Tuesday, March 20, 2007


C S Lewis, speaking of patronising nonsense

Are there any powerful arguments on offer to show that religious belief in general, and Christian belief in particular, is true belief, or even a reasonable sort of belief? Obviously many believers and Christians think there are.

I'm not going to analyse the various classical arguments for the existence of God, or gods, here. They've all been refuted, by better thinkers than myself, several times over.

Instead, I'm going to do something much easier.

Recently I posted a review of the Narnia film, in two parts. This elicited a response from a Paul Martin, aka Luminous Specter, a young man who runs a Narnia fan club in America. He assured me that C S Lewis, author of the Narnia tales, was a very logical man, who used logic to prove religion. I responded very skeptically, naturally enough, and he replied again. Here is a copy of his second response:

Actually, history is quite simple. G.K. Chesterton wrote plenty on the subject. Check out his work "The Everlasting Man." God creates, man complicates. If it were propaganda, what was their goal, as all but one of the apostles was martyred. Anyway, I highly recommend "The Everlasting Man" and Lewis' "Mere Christianity." Chapter 1 of Mere Christianity has the logic that I was talking about. I fear I would butcher it if I attempted. So I will just quote it here:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The passage from C S Lewis, quoted above, is what I want to focus on in this post. I will leave aside Paul Martin's opening sentence, which is plainly false, and as to the G K Chesterton writings, which I'm not familiar with, if they can be summarized as 'God creates, man complicates', the obvious rejoinder is that humans simply are complicated, as the slightest acquaintance with neurophysiology will reveal, and from the outset they created gods to try to simplify and control their world, but this has been revealed as a false move.

The Lewis passage was chosen by the Lewis enthusiast as a piece of logic, one that has so impressed him that he must quote it verbatim, for fear of doing damage to the clarity and depth of Lewis's ideas. For this reason, and because C S Lewis is so often spoken of as a leading light of Christian thought, I've decided to take this passage as quintessential Lewis, and to analyse it accordingly. If there are better or more profound examples of his thought, I would welcome hearing about them, but until I hear otherwise, I'll assume there aren't.

In his opening sentence, Lewis writes quite bluntly that he's trying to prevent people from saying certain things. It's not a good start. Specifically, he wants people not to say the 'very foolish thing' that Jesus might be a great moral teacher but he isn't the son of God. I believe that this is precisely what Moslems say, or want to say, about Jesus, so Lewis therefore makes it clear that he wants to torpedo any possibility of interfaith dialogue. It also should be noted that, in the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church also tried, rather successfully, to prevent people from saying that Jesus wasn't a god. In 1619, to take just one example, Giulio Cesare Vanini was burned at the stake for asserting that men had no souls and that Mary the mother of Jesus was a woman like any other, a woman who could only give birth through sexual intercourse. This was tantamount to saying, of course, that Jesus was a human like any other. Of course the C S Lewises of the twentieth century didn't have the power of the Catholics of the seventeenth, otherwise, be assured, they wouldn't simply be shaking their heads in their armchairs, they'd be out there lighting the fires for the burning of heretics and apostates.

Let's, once again, make clear what Lewis is saying in this passage. He's saying that we must not say that Jesus wasn't a god. Whether he was a great moral teacher, or an indifferent one, is really not to the point.

Lewis, though, tries to make a point of it. According to him, if we judge Jesus as a man, and read the sayings attributed to him, we cannot find him a great moral teacher – we must find him either a lunatic or the devil of hell.

Must we? Why won't Lewis allow people to make their own assessment, why is he trying to force people to see Jesus as either a lunatic, a devil or a god? And why should any rational person feel at all constrained by Lewis's bizarre strictures? I contend that the only reason why people would feel constrained is that they know something of the horrific history of real oppression attached to such rhetoric. Without such niggling worries hanging over us, we can judge Jesus according to our own lights, as pure invention, slightly deluded sage, composite character drawn from various messianic figures of the time, inspired genius, revolutionary teacher, or indeed the son of a god. And as with all judgments, it will improve with the amount of information available to us, and will be better for our ability to sift through and analyse evidence.

Lewis is of course right in saying that we can choose either to accept Jesus as a god, or denounce him as a charlatan, a monster, an imposter or whatever, but this observation is trivial. We can also choose to accept L Ron Hubbard as a dynamic religious figure and one of the great gifts to mankind, or as a charlatan only interested in money, sex, booze and drugs [his own son's judgment]. I myself find it no more difficult to make a choice in the case of Jesus than in the case of old Master Hubbard.

So, what then are we to make of Lewis's logic, as exhibited in this passage? I see little evidence of it. This isn't argument; it's mere assertion. The modern secular reader wouldn't find the Jesus of the gospels a lunatic, let alone a devil. If she's sufficiently educated, she'll read the work in its historical context, and recognize that he inhabits a more credulous, superstitious, and if you like, supernatural age than our own, an age in which people are much more easily deluded about their own powers as well as the powers of others. Lewis's reflections on the matter could only convince those already convinced – only they would see anything logical in his remarks. Christianity is in need of far better advocates than he.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

jounalistic ethics

forgotten by The Advertiser

The Australian Journalists Association has a code of ethics which commits its members to the four principles of honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. In the current climate, in which this country has bought into the ongoing 'war on terror', with its concomitant reductions to civil liberties and heightened sense of fear and suspicion, the duties of those journalists upon whom so many ordinary people rely for information about the claimed threats to their quotidian existence in a liberal democracy, become all the more important.

For a long time, my city, Adelaide, has been dominated by one daily newspaper, The Advertiser, owned by Rupert Murdoch. It has a circulation of just under 200,000 on weekdays and 270,000 on Saturdays, and a claimed readership of 530,000 on weekdays and 735,000 on Saturdays. Few major cities are so dominated by one newspaper. Such dominance only highlights the importance of ethical journalism – the responsibility of journalists, and their editors, to the reading public – in this city.

I have to say that I've never been a regular reader of The Advertiser. Partly this is because I tend to have a bias in my news reading toward the international rather than the local, and The Advertiser understandably doesn't have the resources of the bigger Sydney and Melbourne papers in this department. The main reason, though, is that I've too often been irritated by what appears to be a deliberate tendency toward tabloidism, that's to say, an apparent policy of sensationalism and exploitation of community concerns in areas such as law and order, welfare fraud, asylum seekers and the like.

All this by way of background to the fact that yesterday, The Advertiser's headline ''Forgotten Terrorist'' caught my eye – or rather, the picture accompanying it. It was a picture of Noorpolat Abdullah, the so-called terrorist of the headline, and his sister Zulfiyah, taken, according to the paper, in the Kazakhstan gulag where he is incarcerated. Zulfiyah is well known to me, being a worker at the Wandana Community Centre where I teach English as a second language. Many of my students there are women from Eastern Turkestan, including Rana, Zulfiyah's mother. Until I saw yesterday's paper, I wasn't aware of Noorpolat Abdullah's existence.

However, having so many students from Eastern Turkestan in my class naturally made me curious. These women were all friendly but quietly spoken. Rana, the only one of the group who didn't wear a head-scarf, was the most openly good-humoured and gregarious of the bunch, muttering over the madness of the English language, making sly comments to make the others laugh. It was she who explained to me that Eastern Turkestan was a most unwilling part of north-western China, that the Chinese were trying to suppress their language, Uyghur, and treating them like second class citizens in their own country [though Eastern Turkestan isn't a country in any legal sense, and the Chinese call the area Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)]. The people I teach are clearly European in ethnicity, and they take pride in their independent culture.

To return to the newspaper headline and article. Though I knew nothing of Noorpolat Abdullah, my friendly relations with other members of his family made me wary of The Advertiser's noisy description of him as a terrorist. The first paragraph of the article further disturbed me:

An Adelaide man jailed in a former Stalinist labour camp in Central Asia as a convicted terrorist has appealed to the federal government not to forget about him.

So The Advertiser had got wind of this appeal by a former Adelaide resident and decided to do a piece on him, and had even taken a picture of his wife and two young boys. I could well imagine how hopeful his wife must've been at the publicity these journalists would be giving to her husband's plight. How dashed those hopes must've been when she saw him branded a terrorist in huge lettering on the paper's front page.

It might be said in the paper's defence that the headline, "Forgotten Terrorist" and the description of the Stalinist gulag in which he's confined – the same gulag, incidentally, that Solzhenitsyn smuggled 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' out of – displays, if not quite sympathy, at least a degree of ambivalence about his situation. They would surely also say that he was, after all, convicted of terrorism, so the paper is within its legal rights to describe him as a terrorist.

This latter argument would be disingenuous, especially as the article goes on to say that he was tried in a closed court, though, oddly, the journalists chose not to pose the obvious question why this might have been so. He was tried and convicted, the article goes on to tell us, 'for alleged connections with a Moslem group accused of murdering two police officers'. Though this use of 'alleged', where 'proven' could have been used, based on the conviction, again shows a certain ambivalence, the journalists chose not to mention that the authorities had rounded up some 100 other ''suspects'' in this case, nor did they give anything of the background of Uyghur persecution in Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries as a result of Chinese pressure. All of this would have been known to the journalists, as it was easily discoverable by me through numerous websites, most noticeably this article from the Sunday Herald Sun, written in December and so beating our local daily by three months [so much for The Advertiser's concern for local citizens], in which Mr Abdulla is described more sympathetically, and probably more accurately, as ''Australia's forgotten prisoner". The Herald Sun goes into greater detail about the nature of the charges, the doubtful trial process, the terrible prison conditions and the background of Uyghur oppression in the region. It points out the opportunity given by the September 11 attacks for clamping down on local dissent through the use of the bogey term 'terrorism', which The Advertiser has clearly bought into. In short, the article in the Herald Sun is more informative in every way than the one in The Advertiser, as any comparison would make clear, and there is no excuse for this, especially as Mr Abdulla is a former resident of Adelaide, and his family still resides here.

The very first point made by the AJA in their code of ethics is this:

1. [Members of the AJA] shall report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by
striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or
by distorting by wrong or improper emphasis;

The journalists and editors of The Advertiser made no attempt to supply many of the facts about this case which were available to them. They suppressed information deliberately and distorted the truth, especially in the headline they used. Why they have done this is anyone's guess, but it is both unprofessional and unethical, and does a great disservice to Adelaide and those who have come here to try to make it their home.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Behind Narnia, part two

nothing like ye olde swashing and buckling

Shortly after the chat with the professor, the kids are outside playing cricket. They break a fancy window, and eventually all cram into the magical wardrobe to escape the consequences.

So, all four children enter wintry Narnia, and Lucy leads them to the home of Tumnus, but it has been broken into and trashed. Conveniently, a message has been left by the captain of the secret police, Maugrim, to say that Tumnus has been captured and charged with high treason against Jadis Queen of Narnia, for comforting enemies and fraternizing with humans. Lucy realizes he has gotten into trouble because of her, and Edmund, always on the outer, is clearly aware that he provided the info that led to Tumnus's arrest, which is why he's reluctant to do anything to help him.

Leaving the faun's house [by means of bird-signs], the four kids encounter a chatty beaver, who knows Lucy by name and seems to have been waiting for them. He invites them back to his house [and his wife], beyond the hearing of the trees. Inside they're told that Aslan is on the move. Of course this means nothing to them, so the beavers tell them about the prophecy – more Christian-style eschatological stuff. The story goes that Aslan will return when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve come to Narnia. Then there will be a great war between the forces of good under Aslan and the forces of evil under Jadis, which of course the good will win, and peace will be restored. The kids - particularly the older pair - already in refuge from a war, are none too keen to instigate another one, and make to leave, but find that Edmund has already scarpered. The beaver, clearly suspicious of Edmund, asks whether he has ever been to Narnia before. Maybe there's another part of the prophecy that hasn't been shared.

So what about this business of the prophecy and its relation to the Christian message? One article I read [I won't link to it, it isn't worth it], though extremely irritating in its blind acceptance of so-called biblical truth, points out intriguingly that Lewis has given more play to 'pagan' mythology than to Christianity in Narnia. For this reason, there are problems with a simplistic identification of Aslan with Jesus, but even so, the Christianity-infected western mind will inevitably leap to this identification. In any case, the unit-for-unit linking of Narnia prophecy with biblical prophecy is less important than the fact that they inhabit the same metaphysical-speculative realm, the realm of religion, in which there are divisions into good and evil, darkness and light, eternal summer and eternal winter, as well as various supernatural powers and occurrences.

Edmund has run off to the queen's ice palace, drawn no doubt by supernatural power. There he finds various creatures turned to stone, and is led by the nasty wolf Maugrim of secret police notoriety, to the throne of Jadis. She's angry that Ed hasn't led his siblings thither, so has him chained up with Tumnus. She questions him about his family – already the secret police dogs have torn down the beavers' home – but of course he doesn't know where they are. Suspecting Tumnus of interference in Ed's story, she has him turned to stone, and then sets out, with Ed, to find the three other kids, who're on their way to Aslan's kingdom near the stone table.

The kids and their beaver guides find themselves being chased by a sleigh, which they fear belongs to Jadis, but it turns out to be Santa's. It's a strange moment – Santa is jolly enough, but there's no red outfit, he looks much more like a medieval nobleman, and he means business. Out of his sack he produces tools, not toys, for the kids' forthcoming battle with the forces of evil. They continue on their journey, and after a skirmish with the dogs of Jadis, arrive safely at Aslan's camp. The lion asks after the fourth child, and is told that he has betrayed them. This old-fashioned word, heavy with Christian connotations, comes as something of a shock – Edmund after all is simply trying to survive in a strange land – but in the context of the second world war, where loose lips sink ships, it's perhaps understandable.

More religious stuff comes when Aslan has a private conversation with Peter, the prophesised king. He says: 'There is a deep magic more powerful than any of those that rule over Narnia. It defines right from wrong, and governs all our destinies – yours and mine.''

It's one of those solemn moments that occur from time to time in the film – moments of high-minded nonsense that hopefully will pass barely observed by young viewers. The idea that good and evil reside in powers beyond human action or control [indeed that good and evil are palpable entities] is a pre-scientific superstition, which might readily appeal to a child's pre-scientific mind. This doesn't mean that we should prevent them from entertaining such ideas – they may well be part of a child's development – but they should be seen as part of a rich play of ideas, often contradictory, and some finally recognised as more fruitful than others.

I might add here that a few critics have made the point that the four kids of the Narnia film aren't a patch on the kids of Hogworts. Perhaps this is because Lewis's Narnia books, written in the fifties, are much flavoured by that conservative period, when children were more often seen and not heard. 'King Peter' and his siblings, even down to little Lucy, seem like they're undergoing an apprenticeship in adulthood, one that they take all too seriously. We never fully enter into their imaginative world, the magic is imposed on them rather than derived from them. They seem at times more like representative samples of children rather than the fully realised individuals of the Harry Potter series.

The rest of the film – Edmund is rescued by Aslan's forces and serves as the more or less penitent and supportive brother thereafter, Aslan does a deal with Jadis in which he apparently agrees to be sacrificed in place of Edmund, but conveniently comes back to life, and Peter leads Aslan's forces in a daunting battle with Jadis, with Aslan arriving with reinforcements in the nick of time – is swashbuckling entertainment, with the Christian elements thankfully downplayed or distorted. Even Aslan's Christ-like remark, ''It is finished'', coming as it does after he's apparently bitten Jadis's face off, hardly conjurs up notions of Christian resignation before the Almighty. It seems that, in this film version at least, Lewis's paganism does win out over his Christian sentiment, which is a healthy thing. Not that I'm an advocate of paganism of course, but it's at least an improvement on Christian dogma.

So, all in all, the film won me over. Magic prevails over doctrine, animals, albeit overly humanised, play a nobler part than generally allowed by Christian tradition, kids are encouraged to think themselves kings and queens [as if they need encouragement], the horribly slain come alive again, stone isn't always as hard as it looks, the goodies beat the baddies, and the kids all return safe and sound to the real world, having lost nothing and gained a whole new world of marvels and imaginary friends. As long as the high-flown religious nonsense is kept in check, I don't see why the Narnia chronicles can't continue to delight film-viewing youngsters in future.


Monday, March 12, 2007



Four-year-olds say the darndest things, comme disent les Américains. And it isn't just their language acquisition and play that amuses and amazes, it's their imagination, their flip switching from the natural to the supernatural, their gullibility, their enthusiasm, their earnestness and their resilience.

I've been spending quite some time with a four-year-old lately. She's clearly an exceptional four-year-old, but we've all heard that before. I marvel at the speed with which she absorbs and recapitulates language, testing new words, like 'unconscious' and 'ruined', in different situations, adjusting to adult reactions without seeming to, launching into sentences with no end in sight, repeating but subtly altering the same ideas in subordinate clauses that end up in linguistic contradiction and confusion while still succeeding in getting the emotional meaning across.

The kids I've had to do with spend a lot of time in adult company, and are keen to do adult things, like cooking and gardening – at least around the age of four. With no clear distinction between work and play, everything's an adventure [and what are cooking and gardening if not magic – a seed becomes a plant, a mess of paste turns into a cake], and everything's done with an air of confidence, or bravado, and pride. ''I'm a really good shell-washer", my current four-year-old friend confided to me, after spending some time ''making all sparkly" a shell to decorate the dining table.

Although she has fears – which are often courted [she likes to turn the lights off and put candles on, and then to be frightened a little by the safe adults around her] – she also expresses the dangers of her world in matter-of-fact ways.

She currently lives next door to me, and sometimes comes over here, escorted by her mum, to play, and when she has to go back, she makes me accompany her ''in case somebody steals me''. Her tone is almost world-weary, as when she tells me that soon all the water will run out and no more rain will come and all the plants will die, and us too. World-weary but not at all sad, or not obviously so.

Her absorption of all that adults say is tempered by self-will. For example, an attempt to argue about her water predictions might be met with a flat refusal to change her views. Better to simply present a different story to her, in an indirect way. Arguing with her in general can lead to tantrums, though they can be diverted more easily than in earlier years.

She develops theories about things, sometimes wildly concocted, often ingenious and insightful. She believes Australians are very fond of lion meat, which they import from Africa in large quantities, and which they eat to make them big and strong, but people from other countries don't like it because it makes them sick. She likes to watch documentaries, and has asked interesting questions about the planet and why we don't fall off of it. Looking at photos, she reminisces about the past, about holidays by the seaside, and produces startling memories of places and incidents. Occasionally the child becomes mother to the woman, and it's an eerie and exciting moment.

This four-year-old has trouble in her life she barely knows about. Her dad is in jail, again, and her mum has much within herself to struggle with. Naturally we wonder and worry about her future, and what her combination of gifts and circumstances will produce. Under the circumstances, we prefer to focus on the gifts, and to dwell rather on the present. In fact, in spite of all her potential, I find myself sometimes wishing she'd never grow up, that she might perpetually dwell in this age of rapid expansion, experimentation, and strange certainty, in which saying it makes it so.

But things will change, plans are afoot, and it already looks like my days in her company are numbered.

I wonder about someone stealing her. Two stories come to mind. On September 7 1640 the philosopher René Descartes lost his only child, a daughter Francine, aged 5. She died of scarlet fever, a disease easily curable today. The philosopher was very fond of her, loved to play with her in the garden, and formed ambitious plans for her education. A few months ago, in a working-class suburb north of here, only a few streets from where I grew up, a woman had a meeting with her ex-boyfriend, a meeting intended to sort out their differences, to see if their relationship could be repaired. Unfortunately things got heated, and when the woman accused the man of being just like his father, he lost control and strangled her to death. When her body was discovered, her four-year-old daughter was sitting next to it, or should I say her, or should I say it?

These are distressing tales, but they bring to mind the fragility of life and of family.

Kids are safer today, in Australia, from the kinds of life-threatening diseases that so easily threatened them, and their labouring mothers, in earlier times, but they're still far from safe from aggressive outbursts, abuse and neglect, as well as from their lack of full awareness of their vulnerability – what we describe as a state of innocence. And of course there are other threats to their magical sense of themselves and their world, for they're bound to discover that they're not so strong or swift or clever or even fortunate as they once thought, and that some changes are permanent. Still, such discoveries are gradual, and are hopefully compensated for by new challenges, a new questioning. Meanwhile, to be allowed to act as a guide of sorts through such a period, involving so much serious business in practical magic, is indeed an honour.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

a delicious call to arms

the good guys from Oxford - Bateson, Krebs, Grayling and Dawkins

My reading diet has been rich lately. Inter alia, I've been enjoying the writing of philosopher A C Grayling; first his bio of Descartes, and now a collection of essays called The Form of Things – apparently his fifth collection. His take on religion generally, and our own overblown local version in particular, finds me naturally on his side. There are quite a few choice samples, especially in the section labeled ''Polemics'', but the following one, from his essay 'Answering Critics' is hard to beat, so I'll quote it at length and with relish. He writes about being amused by one particular class of critic, which

consists in folk of a religious turn of mind, who are annoyed by my dislike of religion and my attacks upon it, on the grounds of its falsehood, its moralizing oppressiveness and the terrible conflicts it has caused throughout history, and causes still. These critics call me dogmatic, narrow-minded, intolerant and unfair in what I say about their superstitions and the systems of moral tyranny erected upon them. Well: as experts in dogma and narrow-mindedness, they are doubtless in a good position to recognize it when they find it.

But I answer as follows. I believe in pluralism and the tolerance that alone makes pluralism workable, yes. But valuing tolerance does not mean accepting that anything goes. For example, believing in tolerance does not oblige one to tolerate murder, or folly or superstitious and fanciful world-views directly descended from the cave-man [which is what religion is]. What the evidence of history and reason shows to be an evil in the world, one must oppose: and where the evil is great, it must be opposed robustly. So those who believe in, and base their lives upon, the ancient fairy tales that once constituted all that human beings possessed in the way of science, technology, psychology, history and philosophy, and which has since been vastly superseded, cannot expect their absurdities to be handled with kid-gloves, not least because almost all of them try to foist their outlook on others; and far too many of them, throughout history and still today, are prepared to coerce and even kill those who do not agree.

Unlike the espousers of these absurdities, many of whom are avowedly intolerant of different beliefs or none, I am prepared to tolerate their existence, if they practise their religion in quietness and do not impose themselves upon others. Religion is like sex: it is mostly for the privacy of the closet [though public sex as entertainment is acceptable – far more so than religion], and when it takes aberrant forms or leaks into the open in disruptive ways it should be abated. But on the excellent grounds noted above, I hold that what religious people think and do is ridiculous and too often dangerous, which makes combating it a duty.

Stirring stuff, and in my view not one jot exaggerated. I despise religion myself, because I see its crippling effects everywhere. I can't help but observe how it twists and warps people's minds so that they seem less than fully human.

Of course I've met many Christian or religious persons I've liked – but not because they were religious. In fact, only when they show their non-religious, genuinely human face do they command respect and admiration. And another thing that maddens me about religious zealots is the way they batten onto those whose resistance to superstition is depleted. The frail, the weak, the sick and dying, the very young, the drug-addled and desperate, these are all seen as legitimate targets for our ministering missionary angels. Like a disease, they spread their message along the paths of least resistance. I've witnessed personally this gathering of vultures around enfeebled members of my own family – a curious, pathetic and disgusting sight. Of course we can and should seek to comprehend these religious compulsions through psychology and the adaptive benefits they confer, or conferred, but that doesn't make me want to deny or quash the revulsion I feel.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

unequal life struggles

Few situations can be more unnerving or harrowing to witness than the death of a child due to entirely preventable circumstances, such as not having access to prohibitively expensive drugs. Viewers were given this unwanted opportunity with the screening of a documentary yesterday afternoon about the nefarious practices of large drug companies in recent years. Unsurprisingly, the tragedy occurred in an African country, remote from the self-regarding concerns of these companies, who continue to push for the closing of loopholes allowing drugs to be manufactured generically in certain parts of the world, from where they're sold or smuggled to places of need. They've been so successful in this push that organizations in India which previously supplied life-saving generic drugs to other parts of the world have now been halted in their activities. The Bush administration has been out of step with the rest of the world, in this as in so much else, in being, it seems, more concerned to protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies than to save lives.

Much of the controversy in this area centres around compulsory licences. The issuing of compulsory licences was validated by a WTO ministerial meeting back in 2001. The idea was to permit countries to issue such licences to secure cheap generic drugs to meet a public emergency. Ever since this decision was made as an option in a Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, drug companies have been using their considerable financial muscle to 'discourage' resort to compulsory licences, forcing the resignations of government ministers and senior health officials worldwide.

Furthermore, compulsory licences are only acceptable under TRIPS when used to 'fulfil a local requirement', so that importing generic drugs from other countries is ruled out. Since many poor countries don't have the wherewithal to manufacture their own generics, this would seem to be an absurd, but deadly, technicality. An attempt was made to address this problem by the WTO in their Doha declaration of November 2001, and this declaration was enshrined in law (for European Union nations) by the European Union in May 2006, and by Canada in 2005. Few countries have made use of the provisions of the Doha declaration, though Brazil has used compulsory licensing as a threat to get drug companies to lower their prices.

People power can be used, and sometimes needs to be used, to get drug companies to soften their line. This occurred famously in 2001, when 39 drug companies tried to prosecute the South African government for contravening TRIPS regulations regarding the production and importation of generic drugs. A massive public outcry, a 300,000 strong petition, and other forms of pressure succeeded in getting them to back down, but the situation is still far from satisfactory, and the complex world of compulsory licensing, voluntary licensing, regulation, deregulation, self-regulation, market forces, greed and social conscience makes for plenty of loopholes and anomalies resulting in too many deaths from entirely preventable diseases in poor and sometimes not so poor countries around the world.

There's a useful essay on the issues around TRIPS and generic drugs here.

An analysis of the documentary, Dying for Drugs, and the issues it raises, can be found here

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 01, 2007

behind Narnia, part one

frosty the snowwoman

I recently watched the recent film Narnia. I saw it with two other adults, and that inimitable four-year-old, Courtney, who'd seen the film countless times, in the modern way of kiddie [and teen] DVD viewers, and who insisted on giving a running commentary [a rather more amusing one than what's often offered as a DVD extra], though there were certain 'scary-hairy' bits, such as the sacrifice of the lion, which she couldn't bear to watch.

Considering my focus on religion and particularly Christianity in recent times, this might be described as a must-see for me, but I wasn't hugely looking forward to it. The fact was, I didn't want to look at it in a critical, kill-joy way, but at the same time I was reluctant to swallow any didactic message – though I strongly suspected that, if there was any underlying Christian propaganda, the film version of C S Lewis's book, which I've never read, would dilute it considerably.

I also would've liked something impossible – to see the film through the eyes of a child. I've occasionally mentioned a text I read at the age of ten or eleven, a prose version of Spenser's Tales from the faerie queene. It set my imagination alight, and I fell in love with the fair Britomartis, a maiden who donned armour and fought various wicked foes and fiends on her way to rescuing her father from the Black Knight's tower [if I remember aright].

Though I can't remember being struck by any Christian message in Spenser, it's surely true that the simple goodies v baddies format would've appealed to me, as it would to any child of my age, or younger. By the time I came to read Lord of the Rings however [and I never finished it], the goodies v baddies approach would've struck me as quite shallow. After all, by that time I'd read all the major fictions of Kafka and Dostoyevski, as well as substantial portions of the philosophy of Nietszche and Schopenhauer, and I didn't see too many of their preoccupations reflected in the concerns of Bilbo Baggins or any of the inhabitants of Middle-Earth. In fact though, what ultimately put me off finishing Lord of the Rings was the role of women. They all seemed to me uniformly pathetic. It was a macho, marshal world, and positively medieval, not a world I hankered after at all.

I know that Tolkien and C S Lewis were of the same circle, that they were both committed Christians, but that they were at odds about how they were to portray what they saw as Christian values in their works, with Lewis favouring a more didactic approach. I've had Lewis pressed upon me by at least one Christian as an interesting writer/thinker. I've also read at least one critic who dismissed him as misogynistic, bigoted and generally nasty. The Screwtape Letters, I believe, set out his ideas fairly clearly. I've not read any of his writings, beyond a few quotes here and there, so can't comment on how well or poorly the film captures the Christian values he wanted to promote, but by the time I've finished this slow review, I might have familiarised myself with at least the general trend of his ideas.

It's a goodies and baddies film, and a magical one, so its appeal for children is obvious.

Like the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which was set at the time of the London blitz in the forties, The lion the witch and the wardrobe starts with the evacuation of kids to protect them from the ravages of war and the largely incomprehensible dangers it presents. The transfer from familiar surroundings to the unfamiliar world of 'the provinces' – is used as a springboard to a kind of radical, but very understandable, escapist fantasy, in which the children are much more empowered. There are some clear elements of Christian symbolism, with much talk of prophecy and the return of a powerful lord or king, Aslan, to restore the blighted – but still quite attractive - world of Narnia to its former glory. Other important themes include the concept of betrayal and the importance of family. There's a resurrection story, as well as a goodies and baddies theme, with much emphasis on good old-fashioned valour and honour. As with The Lord of the Rings, human psychology, in any sophisticated sense, is almost entirely absent, and character development isn't much of an issue. In this respect, it reflects very much a child's perspective. The world of Narnia, like that of Middle-Earth, is positively medieval [Tolkien described his invented world as pre-Christian, though extolling Christian values], and has a weird nostalgic element, being, as any serious historian would admit, grossly unrepresentative of the reality of earlier times.

Of course it's fantasy, but the question is whether it's a fantasy worth having or a retreat into childhood certainties, certainties that never were real, but which seem to represent a preliminary or interim understanding of the world.

Lucy, the youngest of four evacuated siblings, stumbles upon the snow-laden Narnia when she hides in an imposing wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek in the country house of a professor, where they've come to stay. Like Doctor Who's Tardis, this wardrobe is much more than the sum of its parts. It serves as the entrance to a world of snow-laden trees and odd creatures, one of whom she soon encounters. His name is Tumnus, and he's a faun. Association: friendly, gentle, timid – and that's how he comes across. The first overt religious note is struck here – he wonders aloud if Lucy isn't one of 'Eve's daughters'. Unfortunately the little one doesn't have the presence of mind to retort – 'no I'm actually more closely related to my friends the chimpanzees than to Eve', so we, or rather the kids, have to keep swallowing this 'sons of Adam, daughters of Eve' swill throughout the film.

Why is this stuff actually in the film? The film-makers would no doubt say it was put in or kept in to acknowledge the Christian spirit of author Lewis, without ramming it too much down the kids' throat. A mild dose of Christian mythology, perfectly harmless.

Unfortunately not. I don't know if Lewis really believed we were all descended from Adam and Eve, but I'm sure we've all met people who fervently believe this to be true – and allow this 'truth' to deeply affect their perspective on the world. This is a living issue in our culture and not just harmless mythology [for example I've known someone, a reasonably liberal Catholic, use the Adam and Eve story to argue for the unnaturalness and ungodliness of homosexuality]. Any lively, intelligent child will wonder soon enough what this 'sons of Adam, daughters of Eve' stuff means, more or less inviting adults to tell them the glorious story of our origins. That's no doubt what Lewis intended. There's an insidiousness here that's world away from Harry Potter.

Lucy accepts Tumnus's invitation to take tea and cakes and sardines at his home. We notice that he's behaving a little suspiciously, and we soon discover why. Under pressure from a witch who has styled herself the Queen of Narnia, he plans to kidnap Lucy, because she's a human. He tearfully tells her this after a strange incident in which his home fire waxes more and more frenetic and finally roars like a lion, a sign and portent which causes Lucy to faint. After his revelation, the remorseful Tumnus helps Lucy to escape back to the wardrobe and the real world. There she tells the story to her siblings, who of course don't believe her.

Shortly thereafter, Lucy returns to the magic wardrobe. The second youngest, Edmund, spies her and follows her into Narnia, where he's picked up by the aforesaid witch-queen, played with great presence by Tilda Swinton, who does as well as she can with the one-dimensionality of the role [basically she's Satan, and you can't get much more one-dimensional than that].

Edmund, very much the mopey outsider, is 'befriended' by the frosty witch-queen, though not before her attendant, Ginarrbrik, threatens to send him to 'the hereafter', our second religious reference. Edmund lets slip that Tumnus has met and released Lucy, and that he has two other siblings. The witch feeds him with magic delights, and flatters him, hoping to lure all four children into her clutches.

After she leaves him, Edmund catches up with Lucy, from whom he learns that Tumnus is living in fear of the white witch. They return to the real world, where Edmund refuses to corroborate Lucy's story of her second visit to Narnia. Lucy runs off, inadvertently into the arms of 'the professor', the owner of the country estate these well-off kids have been sent to. The professor mixes benevolence with authority, providing Lucy with hot chocolate, and the two older siblings with a stern lecture about acting like a proper family.

The professor takes Lucy's side, believing, or acting as if he believes, her story. He waves away the older sister's remark that it's illogical to find another world in a wardrobe, questioning the strange things kids are taught in schools these days.

This is a key remark, and thereafter the term 'logical' is used with clunky irony several times in the film [contrasted with imagination, as if these are two opposite concepts]. In order to fully understand this, we have to realize that for Lewis, logic was somehow inextricably linked with science which he, rightly I think, saw as posing a threat to religion, but also a threat to morality, because he saw science as mechanistic and reductionist. Inevitably, he saw scientists as logic-obsessed unimaginative drones, killjoys of the human spirit. A sympathetic intro to Lewis's thoughts on science and its promulgation through the education system can be found here. I'm far from being so sympathetic, as I've always found science to be much more of a stimulus to the imagination than a dampener of it, and a thousand illustrations can be offered, reflections on the nature of time, of space, the universe, the origins of the human, the origins of consciousness, the endless ways different species interconnect, vie with each other, feed off and on each other, and so on and on. The metaphysical thinking that Lewis fears will be or has been struck down by modern science is not something that will be missed by the scientifically minded, because scientific thinking offers something far richer and more exciting, and more grounded, and more effective. Astrology, after all, has been believed in for many thousands of years, to no effect whatsoever – apart from the effect on those individual minds that succumb to it. Religion generally can be described in much the same way.

Labels: ,

pavlov's cat