Consent

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The Monty Python Team

In Australia there are loud calls for schools to add Sexual Consent to the lengthening list of subjects that they are supposed to teach.  When I first heard of this I thought it was a joke that had been rejected as too silly for an episode of Monty Python.  But it is a sincere response to a growing number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by young males against young females.

Some people blame the ready accessibility of online pornography, which gives boys unhealthy ideas about both the physical and the emotional aspects of sex. Some blame a cultural shift towards disrespect and a sense of male entitlement. Such a shift may be fed by exposure to pornography, of course. It may also be an unwanted side-effect of growing gender equality and the consequent erosion of men’s role as protectors.

I reflect on my own adolescence and the social environment at the time.  Women were unashamedly classified as “the weaker sex” and few of the mothers I knew were in the workforce.  I was brought up to regard women as slightly inferior versions of men, albeit highly desirable to have and to hold.  I was taught to raise my hat to women, offer my seat to them, and generally behave in a way that seemed deferential but was in fact a show of paternalism. Later I realised that this behaviour had its roots in a social imperative that affects every tribe: the protection of its capacity to reproduce.

There is another imperative too: to manage sexual relationships in such a way that a) paternity is not in doubt, b) rights and responsibilities are unambiguously assigned, and c) lust and jealousy do not tear apart the social fabric.  In the western democracies we’ve pretty much given up on this one.

At school we had no lessons that were overtly about sex – unless you count the antics of amoebae.  However, we were deeply immersed in history and literature. Together with American films, sitcoms and the lyrics of pop songs, these told us all we needed to know. Thus did we learn, for example:

  • You shouldn’t behead your wives without a very good reason.
  • Having sex at 14 is fine, provided that both families disapprove.
  • Beating your wife is unmanly, but spanking her may be necessary from time to time and she will love you all the more afterwards.
  • If a woman despises you in the first reel you will end up married to her.
  • Only when a woman slaps your face can you be sure that you’ve overstepped an invisible line.
  • However, if it’s a token slap she means “It wouldn’t be ladylike to let that go unpunished, but I quite liked it.”
  • The first time a woman says “No” she means “Try harder.” The second time she means “Maybe.”
  • Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.

I would like to end with a neat conclusion, an explanation of how we can allow unrestrained individual freedom and at the same time protect people from their own and other’s weaknesses.  But I can’t.  Sorry.

Postscript:  Only after writing this did I learn that schools in my home state of South Australia have been obliged to teach sexual consent for years!

Slavery

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There is an upsurge of guilty feelings about slavery, especially in the UK. Statues of people who made fortunes from that evil trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been wrenched from their plinths. There is agitation to re-name city streets – even Liverpool’s Penny Lane, because it may have been named for the slave-trader James Penny.

And I have just read a review in the Guardian Weekly of Nicholas Rogers’ book ‘Murder on the Middle Passage’, which deals with horrific crimes committed against African slaves for the sake of profit. It made me think…

Slavery has existed for millennia, considered a perfectly normal aspect of human society and economy. It is often said that all nations have practised slavery but only the British abolished it. This is probably true, if one considers the laws that were passed by the British Parliament that were then enforced by the British Navy.

Slavery that is legally sanctioned, where one human and his/her offspring are the property of another, no longer exists anywhere so far as I know. But the ILO estimates that 40 million people suffer some form of virtual slavery. One hears of sex workers whose passports are withheld by their ‘owners’, debt bondage in the brickfields of India and kidnapped migrants on Thai fishing boats.

But there are conditions of employment that have become normal, but in some respects are worse than slavery. If one has paid for and owns a slave, one has an interest in keeping him or her fed, clothed, housed and healthy. I think of the ‘labour lines’ on a Sylhet tea plantation I visited in 1967. The living conditions were basic and the wages almost non-existent, but the benign Scottish manager ensured rations and medical care were available, and even schooling for the children. How different it is for employers who engage ‘contractors’ who are obliged to be available for paid work but have no guarantee that it will be offered.

Should there perhaps be a legal option to sell oneself into a form of slavery, rather like the bonded labourers on whose sweaty backs the Fijian sugar industry was built? Or the Pacific islanders who used to cut cane in Queensland?

More provocatively, will future generations vandalize the statues of contemporary heroes because of our appalling acceptance of the enslavement of other species?

Bath Milk

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There was a programme on ABC Radio National this morning, about farmers in Queesland are selling raw milk (ie unpasteurised) labelled “Bath Milk”. In that state it’s legal to sell raw milk, but only for cosmetic purposes. Well, Cleopatra bathed in asses’ milk, so why not the ladies of the Sunshine State?

But of course it’s a ruse. People are apparently willing to pay a premium of 100% or more to drink unprocessed milk that might make them sick. “OK,” you may say, “it’s their risk, so why not let ’em?” In fact, that’s what one of the interviewees on the programme did say.

That’s also the view of the anti-vaxxers and the many people who have chosen to go onto the street to demonstrate in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign, flouting* the rules about social distancing. They draw a parallel between what’s happening in the USA and what happens here when indigenous Australians run foul of the law. Understandably perhaps, they consider this to be an important enough issue to justify breaking the odd rule.

But it makes me stroppy. Why? Because the cost of your risky behaviour will be borne in part by the wider community, therefore the community has a right to restrict your risk-taking. Even if you have top-shelf private health insurance the cost of hospitalising you, treating you and perhaps cremating you will fall on your fellow policy-holders.

I suppose I’m a socialist at heart. I want my freedom, but I acknowledge that I cannot succeed at anything without a measure of security, rule of law, health and welfare safety nets, subsidised education (for which I have the taxpayers of Lancashire to thank) and a robust functioning economy. To enjoy all of that I must accept certain responsibilities, and they include looking after my own health, maintaining my productivity and obeying democratically enacted laws.

You too.

* I have noticed that substituting the word “flaunt” for “flout” has moved from being an occasional slip of the tongue towards becoming the norm. It’s joining the ranks of “A bacteria”, “Between you and I, me and Jim are going steady” and “You can’t underestimate the importance of climate change”. Is this happening only in Australia, or it is a verbal pandemic? If so, is anyone working on a vaccine?

Citizenship

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I live in Australia, where we have a Prime Minister (Scott Morrison, pictured) who is admired for winning an election against the odds and almost single-handed. But few people like him and fewer trust him. Like Boris Johnson, he won because people couldn’t stomach the alternative.

We were recently visited by the Prime Minister of our smaller, poorer sister-state New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern, also pictured). I’d hazard a guess that if the Australian electorate were given the choice they’d vote overwhelmingly for Jacinda to replace Scott. She comes across as sincere, principled, compassionate, straight-talking… the qualities that seem to be disqualifications for high political office in Australia.

Now I’ll come to the point. As well as making amicable noises about our common values and regional interests while she was here, Jacinda raised in public a very sharp-edged issue. Many New Zealanders live in Australia and some run foul of the law. If they are imprisoned for a year ior more, and have not obtained Australian citizenship, they are expelled to New Zealand on their release. Most of these people are long-term Australian residents and have little if any connection with New Zealand; in some cases they came here as babies. Jacinda Ardern asserts – reasonably in my view – that these people have made Australia their home and should be accepted as Australia’s problem. She threatened to introduce a reciprocal law in New Zealand if we did not change ours.

Scott Morrison stood firm, as he is wont to do (unless radio shock-jocks tell him not to). But there is another, equally hard-edged issue that undermines his intransigence. There are Australians among the ragged remnants of Daesh/ISIS held as prisoners in Syria. They are not wanted there, but are considered too dangerous to release. If citizenship is the criterion, surely Australia has a moral duty to take these people back, charge them with crimes, re-educate them, hand their children over to foster parents, keep them under surveillance, or let them go. But the Government says, “No.”

Scott Morrison likes to talk about keeping Australians safe. That’s fine, but as one of the world’s richest and most stable countries I’d say we have a bigger responsibility than that. Am I wrong?

It may be cricket, but is it ‘cricket’?

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The friendship between Australia and Britain has never been so strained as when, in 1932-33, the English cricket team toured Australia.

In the third test match, played in Adelaide, they started using a style of bowling known as ‘bodyline’.This picture shows the difference between normal and bodyline bowling. A normal delivery is aimed at the stumps. A bodyline delivery is aimed at the batsman’s upper body, with the intention to scare him into swiping the ball to defend himself against injury. Fielders are placed close to the batsman on his legside, ready for a catch.

In the first over of bodyline bowling the ball narrowly missed Australian batsman Bill Woodfull’s head – unhelmeted in those days, of course. The next ball struck him over his heart. Later in the match Bert Oldfield’s skull was fractured.

Two members of the English team were particularly blamed and vilified as unsportsmanlike: Captain Douglas Jardine and bowler Harold Larwood.

Now England has a new champion: Jofra Archer (pictured here). He bowls fast and short, bouncing it up at the batsman’s head, with the clear aim to intimidate or injure him. He struck Steve Smith a near-fatal blow on the neck. But no-one’s calling it ‘bodyline’. Why not? What’s the difference? Why is the cricket fraternity not crying out against this obviously unsportsmanlike and potentially homicidal tactic?

Not being a cricket aficionado, I admit to being indebted to Wikipedia for the above details. I would really like someone to explain to me why aiming a hard, fast-moving projectile at an opponent’s head, which caused such a furore 86 years ago, is now OK.

Asylum for Apostates

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We just got the news that Rahal al-Qunun has been granted asylum in Canada. Indeed, the 18-year-old Saudi woman is already on her way to her new home.

Rahal al-Qunun

Most people applaud her courageous escape from an oppressive regime, under which the renunciation of Islam (apostasy) is punishable by death. One hopes that by her action she will embolden other women to rebel.

One can also feel sympathy for her family, who will surely be condemned for letting this happen while they were on holiday in Kuwait; and for Canadian authorities who will be responsible for protecting Rahal from vengeful attacks by Muslims who consider death a necessary punishment for apostasy.

How likely are such attacks? According to the Independent newspaper there are twelve Muslim-majority countries in which apostasy carries the death penalty. Scholars are divided over this issue. As often happens where religious belief is based on a very old book, texts can be cited to support any point of view; and because the Quran has been supplemented by a body of writings known as the Hadith (meaning ‘tradition’) Islam is especially vulnerable to this phenomenon.

Asia Bibi

But judging by the scale of violent outrage when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman in Pakistan, was acquitted of a charge of blasphemy against Islam, views that most non-Muslims would consider extreme are not necessarily rare. (Blasphemy is a capital offence in Pakistan, but apostasy is not.)

Given that a) most people in the world would rather live in Western Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand than in their own countries, and b) some of the nastiest countries to live in have Muslim-majority populations, should we not expect a blossoming of apostasy in the expectation that it will confer immediate refugee status and resettlement somewhere nice?

Muslim readers are especially welcome to comment on this post. I claim no theological expertise.

Privatisation

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I was always a reluctant believer in the conventional wisdom of privatising everything that wasn’t nailed down, and much that wasn’t. Some services really should be provided by governments, I thought, especially in cases where:

  • There is a natural monopoly.
  • Access should not be restricted by ability to pay.
  • Private control may confer disproportionate power.

I deplored the rush to privatise utilities, transport infrastructure and a mind-boggling range of government activities including even prisons and aspects of the military.

Land Titles Office, South Australia

The stupidest example to come to my attention recently was the South Australian Land Titles Office in my home state of South Australia. Did the cash-hungry Labour government never pause to wonder why a consortium comprising a commercial bank and a foreign pension fund would be willing to part with A$1.6 billion for the right to run the LTO for 40 years?

Anyway, I have just read a concise and well-documented article by Ross Gittings, economics columnist with Fairfax Media, entitled ‘The Experts Told Us Not To Worry’. I recommend it – if you can find a way to read it without subscribing to the Sydney Morning Herald. He chiefly blames state governments and their supposedly expert advisors, who little dreamt of the depths to which private investors would sink in the pursuit of monopoly profits, or the enormity of the loopholes in the regulatory frameworks conscientiously erected in a vain effort to protect consumers.

Do you have a favourite privatisation horror story to share?

Brickbat for Pegasus (the airline)

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Later this month Mrs SG and I will be flying from Tel Aviv to London on the Turkish airline Pegasus. I’ve flown with them before and they’re OK – except that they’re very mean when it comes to the check-in baggage allowance: 20kg. Not 23kg, but 20kg. This is a nuisance, because from Adelaide to Tel Aviv we’re flying Cathay Pacific which allows 30kg.

So I went to the Pegasus website and found that we could ‘buy’ an extra baggage allowance. If booked at least 7 days in advance it would cost €33 for an extra 20kg bag: €16.50 Israel-Turkey (see screen-shot) + another €16.50 Turkey-UK.

That looked reasonable, so I set about arranging for an extra bag online. Aah, but as soon as I entered our reservation code an algorithm took over and the advertised International Baggage Fare rates were ignored. Suddenly it was going to cost us more than 6 times as much (see 2nd screen-shot, €1 = TL 6.17).

I put the matter to our travel agent, who simply confirmed the higher charge. I called Pegasus’s Israeli call centre and spoke to a lady who did the same and knew nothing of the advertised International Baggage Fare. I called Pegasus’s Turkish call centre and found myself speaking to the same lady.

Finally I asked my travel agent to make a formal complaint to Pegasus about their misleading website. Now I’m shaming Pegasus by the only means at the disposal of a powerless, unvalued, stroppy customer.

Sex Robots

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I just read an article in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, about the development and possible consequences of lifelike intelligent sex robots.

If this prospect interests, excites or appals you, I recommend clicking on this link to read the article and watch the embedded video. I also recommend buying Goldiloxians (The Eeks Trilogy in a single volume) which features sex robots and the practical and ethical complications they may give rise to.

Life Imitates Monty Python – Again

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Three recent news items had me shaking my head, unsure whether to laugh or cry. You have almost certainly heard or read them already, but I’ll share them anyway…

No.1: President Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. A woman comes forward saying that he attempted to rape her at a teenage party 35 years before. BK denies it. The FBI is asked to investigate the allegation – with a whole week to complete the task. Not surprisingly, they could find no evidence one way or the other. If everything I did when I was 17 were made public, incompetent fumbling included… well, I just hope it never is. How about you?

No.2: The promoters of a new horse race (The Everest) want to project advertising material on the ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House. The CEO is interviewed by notorious radio shock jock Alan Jones, explains that the Opera House’s charter forbids commercial advertising, and is vilified, shouted over and threatened on air.

The Premier of New South Wales immediately orders the advertising to go ahead and the Prime Minister backs her, describing the Opera House sails as ‘the biggest billboard in Sydney’. 300,000+ people sign an online petition against the decision and a crown gathers to shine torch-beams on the sails to disrupt the display.

At one stroke the Liberal Party, already in bad odour because of the ongoing civil war that toppled Malcolm Turnbull, has alienated lovers of culture, opponents of gambling and anyone who was appalled by a) the on-air bullying of a conscientious public servant and b) the State Premier’s kowtowing to a shock jock. It is not known whether the scandal has also jeopardised the Opera House’s World Heritage status.

No.3: There is to be an APEC meeting in Port Morseby. To ensure that the participants can travel between their hotels and meeting places, a fleet of 40 Maserati Quattroportes is being airfreighted into PNG. Reportedly, they are to be distributed to Provincial Governors when their very brief service to world leaders is over. I cannot think of any words that would usefully embellish the raw facts of this act of lunacy.