Touch

I love Peanuts.

There’s a double entendre.

It could mean that I love ground nuts. I do, very much indeed. I can’t imagine living a life without nuts, especially without peanuts. They are the food of the gods.

Or it could mean that I love Charles M Schulz’s comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy the beagle, Lucy the bossyboots and others. That is true too. I have some old books of Peanuts comic strips that I have had since I bought them at second-hand markets decades ago, and which I still really treasure.

One sequence of strips I was thinking of recently is when one of the characters – Linus, I think – was telling the others about haphephobia, which he explained in his overly earnest, nerdy way, was a fear of being touched. In one of those strips somebody accidentally almost touches Snoopy, who instantly leaps up metres into the air as an instinctive over-reaction.

I recalled this as I have been thinking recently about touch as a means of non-verbal communication, and how some people tend to touch others when they talk to them, while others assiduously avoid it. I’ll call the former ‘touchy’, pausing only to note that this has nothing in common with the occasional use of that word to mean short-tempered.

When I think about the people I know that are touchy, It seems that most of them are women. The most usual touch is on the forearm, or sometimes the elbow. I know one person who rubs the side of your arm around the elbow when you talk to her – a gesture that I find unusual, but heart-warming.

What do these touches mean? They seem to communicate reassurance, goodwill, perhaps an indication that, right at this point in time, you have their full attention. Whether that is the intended meaning I don’t know. Quite possibly there is no intended meaning. Touchy people seem to be more instinctive than others. Their words and actions stem from their un-self-conscious connection to the great cosmic flow – what Daoists call Wu Wei – rather than from premeditation.

In Anglo-Celtic culture, not many men touch, but some do. In my experience those that do tend to be matey about it, and are more likely to pat on the shoulder or the back than touch the forearm or hand. And they generally only pat other men.

I have habitually been a non-toucher. I don’t quite have haphephobia, but I have been known to flinch slightly when somebody unexpectedly touches me, or even comes close. I don’t know where it comes from. Freud would have us look to our childhood and, like almost every child growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I received plenty of corporal punishment when I was judged to have been naughty. My punishment was considerably lighter than that which many of my school friends told me about, and my parents never struck me on the head or anywhere that would cause any damage other than redness that lasted an hour or so. But nevertheless I can remember cringing before the blows that a parent was – with all the best intentions and believing that they were morally obliged to do this no matter how much they disliked doing it – about to deliver. Perhaps I cringed because I had a nervous disposition, or maybe my disposition became more nervous because of the punishment. I can’t tell. I do know that many of my contemporaries seemed to be less physically nervous than I, so I Imagine my genetic predisposition played at least some part in it.

Whatever the reason, I have not been good at being touched and have certainly not been a toucher. But recently this has been changing. Perhaps I have been listening to too many philosophy podcasts about ‘authenticity’ and about how relationships with others are the only real thing in the world. Whether with conscious effort or just because one tends to relax more as one matures, I have become more capable of tolerating unexpected touch without flinching.

But wait, there’s more!

I have, to my immense surprise, started to become, every now and then, a toucher. At first I surprised myself by, on occasion, gently tapping a forearm or a shoulder. Never on skin of course! We Anglo-Celtics need the reassurance of a shirt or jumper beneath our hand in order to feel that one is not being improper. Maybe some of the later taps were deliberate. It’s hard to tell. But even though some taps may have been pre-considered, the overall trend is not. There is no plan.

The forearms and shoulders that I find myself tapping or patting are exclusively those of men. I think that is partly deliberate and partly instinctive. I have had it so soundly drummed into me that any uninvited touch of a woman other than one’s life partner is not acceptable, that I have big unconscious barriers against ever doing that. In any case, in the current climate it seems wise to proscribe such actions to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. It seems a pity, but that’s just one of many ways that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have made things so much worse for others. I wonder what other people think about that, and whether it will change with time. At least many women feel no constraint against touching men to whom they are talking, as well as, of course, other women.

I have been surprised too, about how non-frightening and positive it can be to do a simple tap or pat. It is such an efficient way to communicate goodwill and support and, unlike supportive words, it doesn’t seem to run the risk of being interpreted as sarcastic. There’s so much sarcasm in the world. We don’t need people inferring it when it’s not there.

This gradual opening to the possibility of touch seems a good development. But there’s one Anglo-Celtic reservation I have that I don’t think will ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate a massage. It just creeps me out to much, people poking around in my neck muscles and such like. There are too many fragile parts in there that I feel are on the verge of getting damaged. And it’s too close to being tickled, which I never was keen on. I don’t know whether the childhood cringing from imminent punishment plays a part in it as well. Massages are supposed to make you relax but, for me, they do the opposite. Still, plenty of people like massages, so me not having any just means there are more for the rest of you.

A cynic might say ‘What’s the big deal? People touch skin to skin all the time in the business world, when they shake hands at the start of a meeting!’ That is true and, being in the business world, I do that as well, with nary a thought. But it doesn’t count, and you know it doesn’t count, you cynics! Shaking hands is a meaningless stylised ritual that has long passed its usefulness. They say it was originally invented in order to show somebody you met that you weren’t holding a weapon (an urban myth?). Except when visiting or living in the USA, I think that these days we can take as read the weaponlessness of those we meet. Plus it spreads germs. I sometimes wonder ‘What if I’m about to break out in a cold? I’d hate to give it to somebody else.’. We all know that the most infectious period with a cold is just before you realise you have one – or is that another urban myth? I admire the Japanese, who bow when meeting people for business, and then present business cards in a pleasingly formal way.

The point is that it’s the voluntariness of the unbidden touch that can make it so scary to do, or to receive. There’s nothing scary in what is mandated, as handshakes before business meetings are. Or, for that matter, the compulsory ballroom dancing lessons we had in senior high school, where we boys had to hold girls’ hands as we marched to and fro, then twirled them about, or twirled about them, whichever it was (I wasn’t terribly good at ballroom dancing). We were mostly too terrified even to talk to the girls at school, let alone touch them (we outnumbered them five to one so it seemed presumptuous to assume any of these rare and special humans would wish to hear anything we had to say), but when the dancing mistress fixes you with her beady eye and snaps ‘Take positions! Join hands! Go!’, you just obey.

This essay at one point had the word ‘sashayed’ in it (can you guess where?). But now it doesn’t. I think that’s an improvement.

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, August 2018

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On Beauty

The other day, as I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting, I saw a young man walking the other way that I thought was a person that works in my office. He works on another floor so I don’t often see him. I was about to say hello when I was struck with uncertainty as to whether it was him, and held my tongue. I ruminated for the next minute or so, and finally decided that it wasn’t.

Why did I find it so hard to work that out?

Part of the reason was that I’m not so good at remembering the faces of people I don’t see regularly. But that didn’t seem enough to explain my confusion. There are plenty of people that I don’t meet often, but whom I can still recognise fairly easily.

In the end I decided it was because the person in question has very regular features – what you might call ‘clean cut’. You know: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, non-knobbly nose, average size of all main features and dimensions (nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, chin), not fat, but not very thin either. The sort of face that might appear in an ad for razors or toothpaste.

People whose faces have lots of symmetry, conformance to averages, and lack of blemishes and knobbles have fewer distinguishing features. Take it to the extreme and a face becomes a featureless sphere. Adding two eyes, a mouth and a nose reduces the symmetry somewhat but, since nearly all humans have those, it doesn’t narrow down the field much. It’s only when the characteristics or location of those features differ materially from the average that we find something worthy of telling the police artist – thin lips, broad nose, close-set eyes, high forehead. What would the Identikit officer do with information that the burglar had average lips, average nose and average eyes?

It is sometimes said that human beauty has much to do with symmetry. Does that mean the reason I didn’t recognise my colleague is because he’s good-looking? Perhaps. Supermodels seem to score highly in the bodily symmetry stakes. I don’t think I could name one for whom I could identify an asymmetry. Although, to be fair, that may be because I would have trouble naming any supermodels at all. On my scale of rating the hundred things that interest me most, they don’t.

But are supermodels beautiful? Or are they just pretty, and if so, is that because they are too symmetrical, too featureless?

The American actor Ryan Gosling seems to be a popular heart-throb at the moment. His features are mostly pretty regular, but there’s something unusual about his eyes. I’m not sure what. I think they’re either unusually close-set or a little asymmetrical – perhaps a combination of both. But is that slight irregularity part of the reason that he is considered so desirable? Would he be less alluring if his eyes were evened up and spread out a bit – more average?

When I think of women that were considered very desirable amongst my peers over the last few decades, I see images of people who all had something slightly unusual about their features: Nastassja Kinski (big mouth), Emma Stone (large eyes), Sophia Loren (long nose). In my recent attempts to get better at speaking French I have been watching many French movies, and have noticed that many of their female stars in romantic roles have unusual features, a disproportionate this or that, or asymmetric something elses.

Could it be that featurelessness is the key factor in mere ‘prettiness’, so that pretty people (perhaps including my poor, blameless work colleague) all look fairly similar, whereas beauty is a complex melange of (just enough) symmetry with provocative asymmetries, irregularities and other distinguishing features?

People seem to love looking at pictures and videos of cute fluffy cats and dogs on the internet. Generally these animals are symmetric and healthy. One rarely sees people cooing over a scrappy, moth-eaten old dog or cat. Yet if one has had a scrappy, moth-eaten dog or cat as a pet for a long time, it will have a much stronger pull on our heartstrings than a pretty puppy in a tissue commercial. The irregularities (some might say flaws) become markers of recognition and triggers for affection, rather than items of deficiency or regret.

I wonder whether this phenomenon also displays itself in the field of moral beauty. There’s am unfortunate culture trope about the girl who only goes out with boys that treat her badly, and has only contempt for the ‘nice guys’. Perhaps there are some such girls around, but I haven’t observed the phenomenon to be widespread. It seems to me that nearly everybody likes to be treated with at least a modicum of respect and affection.

But there’s another trope out there – especially in movies and literature – about the person who feels repelled from their partner because they (the partner) are too good. The argument often runs along the lines that the partner is impossible to measure up to, and often makes the protagonist feel morally inadequate – bad. The kinder and more tolerant the way in which the ‘good’ partner reacts to this, the worse the divide becomes. I saw another example of this just last night – the character played by Gillian Anderson in the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’. Her husband, working as an MSF-type doctor in a grossly under-resourced rural Ugandan hospital, was such a kind man that she felt tempted towards infidelity simply because she felt she couldn’t live up to the level of virtue exemplified by her husband. Be not distressed though, dear reader. So far as I know, Ms Anderson managed to resist her impulses, and her relationship survived the danger. But I can’t be sure, because I was unable to watch the second half of the movie for fear of the cruel violence that I knew would engulf most of the characters once the murderous Idi Amin got into his stride.

I have made no more observations of this in real life than of the other trope. There are very few true saints around, and I think I have met hardly any of them. But it somehow feels more plausible than the other trope. It just seems to me that, while nobody wants to live in the constant presence of cruelty and contempt, perhaps many, without even realising it, value the (hopefully fairly minor) character flaws of their partners and friends, and are even quite attached to them.

Or maybe not. I wrote this while on holiday and it is all just idle speculation.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2018

 


Politics IS a real job

I am fed up, completely fed up.

Too many times have I listened patiently while people with strongly-held but not-critically-examined opinions explain that the trouble with politicians these days is that most of them have never held a ‘real job’ (see list of examples of media whinges at the end of this article).

I am generally too polite to make the obvious retort: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that some jobs were real and some were pretend. Which ones are the real ones then?

A favourite here in Australia is to hold up the example of Ben Chifley, who worked for the railways for a few years. Ironically, those for whom he is a poster child eulogise him for ‘having worked as a train driver’, little knowing that train driver was – at the time Chifley did it around 1912 – a very prestigious position – the pinnacle of the railway industry. Hardly the sweat-of-the-brow, in-touch-with-the-common-man position that people dream it was. Chifley did work at lowly, manual jobs in the railway trade, including shovelling coal, but that was in order to work his way up to the lofty (some might say ‘ivory tower’) position of train driver.

When the criticism is made, it usually includes union organiser among the ranks of ‘pretend jobs’. I find that criticism astonishing. A good union organiser is a combination of human rights barrister, public relations consultant, aid worker, counsellor, logistics engineer and CEO. The job sounds so hard to me that I can’t imagine any amount of money being enough to induce me to take it on. They have to persuade people to join unions, negotiate with powerful business interests, chair union meetings to try to get workable decisions from groups of employees that may have quite disparate aims, organise strike funds, conduct legal battles against laws aimed at removing any remaining negotiating power of employees against their big business employers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Given the skill set needed to be a successful union organiser, I imagine any business looking for a new head of HR, finance or operations would be happy to take them on – as long as they promise not to organise any strikes.

Yet, somehow, all that activity is not regarded as being a ‘real job’. I have nothing against real estate agents, pathologists, car vendors, fast-food checkout operators or NHS statistics processors, but I cannot see what life experience or exposure to the ‘real world’ those jobs provide that being a union organiser does not.

Another apparently ‘pretend job’ is being a political aide. I don’t know much about political aides but, from the outside, it seems such a job would be a combination of super-PA and media advisor. They have to make sure the MP or candidate they advise gets to all their engagements in time and is briefed on the issues they need to know about, as well as being properly dressed, fed, rested and toileted. Hardly a walk in the park. And hardly a low-skill profession.

But is it something else rather than a lack of skill that is being insinuated about political and union jobs? If so, what exactly is it? Does the job have to be strenuously manual and involve almost no brain work in order to be ‘real’? Then a brickies’ labourer has a real job but someone gutting fish in a cannery does not? That makes no sense to me. And why does there have to be no brain work? Is that just the current anti-intellectual fashion playing out? Are people with clever minds required not to use them in order not to stand out from the crowd and seem elitist? Could it not just be possible that if somebody has a clever mind it would be better employed trying to find ways to raise the wages of the working class or make sure that our politicians are actually well-informed on the issues they are deciding, than in digging a ditch? The good book itself tells us (No, not the HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The other one), in the Parable of the Talents, that it is a sin not to use the talents you’ve been given.

Often the accusation of politicians ‘never having held a real job’ is equivocated with the accusation of ‘never having experienced real life’. This is as nonsensical as the other lines of attack. The challenges of real life are things like trying to find a home to rent, save up money and maybe eventually borrow to buy a home. They are going through the joys and pangs of love found and lost and maybe searching for a life partner. They are trying to carve out a sense of purpose in a world that is a babble of noise, shallowness and competing interests. They are trying to find communities to which one can belong, to gain acceptance in them and then work to benefit the community and to help it achieve its goals.

I think most of these are experienced by everybody, and all of them are experienced by most people, regardless of their chosen occupation. The occupations that are least exposed to these challenges are those that are tremendously well-paid – investment banker, business tycoon or senior barrister. Yet somehow those are regarded as ‘real jobs’ while being a lowly-paid political aide or union organiser is not.

The phrase ‘out of touch with real people’ is another popular one to throw around. Again one wonders what one needs to do to be a ‘real person’. How can I tell if I am one? Wouldn’t it be terrible if, after years of thinking you were a real person, you suddenly discovered you were a fake? Could you demand a refund? From whom, I wonder?

I think what they mean is just ‘has regular contact with people that don’t work in unions or politics’. Well that criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Most of a politician’s day seems to be spent meeting people, and only part of that is with other politicians. As an MP they have to meet whatever constituents ask for a meeting, within reason, and my understanding is that they do plenty of that. If you have a grievance, make an appointment to go talk to your local MP about it, rather than sitting at home whinging!

Now senior ministers don’t do much meeting with constituents, because the other demands on their time are so great. But the only people that get to be a senior minister without serving their time as a backbencher – with all the time ‘meeting real people’ that that entails – are those that come straight into parliament at a senior level, typically from a career in either business or law, two professions that are mystifyingly regarded as ‘real jobs’ even though the average big businessman or senior lawyer meets far fewer working class people per week than just about any politician. Those that have to work their way up as a backbencher before becoming a minister will have had plenty of exposure to ‘real people’. Are we then going to complain that, once they are Treasurer or PM, they should set aside a large proportion of their precious time for yarning with locals at the pub, rather than spending that time studying and reflecting on the pros and cons of an important decision that will affect the lives of millions of citizens? If we want to make that criticism, why do we not also make it of the senior people of any organisation, be it a business, a church, a charity or a sport federation? Why should politics be the only profession in which one is expected not to devote one’s efforts to making the best decisions possible, and achieving the best possible outcomes.

Now I’m not suggesting that all politicians do spend all their time studying and agonising over policy. If they did, the policy would never be enacted. In business, selling a product is as important as designing and manufacturing it. A business that devotes all its efforts to the latter and none to the former will soon be a dead business, and the same applies in politics. If politicians have a policy they believe is worth selling, they need to put their utmost into selling it and, because of the adversarial nature of our political system, that will always be a difficult job. Selling it means speeches, private negotiations, cajoling, counting numbers, nurturing votes from fence-sitters, and so on. It’s a really hard task, and not one I’d have the stomach for. But it has to be done. Otherwise somebody else with less benevolent motives – a Putin or Trump – is likely to get up and sell their alternative, and we’ll all be worse off.

A good policy needs effort to sell it, and that effort is worthwhile. Where I get cross at politicians is when they cook up useless or even harmful policies solely in order to sell themselves, ie to increase their popularity and thereby the likelihood that they will retain power. They may be selling themselves to the public, as is the case with politicians that flirt with the xenophobia that can always be found in any population under a moderate amount of stress. Or they may be selling themselves to a king-making power group within their party or to powerful financial backers. The current Australian PM seems to have sold off so much of himself to those groups that he is now indistinguishable from his reactionary, climate-change-denying, Muslim-hating, would-be-theocratic predecessor, with the sole exception that the predecessor at least had the virtue of being true to his own values.

Politics, including being a political aide or a union organiser, is a tough job. You have to work really hard, for pay that is much lower than you would get if you were working that hard, and with that level of skill, in private industry. You have to endure public hatred, mockery, accusation and vilification. You are always at work – none of your time is your own. You are regularly confronted by failure and heartbreak, when you lose an election or maybe just fail to get approval of the policies you believe in. You are always on the move, often living out of hotel rooms rather than in the comfort of your own home.

The way I see it, a job in politics is as tough and as real as it gets and, as long as they are not using their position to corruptly enrich themselves (which, mercifully, is fairly rare in my country, and in most other OECD countries) politicians deserve our respect for that, even if we vehemently disagree with their policy proposals. Someone who has always worked in politics has always had a tough job, more so than somebody that spent their first ten years after uni at Wernham Hogg, playing office pranks like putting their co-worker’s stapler in jelly (not that I have anything against office workers. I’m sure they can be good citizens and lovely sons or daughters-in-law too).

So let’s all stop whinging about our politicians’ backgrounds and start engaging with them about their policies.

It’s all just so silly. If we were to apply the same standard to other professions as we do to politics we’d have job interviews containing lines like:

The university is very impressed by this thing you’ve invented called Gravity, Mr Newton, but what we really need to know before we consider employing you as a research fellow, is whether you have had any experience as a blacksmith’.

Andrew Kirk

 

Bondi Junction, March 2018

Daily Telegraph 1/3/18

Daily Mail 19/7/12

Sydney Morning Herald 23/2/17

Post Script.

In searching the internet for examples of this opinion I have been railing against, I came across a couple of reasonable-sounding defences of the view. While they do give pause for thought, I am not persuaded by them. Here they are.

Argument 1 – Requiring a previous career screens out the young

This argument says that, if a starting-out politician has already had a career in another profession, they are likely to be at least middle-aged, with the wisdom and life experience that people generally expect to come with age. It is undeniable that life experience accrues with age, and most people would agree that wisdom generally increases with age for most people, at least until dementia sets in. But very few people would argue that we should therefore only allow people aged over forty to enter politics. That would be a very different, and highly controversial argument, and while it may have some points in its favour, I would not be inclined to back it. Furthermore, it would be an argument about age, not prior profession, and would exclude people who had worked in bakeries, hair salons, at building sites and at law firms as much as it would those who had worked in unions or political offices. So I don’t see this argument as providing any support to the ‘must have worked at a proper job’ case.

Argument 2 – Having a fall-back career allows greater integrity

This argument says that, if somebody has worked successfully in another occupation, they have the option of returning to that occupation if their political career doesn’t work out. Hence, the argument goes, they can tell the party’s Chief Whip to get stuffed when she demands that the new MP vote along party lines for a bill with which the MP does not agree. Somebody who does not have a fall-back career may follow the Whip’s orders because they fear that if they do not, they will lose party pre-selection and hence lose their job at the next election.

I don’t find this convincing either. Somebody that has worked as a unionist or a political staffer will have developed skills and experience that enable them to return to working in that capacity just as easily as one can return to working in an office or a hospital.

Secondly, if we pursue the logic of this argument, we should favour politicians that are rich, because they don’t need the salary and hence will presumably have greater integrity. Experience shows again and again that that is not the case. It is the lure of power, not money, that makes many rich people still desperate to retain their political appointments. Australia’s current PM is enormously wealthy, wealth gained from working so-called ‘real jobs’ (ie lawyer and investment banker), and yet has comprehensively sold his integrity to the reactionary right of his party – an influential group that opposes every value that the PM used to stand for – just so that he can hang on to his position as party leader, and hence PM.

Thirdly, it is not a tautology that a system in which MPs vote according to their individual views, without any sanction for departing from the party line, leads to better, more democratic, outcomes. Sure it sounds good, the idea that our representatives follow their conscience. But in practice in can generate some very unsavoury results. Party discipline may be oppressive but it also provides a defence against manipulation by powerful lobby groups. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US Congress, where the NRA targets individual MPs in non-safe seats, threatening them with a targeted hostile campaign at the next election unless they vote against gun control bills, even if their own party is promoting those bills. The reason the NRA can do that is because party discipline is so weak that it easily outbalanced by the NRA’s threats. If party discipline were such that voting against the party line would mean losing pre-selection, and hence losing the seat anyway, the threats of groups like the NRA would be futile. It is certainly arguable that one reason US politics is so much hostage to certain sectional interests is the ability of those interests to target individual MPs, something that cannot happen in countries with tighter party discipline like the UK or Australia.

I am still not entirely sure whether the benefits of party discipline outweigh its disadvantages (although given the recent terrible gun tragedies in the US, it’s hard not to lean that way), but regardless of one’s view, it is certainly far from self-evident that making it easy for MPs to vote against their party’s policy would be a good thing.


The Violence of Movement

Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.

Yet I feel safe.

Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?

Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.

So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.

Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.

But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).

Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.

A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.

Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.

I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.

It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2018

PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!


Mud

Where I live, near Sydney’s Eastern beaches, we have something we call mud. But it is not proper mud. Sure, it marks clothes, necessitating a wash, but is otherwise unremarkable.

I am currently in North Devon in England, where it has drizzled on every one of the six days since I arrived here.

Here they have PROPER mud.

It is sticky yet somehow also slippery. It makes squelchy noises when you tread in it. I went jogging beside a canal in Stratford-upon-Avon and, after the path ended, there was only grass interspersed with boggy bits of naked mud. I did my best to skirt around them, but that wasn’t possible in all cases and once or twice I had to actually tread in the mud. It looked very precarious, especially with the freezing canal only a metre away, ready to gobble me up if I slipped. As it happened, I only slipped once, falling away from the canal rather than towards it. My glove is now coloured by a souvenir of that special mud.

Sydney mud has too much sand in it.

English mud seems much more fertile. Mud is quickly regrown by vegetation if left undisturbed. Wherever I see mud I also see lush, fertile grass or close-packed, flourishing vegetable crops just nearby.

In that sense, mud is great – it is life.

But it is also death. The Great War, at least on the Western Front, seemed to be all about mud. It contaminated water to help spread disease, afflicted soldiers with Trench Foot, and it trapped horses, gun carriages and even soldiers, who could find themselves stuck in a position that was exposed to opposition gunfire. The bodies of soldiers killed by machine-gun fire, where they weren’t suspended on rolls of barbed wire, were soon partly or wholly swallowed up by mud. It was part of the horror.

3rd-ypres_stretcher-bearers-in-mud_1917

There is something extraordinary about European mud. It is mythical. That’s why they write songs about it.

Perhaps it’s not just European mud. The song I had in mind was ‘Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud’, which I find is called ‘the Hippopotamus Song’ and is by Flanders and Swann (I had always assumed it was supposed to be a song for pigs). But a bit of web-searching informs me there are also lots of songs about American mud, although mostly in the South.

As the spine-chilling Maori Haka says, ‘It is death it is death it is life it is life…’ (‘Ka mate Ka mate Ka ora Ka ora’). One can imagine that life on Earth first originated in mud. There is so much richness in good mud, it would be difficult for life not to arise.

I realise that may not be scientific. I think a key reason why mud is so fertile is that it’s mostly organic, made up of lots of decayed organisms, animal and vegetable. So maybe they didn’t have mud on Earth before life arose, what with there being no decayed organisms around. Who knows, there was nobody there to write it down.

But even if life didn’t originate in mud, I bet that, once originated, it did an awful lot of evolving in there. We humans evolved in Africa, so I bet they have really impressive mud there. I’ve only been to North Africa, which is sandy, like Sydney, so I have never encountered real, proper African mud, of the sort that Joseph Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where they have proper mud, I urge you to give it a thought next time you get caught in or covered by it, rather than just cursing as you head for the washing machine. Mud is magical stuff. No wonder little children loving playing in it.

Andrew Kirk

Woolacombe, North Devon, December 2017


And She shall reign for ever and ever

It’s a busy time, the end of choir practice. It’s 9:05pm and I haven’t had my dinner. I need to put away chairs, don my cycling safety gear, unlock the bike and whiz back home to look for something to eat. Busy, busy, busy. So one is distracted, right?

And I found myself singing that famous line from the Hallelujah chorus

and She shall reign for ever and ever

Why were you singing that, Andrew? I hear you ask.

Well the chorus had been the last thing we were practising and, you have to admit (if you’ve ever heard it) that it’s very catchy. No wonder that GF Handel was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

No, not that, you respond – I mean, why ‘She’? Don’t you know that the official lyric says ‘He’?

Well actually yes, I do know that, which is why I was a little surprised to find that my subconscious mind, after deciding to make me sing that song, had also decided to make me sing ‘She’. I don’t know why it did. I think it may be because there’s a lovely alliteration in ‘She shall….’ that you don’t get with ‘He’.

But then I thought to myself, as I strode in a purposeful and manly manner towards my bicycle, why not She? Where does it say that God has a sex, and that it is masculine?

Now I know what you’re thinking: the Bible and the Quran are both full of He this, He that, Father this and Lord the other. That’s true, but you ask any theologically sophisticated Christian or Muslim whether God has gonads and I’m pretty sure they’ll say ‘Of course not!’ God is much too big and impressive, not to mention invulnerable, to have a collection of soft, funny-looking, easily damaged organs dangling annoyingly between his legs.

I think there are two reasons why male pronouns and nouns are used to refer to God in the scriptures of Middle-Eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), both of which are to do with cultural traditions and have no theological basis.

The first is that ancient Middle-Eastern cultures, like most all other old cultures, including English and American, are patriarchal and use masculine pronouns in all cases except where the person being referred to is definitely female. All sorts of interesting reasons for this can be discussed but, whatever the reason, we cannot doubt that that is the practice. In a sense, ‘He’ is just the way of saying ‘She or He’ in that language tradition. In the modern, progressive parts of the world, we are working to undo those traditions, because of their toxic effect on sexual equality. But that’s a modern phenomenon that occurred centuries after the King James bible, let alone the original versions written in the period 950BCE – 150CE (600-900CE for the Quran).

The second reason is more specific. In those patriarchal cultures, it was assumed that a figure of authority must be male. Yahweh / Allah was the ultimate Boss, so It was described as male, as the notion of a female boss would have just been too incomprehensible – and unacceptable – to consumers of the stories.

Neither of these reasons retain any validity in modern, Western society, so there is no reason to perpetuate the implicitation of masculinity that was adopted at the time of writing. In fact, there are good reasons to actively overturn that implication, as just another undesirable plank in the ugly edifice of male dominance.

There is one other reason that was suggested to me by a Roman Catholic friend, that is more concrete. That is that Jesus was a man. Let’s accept for now the biblical narrative that there was a single man called Jesus of Nazareth, on whom the gospel stories are based, and whose body housed the incarnate spirit of God. Then the worldly container for the spirit of God did indeed have an XY chromosomal pattern, testicles and a penis. But why should that make us think that the immaterial spirit that pre-existed that body, and survived it, also has those things. We are told that Jesus had a beard. Does that mean that the spirit also has a beard?

If God’s plan was to incarnate as a human and preach an important message, It had three options for a body in which to incarnate: as a man, as a woman, or as a human of indeterminate sex. In Palestine CE30, only one of them had any chance of success. Nobody would have taken a woman seriously, and someone of indeterminate sex would likely have been put to death as a perceived infraction of God’s laws. So the choice of Christ (the part of God’s spirit that is said to have incarnated as Jesus) to incarnate as a man was simply an expedient, and says nothing about the sex of Christ.

Christians pray to Christ – the spirit – rather than to Jesus, even though they may say Jesus because it sounds more friendly. Jesus was the incarnated man, and he only existed for about thirty years. It is Christ that the religion says is eternally in heaven, and to whom a Christian prays. And there is nothing to credibly suggest that Christ has a sex.

Are there any other reasons why God should have a sex?

Thinks.

I can’t think of any that aren’t completely silly. One that immediately comes to mind is that God is The Boss, and bosses are more often than not male (although personally I have been fortunate to have had at least as many female as male bosses in my work career, and there is no doubt about who wields the power in the reasonably-happy home I inhabit). We’ve already dealt with that.

Another is that God is portrayed as a Father. But again, the intent of this metaphor (metaphor because It’s not really a father – there is no divine sperm involved) is to convey that God has the same loving, guiding, protective relationship to us that a parent typically has to their child. The scripture writers just wrote Father rather than Mother or Parent because of the language conventions mentioned above.

Any more reasons? No, I’m afraid I can’t think of any.

On the other side, there are excellent theological reasons against attributing a sex to God.

According to 1 John 4:8, God is Love. Does love have a specific sex? No.

According to John 1:1 God is The Word. Do words have a sex? No.

According to the influential theologian Paul Tillich, God is the Undifferentiated Ground of Being. Do Grounds of Being have a sex (provided we don’t differentiate them!)? No.

According to St Thomas Aquinas, God is Pure Actuality. If we distill Actuality until it is pure, does it acquire a sex? No.

According to St Augustine, God is Goodness Itself. Does Goodness have a sex? No.

I can tell you don’t want me to go on, so I won’t.

Right, now that we’re all agreed that God has no sex, what are we going to do about the fact that nearly all the words written and spoken about God attribute masculinity to It?

This is my plan. Please listen carefully.

From now on, whether you believe in God or not, in every reference you make to God that is in a context where use of a sexed pronoun is natural, I want you to use the female form.

As you are all intelligent and attentive readers, you naturally understand that this is not because I think God has a sex and that sex is female. Rather it is that, even if this idea went viral, it would have no hope of balancing out the enormous number of references to God as male that are out there. So we’ll keep on at this until God references achieve sexual parity, and then we’ll think about what to do next. This is not, as Alan Jones or Donald Trump might claim, ‘playing with words’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’. It’s just using sensible language that recognises that women and men are equally human and equally capable of anything except for a very few sex-specific activities such as fertilising an ovum or gestating a baby human. It’s a step that subverts the subtle message that only a man can be a person of power and wisdom. It’s a small but meaningful step in the project of gradually dismantling millennia of male dominance and oppression. And who better to lead such a step than the religions that have historically been – and unfortunately in some cases still are – platforms for those that seek to perpetuate that dominance.

So, if you please, it’ll be:

‘Our Mother who art in Heaven….’, in The Dame’s Prayer.

‘And He shall reign for ever and ever….’

Jesus is the Son of Woman (note the preservation of the word Son for Jesus, on account of the real-life testicles on the body used for Christ’s incarnation).

‘And She looked down on Her creation, and saw that it was good’.

The hymns will need reworking too:

‘Hail Redeemer Queen divine’

‘Queen of Queens, and Dame of Dames’

Everything, except specific references to the body of Jesus of Nazareth, has to go, and be replaced by its feminine equivalent.

What nice, friendly, inclusive places churches will become when this is adopted. I would happily visit them and sing along to ‘God rest ye merry (gentle)women’ in a spirit of ecumenical solidarity.

I don’t want to pick unfairly on Middle-Eastern religions, even though, they being by far the most powerful ones, they can take it. So let’s pause to consider the others.

Non-Middle-Eastern religions seem to generally be less patriarchal than the Middle-Eastern ones. There are powerful goddesses in Indian, Egyptian, Native American, Norse, Greek and Roman religions. But in all cases the boss of the gods is male. Apparently there have been, through the twentieth century, groups of scholars that believed that ancient religions such as druidism worshipped an Earth Mother type deity as their main focus, but these beliefs have fallen into disfavour in academia, and start to look more like wishful thinking of survivors of the Peace and Love generation of the sixties, than historically accurate accounts. The only well-known religions – ancient or modern – in which the most powerful being is female are neopagan religions such as Wicca. Well good for them, I say. But they are a very small minority, and the male dominance of the other religions I mentioned at least lets the Middle-Eastern triumvirate that currently dominates the world off the hook a little.

But Andrew, you protest, you are not a practising Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, so why should you care what words they use to talk about their gods?

You make a fair point, dear reader. The religions towards which I feel the greatest affinity are Buddhism and Vedanta, neither of which have any connection with the Middle East. But although I am not a Christian, Christianity has a major effect on my daily life and the lives of those around me, through the enormous influence that Christian power-brokers have on our laws and social customs. So it is in my interest, and in the interest of anybody that wishes for a kinder society, for the average Christian, as well as the power hierarchies of the various Christian sects, to become more consultative and compassionate. I think the religion becoming less male-dominated and male-oriented would help in moving along the road towards that goal.

And the same applies to Judaism and Islam. While their influences are minor where I live, there are parts of the world where their influence is intense. The people living in those regions would greatly benefit from those religions shedding some of their patriarchal orientation, and where better to start than to stop pretending that God is a bloke.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, December 2017


About the Devil

What a strange concept is Satan, the devil! He occupies such a large part in Western culture and literature that few people ever stop to reflect on the weirdness of the idea of a single person that is responsible for all the bad things in the world. Certainly I never considered it until the other day.

Satan seems to me to be a particularly Christian concept, in emphasis if not in origin. Other religions have supernatural beings with varying degrees of benevolence or malevolence, but I don’t think the concept of a single Prince of Darkness is widespread. China, India and Japan have mythologies replete with good and evil spirits, but no single spirit has control of all the bad stuff. For instance the Ramayana’s Rawanna, king of demons, comes across as more naughty than evil. So does Loki from Norse mythology. Actually Rawanna is a good deal less frightening to me than the Indian goddesses of destruction Kali and Durga, both of whom are worshipped by perfectly nice, law-abiding, kind people. I get the two mixed up, but one or both of them wears a necklace of skulls and is portrayed dancing on the bodies of those she has slain.

Chinese folk religion seems to encompass a multitude of evil spirits. We have to orient our houses the right way and do specific things with water, air, numbers and chants to keep them at bay.

Having multiple bad spirits seems to me like having a proliferation of petty criminals, whereas Satan is more like how Stalin appeared to the West at the height of the Cold War – the supreme leader of a tremendously powerful organisation capable of doing unfathomable harm. Some people, perhaps out of nostalgia for the good old days of the cold war, tried to resurrect that image with people like Osama Bin Laden, but it never really caught on. Stalin could have killed hundreds of millions just by pressing a button. Osama Bin Laden – to be blunt – couldn’t.

Satan does get the occasional mention in the two other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam. After all, he makes his debut appearance in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis chapter three, which all three Abrahamic religions share.

But while I don’t know a whole lot about either Judaism or Islam, a bit of googling about devils in Judaism and Islam didn’t turn up anything with a prominence like the following from the RC baptismal rite:

      Celebrant:Do you reject Satan?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

      Celebrant: And all his works?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

      Celebrant: And all his empty promises?

      Parents & Godparents: I do.

You know you’ve made it to the big-time when an organisation with a billion members makes three successive references to you in the induction ceremony for every one of its new members.

The biggest speaking part that Satan is given in the Jewish scriptures – to my knowledge – is in the Book of Job, where he wagers with God (Yahweh) about whether Job can be induced to curse Yahweh if enough suffering is inflicted on him. Job is a fascinating book, partly because Satan comes across in it as a less malevolent entity than Yahweh. But I wouldn’t want my fate to be in the hands of either of them, as portrayed therein. There’s not a lot of ‘Duty of Care‘ going on.

Satan’s literary influence is so pervasive that his avatars pop up in secular literature as well. Classic instances of that are Sauron from Lord of the Rings and Voldemort from Harry Potter. Both are known as ‘the Dark Lord’ and have the honorific ‘Lord’ affixed before their name. One might ascribe Tolkien’s symbolism in Lord of the Rings to his Roman Catholicism. On the other hand JK Rowling is not a Christian, yet her use of such a clear Satan substitute shows how deeply embedded the role of Satan has become in Western culture, both religious and secular.

From a literary standpoint, having the notion of Satan is a wonderful cultural advantage. Pitting the hero(s) against the overwhelming odds of a leader of a massively powerful army of evil is so much more gripping than against a mere mortal villain.

Both Tolkien and Rowling hedged their bets a bit though. Both allude in their mythologies to earlier evils, which in some sense detracts from the uniqueness of their Dark Lords. With Tolkien it was Morgoth, while Rowling had Grindelwald. I think the latter name is unfortunate because Grindelwald is the name of a lovely village in the Swiss alps. I went there about thirty-five years ago and did not encounter any dark forces. But maybe it has changed since then.

Western culture has a rich tradition of tales about Satan and his followers. That has given us such chilling works of fiction as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. The English author Dennis Wheatley wrote a series of best-selling novels about Satanist cults conjuring up the devil in gothic country mansions, sacrificing virgins and doing other dastardly deeds. Going back further in time we have Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. I have not read any of these three, although I know the story of Faust. I am keen to find time to read Paradise Lost (if only it weren’t so LONG!) because it is said that it presents Satan as a complex, multi-faceted character that is in some senses almost a tragic hero, rather than just the pure evil image to which we are generally subjected.

I don’t think I ever really believed in the devil entirely, although I said I did, both to others and to myself, because that was a requirement of the religion in which I was raised. I found Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen scary, but not so much The Exorcist.

On reflection, I think what scared me most about Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen was not the devil but rather his creepy followers. In Rosemary’s baby it was the solicitous, secretly Satan-worshipping neighbours that befriended Rosemary and took advantage of her trusting nature to gradually poison her with various herbs that they told her were medicine for a mild ailment she had. In The Omen it was the creepily motherly yet homicidal nursemaid, plus the kid Damian (son of Satan) who killed people by doing things like crashing his tricycle into them at the top of the stairs so that they fell and broke their neck. Malevolent children are always scary, regardless of whether any evil spirits are in sight. Horror movies love to make use of them, and ‘Lord of The Flies‘ is like the apotheosis of the evil children genre. How apt that William Golding chose the title ‘Lord of The Flies‘ for that novel, which is a translation of Beelzebub, one of Satan’s many names.

The book that scared me the most was Dracula. I read it at much too young an age and spent the next several years sleeping in terror with my head under the blankets to try to keep the vampires away. As far as I recall Dracula doesn’t actually mention the devil at all. Count Dracula is evil, but there is no suggestion in Bram Stoker’s book that he is unique.

I wonder what it is that made Satan such a prominent figure in Christianity, and the cultures that were heavily influenced by Christianity.

One theory I’ve come across is that, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century CE, the Romans sought to spread the religion by discrediting the existing folk religions of Europe, many of which involved some sort of worship of nature and fertility. The sort of ‘dancing in a circle, naked in the woods‘ image that is associated in modern times with witches’ covens and satanic cults (in the popular imagination at least – whether also in reality I have no idea) may have been a feature of those pre-Christian folk religions. So associating them with a powerful evil figure would have been a way to discredit those religions, and maybe to justify suppressing them.

That theory has an intuitive appeal, but strikes the problem that for many of those folk religions the anthropomorphic image of nature that was worshipped was female – a mother goddess. Yet Satan is male.

An equally plausible, and rather simpler, explanation is that the notion of an immensely powerful Dark Lord just makes for a great story, and great stories make for successful social movements.

There’s an interesting theological conflict between the notion of Satan as the Embodiment of Evil on the one hand, and on the other, the Roman Catholic doctrine that evil is an absence of good, rather than a presence of something bad. The origin of that doctrine is first attributed to St Augustine (late 4th century), and later reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (13th century). I find it hard to square this with Satan being an entity that is supposed to be actively evil. I have no idea what RC theologians make of this, although I am confident that their explanation would be extremely LONG. Make an explanation long enough and the chances are that the explainee will not raise any objections, out of sheer weariness and the fear that the explainer may launch into a further diatribe.

When I was in high school there was a boy who attended our school for a short while. He gained notoriety by telling people that he had seen the Devil. He had just woken up in the middle of the night and the Devil had been standing there at the foot of his bed. I remember that he had red eyes (the devil, not the boy), but can’t recall any other details being given. Still, the red eyes would be enough to narrow down the suspects fairly effectively if the police were to conduct a manhunt. A short conversation was had, twixt the boy and the devil. I don’t remember the topic but I do remember that it was surprisingly banal.

Did he really think he saw the devil, or did he just make up the story in order to gain attention and acceptance at a new school, as boys are wont to do? We’ll never know, because he left after being there only a couple of months. I hope it was made up, because such visions are often associated with mental illness and I wouldn’t wish for him to have suffered that.

Having meandered about all over the place in this essay (as usual) I feel I should lay my cards on the table and say that, although I think the devil is a marvellous literary figure that we couldn’t do without, I don’t believe in him any more. I hope that most other people don’t either, regardless of their religious or cultural associations, as belief in the devil seems to lead to black and white thinking that before you know it has medicine women being burned as witches and teenagers with schizophrenia being subjected to horrific exorcism rituals.

What I do believe in, at least in the middle of the night as I struggle out of bed to go and empty my bladder, is a frightful monster hiding under the bed with scaly claws that will grab my shins, pull me under the bed and then – I don’t know what then, but no doubt it will be horrific. But that’s more Doctor Who than Paradise Lost, and is the subject of another (not yet written) essay.

Now, having whinged shamelessly about the verbosity of both John Milton and of theologians, I had better stop here, lest I commit the very misdemeanor I have been moaning about.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2017