Cats and Tribes

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We have a cat staying with us at the moment, so I was thinking about posting about that species. Then last week we saw a documentary about life in a black suburb in the USA, and I thought I should write something about that. Then I realised that what I would write about one is pretty much what I would write about the other.

The fact is that my relationship with Bella (the cat) is characterised by mutual bemusement. She rubs around my leg in the morning and is pleased to have me stroke the top of her head – once. Then she stalks off shaking her head as if to rid herself of parasites. Later in the day she alternates between rolling voluptuously on the carpet in my path, bolting in apparent panic at my approach, and ignoring me.

I’d like to have a conversation with Bella, to find out how she sees the world, human beings, and me in particular. Is she conscious of her own mortality? Does she distinguish between the humans she knows, or is it just a matter of who last topped up her food bowl? Above all, is she curious about the things she sees humans doing? Curiosity killed the cat, as my prep school teachers would say to any wayward child who exhibited curiosity about anything that wasn’t on the immediate syllabus; but are cats curious about things other than the next meal and the warmest place to sprawl?

And it was exactly the same with the American documentary. I found myself at a loss to understand the ways, manners, habits, choices and even the speech of the people on the TV screen – fortunately the programme was subtitled. It wasn’t just that they were black; it was that they seemed to live in a parallel universe in which drugs, gangs, guns, unemployment, promiscuity and incarceration are normal.

Of course, it’s not unusual for a certain neighbourhood to contain a preponderance of one ethnic group or another, but it seems to me that in the USA (much more than in Australia or the UK) the black population has seceded from the Union and developed their own culture, language, values, forms of religious expression, even their own de facto laws.

My mind went back to 1966, when I used my university vacation to travel around North America. It was the year after the infamous Watts riots in Los Angeles, and I was curious about the term “motherf***er” – new to me at that time. Did negroes (an acceptable word at that time) really believe that white mothers were in the habit of having sex with their sons? I sought out the neighbourhoods I’d read about – as well as those I’d heard about through songs (Kalamazoo, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Laramie…). I hoped to come home with insight but gained little.

I was brought up when the British considered their empire to be a great civilising force, replacing the ball-and-chain of tribalism with the institutions, laws and infrastructure of a modern nation state, illuminated by the glory of The Enlightenment. It looks to me as though that high-minded project has ground to a halt and shifted into reverse.

Foot-In-Mouth Syndrome

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An Australian federal politician, Fraser Anning, has just made his maiden speech in the Senate, in which he called for a return to the White Australia Policy and a ban on Muslim immigration. Just to make sure he had everyone offside he talked of this being the ‘final solution’.

When it was pointed out to him that the very phrase ‘final solution’ was indissolubly linked in everyone’s mind to Hitler, Nazism and the attempted annihilation of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables, he said his words were taken out of context.

Either he doesn’t know what the ‘final solution’ is in historical terms, in which case he may be considered too ignorant to be a useful member of the legislature; or he’s too lacking in sensitivity, political savvy and common sense to be a useful member of the legislature. Either way . . .

Mind you, Mr Anning is not alone in his choice of infelicitous words. How often, even now, do we hear politicians and activists claiming to be on a ‘crusade’?

Yes, I know, in in our nice liberal secular democracies the word ‘crusade’ just means a passionately executed campaign – nothing to do with the repeated Christian assaults on the so-called Holy Land in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. But to a great many Muslims, even today and even in educated circles, the word is still burdened with its original meaning. Its casual use only confirms the suspicion that The West has hostile intent towards Islam and its followers.

Is This Racism . . . ?

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I don’t think I’d hear of Valerie Jarrett until CNN told me that Roseanne Barr had insulted her and lost her TV show as a result. The offending tweet was “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

Valerie Jarrett

The story was accompanied by a photo of Ms Jarrett, in which she did bear some resemblance to the masks used in the Planet of the Apes films. But Google Images has no photos like that, and the one reproduced here shows her as 100% human.

I’ve since done some online research and found that a false rumour had once been spread by her political opponents, saying that she was Iranian (she was in fact born in Iran of US parents) and a Muslim and having proclaimed an agenda to “help change America to be a more Islamic country.”

But Roseanne’s offence was, according to the media, racism. And I don’t get it. Being a Muslim or an advocate of Islam is unrelated to race. Resembling a fictional non-human primate is unrelated to race. Roseanne was undoubtedly guilty of ‘passing personal remarks’ (which I was taught to avoid) and perpetuating a false rumour. But where’s the racism?

Populism

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The Cambridge Dictionary has chosen ‘populism’ as its Word of the Year. The word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary – only a definition of a populist as “a person who claims to support the interests of ordinary people.”

That sounds pretty admirable to me. So why are the words ‘populism’ and ‘populist’ always used pejoratively? Nobody ever says, “That Trump fellow is a real populist. Good for him!” Could it be that the political élite, the pointy-headed intellectuals, the upper middle class people who work in universities, newsrooms and government departments, really do look down on the unwashed masses as Trump and many others claim? Do those people really think they know better what’s good for the common people than the common people themselves?

I have just read an article by Cas Mudde (pictured) in the Guardian Weekly (wishing that I’d thought of that name to give one of my characters in The Eeks Trilogy) in which he argues that what is often called ‘populism’ is really nativism. He goes on to define nativism as “an ideology that holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state;” and characterise it as “nasty.”

This got me thinking about the concept of the nation-state and why it was regarded as such a good thing in the 19th and early 20th centuries; why political heavy­weights in the richest countries of the West now consider it anathema; and why the epithet ‘racist’ is routinely hurled at anyone who expresses a preference for living among people with similar cultural practices, beliefs, values, history and language.

I flipped through a recent issue of the Guardian Weekly and found stories about conflict arising from this preference in six countries: Cameroon, Cyprus, Hungary, Myanmar, Poland and Tibet. And there was a story about German politics, which was dominated for over 40 years by a desire to restore nation-statehood.

Perhaps it’s time for us to be more tolerant of this preference, which seems to be deeply embedded in human nature whether we like it or not.

Sapiens

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It shows great generosity of spirit when one author recommends the work of another. This I now do.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari, and I urge you to read it too. And give it to your friends and relatives, or at least recommend it to them. It’s subtitled ‘A Brief History of Humankind’, and although there may not be much there that you don’t already know, he puts it together in a way that makes one think about it differently. At least, that’s how I felt.

Best of all, Dr Harari ends by speculating about what will happen next in Homo sapiens’ journey, when our powers to create and control will truly make us godlike and the next step in our evolution will be of our own making.

It put me in mind of my own modest work: The Eeks Trilogy, available from all good e-book retailers in a single volume entitled ‘Goldiloxians’, which speculates about our future dealings with intelligent robots. But do read ‘Sapiens’ too.

Trump

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I know, I know. It’s high time I made a pronouncement on the US presidential election. On this occasion I defer to another deep thinker, because he expresses my own thoughts more eloquently than I can express them myself.

Philip Welsby, my relation-by-marriage, has drawn my attention to a 10-minute talk by Sir Roger Scruton that was broadcast by the BBC and may still be heard at the BBC website. Sir Roger (pictured below) explains, dispassionately and succinctly, what went wrong for the US political class and why Donald Trump is President Elect. I found myself agreeing with everything in his talk and I recommend it.

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Bigotry of Low Expectations

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We rarely go out on Monday nights because we don’t want t miss ‘Q&A’, an hour-long ABC TV programme with a panel of interesting people and a live audience.  Usually there are two Australian politicians from opposites sides, but this week the panellists were all foreign writers who were attending Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The most interesting, I thought, was a woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  As you can see from the screenshot below, she is remarkably beautiful.  And as you might guess from her name, she was born a Muslim.  She writes about the need for reform in Islam.  One of her books is called ‘Heretic’: I haven’t read it, so I can’t personally recommend it.

AyanHirsiAli_QandA

I was particularly taken with her accusation that white liberal infidels are reticent about criticising Islamic dogma and custom, even those aspects that stand in stark contradiction to the ideals of liberal democracy – including forced marriage, devaluation of women and persecution of homosexuals and religious minorities. She used the phrase “bigotry of low expectations,” referring to a failure to hold Muslims to account because they cannot be expected to meet the standards we demand of our own kind.

This resonated with me. I am guilty of this kind of bigotry and so are most of my fellow-citizens.  For example, Aborigines are not expected to succeed in the mainstream world of study and work.  They are patronised, subsidised, favoured and cosseted in ways that guarantee a continuation of low achievement from generation to generation.

By the same token we make excuses for unconscionable conduct for which perpetrators claim a religious pretext.  I am thinking, for example, of halal and kosher slaughtering of animals and opting out of the general obligation to vaccinate one’s children.  There was even a case, reported this morning, where a group of accused men refused to stand when the judge entered the courtroom.  Their lawyer claimed that their faith forbade them to stand for anyone but Allah, and cited precedence.

Perhaps it’s our legacy of colonial guilt that makes us unwilling to demand as much from people of other races and faiths as we demand from ourselves, but I agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  This is bigotry and we should shrug it off, and tell people to pull their socks up and behave like decent, responsible citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Letters to the Editor

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Fame as an author is coming more slowly than I expected, so yesterday I decided to take a short-cut: I wrote a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser.  And it was published this morning!

It wasn’t anything momentous. I was just expressing agreement with an article by Tory Shepherd in the same paper, reinforcing the point that race, culture and religion are distinct things.  I suggested that the three are often mischievously conflated so as to pin the label ‘Racist’ on people who object to some religious beliefs or cultural practices.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the reasons why people write to newspapers – why I write to newspapers.  I’m honestly not sure whether I do it because a) I sincerely believe that my small voice, added to a swell of others, may lead to some incalculable but significant improvement in the condition of humanity; or b) I’m an egotistical attention-seeker frustrated by my own impotence.

Do you write to newspapers? If so, why?

Carols

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During the past week Mrs SG and I have attended two carol-singing events organised by local councils. People of all ages brought folding chairs and picnics and sang along with some very talented choirs and bands.  Santa Claus found time to drop in on both occasions.

I am an atheist, but brought up in a Christian cultural environment. I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, any more than I believe in the existence of God, but I was moved nonetheless by The Christmas Story and even felt my eyes moisten during Good King Wenceslas.

The same moistening happened when I read the last chapter of Watership Down, when the Black Rabbit of Inlé came for Hazel.  I was on a Liverpool-bound train to visit my mother for the first time since my father died.  And I was shedding tears for a dead fictional rabbit.

It also happened every time I read the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner to our elder son – the chapter where Christopher Robin tries to explain to Pooh that he’s going off to school and things won’t be the same.  It’s the end of childhood, the end of innocence.

So I sort of understand people who have been brought up in other religious and literary traditions for whom the stories they heard when they were very young resonate deep within throughout their lives. Sometimes that resonance cause them to do irrational and even – in my eyes – wicked things.

 

Donald Trump – In Trouble Again

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Like almost everyone else outside the Republican Party, I find myself staring in stunned disbelief at the popularity polls.  How could anyone consider Donald Trump to be in the Top Ten Million for consideration as the Leader of the Free World?

But I have to interpose my body between Mr Trump and the howls of protest that his latest reported remarks have drawn.  He said that refugees could be “the greatest Trojan horse of all time.”  Whatever the motives and prejudices that may underlie that statement, it is undeniably supported by two very obvious precedents.

First, US foreign policy has for many years been hostage to Zionist lobbyists, whose power depends on a Jewish population (only 2% nationally, but disproportionately influential) which derives in large part from past flows of refugees from persecution in Europe.

Second, the recent outbreak of sanity with respect to US-Cuban relations has been delayed for decades by the Cuban exile population – refugees from Castro and his communist regime, implacably opposed to détente.