Thursday, October 29, 2009

Unpopular measures

Lord Mandelson, gggrrrr, has set out his plan to punish filesharers, the Guardian reports. I have something to say about it, as you can imagine, so I'm reproducing my comment here:

I find it quite sad that there are "creative" people who think they are doing "work" that needs paying for, rather than following a vocation. The notion that Sony and BMG are some sort of charitable foundation that helps small artists to share their vision is pretty laughable. They have turned what used to be a vibrant creative commons into a drab spectacle, whose aim is not to delight or even entertain us, but to turn our common heritage into money.

What strikes me about this particular proposal is that Labour, the party of the people, is pushing a measure that so clearly opposes our views. The people don't have a problem with filesharing: most of us do it or would do it. Very few people haven't downloaded something without paying for it, or do not have a ripped and burned CD. We are not clamouring for measures against filesharers, any more than we begged for ID cards or CCTVs. Once upon a time, Labour could claim it was willing to serve us because it would pass measures that we supported and business, sometimes, not so much. But not any more. It cannot even pretend to be for us. And if it's not for us, why should we want it?

When the likes of Mandelson ask themselves why we -- I don't mean myself, I mean the general population -- are supporting shitheads like the BNP, maybe he should note that the BNP appeal to us in terms of what we want. They are making appeal to those among us who don't like all the darkskinned people with their scary food, frightening religions, dangerous ideas. We may not like the values the BNP appeals to, but they are values held by the people, not values business would like imposed on us. We have on the whole stopped believing Labour is on our side. Who could believe that now? We didn't want their war in Iraq. We don't want their slavish worship of corporations, which we mistrust. We don't want their economic policy, which we do not feel has made us any better off. They are focused on doing what they think is good for us, not what we think is good for us.

As for this measure, well, the problem for Sony et al is that their business model was based around controlling the means of distribution of culture. We could argue about whether the commodification of culture is a good or bad thing, but the fact of it is that it was made into a commodity. However, technology has made it impossible to sustain that business model, just as technology has destroyed other business models. Because the big media companies are huge, unwieldy bureaucracies, which share with other corporations the problem that success in achieving status depends on being good at being in a corporation rather than being talented at all, they cannot adapt. You see the same problem facing other media companies, and their response is equally poor: Murdoch, facing the end of the subscription business model, wants to squeeze it and cannot see how to make money from the Net.

So this is the last gasp of that model, and the corps involved are doing what they do know how to do: use their influence with government to squeeze the last bit of juice out of it. It serves nothing but the bottom line. You can't "fix" the "problem" of filesharing. The day of controlling distribution of culture is done. You can't make money out of it any more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I am asleep in my chair and I wake to the sound of footsteps. Zenita is in the hallway, groggy with sleep.

I have lost my water bottle, she is saying. She looks lost.

Rather than try to find it, I pour her a fresh bottle and take it to her bedroom. I am thinking that we are all sometimes lost in the hallway, and how good it is to be the person who finds her and gives her what she needs.

I stroke her hair as she drinks the water.

When we were at Alex Headland, the twins were playing in the pool with an older girl. The older girl says, I am Tiana, but you can call me Ti. So Naughtyman says, it's your nickname. And he says his nickname is a short version of his name.

Zenita says, in her excited voice, my nickname is Curly Wurly. But only we call her that. It is like her family name. Her hair is curly and blonde, a lot like Mrs Zen's. Zenita is not much like me to look at. You could be forgiven for thinking that I love Zenella so much out of vanity, because she looks and acts so much like me, but I love Zenita just as much. I am not endlessly seeking a mirror, although I sometimes feel that it would be good to find one in a person, someone who understood me.

That they are different increases the joy we find in them. Being a father has revealed to me things about myself that were mysterious to me: not all of them are good things, but I think it is good that I have learnt that I am not limited in my ability to love. When Zenella was born, I loved her so much I didn't believe it was possible to love anyone else, that I had reached my capacity. How could it ever be possible to have that much love in me? But I do.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On the comfort of religion

It's fashionable these days to see religion as the root of all evil, and to see believers as at best misguided fools, at worst vicious creeps who use their beliefs as tools in hatred. When we look at the American right, or at the Islamists who would gladly murder each of us had they the chance, it's easy to credit this picture.

I am reminded of my brief acquaintance with Brisbane's secular humanists. I consider myself a humanist, in that I believe that humans have value, that we can rely on ourselves to sustain ourselves, that we are capable of creating a world that is good for all of us to live in. Fundamentally, in my view, humanism is an expression of faith in ourselves, and however misguided that faith can at times feel, I have never abandoned it. However, these people focused on the "secular" part of their name, to the point that "religionhating humanists" would have been more accurate -- even "inhumanists", because when you despise a person's ideas that they hold dear to that extent, you are hating them; and given how many of us have beliefs that are not wholly rational, not wholly grounded in science, that will lead you to hating all of us, the antithesis of humanism.

I think many -- most -- believers would not recognise them in the picture some sceptics paint. Theirs is not the wrathful, unpleasant God that seems to motivate the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, but a God of comfort, who helps them cope with a sometimes confusing and difficult life. Who among us has not woken in the middle of the night, troubled, and wished to have a friend to share the burden? At times, I have wished I could believe in someone stronger -- and I am mostly rational, I think.

It is easy to have the wrong idea. I remember attending a Catholic mass, many years ago now. I was expecting a stern, rather solemn service, but it was nothing of the sort. It was much more like the friendly, open gatherings that I had attended as a child after Sunday school, when we would take the morning service at the Methodist church. The people had a genuine sense of community and togetherness, which I found touching. I don't know whether it is a tradition of Catholics or just of that church that they wish peace on each other in the service, but they did so with genuine warmth, even to me, who they knew to be a nonbeliever.

In Africa, I found people whose religion permeated their lives day to day, who observed the strictures of Islam closely, but simply as part of the fabric of their existence, not as an imposition. They too were unconcerned that I was not a Muslim, and indeed their understanding of Islam led them to be kind and helpful to strangers. I could not help thinking that if this is how religious people are led to behave, let us all be religious. For them, Allah was not a forbidding moraliser. He understood them, understood and accepted their frailty, and gave credit for their doing their best. Their Allah was a human god.

I was reminded powerfully of the concept of the god of comfort when someone used to be a friend of mine told me about her favourite hymn. This is my kind of god speaking! This is your older brother, the comforting arm around your shoulders, a friend who does not wish you to suffer for your inability to meet the strictures of tough rules, who loves you for who you are, understanding that you are doing your best:

Come as you are. That’s how I want you.
Come as you are. Feel quite at home.
Close to my heart, Loved and forgiven,
Come as you are, Why stand alone.

No need to fear, Love sets no limits,
No need to fear, Love never ends.
Don’t run away, Shamed and disheartened
Rest in my love, Trust me again.

I came to call sinners, Not just the virtuous,
I came to bring peace, Not to condemn.
Each time you fail, To live by my promise,
Why do you think I’d love you the less.

Come as you are, That’s how I love you,
Come as you are, Trust me again.
Nothing can change the love that I bear you,
All will be well, Come as you are.

The striking note for me in that hymn is in the final verse. Here is a god who does not demand that you fear him, are awed by him or are obedient to him. Rather, he approaches you as a supplicant, asking for your trust. This god knows what he offers us.

This is rather different from the often stirring and passionate hymns that we sang as children. I am impressed by the deep compassion that the man who wrote this hymn believes his god represents. I will not despise a religion that holds as its central figure an entity who far from setting us a tough moral course wants only to love us.

There are, of course, other ways to express the belief in a god of comfort. My own favourite hymn -- which I enjoyed to sing above all others when I was a child, more even than I vow to thee my country, which is something like the national hymn of England -- was written by a man at death's door, who was able to transcend his fear of death by appealing to his god to comfort him.

I am particularly moved by the verse in which Lyte asks that God come "not in terrors, as the King of kings, But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings". This was the god of my Methodist friends: a god of kindness and charity, a god to alleviate the pain of this world as much as to assuage fear of the next.

I will end with the words of my favourite hymn, which I find as moving as any poetry, and beneath them, a lovely version by Hayley Westenra, which I hope that even if you are not a believer, you can enjoy all the same.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On jealousy versus envy

It sometimes surprises -- sometimes angers -- people who get to know me that I don't suffer from jealousy. I'm not a possessive type, even though it's fair to say I'm needy. (And as I'll explain, I have things I am jealous of.)

But I am prey to envy.

Hold on though. Aren't those the same thing? Although dictionaries define them as synonyms, I don't understand them to be, and I think the distinction is fairly simply explained.

You are jealous of the things that belong to you, and envious of the things that aren't. It's easy to understand with an example. If you are married and feel bad about your partner sleeping with someone else, you are jealous. If you feel bad about someone else's partner sleeping with them, you are envious. Jealousy is most often wanting no one else to have, or to take, what is yours; envy is most often wanting to have, or to take, what is someone else's.

Isn't it natural though, that you should want people who belong to you, whom you love, to belong to you alone? I suppose it is, but my conception of love is different from that, and I've never been able to feel that way. I see it like this: people have needs, a spectrum of desires and wants, complexes of things that fulfil them. Any given person can provide some of those things but only if we are simple enough or in principle lucky enough do they provide all of them. I do not mind that I am not sufficient to fill every corner of a person's life: if they said I did, I would wonder whether they had somehow diminished themselves to make it true, or whether they were simply lying to make me happy. I know this is not a common view: most of us feel we should be enough for each other. We are sold the myth that we will be. But how much of our disappointment is born in clinging to that story, even though life proves it untrue?

Often -- usually, I suppose -- the needs we cannot meet are simply questions of interest: our partners love football and we don't, or they like to talk about television but we do not watch the same shows. Sometimes they are questions of unwillingness: we want something our partner cannot or will not provide. If Mrs Zen was a bisexual, how could I ever provide everything she needs? I could not, and I would not mind at all if she had a girlfriend in that case.

Don't I have rights though? Isn't she in some sense my property? The thought makes me shudder. Love for me could never be a cage. When I love you, I want to help you actualise yourself. That is what love is, in part, for me. It is not coin I purchase you with.

But -- there is a but -- if I am meeting your needs, if I am giving you the things you want, and you look in other places for them all the same, then I feel I have reason to be upset. I am jealous of the other who is in my place because I feel usurped. It's important to me though that this is not something in theory, that it is not that I could give you what you need. I must actually be doing it. I am not at all of the belief that I should be jealous on principle. If I could but didn't bother, then I have nothing to be jealous of.

So what about envy? Don't get me started! I am kidding, of course. These days, I don't envy much, and I feel that my envy complements my jealousy, because I tend only to envy the spaces others don't fill. I do not want to take what others have so much as I want to take what they are not interested in, or what is similar to what they have but could be spared.

Is it even really envy to want what others don't want? All you are envying is the opportunity, and that opportunity is for you, no one else. Well I suppose it is: you envy the outcomes as well as the opportunities, the things the outcomes bring, the enjoyment of the things. There is no completely virtuous ambition. And however sprawling our suburban universes are, the human world is crowded and the spaces we fill are spaces that others could fill, and that leads us to the jealousy that we began this piece by denying we ever feel.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On beliefs

There was a small but amusing brouhaha earlier this week because American humourist Bill Maher received the "Dawkins Prize" for being top atheist of the year, and some on the right disapproved, as far as I can tell, because he's not really hardcore atheist enough, but it got me to thinking.

I'm not a huge fan of the hardcore religionhating of the likes of Dawkins and that's largely because I see it as just the other side of the same coin as fundamentalist religion. Both seem to me to be products of belief that we wish to impose on others for their own good. (And it seems a key feature of beliefs of the type I am thinking of that they are not considered simply beliefs about what is good or right for us, but about what is good for others.) Neither is entirely rational.

By which I mean that believing there is a god of a particular type who wants particular things may not be reasonable, but believing that there is definitely not one is not either. Why not? Surely it's a fairy story?

Like most rationally minded types, I am a sceptic. Which means I don't accept what I'm told, but question it, and see whether it stands up to scrutiny. A sceptic's message to the world is "convince me not to doubt that". It doesn't seem to me as though Richard Dawkins has any doubt at all. Even if God personally told him he existed, and demonstrated it, he would put it down to a hallucination. I agree with Dawkins that science is sufficient to describe the world, but I allow the doubt that sufficiency is, erm, sufficient to exclude other explanations. I'll discuss why a bit later.

So I ask myself what I believe in. We should be clear that all of us, no matter how sceptical or rational, have many things we believe, although we usually describe them as things we know. There are objectively justified beliefs, such as that Moscow is capital of Russia, which I believe because so many people not only say so but present evidence that it is so. (It's not enough just that they say so, obviously. In medieval England, everyone would say there was a god.) There is more to say about this, but I'm seeking only to establish that this kind of belief exists and is reasonable. There are subjectively justified beliefs, such as that Paris is the capital of France. I have been to Paris and everyone there seemed to be acting on the belief that it was the capital. We must be careful here, because it is possible to believe things based on subjective evidence that can be faulty. If God speaks to me in a dream, I must take into account the context of dreams and the value of the evidence presented to me in that context. In any case, we are seeking here only to establish that there are things I believe with good reason: there is a lake in the centre of Reykjavik (not only did I see it but others say it's there), I believe I am in a room in suburban Brisbane, I believe I have two arms, two legs, and so on. I must presume that I am at least somewhat sane and that my senses mostly work if I am to hold these beliefs, but without those presumptions, it is impossible to talk about reason anyway.

There are also beliefs that are matters of discernment. I believe Fragile by Wire is a great song, and I can justify that belief some, but I am aware that this is a different kind of belief from believing that Paris is the capital of France. This is key in any discussion of belief, because many of humans' problems derive from not being sufficiently clear what beliefs really are objective. It's clear that an Islamist, for instance, believes that his belief in Allah is objective, as readily justified as my belief that there is a road from Brisbane to Logan, and that if I do not concur, I am denying something that is plainly true.

So although I can categorise different beliefs, it's evident that the categories can overlap, depending whose perspective you take. But in this case, we are taking mine, and talking mostly about what I do or don't believe. In this respect, what is interesting is the more ragbag group of beliefs that we have that are not so easily justified. Largely this is because they are not so easily resolved into binary questions. It's easy to say whether you believe the Australian flag is mostly blue. Yes it is or no it's not. Yes it's mostly blue, no it's not mostly red. The evidence is there to be seen, so long as we agree that we are looking at the Aussie flag. And beliefs that are opinions cannot be gainsaid, because if I say I believe that Fragile is a good song, you cannot say I don't, unless you think I am lying -- and it is fundamental to communication by human speech that we assume that people we communicate with are ceteris paribus telling the truth. Beliefs that we justify subjectively are tougher, because the evidence may not exist for you that exists for me, or we may interpret it differently.

Still harder are metaphysical beliefs. I have long considered that I do not have many beliefs of this type: beliefs about how things are or how we should be. For me it is more a question of how things can be. I do not have fixed beliefs, on the whole. I have a sliding scale of what I think is reasonable.

Take religion. (No, really, take it, ho ho.) If you believe that the universe has a creator, I consider you likely wrong but your belief not unreasonable. I don't see how a belief that some huge transcendental, essentially unknowable being created the universe is much more or less tenable than one that the universe simply sprang into being for no reason at all. Further along the spectrum would be the belief that that being takes any interest in you personally, and further still that it cares whether you pursue a particular form of rather human morality. In other words, it is scarcely reasonable that you should believe that a transcendental ineffable being should care whether you masturbate or cheat on your taxes. (It seems like this belief serves other purposes: to prevent you from doing what you want, to keep you from rationalising actions that serve you better than whoever invented this belief for you to hold.)

It's barely tenable that a being of this sort can "love" you. What would that even mean? As far as I can tell, most Christians see God's love for them as basically the same as human love. But human love, as we could reasonably demonstrate, is based in being human. (I understand, of course, that this is why we are said to have been created in God's image, so that human love can be a shadow of divine love, rather than something that otherwise would seem hard to scale up.) But I find it hard to believe, or consider the belief reasonable, that a being who loves me would, rather than simply endowing me with an eternal life of bliss, set me a test first. I wouldn't do that to someone I love, after all. I am yet to see a convincing argument why eternal bliss has an entrance exam that doesn't make God seem to be a sadist or a fool; neither of which is even close to possible, of course.

That this same being should not only set you a test to see whether you deserve something that it seems to me you'd just give freely to someone you loved is bad enough, but some believe he makes that test very strict: he cares whether women show their faces, cares what clothes you wear, having weirdly created you with parts he thinks you should hide, cares whether you listen to music.

So no, I don't believe in that. None of it is even close to reasonable, and without having had a religious upbringing, I have no good reason to adopt any of it. If Dawkins restricted himself to saying that some sorts of religious belief are pernicious, I'd agree with him. But he doesn't. Some religious belief is reasonable, not least because of the benefits it can bring. Life can be incomprehensible and difficult, and while it's easy to find horrors in religious thought, excuses for egregious behaviour, it's just as easy to find comfort, warmth, generosity, kindness. We should not wholly despise beliefs, however false we think they are, that have outcomes that match those we desire.

So take the universe and everything in it. I do have beliefs about that, but I think they are largely objectively justifiable parts of human knowledge. I have no reason to doubt that there are protons, but that is not what we are considering here. We are considering not whether there are protons but what protons are. So I believe there is a universe that has existed for, whatever it is, about 16 billion years, but I don't know what and why it is, how it got there, and I don't have any beliefs about any of that. I find it reasonable to believe it is a block universe: where everything that has happened, will happen, is happening, even could happen exists at the same time; or that there are multiple universes, each coming into being at the collapse of a wave function or whatever. I could believe that it has no end, and even, although I find it tougher, that it has no beginning.

I can believe that I am made up of atoms and nothing else, that I only seem to have a consciousness but am really just the reflection of a purely automatic process, but can I say I do believe that? It makes sense to me; it seems reasonable to believe it; so I suppose I do in a sense believe it. But not in the same sense that the Pope believes Jesus was the son of God. I could readily change my views to any other reasonable belief. If you said to me, we are distinct spirits in material bodies, my mind is not closed to that. I'd take some convincing but that is not the same as saying I cannot be convinced.

Does this mean my beliefs have no value? It depends what you mean by value, I suppose. I don't "stand for" anything. I wouldn't kill you for my belief that I don't really exist. I don't feel much urge to have others believe what I believe. One of the great problems of human belief, it seems to me, is that people are not content to consider what is right for them, or good for them and theirs, but feel the need to insist on imposing that belief on others. Which can be irksome, particularly when those people have access to the levers of power, or represent a constituency that those with power feel they need to satisfy.

I do have beliefs that mean something to me, which I would not surrender lightly. I suppose they are rather metaphysical, and I know I cannot substantiate them, at least not easily. I believe in love. I believe it exists and has a power to bring us together, to tear us apart, to comfort us and to remove all our comfort. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that you could give up everything else but love, and still somehow survive.

I also believe in us. I am a humanist and however disappointing we may sometimes be, I am never so disappointed that I am unable to think us worthwhile. That means I believe in you too. I believe you are worth something, and I hope that those who know me well would say that I do what I can to prove that. In this way I will impose my beliefs on you -- I am not immune to it after all.

State of bleh

So we watched State of play on DVD, and that was very disappointing. The British thriller serial it is based on is taut, brilliantly acted and convincing, so what did they do? They took it and Hollywooded it. Where the British show was understated, the film is overwrought. Where Paul Abbot wrote it tight, the Hollywood scriptwriters loosened it up, using button-pushing cliches instead of accurate observations. What makes Abbot's work great is that you can imagine you are eavesdropping conversations. Flawed but believable, real characters say things you might say in the circumstances. When Ben Affleck's character glowers at Russell Crowe and says "I'm trouble", I literally groaned. And not with pleasure.

Affleck's character is typical of what's wrong with the film. (Note in the following that with minor embellishments, at least for the first half, the film follows the plot of the series pretty closely.) Collins is hounded by the press after the death of his researcher so he fetches up on the doorstep of Cal, the hack hero of the piece. So he comes to Cal and gives him a spiel that he is his only friend. The impression you get is that no one likes Collins because he's a bellend. In the series, David Morrissey's Collins is no bellend. He's likeable when he wants to be, but mostly he isn't nice to people because he doesn't need them. It's clear how he has made his way to the top. You can imagine his manoeuvring in the dirty game of politics. Affleck seems naive, incapable. Morrissey is knowing, dismissive. His moment of weakness in the press conference is shocking in the TV series, and grows more shocking when you learn, scene on scene, how out of character it is.

I won't even try to explain why the scenes between Cal and Collins' wife are wrong, because they are so wrong they defy explanation. What possessed them to cast characters with so little chemistry as Russell Crowe and Robin Wright Penn? What possessed them to write the scenes as melodrama? What possessed them to cast Crowe at all? He's woeful. Where John Simm played Cal as nimble and clever, impish, righteous and driven, but not unsympathetic, primarily giving the impression of a man who thinks it over, Crowe plays him as a side of beef. Bring me John Cusack! I cried. The interplay between Della and Cal is entirely lost, not least because Rachel MacAdams was not provided a character at all and does not know what to do with the cliche she has had foisted on her. No one does. They even make Helen Mirren look bad.

It's astonishing that this trash got good reviews. Even if I hadn't seen the TV series, which I highly recommend if you can get hold of it, I would have hated this film. It's not even amusing to listen to Crowe's accent wander over the continental United States or to wonder whether Ben Affleck would at any point try to convey an emotion, although as an academic exercise in figuring out how you can really destroy a good idea, it succeeded brilliantly.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A man of peace?


There is absolutely no way Barack Obama, who has continued Bush's "war on terror", should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. It's as bad as Kissinger.

Almost every day, we read about American planes and troops murdering civilians in Afghan villages. Far from seeking peace in Afghanistan, Obama has extended the war there. Read the article! "He is currently considering whether to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan". This is a man of peace! Nor has he ended the war in Iraq. America is still there, still killing.

He has called for nuclear disarmament, which is great, but as far as I know, he has disbanded not a single nuclear weapon.

Worst of all, Obama has backed a policy of "preventive detention". He's for banging up men forever without any trial. This is a man of peace!

Okay, it was a dodgy field. Piedad Cordoba has question marks over her integrity; Ingrid Betancourt would have been slightly controversial too; Hu Jia is not really a peacemaker and choosing him would severely upset the Chinese, but probably made the best choice. But Obama? Ugh.

The notsuck of Queenan

Here is a perfect example of why Joe Queenan does not suck. I'm a big fan of his film writing because he brings the bitch fullon and does not put the brakes on.

And it's about time someone pointed out that Jack Black's sucking is no accident. I defy anyone to explain why he should continue to have a career in films, given that he seems no more able than anyone you could pick at random in the average bus queue.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vale Edelman

Recently, Marek Edelman, a great hero who stands as a beacon of integrity in dark times, died. It's (sadly, and you have to ask yourself why) a little-bruited piece of World War II history that the Jews of Warsaw fought back against the Nazis in a hopeless, desperate partisan action. They did not succeed but as Edelman himself said:

Those who were killed in action had done their duty to the end, to the last drop of blood that soaked into the pavements of the Warsaw ghetto.

It's easy to paint the Jewish people as villains in the Middle East, and for sure, there are among them greedy men and women who use others' fear and love of nation as tools to plunder for their own purses, just as there are in all nations, but the desire for security, and the understanding that Jews could not rely on us for their safety but must provide it for themselves were born in the destroyed ghetto.

It is a matter of great shame for us--not just for the Germans but for all of us, we were no better and if we have illusions that the UK's Jews would have survived had we lost the war, we should dispel them; and we too would have helped herd them onto trucks, staffed the camps and in many cases enthusiastically joined the killing--that a people could find that the neighbours they had had for centuries could consider them vermin to be exterminated. But the lesson we should draw from it--as I think Edelman would emphasise--is that we must not forget that we are capable of this. We should be alarmed at how the Roma are treated, particularly in Italy, and at how Muslims across Europe are talked about by some in the same way Jews were in the old Europe.

I urge you to read Edelman's compelling account of the Warsaw Uprising. It is not high literature but it is ferociously moving. But it is not just another story of man's inhumanity to man--although of course it is that--but a tribute to the enormous courage and love for each other the resisters had, shining examples to us all.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A dream of Siena

So I was talking to a friend today and she was telling me where in France she would like to visit. Which got me to thinking and sighing, because our family has always loved France, and it's a beautiful place. And it's hard to pick one particular part of France you would like to see, because it is full of great spots. I have only seen a fraction of it. It's often struck me that the pity of our lives is that we have to choose from a near infinity of wonderful things we could do and see; yet, as soon as I think that, I say to myself that that is rather the glory of it. We must try to choose well. We must have big dreams, of places, things and people that are meaningful for us, and we must strive to fulfil them.

This seems a thing that even a man who sees no real purpose to life can find purpose in.

So what big dream do I have? So far as places go, I have long had a dream that I will live in Siena. I do not mean that I will merely visit it; that is easy. I mean that I will live in it, be a part of it.

Siena is a beautiful town, well preserved and reeking with history. You miss that kind of thing when you live here in Australia. Brisbane is all about the new. It is not very lived in: indeed, when a building starts to look a bit pre-loved, it is ripped down and replaced. There is very little left of colonial Brisbane, which is a pity, because what there is is striking. We Brits knew how to make a place look good.

Its traditions run deep: the colourful pageantry of the Palio, the town's horse race, contested by teams representing the town's historic quarters, is a grand spectacle (James Bond buffs will recognise it as the event that frames the opening of Quantum of solace). I am ever impressed by people who bother. I remember when I was a child, how deeply I loved the carnival that livened up our town. I was once part of a float -- I think I was a vampire, which you may think apt -- and I adored the effort that I was part of, the joint work of putting yourself on show as part of something traditional.

It is also sited in an area of outstanding beauty, or so I'm told. I have never been to Tuscany, but of course I have seen pictures and television. Neither will do it justice. There is something about being in a place that is immune to being re-created, even in TV, which seems to flatten and de-spirit a place.

And when I have been in Italy, the people seemed to be enjoying it. They seem to have a lust for life that English people somewhat lack. They enjoy food, vino and company, and are focused on the family. (Perhaps too much so: we hear that young Italian men like to live with their mamma until they are in their 30s--I think that would have been too much even for parents as forebearing as mine!)

So I think it would be good to live among them. Perhaps my view is somewhat coloured by Tim Parks' book, A season with Verona, which did not pretend that Italians are unflawed, but leaves you feeling that they are lively characters, if nothing else. And that seems like something desirable to me.

I do not know what life holds in store for me, but I do believe that dreams are like stars that you can follow. Sometimes, you are lost in a storm, and the clouds obscure the stars and all you can do is work to stay afloat. But storms pass--or one can hope so--and the stars are still there, and dreams, if they are big enough and sweet enough, do not fade away just because the wind has been blowing some.

She's leaving

Pauvre Tracey Emin! It's to weep over. We learn that Ms Emin will leave the UK if she is made to pay half her earnings over 150K in tax.

Yes, you read that right. The government, that filthy brigade of thieves, intends to have Ms Emin starve in her garret. She will barely be able to afford a couple of lines of coke on a Friday night. No wonder she looks so unhappy in the photo attached to the article, as though someone had belaboured her about the mush for some minutes with a week-old kipper.

Ms Emin is quoted as saying:

I'm simply not willing to pay tax at 50% … I reckon it would mean me paying about 65p in every pound with tax, National Insurance and so on

You often see this misunderstanding. One wonders why the interviewer does not stop her right there, and say, well, Ms Emin, surely you are aware that you would not pay 65p in every pound? You would pay much less on most of your pounds, just as the rest of us, not fortunate enough to earn in excess of 150K, do.

Ms Emin cannot paint. By which I do not mean to say, oh, she's no Vermeer. I mean, as far as I know, she is no more able to paint than I am. She is a dab hand at sewing, for sure, but few seamstresses can hope to make such a lavish living. In other words, Ms Emin has been fortunate. Maybe she is talented, I do not know. I have no critical faculty for judging the worth of works of art that consist of names of men one has entertained in the boudoir (or car, as it may be).

Ms Emin contrasts France with the UK:
At least in France their politicians have always understood the importance of culture and they have traditionally helped out artists with subsidy and some tax advantages.

To which one might respond that perhaps the UK government feels that a woman with two homes, one a very nice dacha in Provence, with attached studio, who is able to employ "staff" to help her with the arduous business of producing "art", is less in need of subsidy than the many who have no home at all.

Maybe they do not consider the re-creation of an unmade bed to be particularly cultured. Pauvre Tracey! To be so unappreciated by such Philistines! To have to muddle through with only half of every pound more than 150K she acquires and to know that the government wishes to snatch the outcome of her slaving away at, erm, putting junk on a bed or whatever.


Welcome to monkey banana. If you're curious, a monkey banana is a banana that sits in its peel, just the way a monkey likes it. Small children also. Like monkey bananas, I mean, not sit in peel.