Sunday, 30 May 2010

After the Apocalypse

I've always been a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic tale. Even a bad one can do it for me at a pinch. As a teenager I loved "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss, in which a small group of humans travel through a massive tropical forest. It's a fantastic 1960s version of the greenhouse effect in which either the trees have grown, or the people have shrunk, so they're the comparative size of beetles.

This week I've been reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", to make up for missing the movie. In between was the book I've loved more than anything I've read in the past couple of years, Jim Crace's "The Pesthouse".

Part of the fascination of these books is imagining what the world might become in the future. In "Hothouse" it's just that, a supercharged landscape of exuberant vegetation. In "The Road" it's almost the precise opposite, a nuclear cataclysm (one presumes) leaving everything dead - blackened treetrunks, the shore littered with fish bones, barren fields and ash clouds blocking the sun. Once again, "The Pesthouse" is somewhere between. Food still grows, but there's never enough, people have fogotten what all but the simplest technology is for, and life is a struggle for survival.

What makes a good post-apocalyptic tale, though, is love. The central question of all these three books is whether the characters in them can survive, and whether they can remain human and intact despite the forces that try to destroy them.

Take, for instance, the central characters in "The Road". They are father and son. Their wife and mother has chosen to commit suicide, and the question is ever-present whether she made the wisest choice. The pair have no names, and their life is reduced to the barest essentials of survival - finding food, staying warm, keeping out of sight of predators. These predators provide the stark alternative. In a world where no food grows, there are only two ways to eat. Either you can scavenge for the leftovers of the age before the apocalypse, or you can turn cannibal. The man and boy have chosen the first course, and so have to be constantly on the alert for those who have taken the second. To keep themselves from that, they talk to each other about being the "good guys", about "carrying the light". Yet the light is the barest flicker. Whenever they meet someone more helpless than themselves, the best they can do is let them live, perhaps share a small morsel of their food. In such an environment, where food is a finite, dwindling resource, how long can humanity survive? The hope is dim, yet it is still there in the love between man and boy.

Crace has never been one for such grim landscapes. As in all his books, "The Pesthouse" is rich in plant and animal life, in colour and movement, in light and shade. Yet it has an atmosphere of inevitable decline. It's two main characters have names, Franklin and Margaret, a young man and woman thrown together by a natural disaster that kills his older brother and her entire village. The pair are saved precisely because they are wounded - he by an injury which has prevented him descending the hillside to the village, she by a fever which has led to her village quarantining her in its forest plague house. Their infirmity (although it should be said that Franklin is a huge strong man) is amplified by their innocence. Despite living in such a harsh world they have always been protected - he by his mother and older brother, she by her family. Thrown on their own, their hope seems to lie outside themselves, in a journey to the coast where they can take ship for the riches and comfort of Europe. Yet when they arrive at the port, through all the dangers and hardships of the journey, this hope proves illusory. It is only at this point that the two find what it is they really dream of - their still-innocent love and the possibility of building a life together even in this poor land.

"Hothouse", as befits Brian Aldiss, provides the strangest and yet perhaps most glorious hope of all. After surviving many hazards, and first using then escaping a fungus which tries to take over his personality, its hero Gren leads his followers to the place where they can enclose themselves in seeds, to emerge triumphantly with wings in another place.

Ultimately, these stories are not about the future, or about other places and times. They are about us. What makes us human? How hardy and enduring is this humanity? Can it survive even the most complete of catastrophes? Ultimately, the answer for each of these writers is "yes". Humanity survives. Many peripherals are shed along the way. Wealth, technology, mastery of the earth, permanent homes, even names can be shed, but in the midst of it some core of humanity survives. Of course, there are versions of this story in which it doesn't. For Aldiss, humanity can continue to grow and evolve, reaching for possibilities beyond our current state of being. For the ever-modest Crace, love and peace remain possible even amidst the greatest hardship. Even McCarthy, the grimmest and most horrifying of these three writers, ultimately allows hope to prevail over despair. The light lives on.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Melbourne, 1989

I'm going to break one of my blogging rules and talk about my work. After all, it's my blog and I can do what I want, and besides it's not the first time.

When I was a young housing activist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent a bit of time on the executive of National Shelter. This organisation was, and still is, Australia's peak non-profit housing advocacy organisation, and is basically a federation of State and Territory organisations. At this time, we had a small amount of funding from the Commonwealth Government so we had a couple of underpaid staff and were able to be active on the lobbying front in a low profile kind of way. However, the organisation as a whole was struggling. Very few of our State branches had any money, and most were like the Queensland branch I represented, a few people who would get together in whatever time we could make in our regular jobs.

Representatives from the State and Territory branches used to meet once a quarter, over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, to set the direction for the organisation. In October 1989 we were due to meet in Melbourne and the subject of the meeting was an important one for us. The Commonwealth and State Governments were in the midst of renegotiating the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement, the main vehicle for funding public housing in Australia. While most of the action went on between governments, behind closed doors, they did at least like to make a show of consultation, and we needed to define our own position.

In the event there was a pilot's strike, and almost half our members couldn't make it. We only just had a quorum, with reps from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. We met in a very shabby meeting room on the ground floor of a large high rise public housing block in inner city Melbourne. As was the norm, after the first day of discussions some of the delegates (not me!) took the opportunity to explore Melbourne's night-life and turned up late and very much the worse for wear the next day. After a cold, rainy start to the weekend, the sun came out and we adjourned to the lawn outside.

Here a very interesting conversation took place. We were all dissatisfied with the nature of the consultation and with some of the directions of the negotiations. The discussion turned on the key question - should we continue to take part in consultations, or should we boycott further involvement as an act of protest? We spent a long time debating this as we sat on the grass in our shabby clothes and morning after headaches. The discussion reached a stalemate and we took a vote. Victoria and South Australia voted for the boycott, Queensland and New South Wales to stay involved. I remember arguing that we needed to use whatever small influence we had to make positive changes. I remember thinking, as the eight of us sat there in the sun, "if we pulled out, would anyone notice?"

The chairperson, despite being a Victorian, used his casting vote to keep us involved. We all flew home on our haphazardly scheduled strike-breaker planes, pausing only for a quick drink in the flight lounge. Our staff went to various consultation meetings, were duly ignored, and the agreement rolled on as it always had.

National Shelter still exists, and now that I'm a consultant I've done the odd little piece of work for them. Not much, because they're even shorter of money now than they were in 1989 although their State and Territory members are in much better shape. As a result of some clever alliance building they've had some significant successes lately.

But I find myself wondering, what would have happened if, back in 1989, the chairperson had voted the other way? Would the governments have taken more notice of us? Would they have taken our views more seriously? Or would we have simply been swept away in the tide of their scorn, swatted like flies by a powerful, well resourced government sector that could never quite figure out why they funded us in the first place?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Skeptics Win the Day

If we needed any more evidence that the relentless campaign by climate change deniers is working, we need look no further than the Australian Government's late April decision to delay introduction of its carbon trading scheme until at least 2013. The Prime Minister provides two reasons - his government can't get the sceme through the Senate, and global responses have been slower in coming than expected.

I was a bit cheered up, but not much, when immediately after this the government had a sharp fall in its popularity. Only a bit, because what's happened is our government has gone from aspiring to global leadership to being just another follower. The loss of momentum resulting from the failure of the Copenhagen talks, and the last minute refusal of the Opposition to support a modified scheme, has resulted in the whole thing grinding to a halt.

The Government is clearly in a difficult position. It has only 32 seats in in the 76-seat Senate, which means it needs to attract at least seven more votes to get any legislation through. The opposition parties hold 37 seats, with one held by an independent and one by the Christian conservative Family First party. The Greens hold five seats so a Green-Labor bloc vote still needs two more votes to be successful. This might work on some legislation if the independent and FF can also be brought on side. However both these Senators were quickly captured by the climate change skeptics.

This put the Govenment in the middle of a tug-of-war. One one side, the Greens wanted a tougher scheme, fewer exemptions and concessions, and higher emissions reduction targets. The Opposition, on the other hand, appeared willing to support the scheme but wanted more concessions. Knowing that they couldn't get the scheme through by negotiating with the Greens, they went the opposition's way, and were on the verge of success when the Liberal Party blew up in their faces and re-emerged firmly opposed. When the bill was finally presented to the Senate, two disgruntled opposition members did cross the floor, but by now the Greens were so far alienated that they also voted no.

In this situation the government can do one of two things. They can accept defeat and move on. Alternately, they can call a double dissolution election, where the entire House of Representatives and Senate is re-elected, following which the defeated bill can be put to a joint sitting of the two houses.

If the government had taken the latter course, they may well have won through. The Liberals were in disarray, government popularity was still fairly high, support for action on climate change was still holding up. But Rudd is not a risk-taker. He waited, the corrosive effects of Copenhagen and the skeptic campaign did their work, and the government has now lost heart and will.

The saddest aspect is that the Labor government is the only one that will deliver action on climate change. The Greens could support this if they could learn the art of compromise, but they will never govern. The Coalition is now firmly in the skeptic camp. This means that Labor need a majority, or at least to be able to form a majority with only the Greens' help, to have any hope on this issue. Yet their failure, and their meek acceptance of it (along with other things like stuffing up some of the big ticket items in their economic stimulus package) has decreased the chance of this happening.

Should we throw up our hands in despair? It seems like that sometimes. But instead, I think those of us who see the need for action need to remind ourselves that change is slow, vested interests are strong, and we need to stay in there for the long haul. Unlike our government, which seems to have a certain yet to be determined date in late 2010 as their furthest, increasingly uncertain, point of reference.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Sporting Glory

Kutz has posed the question, "what does the bible say about competitive sport?". An important question for us Aussie blokes because we love our sport. In one sense it's an easy question to answer because the bible says nothing (or virtually nothing) about it. Well, not directly. I think the closest the Bible comes to sport is the story of David and Goliath. Goliath wanders about in front of the ranks, challenging the Israelites to send someone out to fight him one on one and decide the whole battle on that one contest. This is representative sport at its most serious, but they obviously don't mean quite what they say, because after David kills Goliath they have a massive battle anyway, which the Israelites win with great slaughter.

Still, this is one way to look at sport - as a symbolic battle between competing groups of people. It took on a slightly different form at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where the Nazi regime tried to use the contest to show the supremacy of the Aryan race. The success of African American athlete Jesse Owens in winning four gold medals is seen these days as a repudiation of that aim, but Owens said at the time he got more grief and rejection from the American authorities than from the Nazis.

There are other ways to look at sport, though. At its most basic level it's just fun. All of us have gone to the park with friends and family and played a bit of cricket or football. Sometimes you don't even keep score, but if you do it doesn't really matter much. The point is that you're all together, enjoying yourselves. Maybe this doesn't qualify as competitive sport, but it seems to me like a Christian sort of activity - people living in community, motivated by love, expressing their joy at being part of creation.

At a more serious level, lots of people take part in organised competition. People play to win, the competition has a points table, and in the end there is one champion. How does this type of sport fit with Christian ethics? It's a funny beast. It's clearly not warfare because no-one gets killed unless by accident, but it's not quite motivated by Christian love either. In a sense it is like the symbolic war of David and Goliath. There are defined sides. You do everything you can to help and support your own side, while working together to thwart the opposition who by definition are outsiders, others, rivals if not actually enemies.

I think the origins of this sort of sport lie in the medieval ideals of chivalry. The chivalric code was an attempt to control and guide the behaviour of the large numbers of armed nobles roaming around Europe in the late middle ages. They were to treat women and elders with courtesy, protect the weak, fight fairly. Of course these ideals hardly applied in war, but they applied at least in theory during peace time. At medieval tournaments, the aggression and desire for battle amongst these young men was sublimated into a kind of ritual combat which, as well as serving as training for the real thing, allowed them to show off their strength and skill without killing each other - at least not very often.

A lot of these ideals were transported into the sporting culture of the English upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. This focused around the idea of fair play. Sport was played by two teams as near equal as possible, playing under the same conditions, conducted according to a clear and detailed set of rules which are applied impartially to both sides by a neutral adjudicator. Furthermore, there is a code of behaviour which states that you won't cheat, you will treat your opponents with courtesy, you will acknowledge the superiority of the winner and not gloat over the loser, and that the conflict is confined to the field with friendly relations between teams off field. This kind of behaviour was beautifully illustrated a couple of years ago in the ABC TV documentary of the 1960-61 cricket series between Australia and the West Indies. In those days all the players were still basically amateurs and forty years on the joy of the competition and the affection between the two teams shone through.

Thinking about this sort of sport from a Christian perspective, you would have to think, how does this match how we see the Kingdom of God? In the Kingdom, people act towards each other with love. There are no divisions on the grounds of race, gender, age, etc. Greed, selfishness and hate are banished. It seems to me that this sporting ideal is part way there. If the ideal were fully honoured, there would still be a little thorn in the side, because we still have tribes, and one side still has to lose. It is so easy to slip from the ideal, to develop a culture of hate for your opponents, to cheat as much as you can get away with, to use psychological warfare. Still, for us living in the here and now, sport is surely a lot closer to the kingdom than a lot of other things we do.

The other way of looking at sport, one that is huge in our culture these days, is as a form of entertainment. Elite professional sport is funded by companies seeking advertising for their products and TV networks looking for content, and played by highly trained full-time athletes who become household names.

The oldest example of this type of sport comes from the ancient Romans, and it's not encouraging. In their games, slaves were forced to engage in staged battles, with other slaves or with fierce animals, using real weapons and ending in real death. This is exploitation at its worst. Christians rejected this form of entertainment from the start, and were often its victims.

The modern version is a lot milder, because it has grown out of the traditions of British sporting chivalry. There is still an effort to retain the ideal of fair play. Players still shake hands after the game, and see themselves as playing hard but within limits. Genuine friendships do grow up between opposing players, and in the case of international sport these are often cross-cultural. I enjoy watching televised Rugby League. It's a tough, physical game played by extremely fit, strong young men, and injuries are frequent. Players tackle each other intending to hurt. Yet hardly a game goes by without a player signalling to a referee or trainer when their opponent appears to have sustained an injury, and even giving immediate aid until the trainer arrives. They understand that there are boundaries.

Yet for all of this, the seeds of trouble that exist in any competitive sport are amplified by the amounts of money riding on the outcome. The temptation to do anything to win, including cheating, is obvious. We have players using performance enhancing drugs, teams hiding financial dealings to allow them to overspend their recruitment budget. And the converse - players taking bribes to play badly, so that some bookmaker can clean up on the outcome. If "the love of money is the root of evil" and "you can't serve God and Mammon", then there has to be a serious question mark over the compatibility of this kind of sport with the Kingdom.

Uh oh, does this mean I have to give up watching the footy?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Banning the Burka

In my newspaper today I read that Belgium has beaten France to become the first European nation to ban the burka and other face-covering garments in public places. The vote was carried 136 to nil, with two abstentions.

Amnesty International was quick to condemn the ban as a violation of human rights. The law has also outraged Muslims. Islamic scholar Michael Privot says Belgium "now joins Iran and Saudi Arabia in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain". If you think he's right, you should try going shopping in your underwear. But beyond such silliness, there are some real issues at stake here about religious freedom, prejudice and fear of the "other".

In general, liberal societies (of which Belgium is one) are based on the premise that citizens are free to make their own choices on matters that concern them, provided these don't interfere unduly with someone else's freedom. You can listen to whatever music you like, provided you keep the volume down so your neighbours don't have to share it. You can believe in whatever god you like, as long as he or she doesn't make you rob or kill your fellow citizens.

So, is wearing the burka in public a violation of other people's freedom, or is it a private religious choice which should be left alone?

Two reasons are giving for banning burka-wearing in public places.

1. A woman wearing a burka can't be identified. This means that if she commits a crime she won't be caught, and in any case it is a signal that she is not open for communication with others.

I remember Franz Fanon talking about how in the Algerian war of independence women were invaluable in transporting explosives and weapons because they could hide them under their all-covering garments and no-one would think to look. This is of course the thought that scares members of the public. However, you don't need to wear a burka to conceal a weapon. Modern suicide bombers, mostly male and unveiled, hide them under their jackets or in their back-packs. Will we also ban jackets and back-packs?

I'm struggling to see what other need we could have to identify these women. In a liberal society, I'm free to go where I like, and I don't need to identify myself to walk in public spaces. Nor do I need to interact with you if I don't want to. Why should Islamic women be any different? I think the point of the law is really that women wearing burkas make others feel uncomfortable. So whose problem is that?

2. The burka is a sign of women's subjection. Women don't wear it by choice, they wear it because they are compelled to, a clear violation of their liberty. This law frees women from that subjection.

There may be something in that. Certainly the burka is part of a patriarchal system and you can bet that a woman wearing a burka will also have a view of men as authority figures. Yet you don't have to search far on the internet to find articles in which women say they wear it because they want to - here's one that appeared on the first page of a google search, featuring a woman who is a convert to Islam.

Perhaps you're thinking, "yes, but they only say that because their menfolk tell them to." If so, let me challenge you to think a little more about your approach to liberation. No-one can be liberated against their will. Of course many women of all cultures are subject to violence and in Islamic families this may include being forced to wear a burka - if nothing else it would hide the bruises. We do need better laws and systems to protect women from abuse, and help them escape it, and Islamic women need this as much as anyone else. But banning the burka doesn't address that - it just assumes that all Islamic women are the same. Hardly a liberating approach.

I'm not a big fan of the burka, but I am a fan of liberty and personal choice. I'm also a huge fan of racial and religious harmony. This law clearly targets Islamic practice - no-one else covers their face in public unless they have a serious medical condition. It is born out of our fear of Islam, and feeds the view that all Islamic people are a threat. It also pushes these same people into a corner. They know they are being targeted. The cause of peace and harmony takes another step backwards, the conflict deepens.