Peace Prize

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Do you remember Tom Lehrer? He was a mathematician and satirist in the 1960s and 70s (Vatican Rag, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park…).  When Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, Lehrer remarked that political satire was now obsolete.

I had the same feeling in 2015 when Tony Abbott, then Prime Minister, announced an Australian knighthood for Prince Philip. But the Government of the People’s Republic of China has gone one better by awarding the Confucius Peace Prize (the Chinese alternative to the Nobel-branded one) to Robert Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe. The one in Zimbabwe.  Not a typo.

Magpies

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It’s springtime in Australia and the magpies are aggressively defending their nests. All day we hear clunks as they collide with our windows, mistaking their own reflections for marauders.  I admire their persistence.  Time and time again the same magpie will fly at a pane of glass, bang its head, fall down, flutter up and repeat the exercise.

It occurred to me this morning that the magpies’ behaviour is very like that of many humans. Whether it’s deposing dictators and waiting for secular democracy to bloom in their place, or calling on corporations to mitigate the socially harmful effects of their operations through voluntary self-regulation, we keep crashing into the same windows, falling, fluttering up…

Wasn’t it Einstein who characterised this behaviour as the very definition of insanity?

Name-Calling

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If you want to put someone in a really bad light, call them a racist. This is what’s happening in Australia (and elsewhere) to people who express criticism of Islam.  I don’t get it.  Anyone can be a Muslim, regardless of their race.  Islam is an ideology, not an ethnicity.

A lot of people, especially people in advanced secular societies, don’t much like the beliefs and values that followers of the various branches of Islam adhere to. As an atheist I can understand why. What I can’t understand is why people should be howled down or insulted for expressing an honest opinion.

The Martian

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Last weekend Mrs SG and I went to see a new file: ‘The Martian’, starring Matt Damon. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do.  It’s about an astronaut who’s left for dead on Mars but is in fact alive.  I won’t say any more.

People who should know say that the science in the film (and in the original book) is very accurate. That’s not to say that everything on-screen is probable, but at least it’s possible.  A critic pointed out that the film is remarkable for two absences – there’s no romance and there’s no villain.

While we’re on the subject of science fiction I will take the opportunity to plug my own opus, which will be available as an e-book as soon as the proof-reading and formatting are finished. It’s the Eeks Trilogy and the first book is called ‘Eeks’.  Please look out for it at your favourite e-book retailer’s website.

Cayman Islands

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There are plenty of tax havens in the world, but one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to notoriety: the Cayman Islands. One never hears or reads of the Cayman islands in any other context.  President Obama singled it out when he spoke about the need to close tax loopholes that are abused by US corporations.  Indeed, he singled out one building in the Cayman Islands – Ugland House – saying that it houses over 12,000 businesses.  He characterised it as “either the biggest building or the biggest tax scam on record.”

So when Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s new Prime Minister, was looking around for a home for much of his very considerable wealth, why did he choose two investment funds headquartered in the Cayman Islands?

It is normal and proper for senior politicians to place their private wealth in a blind trust, insulating it from their decision-making while in office. Malcolm Turnbull has done this.  But why, when the very fact of his great wealth makes many Australians distrust him, would he choose investment funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands, a territory whose very name has become a synonym for ‘shonky’?

It should be no surprise that the Labour Party has picked this up as a stick to beat him with. He maintains that the tax efficiency of the fund will produce larger profits on which he will in due course pay Australian income tax.  I have no reason to doubt this.  But in heaven’s name why the Cayman Islands?!

The Bleeding Obvious

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I get stroppy when people are pilloried for stating the bleeding obvious. This happens a lot to politicians because whatever they say is assumed to be politically loaded. Let me offer a couple of examples…

First, Tony Abbott (recently deposed Australian Prime Minister) remarked that taxpayers were subsidising a lifestyle choice by many indigenous Australians to live in remote communities, where employment opportunities are scarce and the cost of providing infrastructure and social services is high. I’m paraphrasing but I think that’s a fair summary. He was immediately criticised for making an outrageous attack on disadvantaged people and ridiculed for using the phrase ‘lifestyle choice’.

I don’t know what was in Tony Abbott’s heart and mind when he said that, but it is objectively true that people, indigenous or otherwise, can choose where they live. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics: “At June 2006, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in non-remote areas with an estimated 32% of people living in major cities, 43% in regional areas, and 25% in remote areas.”

It may be argued that many indigenous people feel a strong spiritual connection to their land (their ‘country’) and would not be happy living elsewhere. But satisfying that felt need is unquestionably a lifestyle choice, and making that choice is possible only because the rest of the population pays for it. Most non-indigenous Australians feel a mixture of pity and guilt towards their indigenous fellow-citizens so they may be perfectly willing to pay whatever it costs. But what’s wrong with pointing it out?

Second, Theresa May (UK Home Secretary) stated that there was a limit to the rate at which immigrants could be received into the UK without causing social cohesion. Again, I’m paraphrasing.

Her words were perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, but they were nevertheless true. Perhaps that limit exceeds the inflow of immigrants that would result from the UK’s acceptance of a ‘fair’ proportion of the current wave of people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, who are hammering at Europe’s door – or in many cases smashing the windows and climbing in. But it cannot be denied that there is a limit. It’s bleeding obvious, isn’t it?

Note: The phrase “the bleeding obvious” is a quotation from ‘Basil the Rat’, the final episode in the brilliant TV series ‘Fawlty Towers’, written by John Cleese and Connie Booth in the 1970s.

Mental Health

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Here we are at the start of Mental Health Week, and I read in my morning newspaper that “one in seven children and young people experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months.” Then on the radio I heard that the same proportion of adults had suffered anxiety disorders in the same period.

How can this be?! If any mental condition is as common as that, how can we call it a ‘disorder’? Surely we’re defining as disorderly aspects of normal human experience. Surely we’re setting the bar too low and steering people into treatment who don’t belong there.

This is not an original thought, of course. Medicalising normal human states is an international sport for Big Pharma. The rest of us are free to laugh at it and carry on with our messy lives, balancing sadness with joy, anxiety with hope.

Actually, with the world in its present state, I’d say that if anyone is not experiencing extreme anxiety they are by definition suffering a mental disorder.