Thursday, December 29, 2005

vanity, with a smidge of skepticism

I received a copy of the CSIRO total wellbeing diet for Christmas, which went well with my plan to lose weight and get fit. I’m not obese, just slightly overweight and profoundly vain. I’ve been keeping tabs on my weight, quite obsessively in fact, since the beginning of spring, and averaging it over each month. I’ve managed to lose weight each month since September, but only by a small amount. I’ve always felt my diet was quite good enough, so I’ve not tried any new diets, though I’ve often cooked from Sarah’s weight-watchers cookbook, and I’ve cut down sharply on bread, and cut out butter. I’ve tried to avoid eating after 8pm, but I haven’t been particularly strict with myself.

A few weeks ago, after yet again being horrified at what I saw in the mirror, I was finally forced to admit something. Even if I kept losing weight until I got to the proper weight for height or body mass index figure, I wouldn’t be happy with myself. What was really driving me was vanity. My primary aim was not to lose weight but to look good.

So I’ve enrolled in a gym (which I can't afford). After a couple of work-outs I feel great, and will continue, hopefully about three times a week. And now I'm ready too for a proper diet, such as my new gift provides. Catherine tells me her friend Stephen has lost eight kilos in a few months on the CSIRO diet, and like me he's never been horribly overweight or anything. I’m ready to be disciplined for the sake of vanity.

Which brings me to some of the criticisms of the CSIRO book, which is a runaway best-seller, indeed the runaway bestseller of the moment. Rosemary Stanton, on Radio National this morning, argued that the book was successful because of its low-fat, low-joule approach rather than because of the prominence it gives to red meat, which says more about sponsorship deals than anything else. Dr Tim Crowe, a spokesman for Nutrition Australia, has criticised the small size of the study upon which the diet is based:

"It did show that after about a year the weight loss wasn't as great as any other sort of diet," he said.

"So even though the theory behind it is quite sound as far as scientific principles go, the end result of people losing weight on it doesn't seem to stack up as well as what we thought it would."

Much of this attention stems from some harsh criticism of the diet has come from the magazine Nature, but you need to be a subscriber to access the offending article. No doubt it will also focus on the size of the study, the sponsors, and the lack of follow-ups and longitudinal approaches.

My own approach is naturally to be sceptical about the detail, but I suspect that the high-protein approach has more going for it than traditionalists are yet prepared to admit. The CSIRO study is indeed small, and more research needs to be and is being done, but the findings reported on p198 of the book and elsewhere are interesting enough, even if they only pertain to women. I mean, are women that physiologically different from men? Details, details.

If you're worried about your triglyceride levels, diabetes and LDL and HDL cholesterol, this is the diet for you (along with most other diets), but it's particularly good for your vitamin B12 levels and your haemoglobin. These, though, were only studied over a 12 week period, for 100 women. Maybe they all died straight afterwards.

Anyway, I'm going for it, though maybe not too strictly as far as the red meat's concerned. The key's in the lean (and if it's red it''ll be kanga, it's heaps cheaper).

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

chrissie smacks

I received an email from the Foster Carers Association yesterday, with this article attached. I believe the Daily Telegraph is a Sydney paper (shows how unworldly I am – only discovered this yesterday thanks to the death of Kerry Packer), so the Department of Community Services (DOCS) there referred to is the NSW version of SA’s Department for Families and Communities.

Letters have apparently been written (just before Christmas, how thoughtful) to hundreds of foster carers to inform them that they’ve been investigated re smacking children in their care, and that the allegations against them ‘have been sustained’, by which they presumably mean that the department have satisfied themselves about the carers’ guilt.

It seems that the department has chosen not to detail how it arrived at this level of satisfaction. Many of the foster carers are said to be furious that the department has simply accepted the allegations of often troubled children.. The smacking of children by foster carers is illegal, but, interestingly, these letters assure the carers that they will not be removing children from their care (except in extreme cases). Instead ‘Foster carers are told in the letters that if they apply for child-related work in the future - such as nursing, teaching, childcare or foster care - the investigation into smacking will be taken into account.’

Results of the investigations are apparently being passed onto a body entitled ‘The Commission for Children and Young People’. These allegations have not, of course, been tested by a court of law, and it seems that foster carers have not been given an opportunity to answer the allegations. In any case, the standards applied to foster carers, who are often dealing with the most difficult and demanding kids, appear to be rather different from those applied to ordinary parents, often with large implications for their futures. But then, we can hardly expect any good deed to go unpunished.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

retreating into abstraction, thank god

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, a book I’ll possibly be taking issue with later, describes the cardinal error of Christian theology as its treatment of humans as ‘in form, very like a god’, with dominion over other creatures upon the earth. Here’s the vital passage in Testament:

Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have domino over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth.’

God created human beings in his own image;

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth’.

God also said, ‘Throughout the earth I give you all plants that bear seed, and every tree that bears fruit with seed: they shall be yours for food. All green plants I give for food to the wild animals, to all the birds in the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, every living creature.

Now, leaving aside the trivial question of who the roving reporter was who overheard God’s pronouncements and transcribed them, and how accurate the transcription was, the passage makes clear how we’re expected to think of ourselves, as godlike guardians and rulers over the earthly kingdom, with the power of life and death over its non-human creatures.

It’s passages like these, Gray and many others have argued, that help to explain the sort of kerfuffle that arose when Mr Darwin came along with his Origin of Species. Some other, less anthropocentric religions, would be able to incorporate the theory of evolution with scarcely a shift in their religious concepts, but for Christians the special place of humans between the beasts and their god is a central dogma, and evolution more or less completely undermines it.

In fact, I find it strange that the Roman Catholic church officially accepts evolution. I’ve heard a few commentators say that catholics have far less difficulty with the theory than protestants do. Offhand, I can’t think why this should be so. One argument has it that catholics are uncomfortable with creationism because the created world is so imperfect and contains such apparently needless suffering that to promote their god as intelligent designer might mean attributing to him more than a little malicious intent.

This raises interesting questions about where Catholicism officially stands viz a viz the first chapters of Genesis, but of course the compatibility, or otherwise, of the theory of evolution with Christian belief cannot be decided by official decree. My own feeling about this is that Christianity and evolution are harder to reconcile than is often contended.

There are some obvious implications to the Judaeo-Christian myth about the special place of humans in their god’s creation. For example, it seems to me that the notion of the soul, so frequently used in Christian thinking, both metaphorically and otherwise, is placed under some pressure by a modern evolutionary understanding. The metaphorical seems all that’s left of it, and the danger for Christians is that their god also is coming to look more and more metaphorical and abstract.

Not that I have anything against this retreat into abstraction myself. May it continue. Meanwhile, we need to recover from the destructive effects of such a hubristic religion – one that might have served well enough a small population in the Middle East centuries ago, but which is currently, through its blind pride, doing a great deal of damage to the planet.

Basically, my dislike of this universalising and simplifying belief system runs deep. What I most despise about Christianity is the lies it tells to itself, lies intended to simplify that which cannot be simplified. It’s a fearful or gutless, and profoundly deceitful religion, and that in itself is destructive of the spirit. I hope I never stop fighting against its insidious impact.


a sexy chick, German or Russian, take your pick

Last night, Sarah, Catherine and I watched The Rise of Catherine the Great, which Catherine’s boyfriend bought for her as a joke. Turned out an excellent movie, lavishly made in 1934 by London Films, and about as historically accurate as a Shakespeare history play, no doubt. Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) is a scion of the German aristocracy, brought to the Russian court to marry the Count Peter (Douglas Fairbanks looking very fetching), nephew of the Empress Elizabeth (the magnificent Flora Robson). I wondered at this Elizabeth who'd somehow attained this exalted position without my having heard of her.

Well Elizabeth Petrovna was Tzar of Russia for 21 years. She was the youngest daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I. Previously regarded as a transitional figure between Peter and Catherine the Great, she's recently received more prominence as an important figure in her own right.

Seems the eighteenth century was a biggie for female political leaders in Russia. Rather astonishingly, the first eighteenth century woman to achieve the supreme power was Catherine I, widow of Peter the Great. She was of Lithuanian peasant stock and couldn’t read or write, though apparently she was highly intelligent. Clearly a great beauty in her younger years, she’d been passed from man to man as a spoil of war before Peter cast his eyes upon her. There’s some confusion, at least to my mind, about whether he actually married her, but she was in enough favour to be accepted as supremo upon Peter’s death. Not that this Catherine was the first woman to wield supreme power in Russia. Sofia, the half-sister of Peter the Great, was appointed regent in the 1680s, though she was guided by her male advisers. Catherine too was an ineffectual ruler, and was succeeded by Peter’s grandson, Peter II, a child of twelve who died well before his fifteenth birthday. At his death Anna Ivanova or Anna of Courland became Tsar. She was the niece of Peter the Great, and the daughter of Ivan V, the Tsar between 1682 and 1696. Although not German herself, Anna surrounded herself with German advisers, a trend which was reversed by Elizabeth. Anna died in 1740, naming her nephew Ivan as her successor. He was only two months old at the time, and his mother Anna Leopoldovna was appointed regent. Another woman. A year later, a coup was staged in favour of Elizabeth, who then ruled until the end of 1761. Six months after her death, Catherine the Great ascended the throne after a successful coup was staged against her much-detested husband, Peter.

So Catherine the Great ruled Russia for 34 years, and, all told, women were in the pre-eminent position for two-thirds of the century.

Catherine was born Sophia the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, but she also happened to be the niece of Karl August, who had been engaged to the Empress Elizabeth before his sudden death in 1727. It seems he’d been the love of Elizabeth’s life, and she remained close to his family ever afterwards, so when Sophia came of age, Elizabeth invited her over to become the husband of her nephew and heir, Peter. The young pair married, but hated each other, and it’s quite likely that Elizabeth, who had no illusions about her nephew, was grooming Sophia, now Catherine, as the eventual ruler.

Okay, no more historical background, please, the film should be looked at on its own terms. In it, Catherine is presented as young, beautiful, naïve but a quick learner, disappointed in and hungry for love. There’s no hint of amorality about her (in spite of her invention of seventeen lovers, and a bit of flirtation with the regiment), she accepts the necessity of deposing her husband but insists that not a hair of his head be touched. Peter’s murder is presented off-stage, and we don’t know who did it. The shadowy figure of Orlov, presented in the film as a mild-mannered, devoted servant of Catherine who in the end admits to having been secretly in love with her from the first, is not really presented as the perp, but we get the impression he knows about it and doesn’t disapprove. In fact, in a distinctly unhistorical touch, Peter reveals his admiration for his ‘little Catherine’ before entering the carriage that takes him to exile and death. Everybody loves Catherine, it seems, though she herself is deeply anxious about how she'll be received by the people. She wins them over with a stirring speech, representing herself as the mother of her people, and is rapturously cheered by all. The end. Lots of sumptuous gowns and interiors, though I thought little Catherine looked most delicious in her military uniform, naturally.

Monday, December 26, 2005

take this longing

I’m hoping, maybe in the new year, to divide my posts into the three USSR categories, urbanity, scepticism and romance. Or maybe four, including society. I gather that Blogger doesn't support this, which is a prob. I suspect that scepticism will be the most prominent. I also hope to make my posts more daily than they have been. Lately I've been just about getting there.

Here’s a piece to definitely slot into the romance category.

A dream fragment of Christmas Eve. I was with a friend, someone I haven’t seen in reality for many years, and he was as young and garrulous as ever, and I suppose I too must’ve been quite a bit younger. We were, or rather he was, talking about a young woman he was interested in. I was interested in her too, though I tried to avoid speaking about it. I was surprised then to hear my friend admit that the young woman seemed to have chosen me. I nervously probed the matter. He suggested that we go out for a walk, to see if we could find her, and I could find out for myself.

We walked down to the seaside. There was quite a crowd. On the grass strip between the shop-fronts and the sand there were many al fresco tables and chairs, with people chatting and laughing. I suddenly found that my friend was no longer at my side. I turned back to find him happily chatting with the group at the first table. They were friends of ours who ran a café restaurant, one of the shop-fronts nearby. Among them was a young woman quietly reading. It was the young woman we’d set out to find. I walked up to her, and when she saw me, she rose and leaned against me. I put my arm about her and she put hers about me, and we walked away together. I marvelled at how easy it was to make contact with the person you loved, when you didn’t think or worry about it too much.

Then we were walking together along a quiet suburban street, our bodies touching. I liked everything about her, her faint female odour, her mussed brown hair, her clear, serious, slightly melancholy brown eyes, here fine olive skin, her modest workaday jacket, her slightness and quietness. I couldn’t get enough of her still face. I realised I’d never seen her before, but that didn’t matter, we were in love. I wondered if she hailed from the Indian sub-continent.

That was it. The best thing about it was that I didn’t wake up suddenly and realise it was all just a dream. I must’ve fallen asleep.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

good point, Geoff

And of course biblical stuff starts cropping up at every turn, of the page in particular. Inter alia, I just happen to be reading The Canterbury Tales, in Neville Coghill’s excellent ‘modern’ (1950s) translation. Again some bible stories get an airing, especially in ‘The monk’s tale’, but most interesting apropos recent talk of the gospels was this passage, in which Chaucer writes as himself in argument:

No one evangelist would have sufficed

To tell us of the pains of Jesus Christ,

Nor does each tell it as the others do;

Nevertheless what each has said is true,

And all agree as to their general sense

Though each with some degree of difference,

If some of them say more or some say less

About his piteous Passion, I should guess

- Speaking of Mark and Matthew, Luke and John –

Their meaning doubtless was agreed upon.

Yeah, doubtless Geoff, doubtless. Anyway, as we in the USSR like to say, Happy Christmyth to you all.


Friday, December 23, 2005

more flesh please

An article in the other day’s newspaper: John Aloisi, he of ‘the penalty kick that got us into the world cup’ fame, has managed to retrieve his shirt from the Uruguay player he exchanged it with after the match. There followed in the paper a discussion of the tradition of exchanging shirts after internationals, a tradition that’s been around for over fifty years now. FIFA is trying to discourage the practice as ‘undignified’. They reckon it’s okay as long as it occurs in the dressing-rooms. And I recall recently a player being yellow-carded after taking his shirt off after scoring a goal (the hard word had gone out previously of course).

It’s my view that FIFA have got it wrong. Is it the bare flesh they find unpalatable? I mean, what exactly is the issue here? I’m sure that many women, and not a few men, find the experience quite a tasty one. And isn’t it better to have this tradition out in full view rather than hidden in dressing rooms? It’s a sporting tradition in more ways than one after all, and a great example for every young wannabe.

And of course, with women getting into the act, things can only get better.

nice gods finish last

God's deserving victims

While ploughing through the old testament narrative, I was struck by how unconvincing it was to a modern reader (assuming myself to be a typical modern reader). I found myself often repeating the glib mantra – if you want to be cured of religion, read the old testament. It’s hardly surprising that it’s not particularly fashionable reading these days, even for Christians.

For example, the god of the Israelites seemed to me remarkably little and local. Certainly he created the universe in six days, but that’s pretty standard behaviour for every little and local god ever invented. Admittedly it often took a few gods working together to produce the goods. In the ancient Greek version it was a female, Eurynome who was primarily responsible for creating the world out of Chaos, ‘an enormous gaping void encompassing the entire universe and surrounded by an unending stream of water ruled by the god Oceanus’. There’s more detail here. The Hindu religion has a multitude of creation myths, and gods and forces apparently capable of making it all happen, but one of the most well-known involves the sacrifice of Purusha, the primeval being, who is all that exists, including ‘whatever has been and whatever is to be’:

When Purusha, who had “a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet” was
sacrificed, the clarified butter that resulted was made into the beasts which
inhabit the earth. This same sacrifice produced the gods, Indra (the menacing
king of gods), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), as well as the Sun and the Moon. From
Purusha’s navel the atmosphere was born; his head produced the heaven; his feet
produced the earth; his ear the sky.

However, the profusion and confusion of Hindu creation myths seems to have led to a salutary uncertainty which is worth contrasting with the brief, unchallenged tale told in Genesis. Consider these verses from the Rig Veda:
Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
Who covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
But, after all, who knows, and who can say,
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
(Rig Veda, X, 129)

Nothing like this speculative uncertainty is to be found in the old testament, more’s the pity. Or has uncertainty, or anything contradicting the standard version, been carefully excised from the canon?

There’s more on the Hindu creation myths here.

Of course, when I talk of the old testament god as little and local, I’m mainly referring to his sphere of operations and concern. It’s remarkable how the creator of the known universe should be so preoccupied with the protection and promotion of what a fellow-sceptic delights in describing as a small tribe of Semitic goat-herders at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

It’s also remarkable, it seems to me, that such a powerful god should be so concerned with his own survival, at least in the minds of his ‘chosen people’. He describes himself as a jealous god, and his acts also reveal him to be capricious and vengeful. Disturbingly human qualities in such a powerful being.

The all-too-human qualities of this god are of course intimately bound up with his provinciality. People make religions up as they go along, and they evolve, along with humans and the Nikkon camera. The original version of the Judeo-Christian god was a far cry from the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-perfect, all-good being which the new testament writers began to develop, but which was largely a product of later theologians. The original version was a creature primarily of power. Basically, a tyrant, being based on the most powerful humans of the time. A particular ethnic group or tribe would have noticed that, under King Habukkuk the Very Nasty they had prospered, or some of them had, because Habukkuk the Very Nasty had quashed internal dissent, unified the twelve sub-tribes, built up a considerable army by extorting tribute from the populace, invaded the lands of his neighbours, exacted more tribute and built up the tribe’s rep as the most powerful and brilliant in the region. Might’ve even presided over a flourishing of the arts too, as long as those arts helped to promote him as the greatest, smartest, mightiest ruler of his tribe ever.

This same ethnic group might’ve noticed that when King Habbukuk the Very Nice succeeded to the throne and gave back the lands won by his dad, and gave away much of his money to those he considered equally nice, and reduced the tax burden on his people and sent his soldiers home to their families, his neighbours rose up in unison against him, defeated him in battle, had him publicly disembowelled, raped and pillaged his subjects and sold them into slavery.

In others words, they’d have reasoned that nice dictators made for failed dictators, and how much more so for gods.

Basically the old testament’s god is a nasty dictator with superhuman powers and immortality. He punishes those he calls ‘wicked’, but generally, especially when mass-murder or ethnic cleansing is involved, the wickedness is unspecified beyond ‘turning away from god’ or worshipping other gods. In other words, as with most dictators, what we would now call subversion (or sedition?) – anything that might undermine his authority, is the ultimate crime.
It seems to me, then, that the old testament god is a designer-god (in the sense of a designer-drug), custom-built for a competitive, tribal region and period. A ruthless scourge of the Israelites’ enemies, a hardline unifier of the twelve tribes. His own crimes, and his disregard for his own law – especially the ‘thou shall not kill’ one, are too numerous to mention. He seems especially hot on visiting the sins of one generation upon the innocents of the next, or a much later one. By modern standards he’s a criminal to rank alongside Stalin or Hitler – anything seems justified as long as his grip on power is strengthened. His one great defence, of course, is that he doesn’t exist outside of the human imagination, and the imagination is bounded by time and culture, and changes with it – that’s why the modern god would hardly be recognisable to old testament denizens.

Next, I want to discuss what has been described as the cardinal error of the Christian religious tradition.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Focus: a film

Willy Lomax meets that fellow out of The Crucible.

Funny nowadays to think of anti-semitism in the USA. Probably why that theme was chosen.

Shows how a pair of spectacles can make all the difference.

Vaguely reminiscent of Dogville, but more optimistic.

A few too many epiphanal moments.

Better than The Shipping News.

For a while there I thought it was going too be about homosexuality. That too was probably deliberate.

Were the principal characters’ inconsistencies consistent with our lived lives?

William H Macey, an impressive performance of its kind, but I’m irritated with the Yank thing of sticking a letter between first and last name.

The romantic scenes were naturally awkward, especially the initial ones, but in reality they probably would’ve been more so. The focus there was a little distant. After all, the principal focus was on courage and sometimes lack thereof.

The bad guys were too one-dimensional. They sometimes tried to provide extra dimension through facial expression but the storyline didn’t back them up.

The whole of the film was reduced to this – should we speak out or shouldn’t we? Should we fight or shouldn’t we? This narrowing was its strength, and its weakness.

The final scene struck me as painfully overplayed.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Testament: a few remarks, mostly preliminary

I’ve recently finished reading Testament: The Bible Odyssey, a 632-page narrative taken from the text of the Revised English Bible, compiled and edited by Philip Law (not to be confused with the more famous John Philip Law, who played the angel in Barbarella), with the help of a half-dozen consultant editors.

Testament is touted as the Bible with the boring bits left out. The begats are reduced to a minimum, and we miss out on the list of construction workers for Solomon’s temple, etc etc. There was also a bit of shifting and sorting and rearranging to make the narrative run smoothly. The usual chapters and verses are dispensed with, which was often a problem, but I followed a lot of it in the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible (an annotation of the KJV), which provided me with lots of much-needed light relief, as well as being an invaluable resource for the Bible’s inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies, absurdities and barbarities.

All in all, I think Law’s project was a successful one. The only bits I found boring were some of the propaganda speeches of Paul, and the silly apocalyptic stuff at the end, but I realise that these bits needed to be included.

Now, before going any further, I should state my general position on religion. I’ve done this before, in expanded form, elsewhere, so for now I’ll just restate things baldly.

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

Jacques Monod

This sentence pretty well sums up what I’ve written before about the psychology underlying religious inventions. As to whether these inventions or creations are heroic, I’ve had my doubts, but I’ve certainly been impressed with their apparently unstoppable force. The primary purpose of religion is to transcend the limitations of mortality and the laws of nature. As such, it’s a creation forged by an alliance of human fear and human egoism. This alliance predates by a long way the advent of science, and it may well outlast any scientific worldview.

Now that’s about as lofty as I intend to get, I hope. I don’t want to write a review of Testament as such, I simply want to let my thoughts wander through some of the large and small questions raised by my reading. Nor do I want to get into the micro-detail of biblical exegesis, if I can help it. That’s a field usually reserved for committed believers, and they’re welcome to it.

Having said that, I’m happy to respond to commentators on a previous post. Saint usefully provides a comparison of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions of the Simon of Cyrene story. From this it’s clear that Testament has selected Luke’s version, but there’s no real contradiction between the three versions. Both Matthew and Luke claim that the cross was carried by Simon from the outset (‘as they were going out’ and ‘as they led him away’, respectively, in the New International Version). Mark is less specific.

Rachel has pointed out a difference between the synoptic gospels and John on the cross-carrying story. Being something of a novice in matters biblical I had to find out what the term synoptic gospels meant. There’s a useful brief account here.

John’s account is certainly quite different, but is it really a clarification of the synoptics? It reads to me more like a contradiction. Rachel wrote: Perhaps John wanted to clarify that Jesus did carry the cross for at least part of the way, and that's why he prefaced his statement with "carrying his own cross". Certainly tradition favours an account where both Simon and Jesus carried the cross.

I accept that John’s clear statement about Jesus carrying his own cross is sufficient to justify the depictions of artists and film-makers (to whom I humbly apologise), and I can understand a tradition emerging which blends the different versions and has both Simon and Jesus doing the lugging at different times or together, but what these different stories underline for me is the difficulty if not the impossibility of arriving at the truth (assuming the literal truth to be of some importance). It’s likely that the synoptic gospellers versions are all derived from the one source. Maybe this source is correct, maybe John is correct, and maybe neither of them is correct.

On the dating of the gospels, recent scholarship suggests that Matthew, traditionally regarded as the earliest gospel, was actually written toward the end of the first century. Mark is now widely regarded as the earliest gospel, written between 60 and 70AD, and a major source for the others. Luke was written about ten years later, while John was the last. According to Bartleby, scholars generally agree on a date between 95 and 115AD. There’s no evidence that any of them witnessed Jesus’ death. A ‘primitive document’, Q, from which much of what’s common to the synoptic gospels is derived, has been posited, but there’s no substantive evidence for it.

On the matter of who was responsible for Jesus’ death, it’s a bit of a non-issue for me. Believers will have it that his death was fore-ordained, the Jews or Romans being mere instruments, while non-believers can hardly be expected to get excited about the local politics behind just another barbarous crucifixion in a barbarous era.

Next, I want to focus on the old testament and the origins of the most influential religion in the West.

I welcome any comments and will try to respond to them.


Friday, December 16, 2005

what a tangled web they weave

The British high court has ruled that David Hicks be granted a British passport as soon as possible. This decision won’t be welcomed by the British Home Office, which initially denied citizenship to Hicks. My own feeling is that the British government will appeal the decision and will do whatever they can to block Hicks’ release.

The Australian government’s line is that this is all a matter for the British and they won’t be pressuring the Brits in any way. I don’t particularly trust our government in this (or any other) matter, but I don’t see how they could’ve reacted in any other way. It’s true that if Hicks was released to the Brits (where, I presume, he would not be able to be charged with anything under British law, any more than he would be able to be charged with anything under Australian law) it would further undermine the credibility of our government’s acceptance of what no other nation in the world accepts (including the US for its own citizens), namely the military tribunals set up to establish the guilt of its soi-disant enemies.

Young Master Downer is now criticising Labor for breaking away from bipartisanship on the issue. While I don’t think it’s true that Labor has been as happy with the military tribunal outrage as the government has, they certainly haven’t been as outspoken or fulsome in their criticism as has been warranted, so it does seem that they’ll just get into it for political gain, to try to make them squirm, as they did with their nasty and cheap remarks against poor
Oday Adnan Al Tekriti. Obviously Labor don’t think there’s much mileage in being supportive of Hicks, or, it seems, even in jumping up and down about lack of due process.

I’m not sure where this is going to leave Hicks, in terms of being reunited with his family and his child. He will have dual citizenship, I believe. I hope that, if he is released to the Brits, he applies to come to Australia.

Two comments by our dear revered leaders on the case which is ‘sub judicae’ at the moment, if you can call it that, but that doesn’t stop our dear leaders from commenting negatively on the accused. Downer says that he’s charged with attempted murder and that this is a very serious offence, and so he should be tried, and if acquitted, so be it.

Now I’ve had personal experience of being charged with a very serious offence. You don’t need to have done anything wrong for this to happen. Hicks’ defence team have dismissed the charge as completely ludicrous, the British high court has been scathing about the military tribunal that has laid this and other charges against Hicks, and every nation, apart from Australia, which has had its citizens held at Gitmo and thus potentially subject to this military tribunal, has scrambled to get those citizens back home. I can think of no quasi-legal tribunal in my lifetime that has been so roundly and globally condemned as this one has.

John Howard has stated, too, that Hicks should be tried in the USA. He has voiced concern that, were he released to Britain or Australia, he would not be able to be tried for anything, for, as he claims, Hicks had not broken any Australian law at the time.

This is interesting when you recall that Hicks has been charged with attempted murder by the US military tribunal. Presumably this alleged attempted murder occurred over four years ago, when Hicks was in Afghanistan, and presumably the US authorities will have gathered sufficient evidence on this matter to lay the charge. If this is so, surely ‘bringing Hicks to justice’ would simply be a matter of handing over the damning evidence to whichever country, if any, Hicks is transferred to. After all, attempted murder is attempted murder, and the laws dealing with such serious offences would be substantially the same in all Western nations.

So, how can Downer, on the one hand, be making tut tut remarks about the serious offences Hicks is supposed to have committed, while Howard is at the same time making tut tut remarks about not being able to try him since he’d done nothing illegal under Australian law four years ago? Have Australian laws re attempted murder changed in the past four years? I don’t think so.

We all know what’s going on here, don’t we? I hope so.

Howard also pointed out that Hicks went back to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attack. He gave this great emphasis. Why? Surely Hicks was free to go in any direction he wanted in the immediate aftermath of September 11? I seem to recall, I think from a letter later written by Hicks, that he returned to Afghanistan, from just outside it, to recover his possessions, all his worldly goods, including a few knick-knacks he was quite proud of, and that he then became stranded there. This accords with what I’ve learned from various accounts and articles of Hicks’ unworldliness. It’s an unworldliness you’d think would appeal to people in the US, since most Americans believe that the September 11 attacks were carried out by Iraqis.

In short, I find it highly likely that Hicks didn’t make an immediate connection between Afghanistan and the events of September 11. I find it highly likely that Hicks wasn’t good at making connections in general. A bit like most Americans, only they aren’t paying anything like the price he’s paying for this sort of ignorance.

Hicks isn’t the sort of character I would normally sympathise with, but the use made of him by two illiberal governments is obscene.

Monday, December 12, 2005

thou shalt not bear false witness

hey, Jesus, we've already got the t-shirts printed - whad'ya reckon?

Mel's thing - Simon the Cyrene lends a hand, but Jesus is doing the leg-work: more than a half-lie.

The occasional techical problem seems to be making it difficult, from time to time, to post to my own blog.

I’m continuing to read Testament, and have just completed the most famous and probably contested section of the new testament, apart from the resurrection maybe. That’s to say, the ‘trial’, such as it was, and the crucifixion. I’m talking about the who killed Christ hoo-ha. The bible, or Testament at least, definitely puts the responsibility onto the Jews, with Pilate clearly washing his hands of the issue. Of course, ‘the Jews’ therein named are only the crowd that happened to be hanging around at the time, and we have no way of knowing how many were there or how representative they were.

More interesting to me were these lines: As they led him away to execution they took hold of a man called Simon, from Cyrene, on his way from the country; putting the cross on his back they made him carry it behind Jesus.

Now nothing could be clearer than these lines, so why is Jesus shown so often carrying his own cross? It's something of a revelation to me, and it casts a very different light on the old adage that we all have our own cross to bear. Apparently not, it can be given to some other bunny, and we can just sit back, relax and wait to be crucified.

It might be that these lines are taken from one of the gospellers who is contradicted by one of the others, but it doesn’t seem likely that Testament, which is obviously the work of a full-on believer, would’ve missed the opportunity to write that Jesus carried his own cross, adding to his suffering and humiliation. It seems more likely that there was no biblical sanction for him to claim this. Anyway, I’ll soon be checking it all up in the Sceptic’s Annotated.

If, as seems likely, there's no mention of Jesus carrying his own cross in the gospels, what then is the name given to those (believers or non-believers) who lie about what's written or not written in the 'inerrant' bible to promote a particular message? Are they blasphemers or what? Whatever, tsk tsk.


Friday, December 09, 2005

when the world of cibo was a little younger

As I’m often occupied elsewhere, and as this blog’s supposed to be a daily, I’ve decided to pad things out with a few things I prepared earlier.

This review of Cibo café was written in 2002, and received warm responses from my legion of fans. There are some out-of-date references, but still it’s quite amusing.

There’s this new Cibo is on the corner of Grenfell and King William, and there are at least two others, one on O’Connell in Nth Adelaide and one on Rundle. I’ve not been to the Nth Ad one, but I think I get the concept; find a spot on a busy thoroughfare, preferably a corner (all 3 abovementioned Cibos - if the plural’s permissible - are on corners), with lots of thru traffic, foot and vehicular, and provide for lots of interface with the ‘natural ambience’ of the street(s). Make the walls light and airy, but also no-nonsense functional (i.e. white). The décor, the same - stainless steel and glass, self-effacing elegance, corporate chic. Avoid too much cosiness - this isn’t the place to while away an afternoon, it’s where you take a breather between deals (in your fantasy, and these places are as much about selling fantasy as providing lunch). The space itself should delicately balance between out-and-out crampedness and the streamlined, somehow mobilising effect of something temporary, almost makeshift. In fact the space should have no real interior, no depths, it should be all surface pressed to the outside. What is unavoidably within should preferably duplicate or mirror the external bustle; that’s why long, narrow, corridor-like spaces are best, thoroughfares within thoroughfares, with their own traffic snarls, sleek speedsters and ten-minute parking spots.

Above all it should be modern, even futuristic in a modest, unostentatious way. Thin lines, block colours, neat angles, a kind of near-sterile repetitiveness not unlike ambient music, that music specifically designed to lull you away from itself. Nobody should ever be able to get away with calling the place pretentious.

These eye-of-the storm little cafs should be seen as shrines to the public rather than the private persona. They have some connexion with the glasshouse that old Montaigne wished he could live in, to have all his acts publicly judged, but the emphasis is as much on seeing out as on seeing in. These cafs are for busy, wordly people, people so hungry for the Great World that they only retreat from it momentarily and with great reluctance. In fact you could say they only step behind the glass to obtain a clearer view of that World. For this reason it’s essential for the caf to be provided with a range of up-to-date newspapers and other publications, to further underline the obvious truth that what matters is Out There.

Of course Cibo is Italian for food or something, and I haven’t mentioned that side of things. No need, really.

So I bought my latte and was sitting looking out into the ambience when in walks a gentleman intriguing in his typicality, just the sort of fellow to help me round out my review by lending it a more particular, evidentiary focus. In he jaunts, trim in silken blue shirt and bright, complexly patterned tie. Not that he’s a dandy or a flash cove (as the old Bulletin used to have it), no, he’s subdued, contained, economical in all his movements. There’s something about him though that seems thoroughly modern - even futuristic in a modest, unostentatious way. He gives the leanest of smiles to the woman behind the counter, who greets him familiarly and asks how is he today? He doesn’t respond, he’s absorbed in the choices laid out under glass before him. Then, when an elegant sufficiency of time has elapsed, the servitor asks him what he’d like to eat. He starts speaking, but not to the servitor, to the space before him, and only then do I become aware of the black cord leading to a plug in his ear. He speaks quickly, flatly, nodding his head, his eyes narrowing in concentration. The servitor, cut dead, forgets to close her mouth for a while, then leans back, patiently waiting her turn.

Ten years ago I’d’ve found such behaviour pretty shitty. He doesn’t even fob off the servitor with a mollifying smile or shrug. Yet here, now, in Cibo, I realise his acts are precisely in tune with the etiquette, the priorities that are built into the design of the place. Of course communications from the Great World must always take precedence over any interactions taking place in our brief retreat - especially with a mere servitor. In fact it’s really quite thrilling to witness the shrine being used for its intended purpose.

So, message absorbed, our Corporate Model unfussily orders his lunch and sits down at the table next to me, pulling a copy of The Financial Review* from a nearby shelf. Perfeck. But is he an employee, a stooge? No matter, Cibo is here. Cibo is now. And I am in Cibo. I’ve arrived, for the time being.

For it’s inevitable that Cibo’s days are already numbered. Anyone who saw ‘The monster that ate Hollywood’ on SBS recently might recognise that the phenomenon of big money moving in, focusing expenditure on marketing and market research (i.e. creating and following trends at the same time), making as quick a killing as possible, then moving on to the next Big but KeepItSimpleStupid Idea, is not confined to the movie industry. I’m sure the moneyed movers and shakers behind Cibo are already planning the replacement of its replacement. And whatever it is, I’ll be there.

*I must admit to having a soft spot for the Fin. A few years ago, flushed from having a novel published, I made an effort to get reviewing work. I sent some brief sample reviews to a number of national papers, including the Fin, and received a nice letter back from its editor (or rather, some lowly sub-editor) saying that the Fin, being a dryasdust business paper with little space for literary pursuits, couldn’t help me at this time. He then went on to discuss - in a sort of modest, unostentatious way - various folkloric and literary allusions in one of the novels I’d reviewed.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

child sexual abuse, more thorny issues

A theme obviously close to my heart in current criminological affairs is the growth in allegations of sexual abuse, especially against children or youths.

My eye was caught a few days ago by a piece, I think it was in The Sydney Morning Herald, about the tragic suicide death of a policeman working in child protection in NSW. The paper described him as working to combat ‘the rising tide of child sexual abuse’, presumably in Australia. Police interviewed felt naturally traumatised by this event, and there was much talk of the stresses and strains of this kind of work.

Of course I feel sympathy, but is there a rising tide of child sexual abuse in Australia? Are more adults becoming child abusers, in spite of the huge amount of adverse publicity such cases attract? In spite of vast increases in policing in the area, with the development of databases of known sexual abusers, the increased networking between states on the matter, the general public being roused to protest against the presence of abusers in their neighbourhoods? Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely. The rising tide the newspaper mentions is a rise of allegations and of reporting. Now, it’s often claimed that such abuse has been under-reported, and I don’t doubt it, but there can be no doubt either that there’s been a rise in false and ‘frivolous’ allegations. A bandwagon effect, if you will. Sometimes this has to do with seeking compensation, but there are all sorts of other motives operating.

A little internet research on this topic has uncovered a lot of material relating to the child pornography investigations conducted Australia-wide (and even world-wide) and being heavily reported on around October last year. It was claimed in an article of October 12 2004 that 700 people were being investigated, and that their arrest was imminent. I’ll see if I can uncover any further developments in this area. Of course, if my (very different) situation is anything to go by, these cases, if they’ve been acted on, will be sub judicae for a while yet.

Another interesting development in this area is the policy adopted by both Qantas and Air New Zealand not to seat men next to unaccompanied children. As this article shows, arguments pro and con are flying around, with some child protection people commending the airlines for their protective policies, while some politicians and lawyers are claiming that the policy is discriminatory (and surely it is) and a contravention of human rights. We’ll see if there’s any follow-up.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

the Peter Cundall of Nazareth

eh, lads, what's up with this tree then?

I’ve been reading the bible, or a version of it, through Testament, edited by Philip Law, based on the revised English bible, and have finished the old testament and am well into the soi-disant gospels. Naturally I’ll have much to say on this in time, but right now I’m amused and fascinated by the gardening advice of Jesus. Take the parable of the barren fig tree:

A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it, but found none. So he said to the vine-dresser, “for the last three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down. Why should it go on taking goodness from the soil?” But he replied, “Leave it, sir, for this one year, while I dig round it and manure it. And if it bears next season, well and good; if not, you shall have it down.”

Dig round your fruitless trees and manure them. Of course. Thank Christ.

And there’s more, such as the parable of the sower:

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And it happened that as he sowed, some of the seed fell along the footpath, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil, and it sprouted quickly because it had no depth of earth; but when the sun rose it was scorched, and as it had no root it withered away. Some fell among thistles; and the thistles grew up and choked the corn, and it produced no crop. And some of the seed fell into good soil, where it came up and grew, and produced a crop; and the yield was thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. If you have ears to hear, then hear.

YAY verily, I hear it mate. Does this guy know his oats or what?


Friday, December 02, 2005

ways of punishing

I presume the poor fellow in Singapore is dead by now. Of course I’m opposed to capital punishment, and it’s all appalling, but I’m with Phil Gomes in noting with some cynicism the vast differences in the way this tragic case has been handled by government, public intellectuals, the legal fraternity, the media and, at the bottom of the pile, the general public, and the case of one David Hicks. Always excepting, of course, a few brave souls who’ve tried to keep up their rage. As Gomes points out, there are plenty of avenues for complaint to international bodies in the Hicks case, there’s just insufficient will, not to mention apparent hostility (though I suspect much of that’s faked for the sake of our government’s yank cronies). Maybe we just don’t feel Hicks is sufficiently ‘reformed’ – though he hasn’t actually committed any crime. Of course, nobody really knows what he’s thinking these days – we’re not allowed any information that might actually humanise him.


plant 2

Gardening’s a funny thing – I do very little of it, though more than I used to, and just enough to keep plants alive, though not enough to get them to thrive. A bit like my investment in my own life, really. Certainly the hands-on stuff affects your outlook on the garden and vegetable world, it tends to wipe out the Rousseauian romanticism (born, apparently, of Rousseau’s physical myopia), the grand vistas, the rambling landscapes, and replace it with close-ups of leaf-curl, Aphidoidea and black spot, and questions around nitrogen, lime and friability..

You gain, you lose, you try to hold onto it all.

So onto plant number 2. Right next to the pincushion flowers is a smaller groundhugger plant with tiny purple fan-like flowers. The flowers, if not the leaves, are very like Scaevola hookeri, the petals having an unusual squaring off at the ends, but Scaevola hookeri flowers are white to pale lilac whereas these flowers are darker, and the leaves aren’t glossy. Also Scaevola h is alpine to sub-alpine.

Still, I think it’s likely to be just that. Scaevola h (family Goodeniaceae) is an Australian native. This, I think, was another plant given to me by someone in our housing co-op, and many of them are into natives. It’s unusually dark, but the leaves are glossy enough. Maybe this is a hybrid, created for hardier climes. I wonder how it’ll go over summer.

My picture’s the out of focus one – which is unusual, my camera’s normally pretty reliable, though I’m not.

pavlov's cat