Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ned Kelly

           [Little] John smote off the monk's head;
    No longer would he dwell;
                   So did Much [the Miller's son] the little page,
    For fear lest he would tell.
               (Robin Hood and the Monk, verse 52)

     This tale of the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man and boy, presented with modernised spelling, is an early illustration of society's tendency to glamourise criminals. Of course, the best-known example today is the way we whitewash those drunken, foul-mouthed cutthroats known as pirates. (A realistic pirate movie would be R-rated for the filthy language alone.) In modern times, of course, America has Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And Australia has Ned Kelly.
     The image of Ned Kelly with his guns and armour (which he wore only once) has become iconic in Australia. To many people he is a hero, even a victim. In reaction, there has been a tendency for some others to regard him as a black-hearted villain with no redeeming features. As for myself, I prefer a more nuanced assessment. A truly evil person presents as pathetic in his depravity. To be an effective villain, it is necessary to possess a certain ration of virtues, of which courage is the most important. Ned Kelly was the sort of man who, under different circumstances, and with different life choices, would have become a model citizen and a pillar of society.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Science of Sexual Morality

There are some things which sound good at the time, but many generations of experience have shown that they don't work.
     That was a comment made by my mother when I was a teenager, with a veiled reference to sexual morality. There is a tendency is some circles, I have noticed, for what is termed "traditional sexual morality" to be regarded as some collection of irrational taboos, or at least something no longer applicable to modern circumstances. Sometimes it is called "Christian sexual morality", but that is a misnomer. It would be better to call it "human sexual morality", for it is the basic default system from which individual cultures tend to deviate. What Christianity introduced is a add-on: the idea that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Committed as it is to sexual equality, Christianity has always been negative towards polygamy, divorce, and the major exception to the default system practised by civilisations: the idea that it is acceptable to have a pool of degraded, low status women ie prostitutes, as an outlet for otherwise "respectable" men. However, the desirability of chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards is the general rule of all human societies.
     Some cultures, believe it or not, have sexual moral standards stricter than ours used to be, and attempt to restrict nearly all communications between the sexes. Where their standards are slacker, it usually means carving out exceptions to the general rule - exceptions which, as the proverb explains, imply that the rule exists. The unusual exceptions - the ones which titillate anthropologists - tend to disappear when we leave the small tribal societies and examine the major civilisations, and the reason is obvious. These are the successful societies; they have been around a long time, and each occupy a large section of the world's area and population. They have discovered, as we are now having to relearn, that if you don't keep sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, things start to fall apart.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Murder Most Ineffective

Ten minutes later I knocked on the door of his stateroom.... He lay dead, sprawled face-downwards on the floor, and a dark patch of blood oozed up through his dinner-jacket, round the knife that was buried up to the hilt in his back. (Dennis Wheatley, 1939, The Quest of Julian Day)
    The evening after I read those words, I watched a TV program in which a person was killed - instantly - with an arrow in the back, apparently in the lower part of his ribcage, in the middle of a crowded park.
    This is typical. Writers of novels and films deal in violence with which, fortunately, they have no practical experience. What makes them think you can kill a man so quickly using such methods?
    Warning! Anatomical descriptions coming up.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Geert Wilders Speaks

     Geert Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament. In fact, he is the leader of the fourth largest party in that admittedly fragmented chamber. Yet his parliamentary office is located in a remote area of the building, accessible by only a single corridor, all the more difficult for assassins to reach it and for his bodyguards to protect him. He must leave in an armoured police car to a safe house especially designed to be bullet proof. He can meet his wife only once a week. When he wants to go out, even for electioneering, he must give his protectors one day's notice, and then wear a bullet proof vest and be accompanied by six plain clothes policemen. So why do so many people talk and act as if he were the villain, and not a victim?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Where Do Kids Get These Ideas?

     I suppose it is now time for something not so serious. A few minutes ago I was laughing myself sick revisiting one of the more interesting and humorous websites, I Used to Believe. The brainchild of a webmaster called Mat Connolley, it is a forum where grown-ups can confess the bizarre ideas they had about the world when they were too young to know better. Please, check it out. Once you're there, click on "Best Beliefs". The one I like was the child who believed there were little ant people dressed as peasants in huts in his/her stomach. Then you can go to the strange ideas under the heading, "Common Beliefs".

Friday, 27 June 2014

Flogging the Dead Horse of the Republic

     Things are getting slack in some quarters. We've had a royal tour and the long overdue return of knighthoods, and now the Queen's Birthday holiday has come and gone without the republicans getting out their whips to flog their dead horse. Normally, we would expect the media to at least head for a prominent republican spokesman, then convey his opinion to a monarchist spokesman for a reply, then announce that such-and-such had "re-opened the republican debate". Of course, it did no such thing. The comments had been elicited; they had not been volunteered. All that was happening was the media again stirring the possum. But this time, all we had had is the occasional statement, often made in sadness, that a republic is further away than ever.
     What makes me say that Australian republicanism is flogging a dead horse? Let me put it in a simple sentence:

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Dreams, Visions, and Muslims

The man in a white robe that you met in your dream has a message for you. Call this number. . .
     That was a newspaper advertisement which appeared in the West Bank town of Ramallah in 2011. How interesting that the writer could assume that someone out there was dreaming about a man in a white robe! It is far from unique. In my post of January this year, I recorded seven cases of remarkable Damascus Road type conversions. No. 6 was about a lapsed Lebanese Christian who went to Saudi Arabia on a business trip and received a visit from both an angel and from Jesus himself. At the time, I took the story from a review of Tom Doyle's book, Dreams and Visions; Is Jesus awakening the Muslim world? (Thomas Nelson, 2012). Since then, I have acquired the book itself, which has proved a real eye-opener.

Monday, 19 May 2014

It's "Just a Theory"

     Quite often you hear people say that the theory of evolution is "just a theory", and not an established fact, or a law of nature. When you hear this, you know two things about the speakers:
  1. They are absolutely correct; and
  2. They haven't a clue what they are talking about.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why I Am Not a Liberal - Or a Conservative

Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left.  (Proverbs 4:26-27, RSV)
     "You're a Party X supporter, Malcolm," a cousin said to me, "only you don't want to admit it."
     No, dear cousin, I am a policy supporter. If Party X supports more of my policies than Party Y, it will continue to get my (possibly grudging) vote, but I don't believe in party loyalties. In my opinion, once you identify with a particular political party, you come under internal psychological pressure to support its policies, rather than judge its policies by an objective standard. (I take the same attitude towards theological positions, which are worse, in that they are usually poorly defined.)
     It is a peculiar conceit of this world that there are only two political pigeon holes you must fit yourself into: liberal and conservative. At least it makes life simple. Instead of thinking for yourself, all you have to do is decide in which pigeon hole you want to build your nest, and the rest follows. The corollary, of course, is that those who manage to take control of the movement can lead all the rest of the flock to wherever they want to go.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Walking Through Walls and Rationing Days

     When I was learning French at high school almost fifty years ago, one of the short stories we studied was L'Huissier ["The Bailiff"] by Marcel Aymé, about a hard-hearted bailiff who, having died, is sent back to earth because he had not received a fair trial at the Pearly Gates. The commentary explained that it came from a book entitled, Le Passe-Muraille, and that Aymé's method was to take a fantastic and whimsical idea - in that case, a person returning from the dock of heaven - and build a completely logical story around it. Astute readers may recall that this was H. G. Wells' prescription for science fiction: let the reader accept a fantastic proposition by a suspension of unbelief, and then play it straight. The only difference was that Aymé's propositions were more whimsical.
     I therefore considered myself fortunate to discover, while rummaging around a second-hand book exchange, a copy of the original book in French - with the corner sliced off to indicate that the bookseller would not be prepared to exchange it again. It was written in 1942 and published in 1943 ie during the German occupation, which is significant for some of the stories. If you ever get a chance to read it, either in the original language or in translation, I would highly recommend you do so.