socio-religious relationships.

This view was, in fact, the one usually practiced in the Roman Empire, and the Christians suffered as much for being a new religion as for their refusal to worship the emperor – the Jews’ right to refuse emperor worship was well established and they did not suffer the same persecution as the Christians. In most such societies in more recent times Christianity is accepted as a traditional belief. This is the most common Islamic view - for instance, the Islamic Ottoman Empire licensed Christian and Jewish communities to practice their own faith, but only followers of Islam could hold public positions. The same principle applied in Britain from the late 17th century – people were free to follow whatever faith they wished but the Church of England held a privileged position, with only its communicants able to hold public office. Modern examples of this principle are many – Malaysia is one that springs to mind, where religious toleration is generally practiced but from time to time zealous missionaries are imprisoned for attempting to convert Muslims.

Australia as a nation adheres to a third view, which grew out of the spread of European liberalism from the late 17th century onwards. In this view, religion and the State are completely separate. A person’s religion is entirely their own choice, and the State has no right to interfere in it or to prefer one religion over another. People are free to follow any religion, change religion as often as they like, or invent their own religion. This principle is written into the Australian constitution. However, this religious freedom is not total. The practice of one persons’ religion must not infringe on the rights of another person to do likewise, and religions are not permitted to override basic human rights in the name of their faith – so child sacrifice is forbidden, no matter what your religion says!

Because this political situation is so fundamentally different to that faced by Christians in the first century, the New Testament passages like the letter to Smyrna do not apply directly to us – although they do to Christians in other contemporary societies. This does not mean that there are not some tensions around the practice of religion in liberal societies, since it is not always clear what the boundaries of people’s rights are. For instance in Australia there is a current debate about the boundary line between the legitimate use of free speech to discuss religious differences, and religious vilification. In Europe, there is an ongoing controversy about the wearing of religious symbols in public – for instance crucifixes and Islamic head-dress. However, these are not persecution. People are not being litigated for following Christ, but for particular acts which are seen as infringing on the rights or wellbeing of others.

Pressure from family and friends is another issue altogether. Our faith often makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because it touches their own consciences – they sense themselves being judged, even if we don’t intend that, and defend themselves by criticising us. At other times people are uncomfortable because we practice our faith clumsily and cause unnecessary offence. We are particularly prone to this early in our journey of faith, when our zeal often outstrips our spiritual maturity. Later on we may learn to be more subtle and discerning and can heal the damage done to relationships by our early blunders. However, as time passes we may lose some of our own enthusiasm, and make compromises in our faith which weaken it and let ourselves and others down.

This has nothing to do with persecution but everything to do with the fundamentals of Christian life – how to both love God, and love one another. What does it mean to love others in a godly way? When is it appropriate to diplomatically avoid certain issues, or compromise on certain beliefs, in the name of love for someone? And when is it appropriate to give offence, both out of fidelity to God and out of love (“tough love”, maybe) to the person we are confronting? Such choices are an enduring part of Christian life, and there are no easy answers. Presenting them as examples of persecution confuses the issue, and makes us more likely to blunder than to make wise, loving choices.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Dundalk, Drogheda, Newgrange, Tara

On the Hill of Tara all four points
Stretch to far horizons.
The sheep are lords of all they survey,
And the mounds and gullies sing of former glories.
The tourists dance around the phallus
Singing of glories to come.

At Newgrange the inscrutible dead
Sleep the sleep of millennia,
Protecting the secrets of their strange carvings.
After so much labour,
Carting stones so many miles,
Rolled on makeshift logs
Lifted labouriously into place
So the sleepers within can catch the fleeting sun
To light their eternal darkness.

In every town there is a reminder
Of the days long gone
And of the days hardly gone -
The fight with the English,
The bombings, the murders,
The Protestant churches firmly locked.

Things grow and change,
The golden arches beside the Boyne,
The half built houses on every street
The "yes" and "no" to Europe at every junction,
The English papers, the European soccer,
The Chinese students walking the streets.
Time marches, the mysterious riddles
Are left to the tourists, and historians
And the passionate tour guide
Who nonetheless must go home sometime.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Naritasan Temple, Japan, 28 August 09

I thought you might enjoy some extracts from the journal I've been keeping on my travels.

The monks chant,
their drone puctuated by cymbals,
quickened by the building, fading
pounding of the drum.
Behind their striking purple,
their gaudy green and yellow,
worshippers bow in street clothes,
shoes in plastic shopping bags,
some kneeling, telling over beads,
holding out bags and packages
for the mysterious blessing of the fire.

Above, the fierce god in his blue war paint
scowls at his worshippers,
his blue attendants matching his ferocity,
brandishing sword and chain,
fiery halo and pointed fangs.
Yet around the walls his worshippers
remain calm, unafraid,
seated in their socks
slippers stowed carefully
beneath the sepia sky.

Outside, the fierce sun
shocks us out of winter.
The carp beg beneath the bridge.
The blossoms defy stereotype.
The old man smiles a greeting,
or a comment, or perhaps
asks a question I can never answer.

Later, on the bus, the young shoppers
chatter eagerly, giggling.
The mall's bustle is just like home,
the music a European melody,
the shop signs in English.
No wonder the ancient deity
beseiged on his hill,
surrounded by his imprisoned attendants
shakes his sword so fiercely at the careless world.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Out of the Silence

Speaking of socially tinged science fiction, I picked up another book at the same Lifeline sale. It’s called Out of the Silence be Erle Cox. It was published in 1925, and what I said about the advance of science fiction writing since 1977 goes double. It’s a clumsy book, but fascinating.

After a very obviously SF prologue, the story proper starts like something from Miles Franklin or Frank Dalby Davison. A young vineyard owner, Alan Dundas, works on digging his dam, is visited by his friend from town, and gets lined up for a romance with a nice local girl. The difference, however, is that he is prevented from getting very far with the dam because a huge solid construction is in his way just beneath the surface. Intrigued, he digs on and finds the door.

There follows a rather laboured rewriting of Sleeping Beauty as he is forced to overcome various life-threatening traps on his way to the centre of the structure, where he finds an extraordinarily beautiful woman in suspended animation. On a table nearby are instructions for her revival.

Once he revives her, with the aid of his doctor friend Dick Barry, the story shifts gear once again – and this is where the social bit comes in. It turns out the woman, whose name is Earani, is from a human civilization destroyed millions of years before by some cataclysm. She has been placed in suspended animation against the time when humanity would re-evolve to a level of sophistication where it could benefit from her knowledge.

Some of the things she has to share are undoubtedly useful – she has the ability to control other peoples’ minds, she can fly, she has amazing technologies stored with her as well as a vast library. All this, and her incredible beauty, place Alan completely under her spell, his previous romance forgotten. Dick, on the other hand, is less sure. Some of her ideas seem terrifying. She reveals, without the slightest tinge of shame, that the pinnacle of humanity was attained through a completely ruthless program of eugenics, including elimination of all coloured races. Her mission is to repeat this process, and she is completely ruthless in eliminating opposition.

Two things are quite stunning about this book. One is that it was written in the early 1920s – Fascism was certainly on the rise, and eugenic ideas were popular throughout the Western world, but the holocaust was still twenty years away. Cox, however, leaves no doubt about the connection between eugenics and genocide.

The second stunning thing is that through Earani he makes genocide sound plausible, even desirable. Alan, a humane and intelligent man, is convinced, and even tries to convince Dick. While Dick remains unconverted, Earani is the clear winner of the intellectual argument. The opposition is more visceral even than Alan’s support – he can’t quite explain why, but Dick finds her ideas horrific and sets out to thwart her. In the end Earani is defeated (in a manner appropriate to a piece of early 20th century romantic fiction – read it and find out!) and I assume this means Cox himself doesn’t endorse her views.

This is as it should be, but it’s a concern that Cox can’t explain why. This is because he fails to challenge the premise of racial inferiority. When they discuss the “problem of the coloured races” they are on common ground – it’s only on the solution that they differ.

Yet it’s the analysis of the problem which is at fault. The idea of eugenics is that some humans are inferior. “Humane” eugenicists advocate that these inferior people should be treated kindly but, for the sake of the overall improvement of the species, prevented from reproducing. In more extreme forms, like the Nazis by the end of World War 2 (or Earani), inferior humans should simply be eliminated to allow the superior to thrive.

Yet who gets to decide who is superior? The usual criteria is fitness for survival, but if you interpret this in evolutionary terms it is self evident that “coloured” people are superior, given there are so many more of them. This in itself, though, is misleading. Evolutionary thinking has no place for superiority or inferiority. Species survive or fail because of chance relationships between inherited characteristics and environmental factors. Survival is a matter of luck.

The reality of eugenics is a long way from either way of arguing from evolution. Every eugenicist sees the superior person as the one most like them, or at least most like the ideal figures of their culture. Hitler thought the Germans were superior and other races more or less so depending on how “Aryan” they were. Edgar Rice Burroughs made Tarzan the son of a British Lord. No doubt an African eugenicist could demonstrate the superiority of African heritage.

On the other hand, the standards of right or wrong we learn from any of our major religions stress that superiority is not hereditary at all. We all have the capacity to attain the heights of humanity, with God’s help, despite our inherited characteristics – whether we do or not depends on our choices, not our genes. Nor is this superiority obvious to the causal observer. Paul says “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…the weak things of the world to shame the strong…so that no-one may boast before him.” So despite losing the argument, Dick Barry attained superiority by risking his life for what he knew in his heart to be right. May we all do the same when our time comes.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Strong Individuals

Well, I finally got to the top of the holds list for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a bit of a hoot – Jane Austen’s original with inserted zombie killings. It provides a kind of twist to left-field on the original story – it’s main characters have studied martial arts in the East, have dojos attached to their houses, and in Lady Catherine’s case are attended by ninja bodyguards. It has some quite funny moments, like when Charlotte Lucas gets infected shortly before her marriage to Mr Collins and slowly turns into a zombie, unnoticed by all but Elizabeth. Other bits are more predictable, like Elizabeth’s interview with Lady Catherine ending with a sword fight – no prizes for guessing the winner. Overall it’s a bit flat – I certainly won’t be lining up for any of the further Austen rip-offs leaping onto the gravy train.

More to my taste was a little book I picked up from the Lifeline book sale in January and finally got to reading. It’s a science fiction novel by Kate Wilhelm called Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. I’d never heard of Wilhelm but I can never resist a post-apocalyptic story and besides, it won the Hugo for best novel in 1977. I’ve since looked her up on the web and found she’s still active in her 80s and with a long list of science fiction and mystery publications.

The first thing that struck me on reading it is how much science fiction writing has advanced since 1977. The prose style is merely adequate, the characters mainly stereotypes and the plot a little sketchy. That shouldn’t stop you reading it, though, because it’s a fascinating example of how science fiction responds to the world in which it is written.

A quick summary for you. Humanity’s destruction of the environment leads to a rapid ecological collapse, combined with a plague that renders humans infertile. Most of humanity is wiped out, but a group of forward looking people establish a refuge for themselves in a remote US location and set up a cloning operation to ensure the continuation of the race until fertility recovers.

Things don’t exactly go to plan, because the clones aren’t entirely like other human beings. Each group of clones is not only genetically identical, but has a close telepathic bond which means they feel each others’ emotions and risk insanity when parted from one another. They develop their own collectivist ethos based on this bond – the group is more important than the individual, those who upset the group must be banished, natural birth is only of value in maintaining genetic diversity and providing new individuals to clone. Those few people who show individual traits, through accidents of birth or through separation from their “brothers” or “sisters”, are persecuted and in most cases eliminated.

Yep, you got it! This is a cold war story in which individualism and collectivism struggle for supremacy. Guess which one wins? Hint – the writer is an American. The community becomes more and more repressive – people are cloned in greater numbers, they are driven to work harder and explore further despite the damage this does to them. Yet with each generation the quality declines – they become less intelligent, less creative, less able to adapt to new situations. Meanwhile the hero of the latter part of the book, a boy accidentally born as a single individual and barely tolerated by the community, runs rings around the rest of them, finally breaking away with a few others to form his own community based on natural childbirth and individual initiative. 20 years later he returns to the original community and finds no-one has survived.

It’s an interesting idea but it skates over a few things – like was the environmental destruction that begins the book caused by collectivism, or by individualism? And how do the strong individuals survive without some sort of collective effort?

Wanting to explore a bit further, I decided to finally have a go at reading the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I picked up off a library throw-out table years ago. Rand is way more famous than Kate Wilhelm - not because she’s a better writer so much as a prominent philosopher, a key promoter of “objectivism” and radical individualism. She even has an institute dedicated solely to promoting her work.

I won’t bore you with her philosophy but let me tell you about The Fountainhead. It’s all about architects, used and abused as a symbol for the kind of world humans build. The architecture profession as a whole is portrayed as in thrall to the past, thrusting on the public a pastiche of historical European styles, while the architects themselves lie and cheat their way to the top. By contrast her hero, Howard Roark, is a brilliant architect who can’t get work because he insists on designing buildings solely on the basis of their function and their location.

Sadly none of her characters are appealing, and Roark least of all. While the rest plan, scheme and betray their way to the top he remains an arrogantly aloof monomaniac, a man who has no friends, no sense of humour, no joy, no life except for the buildings he longs to design. I struggled on for a while with these unpleasant people and checked out at the scene a third of the way through where Roark rapes the key female character in the story and she enjoys it. If individualism is about people who have no life, refuse to compromise with anyone else and show their mastery by committing rape then Ms Rand can keep it.

At least Kate Wilhelm’s hero has some ethics – not only is he a great practical joker in a community with no humour, he does his best to save the community, only sleeps with women by consent and finally takes as many people with him as he can. But still, it only goes to show that, great individual though he is, he can’t survive on his own. We need each other. We are social creatures, we reproduce sexually, and our genetic and social diversity make us strong.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Subversive Songs

On the cover of Mermaid Avenue there’s a great picture of Woody Guthrie playing a guitar painted with the words “this machine kills fascists”. It’s a good introduction to the idea of music as a subversive activity, which was taken up so enthusiastically by the next generation of American folk musicians, led by Pete Seeger and later Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary.

These men and women were subversive in a very overt political way. However, I was led to think about some more subtle forms of subversion recently while listening to one of my son’s favourites, Blackfield. A collaboration between the Israeli Aviv Geffen, and Englishman Steven Wilson (prolific songwriter and muso in a number of different guises), Blackfield are not political at all. They sing melodic rock songs of lost love and general depression. I was struck by one song in particular, called “End of the World”, which illustrates exactly what I mean.

It has a killer piano hook which sucks you into a familiar landscape of despair.

Don't you forget what I've told you
So many years
We are hopeless and slaves to our fears
We're an accident called human beings

Don't be angry for loving me baby
And say it's unreal
So many lives turned to salt
Like roses who're hiding their thorns

It's the end of the world
The end of the world
It's a prison for dreams and for hopes
And still we believe there is God
It's the end of the world
The end of the world
We're dead but pretend we're alive
Full of ignorance, fools in disguise
What is this? If indeed our humanity is a mere accident, what is the point of our lives?

In your room doing nothing
But staring at flickering screens
Streets are empty, but still you can hear
Joy of children turning to tears.
So of course in the end there’s not much else to do but

Take this pill, it will make you feel dizzy
And then give you wings
Soon, boy, you'll fall into sleep
Without nightmares, without any fears

If you wake up in hell or in heaven
Tell the angels we're here
Waiting below for a dream
Here in the garden of sin.
So, it’s a pretty song about suicide – how is that subversive? Well it’s like this. When you listen to someone like Richard Dawkins talking about “The God Delusion” and the way we’re now freed from this delusion by the advances of modern science, it all sounds very reasonable. If you listen to someone like Ayn Rand or even Friedrich Neitzsche talking about the amazing possibilities of humanity in the absence of God, it can even sound exciting.

Music, on the other hand, is not the language science, or reason, or philosophy. It’s the language of the heart, the emotions. How does it feel to be “an accident called human beings”? How does it feel to be alone in the universe? The answer, at least for Aviv Geffen, is that it feels desperate. We want to cling on to God because without that all you can hear is the sound of children’s joy turning to tears.

I don’t know anything about Aviv Geffen’s religious views, or about Steven Wilson’s. It’s pretty safe to assume they’re not conventionally Christian or Jewish. Yet by putting that despair into song, they challenge us to look again, to see if we really are willing to accept the consequences of advocating a universe without meaning.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Speaking of ways to provide meaning in our lives, I’ve just finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Judging by the holds queue at the Council library it’s currently a very popular book – I joined the queue at somewhere around number 42 (about the same number, incidentally, as for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for which I’m still waiting).

It’s interesting that what is basically a work of sociology cum philosophy should attract such a crowd, and suggests how important our work is to us. It’s also a fascinating and elegantly written book. De Botton takes us on a virtual tour through people’s working lives – the workers in the biscuit factory; the transmission engineer and pylon enthusiast who takes him on a walking tour of the transmission line form Kent to London; the career counsellor who helps workers get in touch with their inner selves along with helping their bosses to fire them; a painter who spends years painting a single oak tree; and my favourite, the Iranian inventor who devised a pair of shoes that enable the wearer to walk on water and was detained at the airport as a suspected terrorist.

I was caught, however, by his closing comments.

“To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and our present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries…- maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. it is paying death roo much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions. Let it surprise us while we are shipping wood pulp across the Baltic Sea, removing the heads of tune, developing nauseating variety of biscuit, advising a client on a change of career, firing a satellite with which to beguile a generation of Japanese schoolgirls, painting an oak tree in a field, laying an electricity line, doing the accounts, inventing a deodorant dispenser….

“Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes of perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble.”

De Botton has found a different, and in his summation dubious, antidote to the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of death. We work at our allotted tasks, and they distract us from bigger questions which we have now way of answering.

I immediately thought of Samuel Beckett’s opposite-to-immortal line in Waiting for Godot:

“Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.
Vladimir. (impatiently) Yes yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget…”

Is that it?

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Great Australian Nightmare

I don’t usually talk about my work on this blog, since I talk about it so much in the rest of my life. However, I had a curious experience recently. I’ve just taken on a bit of work around support for low income home purchasers, and to get a bit of historical context I tracked down a 1983 book called “The Great Australian Nightmare” by Jim Kemeny.

I had never read this book, or even seen a copy, before the last couple of weeks. Yet its influence on my work has been huge. In the mid to late 1980’s this book was constantly quoted in articles on housing policy, and his arguments even if not attributed were the staple of left-wing housing comment.

I was surprised, then, by a couple of things. First, how short the book is – at a little over 100 pages its volume hardly matches the weight it carries.

Second, I was intrigued by the slightness and at times the confusion of its arguments. There was little data, a lot of assertion, and plenty of missing logical steps.

His argument is really quite simple. After a promising beginning, Australian housing policy after the second world war came to be dominated by the aim of promoting home ownership, to the neglect of other tenures including particularly public rental. This one-track housing policy leads to overpriced housing, over-investment in housing at the expense of “productive” investment, and leads to the exclusion of significant numbers of low income households from secure, affordable housing. Yet it also becomes self-fulfilling – because home ownership is the only viable alternative for households it comes to be seen as “natural”, so that it becomes what every household wants and governments become tied to it by popular will.

His argument (even in the full form rather than this one-paragraph summary) begs as many questions as it answers. By what criteria does he decide that housing is not “productive” investment? Is the mentality of home ownership created by the policy, or the policy by the mentality in a liberal individualistic society?

For all this, 26 years and two boom and bust housing cycles later, his argument is still powerful and prescient. Housing prices, despite the busts, have steadily ratcheted up, excluding more and more households. The alternatives remain as undeveloped as ever – public housing is now more a “welfare” measure and less a genuine alternative than it was in 1983, private rental is still a temporary form of housing dominated by small-scale landlords and unable to attract significant investment. And governments unhesitatingly pour money into home ownership to prop up this sector and prevent prices from falling despite the fact that anyone can see they are too high – because the banking system is geared around sustaining the value of housing, and no-one benefits if the banks collapse.

I don’t know where Jim Kemeny is now. I assume he is retired. Unlike other Australian housing academics from the 1980s like Judy Yates, Terry Bourke, Tony Dalton or Vivienne Milligan, who have stayed active in the field and made deep and lasting contributions to housing research, he was largely invisible in the field after the publication of this book. Yet his influence is still there, in me and many others like me who caught the passion for a fairer housing system, and the role of a good public housing system in creating that fairness.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Saints of Fromelles

A bit of a post-script on the popular religion thing. Not long after Anzac Day, Australian news reports featured the exhumation of the remains of 400 Australian and British soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles, in the north of France. This engagement in 1916 resulted in thousands of deaths, and many soldiers were buried in mass graves. Recent historical research has led to the location of one of these graves, and the Defence Departments of Britain and Australia are sponsoring the DNA testing of the remains to identify the soldiers. Afterwards they’ll be re-buried in individual graves.

Three reasons are given for doing this.
  • it will allow the living relatives of lost soldiers to finally know what happened to their ancestors
  • it will honour the men themselves who gave their lives to “save” the people of France
  • it will “help the people of Fromelles to erase the wounds of the war”.
Given that these young men died over 90 years ago, they are unlikely to have any living relatives who actually knew them. Any interest is likely to be academic rather than deeply personal. Furthermore, if the wounds of a 90-year-old war have not healed yet, the identification of a few foreign soldiers is unlikely to do the trick!

There are interesting parallels here with two forms of religious expression which most of us would say, if directly asked, that we believe outmoded.

The first of these is the notion of ancestor worship. While a serious religious practice in Chinese culture and in a different way in Australian Aboriginal culture, this has never been strong in European cultures. Yet here we wish to support the descendents of worthy but ordinary people to honour their ancestors and give them what we see in our culture as a “proper” burial.

The other parallel is with the worship of saints’ relics which was a popular form of medieval piety, and which still survives in Roman Catholicism. Here the remains of modern-day “saints” (people who, indeed, died to save us) will be interred, labelled and made available for pilgrimage. Already there has been blessing of the remains, and no doubt when they are identified there will be further religious ceremonies.

These young men would have felt it was ludicrous to be seen as “saints” and although they were all volunteers they were not necessarily more courageous than the average. Yet their ordinariness is a huge part of their appeal – we could be like them, with a little fortitude and the right circumstances. Just like the Christian saints, they give us something to aspire to.

In one respect at least we have an advance on the middle ages. Advances in DNA testing ensure that no-one will foist false relics on us, and pilgrims to Fromelles will at least be able to be sure that actual remains of the named soldier lie beneath.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Anzac Day

Speaking of Australian folk religion, yesterday was Anzac Day. For those readers from outside Australia, this day commemorates that landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) at Gallipolli in Turkey in 1915.

In military terms this landing was a complete disaster. Originally planned as a surprise attack, the Turks found out about it and placed machine guns at the top of the hill. The ANZACs had nowhere to go and spent months trapped in the cove, gunned down whenever they tried to advance beyond their trenches, until months and thousands of deaths later they retreated.

Yet in Australian folklore the obvious command failures were overwhelmed by the bravery of the ordinary soldiers. Anzac Day became Australia’s main military commemoration. I remember as a child buying and selling Anzac ribbons at school to raise money for veterans, and then on the day marching with my scout group down the street past my house to the service in the Sunnybank Municipal Hall. There, beneath the honour rolls of local soldiers killed in the two world wars (after whom the streets of our suburb were named) we would sing “lest we forget” hear the Last Post played on the bugle and pray for the souls of the dead, or something.

By my University days Anzac Day was decline. The ANZACs themselves were getting old, and in the aftermath of Vietnam war was a lot less popular. The play The One Day of the Year, which we studied at high school, highlighted not only the folly of celebrating a military disaster, but the sharp divide between the patriotic WW2 generation and their sceptical children. Interestingly, the one actual ANZAC veteran in the play, when finally pressed to speak his mind, expresses a strangely neutral view of the event.

Then in the late 1990s something curious started to happen. Anzac Day experienced a resurgence.

A number of things caused this. The military was redeemed by its involvement in the first Iraq war and more particularly the Australian-led UN mission into East Timor, which were seen as protecting defenceless people against imperialistic regimes. Meanwhile at home we became aware that the ANZACs themselves were dying out. The few remaining WW1 veterans in Australia started to be treated as celebrities, invited to address groups of children, given front-row seats at the Sydney Olympics.

Anzac Day was transformed. City marches and dawn services steadily grew in attendance, with young people, including those who had no military connection, attending in droves. Australians started to go to Gallipoli in great numbers, with a dawn service on the site of the battle a huge Aussie affair with the odd token Turk participating.

This year I saw on the news a group of young people arriving at Gallipoli. Overcome with emotion, one young woman talked of the sacrifice these soldiers made for us, while the newsreader talked of the hundreds of young people making the “pilgrimage”.

This religious language has grown steadily over the last few years. Of course the day has always had a religious flavour, but is now by far the most religious of Australia’s public festivals. Australia Day, celebrating the landing of the First Fleet, is a purely secular flag-waving event. The traditional Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter have been taken over by Santa and the Easter Bunny and become excuses to buy stuff.

By contrast, Anzac Day has resisted commercialisation and become, if anything, more religious. They day centres around religious events – the dawn service, the wreath-laying ceremonies – at which prayer and remembrance hold centre stage. Moreover, the ideas of altruism, sacrifice and eternity are high on the agenda. We remember what has been done for us not in a personal way – because the battle of Gallipoli was almost 100 years ago now – but in a archetypal way, with young men we never knew giving their lives to preserve our long-term peace and freedom.

This is not very different from the personalised religion I talked about before, with the death of Shawn Mackay inspiring his team-mates to greater efforts on the field, and his presumed presence in heaven comforting them for their loss here on earth and their awareness of their own mortality.

In Anzac Day this belief system is given a more universal significance. For the Brumbies the death of one particular ordinary young men helps provide meaning for his friends. In Anzac Day the deaths of many unknown young men provide definition to our identity as a nation. We no longer believe in Jesus’ death for us, but we are moved to tears by these young men sacrificing themselves. And their sacrifice has a purpose – preserving our freedom and happiness. In celebrating them we feel a connection to something larger than ourselves. It’s not “God” if we mean the God of Christmas and Easter, but perhaps it is the “God above God” of Tillich.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Shawn Mackay meets Paul Tillich

One of the stories that has featured in the news this week is the death and funeral of Shawn Mackay, a young ACT Brumbies rugby union player who died after being hit by a car during a tour of South Africa. A low-profile player, unknown to even many rugby fans, has become a celebrity in death.

Why is the media, and the public, so interested in the ordinary death of an unknown young man? Why did we follow the daily details of his injury, initial recovery, death and funeral? Partly I suppose it is the genuine fame of a number of his team-mates, and partly the fact that it’s just a tragic story that tugs at our heart-strings. But there's more.

We like to hear about the intimate lives of famous people, and sports stars play a particular part in this fascination. Whereas the lives of Hollywood celebrities just seem bizarre, and politicians carry an aura of power, sports people seem very ordinary. Sure, they can run, swim, hit or kick a ball better than anyone else, but they are not particularly powerful, or particularly well-educated, they come from ordinary and often poor families, and after their brief youthful fame they will mostly retire to ordinary (albeit comfortable) lives. What could be more ordinary, then, than an elite sportsman who is hardly even famous? We want to hear about them because we feel we are hearing about ourselves.

Of course this ordinariness is both paradoxical and illusory. Our very interest in its ordinariness makes it extraordinary. If they were really ordinary, we would never hear about them. Their fame itself makes their lives different. Hundreds of young people die in car accidents every year, and they all have funerals at which their family and friends praise them, and cry. For your funeral to feature on prime time news you have to be different.

Yet this wasn’t what struck me the most. What really got my attention was their talk about Shawn Mackay being in heaven. If rugby is the game they play in heaven, they said, we know who would be captain.

You hear this a lot, from ordinary people, from sports people, in Australia and elsewhere. People often have the feeling that their dead parent, grandparent or sibling is looking down on them from heaven and approving (always approving) of what they do. When my father died, my young nephew (whose mother is a devout catholic) added him to his pantheon for bedtime prayers – Jesus, Mary and Grand-dad. My father would have found it hilarious, and in catholic terms it’s probably blasphemous although hardly serious coming from a four year old.

What’s interesting about this is that Australians on the whole are not very religious, and its not necessarily religious people who talk about their late relatives in this way, although many Christians certainly do. From week to week we will hardly think about God, heaven or religion. Yet when we are faced with death, we have a deep need to believe in immortality and future happiness for the dead person, and for ourselves. Barring serial killers and paedophiles you never hear anyone talking about the departed being in hell, or being just gone.

I’ve just finished reading The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. He mentions this very phenomenon. Belief in the immortality of the soul, he says, is not really a Christian belief in the sense of being biblical – the bible talks in terms of resurrection, not an immortal soul. If anything it’s Platonic, but even Plato doesn’t envisage the individual continuing as they were in this life, only the soul returning to the realm of pure forms in which it is stripped of the dross of accidental individual characteristics. Our belief in the dead going to heaven is not Christian or Platonic, it’s folk religion.

The main thrust of Tillich’s book is about how we affirm our being (the “courage to be”) in the face of the key existential anxieties that face all people. He identifies three interlocking sources of anxiety
  • the anxiety of fate and death – our fate is out of our control and ultimately we’ll die
  • the anxiety of guilt and condemnation – we have done wrong and will ultimately be condemned for it
  • the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness – we doubt the sources of meaning and ultimately our existence may be meaningless.
He then discusses the ways in history and philosophy that people have faced these anxieties and developed and maintained the courage to assert their own being in spite of them. It’s a complex discussion and I’m not sure I understand it all, so I certainly won’t try to explain the intricacies of it. Suffice it to say that he identifies that for his time (the 1950s) the predominant form is the anxiety of meaninglessness, expressed in existentialism. His answer (in my simplified form) is encounter with the “God above God”. This is not the God of the philosophers who can be analysed, categorised and dissected by philosophers and theologians, and who has been killed off by the existentialists. This is the God we encounter after the death of that God when in the despair of our meaninglessness we encounter the power of being, the ground of all being, the eternal.

Tillich was speaking from the point of view of an academic theologian, immersed in the philosophy of his age. He was also a German exiled by the Nazi regime, watching as his country descended into barbarism and genocide.

This where an archetypal “ordinary person” comes in handy. It’s unlikely that either Shawn Mackay or his mates took time out from their busy schedule of training, playing, drinking with team-mates and visiting sick kids to catch up on 20th century existentialism. Nor, despite being Australian, have they been personally touched by genocide, as opposed to seeing its results on their city streets without understanding them. On the other hand the obligatory hospital visits would have put them in plenty of contact with suffering and death.

So my guess would be that despite devoting their lives getting a piece of inflated synthetic fibre past 15 huge opponents and over a white line, it may not have occurred to them that their existence is meaningless. They do, however, know that they will die – especially since Shawn has just done so.

In the absence of any real religious faith, in the absence of a serious philosophy of existence, how do they cope with the reality of unpredictable, looming death? They are forced back onto our society’s folk religion which tells them that death is not the end of everything, that there is a good existence beyond death in which the dead can continue their lives. They tell themselves that they are immortal.

Then they go back to carrying that ball over that white line with even greater fury and devotion than before, drawing extra meaning from the idea that their departed mate is watching from that place of immortality. They believe a win will somehow make him feel fulfilled, and desperately wish it would also fill up the emptiness of their grief.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Back from the dead

In order to stop this from becoming a dead blog, I feel a deep-seated need to post something, so here it is.

I've been occupied with a few things including the illness and death of a close family member. That sort of stuff makes you lose heart, and you tend to look at the world in a more distant, cynical way. It can do two things to your relationships. At its best it can make you value them all the more. However, I find that there's a danger (because I'm an introvert anyway) of it working the other way. Like "you're going to die sooner or later, so maybe its better not to invest too much in this relationship".

Not that I really think that way consciously. I just find myself being more distant, and I think that's why. Or maybe my emotions are just a bit over tired.

Speaking of returns from the dead, Queensland just re-elected its Labor government for a fourth term, and for the first time with a woman leader in Anna Bligh who is almost my local member (as in , her electorate begins just a few streets away - her kids went to the same high school as mine). For most of the campaign it looked like they'd be tipped out, but in the end they came back from the dead.

While this is good (not great, since we're all going to die anyway, but good) I found a little something irritating my pedantic soul. In her victory speeches and in everyone's commentary they talked about her being the first Australian woman Premier elected in her own right - by which they mean that she went into the election as leader of her party, which then won, as opposed to other woman premiers who were appointed by their parites between general elections which their parties subsequently lost.

So, for you other pedantic souls out there, here's a little lesson in the Westminster system.

In republican systems of government the head of government (president, governor or whatever) is elected - a person stands for election, the people vote and a person is then elected to the office. They may or may not be a member of a party - usually they are - but the person, not the party, is elected.

In the Westminster system, on the other hand, the head of state is hereditary (currently Queen Elizabeth) and her representatives are appointed by her. However, the development of democracy means that the Queen and her representatives have a largely ceremonial role and the real power rests with the parliament, which even "recommends" to the Queen who she should appoint as governors and governors-general, her reps here in Australia. Parliament is made up of members elected by local constituencies. It not only makes laws, but it elects the Ministers of State including the real head of the government (Prime Minister or in the case of our State Governments, Premier) which the Queen or her representatives then automatically ratify. In Australia, because we really only have two main political parties, the party that wins the majority controls the parliament and therefore gets to appoint the ministers and the Premier.

So in Australia you don't get elected to be premier "in your own right". You get elected to your local constituency, and then your fellow parliamentarians (at least the ones in your party) elect you to the office. On this basis, Anna Bligh has been legitimately premier for the past two years, ever since her predecessor retired and her colleagues elected her to replace him. Leading her party in a winning election gives her no more legitimacy, it just provides better PR.

Am I just being pedantic? Does it really matter? Well, what it says is that our political system is not about individuals. A leader is expendable, what is important, the basis of the system, is local democracy and the collective actions of the local representatives. They make leaders, and they can (and often do) depose them. If George Bush had been an Australian Prime Minister, he woudn't have lasted the full eight years - at the six year mark when it became obvious even to the Americans that he was a waste of space, his party would have knocked him off the perch, and he would have served out the term on the back benches while a new leader tried to revive the fortunes of the government and fix up his mistakes. The world wouldn't have had to wait the extra two years for Barack Obama to come and save us.

In my view, this is a much more death-friendly political system. After all we're all going to die. It's important that when we do, life can go on, and that even though our friends and loved ones miss us, the greater work of love, justice and peace can continue in our absence, driven on by the collective efforts of many people.