Archive for the ‘Popular Culture et al’ Category

There has been widespread publicity – and volumes of commentary and angst  – about whether young women (and some not so young) who left their home countries to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State should be permitted to return to their original countries.

In one case in the UK, the Home Secretary has revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship, a decision supported by apparently 78% of the British population, and possibly effectively rendering her stateless – which even the Home Secretary acknowledges would be illegal.

In the USA, Donald Trump has instructed that another bride, Hoda Muthana, should not be allowed to return to America.

But perhaps there is a more nuanced reaction that should be considered.

Firstly, both these women, and others, claim they were brainwashed into originally heading to IS, and then for supporting it.

In the case of Muthana, she unquestionably urged violence against her American compatriots. In the case of Begum, she reported seeing “a decapitated head in a waste bin” and not being “fazed” by the experience, and that the terrorist bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester was “retaliation” for Western bombing.

However, despite these being utterly abhorrent opinions, it may still be that there are arguments in favour of such people being allowed “home”.

The problem is by no means limited to the West.

As the BBC reported in May 2018 more than 2,000 Russian women have disappeared in Iraq and Syria. Some will be dead. Some will be held by the Governments of those countries, (some of the Russian women and others are rumoured to have been taken to prison in Baghdad, where they face execution), or by anti-IS militia such as Hashd al-Shaabi. Some will be in hiding, or in refugee camps. Is some cases, when captured with their husbands, the husbands have been executed.

So can anything be said for allowing such people to return to their countries of birth or citizenship?

Their age

Most people would concede that decision-making at the age of 15, as in the case of Begum and the two friends that went with her (both now dead) would be wildly different from even a few years later.

Or when, as in Muthana’s case, (she left when 19), she was making decisions in a cloistered and very severe background with little or no external input. For example, she says her family in Alabama were deeply conservative and placed restrictions on her movements and interactions, factors she claims contributed to her radicalisation. “You want to go out with your friends and I didn’t get any of that. I turned to my religion and went in too hard. I was self-taught and thought whatever I read, it was right. I look back now and I think I was very arrogant. Now I’m worried about my son’s future. In the end I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends. I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed.”

Whilst Begum says she does not regret travelling to Syria, which has been widely reported, she also says she came to believe that IS deserved to be defeated because it was corrupt and cruel. That is a much more nuanced attitude. Such an attitude expressed openly in the ‘Caliphate’ would have seen her executed.

In Muthana’s case, she speaks of having made a great mistake in travelling to join IS, of being manipulated, of being ignorant.

Do we believe them? Are they sincere? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it make any difference if they were?

The essential question here is should we punish people for life, effectively, because of errors made – even egregious errors – when they were children, or when they say they were misled?

The pressure on them inside IS

There is ample evidence that IS placed such “brides” under huge pressure.

They were rigidly kept under lock and key until they married a fighter, to which they would not have been introduced, simply shown a photograph.

Once released into marriage, their movement was severely restricted, and any attempt to live an independent existence could result in terrible punishment. Soon after Begum’s marriage, (just three weeks after she arrived in the area), her husband was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.

It is not impossible to imagine that women such as Muthana would, effectively, have continued being “brainwashed” during their time in IS territory, or become too afraid to change their minds or express any different opinions. Whilst Muthana does not deny sending inflammatory tweets when she first arrived, and after her first husband was killed, she then claims her Twitter account was run by an IS fighter. Why did she stop sending her own tweets? Should we at least ask?

Are they actually guilty of any crime?

There is an argument that the women gave succour and sustenance to a terrorist organisation through their very presence. But other than this somewhat nebulous charge, have they actually broken any laws that would justify them being permanently excluded?

in 2015 Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals. And in Begum’s case specifically, Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria. However as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her. That might be more complex now. Then again, Security minister Ben Wallace said last week: “As a British citizen she has a right to come home here. We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News. But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”

Should they be obliged to face prosecution?

Though it might be unclear what they would be charged with, it may well be that the women concerned should be prosecuted in a court of law.

Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 that if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.

He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return. “If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.

However this begs the question, should an individual’s guilt or innocence, whatever their actions, not be judged by a jury of their peers? Is there actually any more basic premise for western societies which support the jury system?

Fighters returning to their countries of origin are routinely taken to court, judged and sentenced. Why is one course of action right, and another wrong?

If it is simply because there are actually no laws under which to charge the women, that is surely not a reason to sentence them to exile in limbo in absentia.

Do we want them just running around anywhere?

Many IS brides are in camps (or areas) controlled by America and/or her allies in the region. European countries show no great enthusiasm to bring captured IS fighters home to face prosecution, nor to go to dangerous areas to interview or assess them.

But President Trump has publicly asserted that if the Europeans don’t steep up he will simply open the gates and let them go. In which case, will the women be released as well? To go … where? With what attitude or future actions?

So much is unclear.

Can they be rehabilitated?

The answer to this question is ‘probably’. De-radicalisation programs around the world actually show high levels of success.

The question is what is actually of more use to our society – de-radicalised people who were given a chance to atone for their behaviour, or permanently locking them out of sight overseas?

It is, of course, impossible to predict what future contribution they might make, but it is equally impossible to argue “None”. They might end us as useful members of society. They may even be part of an effort to help to prevent other young people becoming radicalised. In that sense, bringing them home would start to redress their foolishness.

Last but not least: what about the children?

Both these women – and many others – have very young children. No one would argue the children have done anything wrong, apart from having the misfortune to be born in a war zone.

Do the sins of their parents require them to be punished too? Surely not. And many people have said that their children should be allowed entry. But if we are to then obdurately refuse to take their mothers back, is that morally supportable? There is no evidence that the mothers are abusive towards their children – rather the opposite, in fact. So on what grounds can we or should we separate them?

At least 730 children have been born inside ISIS territory to foreign nationals, including 566 born to Western Europeans. Are they all to stay in refugee camps in Syria or surrounding countries?

Our conclusion?

It is often said that it is easy to forgive those that we agree with, or who are essentially good people. But it’s harder – and perhaps more relevant – to forgive those that we do not like.

Both of these women, and others, have expressed hateful opinions, as well as more complex ones.

But the issues they pose go to the heart of our judicial system. And they also talk to who we are as people, and how our attitudes to them define our societies, and how we wish to behave. Decisions about their future should not be made on the basis of pandering to mob disgust, even if that disgust is perfectly understandable.

Our view is that it is far too simplistic to argue, as social media has done, “Pah! They made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Why? Well, for one reason above all.

If we eschew totally the opportunity for rehabilitation – or even for measured punishment that fits the crime – then there would only be one sentence for all transgressions or crimes. And that sentence would be life in jail, or execution.

Now who does that sound like?

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

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The world is going through convulsions currently about the just-released new movie Mary Queen of Scots, primarily because of the acting skills of the remarkable Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whom apparently light up the screen, and admiration for the lush staging of the story, both in terms of the gorgeous countryside and the recreation of medieval court life.

You can view the trailer for the movie below:

From Ronan’s powerful screen presence and mastery of a Scots accent to Robbie’s ineffably emotional performance, audiences seem set to love the film. Alex Hudson of Exclaim! wrote, “The real star here isn’t Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses.”

The danger, though, for all that both leading ladies’ offer masterful performances, is that people will mistake it for history, which it is not.

As Benjamin Lee in the Guardian said:

“Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently her real accent was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened),” he writes.

But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.”

 

It’s an interesting point. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but a personal meeting between the two of them is pivotal to an understanding of the story. Does that really matter? Perhaps not. As one commenter pointed out in the comments for the trailer: “No one is watching this for educational purposes. Nobody’s gonna pay to watch a movie about (people) passive aggressively writing letters. ”

The same is true of one of the best films we have seen in recent years – certainly the finest leading performance – with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film plays fast and loose with the chronology of events in Freddie Mercury’s life. For example, it appears to criticise Mercury for attempting solo albums, but ignores the fact his fellow Queen members were doing the same. It places the revelation of Mercury’s HIV infection as just before the seminal Live Aid performance, where band members confirm they knew a lot sooner than that.

See the trailer here – and see the film. We cannot recommend Rami Malek’s performance highly enough. It is utterly mesmerising and well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

Other noted movies to depart from strict historicity include recent efforts like Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), and the Darkest Hour (with Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Churchill), and many others that are great movies, not so great history.

Churchill never rode the London Tube, for example, but the scene where he chats amiably to working class travelers is central to understanding his motivation to keep fighting the war with Hitler. Similarly, Churchill is portrayed as a hero for standing up to the defeatism of Chamberlain and Halifax, which he was, but ignores the vital role played by Labour Leader Clem Attlee, who was vital in bolstering support for Churchill.

The interesting question for all movie goers and critics is whether these mild changes to actual historicity really matter much, or whether compiling a compelling story is the higher priority, a story which contains within it deeper truths about the people and events concerned.

It will be interesting, in particular, to see what people make of Mary’s character in this film. Critics have argued that the film has strong feminist overtones, and it has certainly been promoted as such, portraying both Mary and Elizabeth, to a degree, as victims of the patriarchy in their society.

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Mary of Scotland in France

But that would surely be a case of too easily dismissing both women. They were both extremely strong-willed, eloquent, extremely well-educated, frequently sure of their personal direction, often capricious, sexually aggressive, charismatic and very often arrogant. Neither were especially merciful to those who opposed them.

Mary in particular undoubtedly endured bad luck. The early death of her first husband, Francis II of France, very possibly robbed her of a peaceful and contented future. (That she was deeply in love with Francis seems undoubted.) His death, and her subsequent return to Scotland, landed her in the middle of a deeply charged and volatile situation, riven with competing forces and religious tension, for which nothing could have adequately prepared her.

But she didn’t help herself. As history would have it, and with one eye on the English throne, she managed to annoy both her Catholic and her Protestant subjects.

Mary’s real downfall – which is often portrayed as due to her scheming (history being written by the victors, in this case Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil) – was her obvious claim to be the rightful successor to Elizabeth, and as such her inevitable role as the lodestar of hope for English Catholics still smarting after the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of the protestant Elizabeth.

Even though Elizabeth would not name Mary as her heir – fearing being supplanted by her if her legitimacy was too strongly endorsed – she assured the Scottish envoy Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary. It is questionable, at least, whether Mary could ever have escaped her fate once landed in Scotland. She was simply too important – or too dangerous – for too many people.

What is certain, though, is that Mary’s own choice of male partners was largely the single most obvious factor in her undoing.

Mary made a fatal error in falling in love with and marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which infuriated Elizabeth who felt the marriage should not have gone ahead without her permission, as Darnley was both her cousin and an English subject.

Elizabeth felt especially threatened by the marriage, because as descendants of her aunt, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and their children, if any, would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. In being ruled by her heart rather than her head Mary shows herself as much less circumspect than her cousin, who more than once put away from her men she clearly loved, but who were not suitable as husbands.

The marriage to Darnley, another Catholic, also prompted a Protestant rebellion. Thereafter Darnley’s dubious character and cack-handed meddling in politics led directly to Mary fleeing Scotland and her eventual death.

Similarly, her subsequent dalliance with and marriage to Lord Bothwell was also a disaster. Far from pacifying the Protestants, the marriage shocked Protestants and Catholics alike, with many people believing Mary had conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Whether or not this was actually the case has intrigued historians, who do not agree on her guilt. What is certain is that Mary badly miscalculated the effect of her relationship with Bothwell on her long-term survival as Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth proved by far the more wily of the two Queens.

For many years, with Mary captive in England, she balanced what seems to have been genuine concern for Mary’s well-being with a desire to see her either restored to the Scots throne within a Protestant state, or simply to neuter her threat. But whatever she did, the Catholics of England – encouraged and abetted by Mary herself – simply wouldn’t settle down. Rebellions in her favour in the North of England, the Ridolfi plot, a plan to marry her to the Spaniard Don John of Austria who would then invade England from the Netherlands, (that one was directly down to the then Pope), the Throckmorton Plot, the William Parry plot and finally the Babington plot made it clear that Mary was actively plotting to replace Elizabeth, and her assassination. Indeed, it could be argued that with evidence repeatedly piling up Elizabeth was remarkably patient with her wayward cousin.

Mary’s eventual execution was inevitable. It was required to secure the realm.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she does not deserve our sympathy, and her courage at her execution undoubtedly plays into the sympathetic view of her held by many people.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had she ever become Queen of England. When her son by Darnley, James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth, he came down hard on the English Catholics in a way that Mary probably would not have. James’s severity kept a lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of religious strife in the country for 22 years, and it is arguable that Mary would not have been as successful, and may even have returned to the violent religiosity of her namesake, “Bloody” Mary Tudor.

But James’s son, Charles, who seems to have shared many emotional characteristics with his grandmother, clearly failed to manage the fault lines in English society, and he, too, paid with his head.

Nothing in Britain would ever be the same again. And the much-mooted union of Scotland and England would not actually occur until 1707.

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

To get uplifting words of wisdom in your Facebook feed every day, free of charge, just go here https://www.facebook.com/thoughtfortoday/ and click the Like button at the top of the page, where the pink arrow is pointing at it …

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Thought for Today, Day 54 – feel with your heart; remember what’s important.

Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Later in life Keller became the world’s most famous activist for the disabled and a noted campaigner on many other issues.

One meeting she held was reported thus: “a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on “Happiness,” and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … she imparted that “helping your fellow men were one’s only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, it had a profound impact on the audience.

Now: what were you worrying about again?

#helenkeller #deafness #disability #courage #hope #thoughtfortoday

This girl.

As we all celebrate International Day of the Girl (Child) let’s remember that smashing glass ceilings in Western countries is ALL our job. And all well and good. Bravo. Let’s be in that with bells on.

But let us also remember that many of the girl children born into the world are perpetually hungry, don’t get even the most rudimentary education, are virtual slaves at the hands of their fathers and male relatives, and subject to horrific “honour” violence, too. Let us remember that the laws in their lands protect them inadequately, and that they are marginalised and ignored in decision making.

Painting by Amrita Shergil

So let’s not just make this International Day of the Girl who needs equal pay in her cossetted Western society, or who needs to aspire to be a Board Director like her male sibling. Yes, she does. Yes, those things are very important.

But in other societies – societies we do business with, and visit –  the girls would just appreciate pay. Any pay. Any chance for anything beyond the grinding poverty that locks them into a life of walking miles to collect clean water, scrabbling in the rubbish for food, or spending from pre-dawn to late at night engaged on domestic chores and caring for men.

So let’s make this “day” about them, first.

It’s also “Mental Health Day” today.

An ironic juxtaposition in so many ways.

Whilst we focus on the very real needs of everyone who suffers from mental health problems –  and Lord knows we need to do that – let’s also remember that food, shelter, a job, and dignity are the basic building blocks of a happy life.

And we owe it to the world to ensure everyone gets at least a start. A chance.

Because that’s really good for their mental health.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  1. South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  2. Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  3. Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  4. Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  5. Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  6. Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  7. Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  8. Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  9. Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  10. Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18

A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

Let’s keep our promises. “Girl child” is asking us to.

#marriageequality #loveislove

Dear Reader, if you have spent any time at all reading our blog, you will be aware of two things. One, I have opinions. (Hence the name of the blog.) Two, I am a Christian.

So when the pro-same sex marriage rally was announced in Melbourne over the weekend, there was never any doubt we would attend.

Firstly, for me, equality for homosexuals has been a lifelong campaign.

My proudest “Button” in my collection of political ephemera is one that reads “Gay Liberation is Our Liberation”. (It is an ample example of how old we are now that no-one today would refer to “Gay Liberation”.)

Whenever I wore the badge, forty plus years ago, sooner or later someone would challenge me on it. I was stronger and fitter then, and ready to “look after myself” if I got a hammering. Typically some liquored-up idiot would prod me in the chest with an accusative finger and breathe “So, you’re a poofter, eh?”

This gave me the opportunity to say “Actually, no I am not. But Gay Liberation is about the heterosexual community freeing itself from our own bigotry.” This would usually result in the knuckle-scraper backing off with a confused look on his face (it was always men) and – now and again – a useful conversation. It was my small contribution to the struggle, because, of course, if a gay person had worn the badge the exchange would often have ended up with a punch in the face.

We also used to run discos when I was at University with the poster headline “Come and Meet a Real Live Queer” a decade or more before the LGBTI+ generally community worked out that they could “own” the word, and thus challenge and even change the negative connotations associated with it. Even if those days, communications was my passion.

Secondly, I have studied Christianity all my life – I have a degree in Theology – and I simply detest the way that the Church is often portrayed (and often behaves) as the home of wowsers and conservatives.

My Christianity is progressive, activist, small-l liberal and dedicated to over-turning shibboleths. I simply cannot abide the way that literal interpretations of Scripture (which are not even based on scholarship, but usually on bias and/or inaccurate translations) are used to support essentially anti-Christian behaviour – of which opposing “same sex” marriage is simply the most recent example.

Fundamentalist Christianity has been used to excuse burning “heretics”, drowning witches, slavery, banning contraception, destroying womens’ health provision, idiotic anti-scientific nonsense like Creationism, and much more. Little wonder the Church in the developed world is rapidly losing adherents.

In its blind opposition to same-sex attracted people having the same rights as everyone else it has caused huge suffering to many, including people who I know and love. The tactics used by the ugly confluence of the far-right and the fundamentalist Churches (epitomised by the often appalling Roman Catholic Church, the conservative Anglican diocese of the Sydney, and the utterly bigoted and so-called Australian Christian Lobby) seeks to portray all Christians as anti-gay.

Well we ain’t. At all. “Not in my name” comes to mind. So when the rally was announced, my attendance was inevitable.

But having decided to attend, what then? I have no standing in the Equal Love movement, so they weren’t going to ask me to speak. No public position to leverage. Was there anything I could do to help, over and above simply wearing out some shoe leather and getting some much-needed exercise?

Because I am in the comms business, I decided my brain should be given a bit of a workout as well as the legs.

I decided to actively take on the nonsense that is written about me and millions of people like me by those who should know better, or who should stop behaving so shamefully as trying to present their opinions as mine.

I decided to say, deliberately, “Hey – I am bulk-standard, standard-issue Middle Australian, and I am voting “Yes”.” With the obvious implied corollary, “You should too.”

I simply wanted to make it clear to everyone else attending the rally that the support for equal rights spreads right across the political and social spectrum. Because that’s one way to ensure that people outside of the core campaign group will be encouraged to stand up too: to come out and vote, and to campaign.

And because – above all – I think the LGBTI+ community deserves to know that the rest of us support them. They’ve been fighting this battle too long and too hard for us to miss this chance to help them get a “Yes” vote across the line. As one placard read at the rally, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting this shit”.

Quite.

Hence the placard.

Agit-Prop? Hell, yes it was.

Was I looking for publicity? Yes, I was. Not in the sense that I wanted ME to become famous. (At all. I’m too old for all that rubbish.) No, I wanted the principle embodied by the placard to become famous. Or at least, to spread out beyond my head.

Maybe a TV camera might snap it, and it could get seen? Or maybe a journo or two? Yes, I was aware of that possibility. Most of all, of course, I simply wanted to stand in solidarity with the other campaigners, and against the nonsense. But I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t hope the placard might make some difference beyond that. Don’t ask, don’t get, eh? It’s worth trying anything to overcome naked wrongs.

As so often in life, though, what really happened was way beyond my expectations.

The moment Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I arrived, and plonked ourselves strategically down on a well-positioned bench, we were deluged with smiling people wanting to photograph the sign. I completely lost track of how many people did. Hundreds, certainly. We had so many ‘thank yous’, so many thumbs up, not a few kisses planted on our cheeks and plenty of “high fives”. It was really quite overwhelming, and beautiful.

At one point I turned to Jenie and said “And this is what people are afraid of? All this love? All these terrible revolutionaries seeking to undermine the very basis of society.? These are the nicest people I have ever met!” Everyone was there – families with kids of all ages, masses of young people of all apparent sexualities, gay couples, and all age groups. It was uplifting in the best possible way.

One journo asked me why I was there. I had to stop and think for a moment, because I hadn’t planned an answer. In the end I said “Freedom’s important.” She smiled and said “That’s the best reason I’ve heard today.” She went down on the list of “Positives”.

One fundo Christian with crazy eyes came up to me and assailed me with every ridiculous argument the “No” lobby have been pushing out. I politely but firmly batted back every faux Biblical quotation with another, or with a more accurate translation. Every time I did, she moved the goalposts. In the end, after quite some time, I put her down as “irretrievably No”, and asked her (nicely) to move on. “There!” she said triumphantly, “when you’re losing the debate you just back out!” I looked at her sadly, and wondered, not for the first time, when and how children turn into adults with this level of stupidity. What happens to people? She wouldn’t leave. In the end I had to say firmly, “Please: leave me alone.” She wanted off, eyes blazing with self-induced fire, muttering.

But in general, we were deluged with kindness and positivity. I will never forget it. And at this stage, let me explicitly acknowledge Jenie’s role. My lovely wife, although she has her own strongly held opinions on just about everything,  is not a natural attender at rallies – she doesn’t like crowds, or public attention for that matter – yet she was utterly supportive of my goals in going to the rally, and she engaged with journos, and our neighbours around us, she helped me hold the sign, pointed out people who wanted a photo and – a million thanks – found us a coffee. “Whaddawewant?” “ Hot coffee!” “When do we want it?” “About ten minutes ago, thanks.” Sharing this life-affirming event with her made it all the more meaningful.

Later, we discovered that the placard had been snapped by a photo journo Tara Watson, and then tweeted and posted on FB by Guardian journo and opinion leader Van Badham, and then re-tweeted by Penny Wong, and essentially, that was that.

The picture was suddenly everywhere. Jenie and I were deluged with kind and supportive messages, and when our daughter re-posted the photo and said she was proud of us, then so was she. A more practical example of the essential goodness of folk you couldn’t wish for. It was embarrassing and wonderful in equal measure.

So much, so good. So viral. The world is an interesting place, these days. I am happy so many people got to see the message, and there it is.

But two people we met stand out in my mind, and the real point of this article is to tell you about them.

No names – they didn’t ask for publicity – but their stories deserve to be told.

One guy came up, and told us about his Dad, who had recently died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 90. He had never “had the conversation” with his Dad about his sexuality, and now he never would. But after his Dad’s death, he mentioned this to one of the nurses who used to look after him. “Oh, no,” said the nurse. “He knew.”

She had been walking the old chap in the garden, asking him about his family. He had three sons, he said. One did such and such, one did such and such, and one did such and such. He’s gay, of course.” The old man couldn’t have cared less, and he knew.

As he told us this story, tears started running down his cheeks. “Good thing I’ve got dark glasses on” he said, as he wiped them away. “Thank you so much for the sign. It’s so good to know that people like you understand.”

He made his apologies, and left. It was awhile before I dared to speak again.

A little while later, a middle-aged woman came up, and insisted on shaking hands. Momentarily, after struggling to smile, she started crying too.

“I just want to say thank you. I just want to shake your hand. Our son is gay, and he gets bullied at school. Badly bullied. That’s why I’m here. I’m here with my husband. I’m so excited to see you here, making this point. It makes all the difference to me. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you.”

She turned away, too choked to say any more. I just said “You’re welcome.” It seemed totally inadequate, and it was, but what can you do? Here was the ugly side of this debate manifested in a real person’s life, in a real person’s family, raw, and unsanitised and brutal and sad.

I felt – and feel – deeply humbled and grateful for having met these people.

I wish everyone could meet them.

This stupid, unnecessary and divisive government opinion poll would be won by a huge margin, if people could just get past the propaganda of the “No” campaign, and talk to real people who are going to be affected profoundly, for good or ill, by the judgement of their peers.

God bless you, Australia. Please vote “Yes”.

And go to the next rally. With your own sign. It matters.

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 12.09.51 pm

This is a quotation on the “True Marriage Equality” website – a noisy, and to our eyes offensive and very ridiculous organisation, that has popped up.

This is the Alt-Right/Fake News experience happening right now in Australia. This is the unpleasant, harmful and entirely unnecessary experience – that many warned that Malcolm Turnbull’s weak-kneed inability to stand up to his own right wing as he clings to The Lodge was foisting on us – that has been created by this ludicrous opinion poll.

The quoting of Paul Keating implying clearly that he is against same sex marriage (in an interview from a long time ago, despite the date on the article header being 19th August two days ago, clearly the date the post when up but NOT when Keating said anything) is actually an utterly dishonest taking of quotes out of context and it is promoted as a positive for their biased arguments.

In a desperate attempt to fight back against this crap being promoted by the No campaign – which has included anonymous and deeply offensive posters appearing on Melbourne’s streets, from who-knows-where) here is the actual text from whence the quote was plucked:

RAY MARTIN: John Howard, are you relaxed and comfortable about homosexual marriages in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I’m not. I don’t believe that homosexuals should be discriminated against. I believe that sexual preference is a private matter. I do not believe that homosexual relationships should be given the same legal status as a marriage. I believe that marriage has a special role in our society. It is a special institution which gives an enormous amount of stability to our community.

RAY MARTIN: So, a gay couple in marriage is not a family unit in Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: I didn’t say that. Look, I am not going to get in to a legalistic definition. I mean, a family is an emotional relationship and it is a commitment of people.

RAY MARTIN: But like Tim Fischer, you are not in favour of homosexual marriages?

JOHN HOWARD: But I do not and I make no bones about it. I am not in favour of homosexual marriages.

RAY MARTIN: Paul.

PAUL KEATING: People live in all sorts of relationship, Ray. You can’t describe a family in any one way. The nuclear family is an important, but nevertheless somewhat ageing concept.

RAY MARTIN: Can you ever be convinced that two men and a cocker spaniel is not a family unit as you once said in Cabinet?

PAUL KEATING: Well, you will never build a society on it. You will not build a nation on it, but it is another thing to discriminate against people. It is another thing to seek to do as the National Party and others have done, is speak in discriminatory terms about people who live in homosexual relationships.

JOHN HOWARD: You really are trying to have two bob each way. I mean, just state your view and get on to the next one.

PAUL KEATING: Oh, excuse me, I can give my own answers, thanks. I don’t need you to interpret them, John.

Presumable he doesn’t need “True Marriage Equality” to interpret them in this way, either. We also refer you to our much-read article explaining why all the arguments posted by Christians in favour of bias against homosexuals is NOT Biblical.

Why is the Church anti-gay if the Bible isn’t?

 

We’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but an email from a friend nudged us into actually doing it. If you’ve read them before, well, enjoy the re-run. If you haven’t read them, then you’ve got a bunch of very popular blogs to go through!

  1. The White Rose. A tragic story of resistance fighter Sophie Scholl and her friends and family, and their horrific execution by the Nazis during the Second World War. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2Fb
  2. How one pissed off customer can F*** up your brand. https://wellthisiswhatithink.com/2014/04/28/ryanair/
  3. Art. Vaginas: loads of them in a row. Feminism. Womens’ self image. That sort of thing. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-10P
  4. Secret Servicemen and Prostitutes in Columbia. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-vD
  5. It’s official. Adam and Ever, er, weren’t. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-ud
  6. Gratuitously offensive political joke.* http://wp.me/p1LY0z-sJ
  7. On Snooki, the Borgias, and Big Tits http://wp.me/p1LY0z-5D (One of our first ever blogs, and still popular five years on!)
  8. Nicest little winery within an hour of Melbourne. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2GV
  9. While some people die in an emergency, and some don’t. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-2GV
  10. The Advertising F*** Ups of all time. http://wp.me/p1LY0z-1Dk

 

We do hope you enjoy re-visiting some of these, for a laugh, or a moment’s thoughtfulness.

Over three-quarter of million visits have now been made from all over the world to the blog in five years. We are deeply touched that people enjoy it, and we look forward enormously to the next five years, bringing you the news others ignore, and, of course, plenty of opinions. From us, and you. Thank you.

Abril Gallardo rode 15 hours in a van to Austin to protest new immigration laws, and to urge fellow Hispanics to fight back.

“Fear motivated me to get involved,” said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who entered the U.S. illegally at age 12.

Texas cities and immigrant rights’ groups have challenged the legality of the law, hopeful for a legal victory like the one in Arizona, but that could take months to have any effect.

But even as some vowed to fight, others have begun fleeing the state. Their ranks are still too small to quantify, but a larger exodus — similar to what occurred in Arizona — could have a profound effect on the Texas economy.

Texas has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute. No one seems to have considered the effect on Texas’s economy should those people abruptly leave, or get kicked out.

Some are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer — even if it means relinquishing lives they’ve spent years building.

Jose, a 43-year-old Mexican living in the U.S. illegally since 2001, and his wife Holly left Austin for Seattle in January in anticipation of Texas’ immigration crackdown. That meant parting with Jose’s grown son, their community of friends and their beloved home of eight years.

“I felt like we ripped our roots up and threw ourselves across the country,” said Holly, a 40-year-old Kentucky native who wanted to protect her husband.

Holly said as soon as Donald Trump was elected president, she and her husband began preparing to move. They expected Texas would “follow Trump’s agenda trying to force local law enforcement to do immigration’s job.” And when they heard Texas had approved a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” she said they “finalised the decision.”

At Wellthisiswhatithink we think these changes are crazy. Why tear apart families that have lived peacefully and constructively in a country for ten, twenty, thirty years? Productive citizens should be given a simple and non-discriminatory path to citizenship. What the hell ever happened to “send me your poor and huddled masses”?

America has lost its soul, and its way.

Looks like a real peach, doesn’t he? Never mind background checks. He should fail a foreground check.

Deputies: Man Accused Of Shooting At Neighbours Following Dispute Over Noisy Children

From South Carolina:

A Goose Creek man is behind bars and charged with fours counts of attempted murder after deputies say he opened fire on neighbours following a dispute over loud children.

On Monday at approximately 4:50 p.m., deputies with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office responded to 107 Gator Drive in the Goose Creek area of Berkeley County reference to a report of two victims possibly being shot.

After arriving on the scene, deputies met with George Ernest Merritt, 65, of that address who stated, “the victim would be OK” as he had “only shot him in the shoulder.”

According to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, juveniles were playing in the road close to where the suspect lives. At some point, deputies say that Merritt went outside and told the children to be quiet.

After interacting with Merritt, deputies say the children went home and told their grandparents, who had been watching them after school. The grandparents went outside to speak with Merritt and advise him to speak with them and not yell at the children. This interaction took place near the intersection of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive.

At some point, Merritt reportedly got upset and left – returning to his house where he retrieved a 22 caliber pistol. Deputies say he returned to the corner of Guerry Circle and Gator Drive and began to shoot at the grandparents, and by some accounts, the children. Whatever the facts, the entire incident was captured on a video surveillance system, which will make things easier, no doubt.

Deputies say he then returned to his home and waited for deputies to arrive. He was taken into custody without incident.

Merritt was charged with 4 counts of Attempted Murder and one count of “Possession of a weapon during a violent crime”. He was transported to the Hill Finklea Detention Centre to await warrant service and a bond hearing.

Not wanting to pre-judge the case, but one suspects that George Ernest Merritt might be going away for quite some time.

dialogue

 

This blog is a re-purposing of an exchange I just had with a dear friend on Facebook. I know this friend to be a sincere man, who thinks deeply. His identity is irrelevant. The discussion isn’t.

Begins:

But what you don’t seem to appreciate, [name], is that all your bile (or rather the bile in the websites and news services you quote) is aimed at Muslims. I would ask you to consider the following:

>We’re pissed off about being branded a racist when we speak out for what we believe in

No, people are branded racists when they categorise an entire people as being one thing – less intelligent, more violent, more hateful, etc – when clearly that cannot be applied to all the people in that group. Calling out “all Muslims” – or “all Anyone” of course – IS racist, because no one group is homogenous.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught crap at school

Well, you’d have to give me an example. The schools I deal with, judging the Ainger Awards, for example, seem to be turning out very aware, balanced and thoughtful kids, chock full of stuff I never knew. And my daughter, who has had to work very hard, has progressed to doing a PhD in neuroscience from a not-especially-academic Christian school, so I am pretty impressed with that.

Maybe your experience is different. I’m all ears.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught that they can go to whatever toilet they like

Unisex toilets are hardly the barbarians at the gate, and if they make life easier for transgender teenagers I have no problem with them. I find kids today much more respectful of each other’s space than we were. I suspect it’s just a change, and change can be scary. I haven’t heard a single case of it causing a problem, here or anywhere – but I have heard plenty of middle aged people going volcanic about it.

>communities are dropping Christmas celebrations

Certainly not in Melbourne. Carols by Candlelight was great this year. Are you sure this is happening, or have you heard of one or two nutjobs going on about it, and beat it up into a “thing”?

PS Muslims think Christ was a holy man, too. Our neighbours gave us a lovely card and a generous gift this year.

>we’re pissed off that Muslim only housing estates are being built in Australia

Why? If people want to live together, let them. We have Chinese retirement homes in Doncaster – the fabric of society seems remarkably unchallenged. We have had Jewish-only schools, homes and – frankly – suburbs for decades. No one cares less. Are you just afraid of something of which you have no real experience?

>we’re pissed off because Anzac Day marches have to be cancelled because RSL clubs can’t afford the extra security due to threat of terror attacks

Here we can agree totally. But you also need to remember that we have had as many terror incidents from bikie gangs and the far right Nazis in Australia as we have had from Muslims. Beating up fear about a virtually unheard of event – a terrorist attack in Australia – only serves to make people anxious. Sure, anything can happen, but the fact is we are a very long way from everywhere, and 99.99999% recurring of our population are law abiding and peaceful. Certainly as regards politics and religion. I know a few bookies who should be inside …

>we’re pissed off because every time we become part of a large crowd we’re looking over our shoulder

Yes, yes, yes – but I have to be frank with you, this has been going on pretty much since the beginning of society. Sadly, there is always someone ready to throw a bomb or lash out with a gun or a sword, and right now most of them are from extremist minority sects of Islam. But it wasn’t long ago, for example, that the world was just as transfixed by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades (some of whose attacks were CIA-led false flag attacks, by the way), the Fenians chucked grenades and bombs around willy nilly for about 150 years in the UK, anarchists started World War 1, etc etc.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.” Whilst what is happening know is horrible, and deplorable and indefensible, it isn’t actually all that different to centuries of conflict. If you want it to stop, find peaceful solutions, rather than pretending there is some new great conspiracy threatening your tea and toast.

I will say this – the main problem with Islamic extremism at the moment is the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and the only reason we even know about it is because we have interpolated ourselves into their countries in a most aggressive and colonial way, instead of leaving the Arabs and the Persians to sort it out themselves. We made ourselves sitting ducks by insanities like invading Iraq when we had no clear reason why – except to secure oil supplies, as Alexander Downer admitted – absolutely predictably de-stabilising the entire region – and NOT intervening when the majority of the Syrian population asked us to, to get rid of the brutal Assad regime, because we were so burned by our own idiocy in Iraq.

In Iraq alone, over 500,000 civilians have died, 100% because of the instability caused by OUR actions, if not necessarily by our direct actions.

We let our politicians do that.

22 died in Manchester. Which breaks my heart. And I condemn it utterly. But think about it. Think about the half a million in Iraq alone. Think about the four million displaced from Syria. Can you understand why some people, not me, at all, but some people, don’t understand why we feel so threatened, compared to them?

Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember you
Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember
Saffie, we don’t know what to do
Saffie, we don’t know

Saffie.

[                                        ]

Later reporting: MANCHESTER FIRST RESPONDER TELLS OF MOMENT HE FOUND YOUNGEST VICTIM SAFFIE ROUSSOS

A first responder to the Manchester Arena suicide attack has told of how an eight-year-old girl had called out for her mum as she lay in his arms during her dying moments.

Paul Reid, 43, had tried to reassure Saffie Rose Roussos that everything would be OK as he waited with her while help arrived, during the horrific attack aftermath.

Speaking with The Sun, Mr Reid said he tried to look for the terrorist after he heard a bomb at the end of the Ariana Grande concert on Monday.

Paul Reid was a first responder at the scene of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Photo: BBC

Mr Reid instead rushed to comfort those who he had found injury, laying on the concert hall floor.

One of those was little Saffie, who he wrapped in his coat, before helping her onto a stretcher. It wasn’t until the next day that Mr Reid learnt the little girl he tried to save had died in hospital from her injuries.

Saffie was the youngest of the 22 killed in the attack.

“She was a dying little girl and she just wanted her mum. It was devastating,” Mr Reid said, in tears.

Mr Reid, also a father, had been at the concert and was one of the first to contact emergency services after Salman Abedi blew himself up.

“The concert was just about to end and I was at the bottom of the stairs at the main exit. Then I just heard a boom. I could see dust, smoke and stuff flying around,” he said. “I ran back up the stairs and I was actually looking for a terrorist. I knew it had been a bomb.

Mr Reid was reduced to tears as he spoke of Saffie, who he found a few feet away.
“She was trembling all over,” he said. “I saw the little girl was conscious and I said, ‘What’s your name?’

“I thought she said Sophie. When I asked her how old she was she said she was eight.

“I wanted to keep her talking and asked her if she had enjoyed the concert but then I realised she was having difficulty breathing.

“She said, ‘Where’s my mum?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know but we are going to find her in a minute. Don’t worry. We are going to sort it out. You are going to be all right’.

Tributes in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack on Monday night. Photo: AAP

“The girl kept trying to fall asleep but I knew I had to keep her awake and conscious. I was stroking her face and saying, ‘Come on Sophie stay awake. You’re going to be all right. They are coming to take you away in a minute.’

“But she kept drifting into unconsciousness. I cannot bear to think about it. Then she started shivering and told me she felt cold. I took my coat off and put it over her but she was still shaking a bit.

“Once we got outside one of the police flags down an ambulance. We gently put her in and she is still alive with her eyes open. That’s the last time I saw her.”

“I only knew her for a few minutes but I will never forget her,” he said of Saffie.

None of us will ever forget you, Saffie.

Chuck a couple of these in tonight’s mutton curry and you’ll know all about it!

 

Hot chilli peppers have the best names. They sound dangerous and vaguely threatening. A warning for those stupid enough to actually try and eat one, if you will. “It’s not like we didn’t warn you,” they seem to say.

The previous record-holder for hottest chilli in the world, the ominous-sounding Carolina Reaper, has had to officially move aside to make way for the aptly monikered Dragon’s Breath chilli – a chilli so hot no one has actually eaten it yet, for fear it could kill you. How? By literally burning your airways, as if you were breathing fire.

Rather charmingly, the creator of this spicy beast didn’t even set out to break records. Mike Smith, a fruit grower and competitive show-gardener from Denbighshire in Wales, was aiming for an aesthetically pleasing chilli tree to enter into the UK’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, where it is now in the running for Plant of the Year.

“It was a complete accident but I’m chuffed to bits – it’s a lovely looking tree,” Mr Smith told the Telegraph.

The chilli was, however, grown in collaboration with scientists from Nottingham Trent University, who are interested in the medicinal use of chilis as an anaesthetic. It was they who verified that the Dragon’s Breath scored the highest rating ever recorded on the Scoville heat scale, 2.48 million, beating the wimpy rival Reaper, which measures just 2.2 million.

The Scoville scale measures the intensity of heat in units. The 2.48 million Scoville heat units (SHU) means that one drop of oil from this chili can be detected in 2.48 million drops of water, making it basically weapons-grade hot. For comparison, pepper spray used by the US Army is 2 million SHU.

The scientists believe that if you tried to actually eat this chilli, your airways would likely close up from the burn and you’d go into anaphylactic shock and die. Nice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t maybe a force for good, not evil.

The capsaicin oil from it is so potent it numbs the skin, giving it excellent potential as an anesthetic, especially for those allergic to painkillers, or even for use in developing countries where access to and funding for anesthetics is limited.

Chili peppers actually have a long history of medical value, from calming the gut’s immune system to helping you live longer. Just don’t eat this one.

“I’ve tried it on the tip of my tongue and it just burned and burned,” Smith said. “I spat it out in about 10 seconds. The heat intensity just grows.”

Farmer Mike is currently waiting for the Guinness World Records to verify his world champion, but in the meantime, if anyone offers it to you in the pub for a bet, we’d err on the side of caution and just say no.

Dora as Picasso saw her.

Dora Maar – Picasso’s muse.

One of Pablo Picasso’s best-known portraits has been sold at auction in New York for US$45m (£35m).

Femme Assise, Robe Bleu (Seated Woman in Blue Dress) features one of his many lovers, Dora Maar.

During World War Two, the Nazis seized the painting but were intercepted on their way from Paris to Moravia by French Resistance fighters.

In 2015, Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for $179m at Christie’s – a record for any picture sold at auction.

Seated Woman went to a US collector and six years ago it was sold for $26m. So it is close to doubling in value in six years. 15% or so per annum. Not bad!

Dora Maar and Picasso had an intense relationship for nine years. He painted Seated Woman in 1939, when he was 58 and she was 31.

It is one of the great Picasso portraits of his middle years, inspired – as so often, according to BBC Arts correspondent, Vincent Dowd – by love and by powerful sexual desire.

Or, alternatively, he was taking the piss. What do you think, Dear Reader?

 

I lie next to you, a long wait into tomorrow
and listen to you gently snore.

Whoever invented that phrase
~ gently snore ~
they knew. There is ungentle snoring,
when I nudge you in the back and roll you
half awake into silence
but that is not this.
This is a soft rhythm
like the sea caressing white sand.

The rain on the new tin roof
suddenly changes tempo
as if to accompany you.

For a while there, it rises and falls
in time with your chest
in time with your dreams.
And the life in your breath
and the life in the rain
soothe me.

Suddenly I am assailed by images.
Unbidden. What would happen
if you were taken out of our lives?
A truck, a tree branch, your heart.
Seeing the police, our daughter’s face.
The nights.
I could manage the days, I think.
But not the nights.
I listen for the gentle heave of air.
And again, and again, the gentle heave of air,
and I am comforted.
Do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Not yet. Not yet awhile, at least.
Go to sleep.

The rain falls on the world like a balm.
And by the light of the clock
I see your face perfectly calm and think
how you would hold me, if you knew.

To purchase my collection of poems, “READ ME: 71 Poems and One Story”, please head to:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/stephen-yolland/read-me-71-poems-one-story/paperback/product-6314418.html

Any profits donated to charity.

The Warren Cup, from the British Museum. Roman man anally penetrating a youth, possibly a slave. Circa 1st century AD.

Many ordinary Christians are deeply conflicted by their desire to embrace homosexual brethren in the fellowship of the church, when some of their leaders are telling them that these people are sinners.

Numbers of people feel very discomfited by the current debate.

So what is the “Biblical” teaching on gays?

Opponents of homosexuality almost always treat scripture as being “literally true” in a historical sense. Certainly, that is the case currently.

It follows, therefore, that any rebuttal of their claims should also adhere to this assumption, if it is to convince them that they are wrong.

I personally believe the early stories in the Bible are no more “literally” true than ancient Norse myths. But I am prepared to put that aside for one moment, and consider this issue under the rules that the “literalists” would apply, because many argue that the oft-trotted-out “Biblical” case against homosexuality simply doesn’t appear to “stack up”.

Genesis 19: 1-28

The ancient story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used throughout the centuries as a condemnation of homosexuality, to the point where anal sex is referred to as “Sodomy”.

And that’s the problem. It’s become a cliché. We assume it’s true, because it’s been around so long.

The verses in this story most commonly referred to as proof that the Sodomites were homosexual are verses 4 and 5: “Before they could lie down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house,from boy to old man, all the people in one mob. And they kept calling out to Lot and saying to him: ‘Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have intercourse with them.”

Examining this scripture, the first thing we see is that all the people, in one mob, demanded that Lot bring out the visitors to them. If we are to believe that the account of Sodom & Gomorrah is a condemnation of homosexuality, then we must also accept the conclusion that the entire city consisted of homosexuals.

But if we look in the previous chapter, Genesis 18: 16-33, we see an account of Abraham negotiating with God to spare the people of Sodom, with the final outcome of God promising “I shall not bring it to ruin on account of the ten” (verse 33).

God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if only ten “righteous men” could be found I the city.

If we are to accept the previous logic, this would mean that the “righteous men” referred to were, per se, heterosexuals.

Now it is a matter of Biblical “fact” that God (or rather, his angels) didn’t find anyone at all worth saving. But at this point, we then need to ask ourselves: what would be the odds of less than ten people in the entire region of Sodom & Gomorrah being heterosexual?

The obvious answer is “impossible”, of course.

If for no other reason than to ask, “where did all the population come from?” They were all gay immigrants, presumably, begat by parents left behind in other places that were heteroesexual? We think not.

So if homosexuality was not being referred to in this passage, then what was? Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, we find an interesting usage of a couple of different words.

When the mob cries out “Where are the men who came in to you tonight?”, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated men is actually ‘enowsh which, literally translated, means “mortal” or “human”.

This indicates that the mob knew that Lot had visitors, but were unsure of what sex they were.

We can divine this because the Hebrew word for “man” (utilized in this same passage in Genesis 19:8) is entirely different. And one really has to ask: why would homosexuals want to have sex with two strangers if they were unsure of what sex they were?

The passage translated as “Bring them out so that we may have intercourse with them” needs further examination as well.

Other Bible translations read “so that we may know them”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “have intercourse”, or “know” is yada.

But this word, yada, appears in the Hebrew Scriptures a total of 943 times. And in all but ten of these usages, the word is used in the context of getting acquainted with someone.

Had the writer intended for his reading audience to believe that the mob wanted to have sexual intercourse with the strangers, he could simply have used the Hebrew word shakab, which vividly denotes sexual activity.

Many people argue, therefore, that the correct translation should be rendered something to the effect of: “Where are the people who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get acquainted with them.”

So then, if the story of Sodom & Gomorrah was not a condemnation of homosexuality, what was it trying to convey?

Two verses in Exekiel sum up the story this way: “Look! This is what proved to be the error of Sodom your sister: Pride, sufficiency of bread and the carefreeness of keeping undisturbed were what happened to belong to her and her dependent towns, and the hand of the afflicted one and the poor one she did not strengthen. And they continued to be haughty and to carry on a detestable thing before me, and I finally removed them, just as I saw [fit]”. (Ezekiel 16: 49, 50.)

It is commonly assumed, because we’re referring to Sodom, that the “detestable thing” referred to in this passage is homosexuality.

But in fact, the Hebrew word utilized here is tow’ebah, which translated literally means “to commit idol worship”.

This can be seen in the original Genesis passage, chapter 19, verse 8: “Please, here I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with a man. Please let me bring them out to you. Then do to them as is good in your eyes.”

One has to ask: If Lot’s house was surrounded by homosexuals, which presumably he’d know as everyone in the entire region was gay apart from him and his family, why would he offer the mob women?

Note also that these women were virgins. And that the Sodomites were pagans.

Virgin sacrifices to idols were a common practice in this era. Therefore, it can easily be concluded that Lot was offering his daughters as a virgin sacrifice to appease the mob in an effort to protect the visitors.

In the Greek scriptures, the story of Sodom is summed up this way: “and by reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”.

This corroborates Ezekiel’s summation, once again showing that these were “ungodly persons”; in other words, idolaters, they were not worshippers of the true God.

If we have difficulty with the logic of 100% of any population being gay, can we rather believe in 100% of a population being adherents of a particular pagan cult? Yes, we certainly can. If for no other reason that there was no tolerance of those who didn’t share pagan beliefs in many early societies. Not to agree was to invite exclusion or execution. You were in, or you were out. The Jews themselves exercise this attitude continually throughout the Old Testament.

So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore, is almost certainly intended as a condemnation of idol worshippers, and of a greedy and inhospitable society that sought to treat visitors in a threatening manner – which was also a sin, to the early Jews, by the way.

Many people argue, therefore, that it is perfectly reasonable to propose that this key text on the judgement of this region had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality!

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13

The message was clear to the ancient Israelites: semen was to be used for one purpose alone – procreation.

Wasted semen, whether by masturbation, anal penetration, or homosexuality, was not to be tolerated.

We have to place these edicts in some sort of historical context in order to understand them, if not to agree or disagree with them.

Life in those days was a “numbers game”. One of the Bible’s earliest edicts, a theme repeated through the Old Testament, was to “be fruitful and multiply”. If your tribe was numerically stronger than those around it, then good things would flow from that dominance.

(The same argument is currently used by the British National Party to argue for white Anglo-Saxon women having more children, but that’s another story.)

It’s an undeniable fact that many strict regulations were imposed on the ancient Israelites. The “chosen ones of God” understood each of these regulations to be equally important.

In the Greek scriptures, James points this fact out by stating: “For whoever observes all the law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.”

Fundamentalist Christians, however, selectively cite the two scriptures in Leviticus as a condemnation of homosexuality, overlooking James’ words which state, in essence, that if you’ve broken just one of the laws, you’ve broken them all.

So why do we focus so frequently on homosexuality?

Leviticus 19:27, for example, condemns haircuts and shaving. How many long-haired, bearded males attend your local Church? Or to put it another way, do we have agonised debates about Ministers who might have short hair?

Leviticus 19:19 also condemns wearing clothing made of more than one type of thread. Anybody reading this wear clothing made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester?

Taking the Bible literally, such individuals are equally guilty as homosexuals.

This leaves aside, of course, any concerns about whether or not it is still OK for us to grab our neighbours and use them as slaves, or to go around killing anyone who works on the Sabbath.

When questioned by the Pharisees regarding these ancient laws, Jesus’ reply was “I came, not to destroy, but to fulfil”. In other words, Christianity and love of God and fellow man was a replacement for the strict ancient codes, many of which were no longer practical or relevant.

But let us forget, for a moment, putting things in an historical context, or the fundamentalists will simply argue that we’re “messing with the truth”.

Let us look at the arguments of those who believe these two passages don’t really condemn homosexuality at all.

Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, one sees a different condemnation. Leviticus 20:13 states, in part, and was historically translated as, “When a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman”.

But had the writer intended to convey homosexuality being condemned here, he would surely have used the Hebrew word ‘iysh, which means “man”, or “male person”.

Instead, the author utilises a much more complicated Hebrew word, zakar, which literally translated means “A person worthy of recognition”.

Zakar was used to refer to high priests of the surrounding idolatrous religions.

In ancient societies, surrounding the early Jews, it was believed that by granting sexual favours to the high priest (a fertility rite), one would be guaranteed an abundance of children and crops.

Taking Leviticus 18: 22 into proper context, then, one should also look at the preceding verse 21: “And you must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech”.

So what we almost certainly see here are warnings to the Israelites not to engage in the fertility rituals of the worshippers of Molech, which often required the granting of sexual favours to the priest.

Many believe that if this been a mere condemnation of homosexuals, the writer would undoubtedly have used clearer or simpler language.

Romans 1: 26-27, 1 Cor. 6: 9-11, 1 Tim. 1: 9-11

Greek, like Hebrew, is a much more descriptive language than English. As an example, while we have the word “love”, Greek has agape, storge, philia, and eros – each describing a different form of love.

Further, just as with English, the meanings of words can change over generations.

Ironically, “gay” is a classic example.

Some say that it is easy to understand why words in ancient Greek could be misinterpreted, as are the terms “men who lie with men”, “abusers of mankind”, “homosexual”, and “pervert” in the above referenced scriptures.

The two words in Greek used in the above scriptures that are commonly mistranslated as such are arsenokoites and malakoi.

Bible scholars now believe arsenokoites to mean “male temple prostitute”, as mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures at Deut. 23: 17-18.

The actual meaning of this word, however, has been lost in history, as it was a slang term which, literally translated, means “lift bed”.

The Greek malakoi, literally translated, means “spineless” (some linguistics scholars translate it as “limp”, or “coward”).

What is important to note here is that both of these words are nouns. In ancient Greek, there is no known noun to define homosexuality. It was always expressed as a verb.

So just as in the Hebrew scriptures examined earlier, it appears that the Greek scriptures actually make reference to those who engaged in idolatrous practices, much of which, as we know, centred around sex in return for favours.

Neither the homosexual nor the direct idea of homosexuality appears anywhere in these passages. Had the writer intended to make a clear point about condemnation of gays, surely the Greek verb for homosexual behaviour would have been utilised rather than these nouns which are directly related to cowardice and idolatry?

But last – and by no means least – what about Paul’s apparently incontrovertible statement at Romans 1 where “females changed the natural use of themselves into one contrary to nature and likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust towards one another”?

This would appear to be a simple, trenchant condemnation of homosexuality.

But perhaps, yet again. the truth is actually more subtle than that.

A clue lies in Paul’s words in the earlier verses 22 and 23: “Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.”

So obviously, again, Paul’s reference here is to worshippers drawn into the ever-present danger of idolatry, one danger of which is unbridled sexual licentiousness of the kind that a conservative Jew like Paul would have found abhorrent. Especially when put in the context of his mission to the Roman Empire, with its endless parade of cults and religions, and very lax sexual behaviour generally.

As mentioned above in examining the Hebrew scriptures, many pagan idol-worshipping religions of Paul’s day also taught that by granting sexual favours to priests, the one giving the favour would be rewarded with fertility of crops and offspring.

Indeed, many such cults were, in reality, little more than brothels with quasi-religious overtones.

Unfortunately, of course, we have to read Paul’s words without the benefit of knowing all the background to his letters, but it certainly seems reasonable to suppose that his attack here is on a complex set of behaviours to do with people who reject the message of Christianity and continue to adhere to older religions.

It seems clear that Paul’s reference was not a dedicated attack on loving same-sex relationships, but his condemnation was focused instead on people who were normally heterosexuals who had been prevailed upon to rebel against their own sexual nature, in the granting of sexual favours to the leaders of pagan religions, in expectation of reward by the pagan gods.

So whilst his apparent rejection of homosexual behaviour seems unambiguous, the context of the comments is much more complex.

In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible, according to many Biblical scholars, is any unambiguously negative reference made to stable, loving same-sex relationships. And after all, it is now widely agreed that anything up to 5-10% of the population identify themselves as predominantly “gay” as regards their sexual preferences. So are 5-10% of those sections of the Bible discussing relationships dedicated to condemning their choice? Undoubtedly not. In all he is recorded as saying, does Christ ever address any remarks condemining homosexuality to one-in-20 of the population, or one-in-ten? No, not a word.

In fact, many gays argue that two positive references appear in the Hebrew scriptures of love between two people of the same sex:

2 Samuel 1:26 states: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”

Ruth 1: 16, 17 states: “And Ruth proceeded to say: ‘Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you’.”

And while it must immediately be conceded that no mention is made of actual sexual activity between these people, it must also be pointed out that these couples had therefore made covenants with each other. And to the ancient Israelites, a covenant was viewed as a holy bond; a powerful uniting of two people.

We all have to wrestle with the truth of this matter in our hearts. Personally, I find it much more helpful to see what the Bible is arguing for, rather than what it is arguing against. Those who are currently affected by some Christians’ negative stance towards gays and lesbians should perhaps also seek comfort in the much greater preponderance in the Bible of messages of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

And the injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Post Scriptum

A correspondent kindly reminded me of this hilarious spearing of the literal truth of the Old Testament, from 2002. The introductory quotation is from that era:

The power of logic and quiet humour – “Dr Laura’s” anti-gay viewpoints – for which she later apologised – sparked a worldwide internet phenomenon which did more to mock anti-gay beliefs based on the OT than anyone could have imagined.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show.

Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.

The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a east coast resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.

When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,
Jim

Very early in the Koran, in verse 62 of the second book, it says this:

Those who believe, and those who are Jewish, and the Christians, and the Sabeans—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and act righteously—will have their reward with their Lord; they have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.

In the Koran, Christians are often referred to as among the “People of the Book,” that is to say people who have received and believed in previous revelation from God’s prophets. There are verses that highlight the commonalities between Christians and Muslims, as well as other verses that warn Christians against sliding towards polytheism in their worship of Jesus Christ, in that the Muslims believe Christ to be a Messenger (a prophet) and not a part of the indivisible Divinity.

Despite this disagreement, a number of verses stress the commonality between Muslims and Christians.

“…and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (5:82).

“O you who believe! Be helpers of God – as Jesus the son of Mary said to the Disciples, ‘Who will be my helpers in (the work of) God?’ Said the disciples, ‘We are God’s helpers!’ Then a portion of the Children of Israel believed, and a portion disbelieved. But We gave power to those who believed, against their enemies, and they became the ones that prevailed” (61:14).

In addition, during his lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent a message to the monks of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai. It is worth quoting at length:

This is a message written by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, far and near, we are behind them. Verily, I defend them by myself, the servants, the helpers, and my followers, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be changed from their jobs, nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they (Christians) are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, this is not to take place without her own wish. She is not to be prevented from going to her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation is to disobey this covenant till the Day of Judgment and the end of the world.

Indeed, Jesus is mentioned with the deepest respect 70 times in the Koran.

So why do we turn to these matters today? Simply because of the brutal attack, claimed by Daesh, on Coptic Churches in Egypt. 44 are dead and 100 or more inured. Daesh claimed responsibility for deadly bombings at two churches in on Palm Sunday targeting a vulnerable religious minority on one of the most important days on the Christian calendar.

When it is so obviously not any part of a valid Muslim tradition, why would Daesh perform such an horrendous act? Why, indeed, did they previous stage a mass beheading of Coptic Christians in Egypt?

The answer is, of course, that Daesh are committed to bringing others into the Mid-East conflict, in order to radicalise Muslims with the oppression of their efforts which that would entail. The Sunni resistance in Iraq and Syria (for that is really what Daesh really is) is, in the simplest armed conflict terms, losing. That is why they are prepared to ignore the teachings of their own religion, and commit atrocities.

(The instant response of the Egyptian Government – to slap on a three month State of Emergency which allows the military to arrest whomever they like without warrant on suspicion – will also delight Daesh – nothing like provoking an extreme reaction from the governing elite to radicalise a new generation of footsoldiers.)

It is very important that worldwide we do not confuse or conflate the Muslim religion with the political actions of those who are prepared to perpetrate horror to advance their cause, whether they are the main Daesh actors in the Middle East, or their “lone wolf” followers in Bali, France, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden.

A generalised fear of the Muslim world by Christians is simply an over-reaction born of ignorance. As we have said many times in various social media, “There are 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. If they really wished us dead, we probably would be by now.”

We remember as a young child growing up in an era when there was still awkwardness, if not outright hostility, between Christian sects. Driving home in the trusty Triumph Herald from our Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, we would point out the local Methodists leaving their much more boring-looking Church, to be met with “Yes, well, they’re quite like us, but not really. Not bad people though.” This was oddly faint praise, given that much of the rest of the family were non-conformist Chapel people in South Wales. Round the corner, we would pass the Roman Catholics tipping out. The response to them was more purse-lipped. “They don’t really believe what we do. They’re not like us.” To the best of our ability, we cannot recall ever even speaking to a Roman Catholic when we were growing up. We were in Belfast? Glasgow? The East End? No: we were growing up in an impeccably peaceful and strife-free middle class seaside resort. Nevertheless …

It seems hard to fathom such attitudes just 50 or so years later, yet they were a subtle hangover from religious conflicts that had raged for centuries. The conflict between Shia and Sunni has similar rolled on for hundreds of years – but we should not be bamboozled into thinking that it is a natural state of affairs from which the world has no escape.

‘The situation between the Shiites and the Sunnis varied a good deal over time and place. There was often a good deal of cooperation and coexistence between the two,’ said Professor Juan Cole, Professor of Middle East history at Michigan University and the author of Sacred Space and Holy War. ‘For instance, in the 9th and 10th centuries you had the rise of the Buyid dynasty in Iraq and Iran, which had apparently a Shiite tendency in the ruling family but employed many Sunnis and seems to have gotten along fairly well with Sunnis. So it hasn’t always been the case that the two have had rancorous relations.’

During the Ottoman Empire’s four-century rule over Iraq, Sunni religious leaders were favoured over the Shiites. Despite this, though, both the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq united in their opposition to the Ottomans during World War I.

One of the key historical differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis has been their attitude towards government. The Shiites have always rejected earthly authority, whereas the Sunnis have had a much closer relationship with those in power. In the aftermath of the two world wars, Shiites once more found themselves on the outer.

‘The Shiites of southern Lebanon, the Shiites of Iraq, Bahrain, of what became Saudi Arabia, all faced a new situation in which they were being incorporated into modern nation states, most of which were dominated by Sunni politicians and in which the Shiites were often very poor and marginalised,’ says Professor Cole. ‘So the history of modern Lebanon or modern Iraq has in some sense been a history of Shiites struggling back against this marginalisation and seeking greater political participation.’

In the 20th century, Shiites were increasingly drawn to leftist and communist parties across the region. In Iraq, the mainly Shiite Communist Party backed the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim, which was overthrown by the Sunni-dominated pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party in 1963. While the Ba’ath government, first under Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein, was secular and included representatives from various religious backgrounds, there was often tension between religious Shiites and the government.

Repression under Hussein ensured that religious tension never boiled over in Iraq, but the US-led invasion in 2003 opened the door to, and some say actively encouraged, sectarian conflict once more. According to Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi writer and academic, widespread opposition to the occupation was a situation US forces were unwilling to tolerate:

‘The United States quickly realised that this situation would defeat them in an even bigger way than in Vietnam, so they instantly resorted to violent type divide and rule tactics,’ he says. ‘They inflamed the situation, and unfortunately they did succeed in gaining political forces in Iraq, organised political forces, which were based on religion, on sects, on ethnicity, to divide new institutions set up by the United States along sectarian lines.’

The US withdrawal from Iraq left the country under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was criticised for his increasing authoritarianism and his exclusion of Sunnis from political life. Critics of al-Maliki say that the government’s policies have sown the seeds of the Sunni insurgency, now known as Daesh or IS, just as Assad’s Shia dictatorship (although Assad is technically an Alawite) in Syria provoked a Sunni resistance there, too.

If history shows anything, it’s that there are long standing issues between the two denominations, but that their working together is not an impossibility. And a healing of the Shia-Sunni divide is the last thing Daesh want, which is why they continually employ “spectacular” terror attacks to keep the pot bubbling. This is a political struggle, under the cloak of religion.

We should not be fooled by their tactics, either into condemning or fearing Muslims generally, or, for that matter, of being dragged into a centuries old conflict that the protagonists really have to end for themselves.

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World-renowned and much-loved Australian satirist John Clarke has died suddenly at the age of 68.

Known and hugely appreciated for his regular appearances with Brian Dawe on the ABC, puncturing the double talk and pomposity of politicians of all kinds, Clarke is believed to have died from natural causes while hiking in the Grampians mountains.

He will be terribly sadly missed, by his many fans, and the body politic more widely. This well-known excerpt displays Clarke in full flight, demonstrating his superb comic timing.

Here’s Clarke brilliantly channelling “Treasurer Scott Morrison” on the coming Budget, just five days ago.

He was also the brains behind the genius that was “The Games”. Still the funniest show about the nonsense of government and quasi-government activity ever made.

Do yourself a favour:

John Clarke has been farewelled today with innumerable heartfelt messages from his fellow performers and, uniquely perhaps, from the political sphere that he pinioned so caustically, and yet, somehow, so affectionately too. It was obvious from the twinkle in his eye and his ineffable timing that this was a gentleman, perpetually at the top of his game. He never resorted to nastiness. He didn’t have to.

Genius is definitely not too strong a term.

Recently, Dear Reader, we have been pondering the matter of free speech.

Specifically, should it be absolute? Anyone able to say anything they like, unrestrained by the law.

We are referring, of course, to the Western world. It is clear that in authoritarian regimes the world over nothing like “free speech” exists, or ever has. But as we argue that liberal democracy is the best form of government to adopt, no matter who or where you are, it is surely fair to ask – sensible, indeed – to ask whether all the shibboleths of free speech are, in fact, practically defensible.

One of the key schism lines in world opinion is around the concept of “Criminal Defamation”, where the expression of an opinion is taken to damage a Government, and therefore put the civil peace at risk. What are (or should be) the rights of the state in seeking to restrain comment that can be considered injurious to the whole.

(This is not the same as Civil Defamation, where an individual has a a right to sue another individual (or corporation) for saying or printing something about them that they consider to be both untrue and harmful of their reputation, causing loss. No one seriously argues that Civil Defamation should be abolished – although the bar is set so high in the United States, for example, that defamation laws are essentially unenforceable, with predictable consequences.)

With Criminal Defamation, ironically, Great Britain, the country which bequeathed the infamous legacy of criminal defamation to states like India, where it is currently being heatedly debated, abolished the law in 2009.

Such laws are believed to date back to the early 17th century, when the invention of the printing press enabled political writings to be circulated far and wide easily and inexpensively through pamphlets, thus broadening the scope of public debate. The Court of the Star Chamber (the English court of law from the late fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century), fearing that criticisms against the royal authority, regardless of their truthfulness, may disturb public peace, began charging the critics with the criminal offence of “seditious libel”.

Evidently, a kind of faux civil peace, resulting from the English citizenry’s ignorance of their State’s corruption, was preferred over the knowledge of truth because any exposure could have potentially led to the downfall of the government. This perhaps explains the origin of the well-known adage, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

Not surprisingly, famous England-American political theorist Thomas Paine, who helped inspire the American Revolution, was also charged with seditious libel in England because of his insistence on the right of the citizens to overthrow the government in the second part of his work Rights of Man. Even though Paine would have been happy with the fact that seditious libel was finally abolished in England, such laws continue to thrive to this day in many countries, and even in some democracies.

Indian law, for example, provides for imprisonment to anyone “who brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India”. This law was enacted by the British to keep the Indian freedom movement in check. Not surprisingly, both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and MK Gandhi were charged with sedition, arrested, and jailed for six years and two years respectively. Like the pigs taking over the farm in the novel 1984, the incoming Indian authorities duly left the laws on the books.

But isn’t it reasonable to disallow unfettered free speech is the result is the overthrow of a peaceful, beneficial state? The answer, of course, is that the question is a fallacy. In a democracy, the government’s behaviour should withstand any such scrutiny in the “court of public opinion”, and if it does not, well, essentially the Government does not deserve to survive. Even if the change of Government may be painful. Truth, here, is elevated above social discord, and few would argue, for example, that a corrupt or inept Government should not be subject to completely free criticism.

The problem is that the view of what constitutes a “peaceful, beneficial state” can vary widely. Just as someone may consider a Government corrupt or inept, but another may not, even when presented with the same evidence. This is before we even get into utilitarian considerations such as “the Government may be corrupt, but it’s helping a lot of people and things are going pretty well, so let’s all pretend it isn’t corrupt and leave things be”. That’s the pertaining situation throughout much of Asia currently, for example.

Currently Governments around the world are reserving the right to restrict free speech where that speech is designed to overthrow their rule by violent means. But from a libertarian point of view, this can be problematical. Many would argue it should be illegal to say “Government A is evil, so go and get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”.

But should it be equally illegal to say “Government A is evil, in my view it is morally justified for someone to get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”?

The difference is the width of a butterfly’s wing, but it could be argued that the latter is legitimate comment – a bona fide intellectual opinion – whilst the other is incitement to murder. Yet the latter will today get you just as locked up just as quickly in many Western democracies as would the more direct statement. The argument employed here is that the fractionally milder comment might have exactly the same effect of encouraging violent action, and therefore seeking to discern a difference is mere semantics, especially if the Government’s primary goal is to preserve its status and prevent violence.

Where the line is drawn in such matters is an on-going debate.

How, for example, does one parse the case of Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), the American soldier of Wikileaks fame, who dumped vast amounts of classified information onto the world stage in pursuit of his belief that the public had a right to know what was being done – often illegally – in their name.

Manning languished in a dire mental condition in an American military prison – arguably the subject of ongoing mental torture from the authorities – for telling the world … what? That American helicopter gunships were cheerfully slaughtering Reuters journalists and innocent civilians on the ground through hopelessly loose rules of engagement? Or that world leaders say one thing to each other’s faces, and another to their advisors, and yet another to the public? What part of what Manning revealed – do people think they were either too stupid or too irresponsible to be told – which resulted in no harm to anyone, you will recall, as confirmed by the CIA –  whether they were told by Wikileaks or by the newspapers round the world who gleefully re-reported the treasure trove of documents.

The incident was hugely embarrassing for many Governments, to be sure, but was it truly harmful? And why was Manning not protected by concepts of free speech? By all means argue that he contravened the rules of his military service (which is what he is technically being punished for) but should he have, if we believe what we say about free speech being sacrosanct, actually have been praised? Feted, even?

Why was he banged up in solitary when the journalists who re-reported him are free to pursue their careers, and the media barons free to bank their profits?

What led us to this pondering?

Yesterday, on radio in Melbourne, a “One Nation” Senator, recently elected in Queensland through the vagaries and lunacies of Australia’s Senate voting system, was given free range to spout his ludicrous theories that the United Nations were trying to impose “One World Government” on the planet through fear mongering on man-made climate change, change which wasn’t happening. That there was no empirical evidence that CO2 was causing global warming, or that if we scrapped all human fossil fuel emissions overnight it would make any difference to the state of the planet at all.

Mr Roberts has apparently also written numerous reports claiming climate change is an international conspiracy fostered by the United Nations and international banks to impose a socialist world order. According to the Sydney Morning Herald at least one report cites several anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, including notorious Holocaust denier Eustace Mullins among its “primary references”.

According to the SMH Mr Roberts, who used to work in the arch-polluting coal industry, also sent a bizarre affidavit to then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 demanding to be exempt from the carbon tax and using language consistent with the “sovereign citizen” movement.

Anti-government, self-identified “sovereign citizens” claim to exist outside the country’s legal and taxation systems and frequently believe the government uses grammar to enslave its citizens.

NSW Police say such people “should be considered a potential terrorist threat”.

In an affidavit he sent to Ms Gillard in 2011, Mr Roberts identified himself as “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul”, representing a corporate entity he termed MALCOLM IEUAN ROBERTS.

In the document, Mr Roberts demanded to be exempted from the carbon tax and compensated to the tune of $280,000 if Ms Gillard did not provide “full and accurate disclosure” in relation to 28 points explaining why he should not be liable for the tax.

Mr Roberts addressed the affidavit to “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” and presented her with a detailed contract he expected her to sign.

That stylisation of names is said to be commonly used by “sovereign citizens” who believe the use of hyphens and colons is a way to evade governments’ use of grammar to enslave their citizens. Roberts has recently confirmed that he wrote the affidavit, but has stated that he is not a ‘sovereign citizen’.

The new Senator, who received 77 below-the-line first preference votes, will take his Senate seat on August 30 and will receive a taxpayer-funded base salary of $199,040, plus staff and entitlements.

The price of free speech is often very high indeed.

But the biggest price we pay is not monetary. It is seeing our public institutions – our broadcasters, and Parliaments – invaded by rogues, charlatans, and the frankly deluded, spouting theories that seek to mislead and derail intelligent debate under the guise of promoting “truth”.