Aung San Suu Kyi commodification hides nasty reality

In the news today is the decision of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to cancel her scheduled trip to the United Nations General Assembly.

The explanation is that she's having to deal with the crisis that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. Obviously she also wants to avoid being called to account for her failure to protect the Rohingya from what the UN's top human rights official Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has described as 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.

Aung San Suu Kyi

For some time she has faced criticism for her silence on the increasingly violent oppression of the Rohingya. As friends of mine became impatient with her during the course of the past year, my instinct was not to judge.

I told myself that she's a politician not a saint, and her continued leadership of the country depends upon her willingness to act according to the wishes and prejudices of the country's Buddhist majority, however odious they may seem to us. Her masters are the people of Myanmar - who democratically elected her - not the former colonial powers who gave moral support to her elevation to the leadership.

Yesterday my view was well articulated by commentators Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on their ABC radio podcast The Minefield. Aly said:

'The Aung San Suu Kyi who was sold to the world, the crusader for human rights... was a creation of western human rights subcultures, of the culture of celebrity that surrounds a political prisoner.'

But in the end their guest - the Australian Catholic University's 'bitterly bitterly disappointed' Catherine Renshaw - was more convincing in maintaining that a rhetorical gesture from Suu Kyi in support of the Rohingya would 'have incredible power'.

Instead, Renshaw said, Suu Kyi's rhetoric is working in service of the ethnic cleansing. The 'disinformation' put out by her Department of Information about the Rohingya burning their own villages is 'so reminiscent of the oppression and the state apparatus of fear and silencing that characterised SLORC, the regime that kept her under house arrest for 18 years'.

The time is coming for international powers to act to avoid a proper genocide as happened in Rwanda two decades ago. Back then they dithered until it was too late. This time it's likely there will also be procrastination. But worse. Back in the 90s there was a consensus of moral leadership among western powers. But now that nationalism has taken root in so many countries, there's little support for action from powers beyond Germany and a handful of other European countries.


Link: podcast

The rudeness contagion

In a few weeks I will celebrate my fifth anniversary of not owning a car. One thing I don't miss is rude drivers.

Sometimes I'd be driving on a narrow country road at what I considered a safe speed. Impatient drivers would come up behind me and flash their lights aggressively.

I had two reactions. I might meet rudeness with rudeness and slow down to annoy the other driver. Or I would just pull over when I could and let them pass.

Cover of I Cant Believe You Just Said That The truth about why people are SO rude by Danny Wallace

Rudeness is a contagion. You need to go out of your way to short circuit it or it will eventually destroy your relationships and spoil your quality of life.

If you've experienced or witnessed rudeness, you're more likely to be rude yourself. According to British author and comedian Danny Glover, 'rudeness gets into your brain, it makes you less creative, less able to cope with situations'.

Last week I listened to Glover on a podcast speaking about his new book on what he calls the 'new rudeness' - I Can't Believe You Just Said That: The truth about why people are SO rude.

Are you rude

It is a serious issue at the moment because the most powerful man in the world has successfully made a virtue out of rudeness. He's setting a tone that other leaders including our own are following. It's not just everywhere in the Murdoch press, it's right through the policies of our Federal Government.

Glover says: 'Stupid people think yes I can be rude. Because that guy's being refreshing. He's being politically incorrect. He's saying whatever he wants. If he can do it, I can.'

He addresses the trend to put down political correctness.

'It's not something to be frowned upon. It's a system developed to protect people. People in a vulnerable situation, minorities, from not having people in positions of power run their mouth off and do them down and make them victims.'

Comedian Danny Wallace

He says it goes hand with people who disparage so-called do gooders.

He describes the positive community spirit that caused Britons to rally around victims of recent acts of terror in the UK.

'What would you rather have? Do nothings? Do badders?'


Links: podcast book

Moral combatants in war

The Sydney Film Festival's notes on the documentary Last Men in Aleppo describe it as 'an unforgettable and visceral portrait of White Helmet volunteers toiling amidst the rubble of the besieged Syrian city'.

While viewing it, I found myself questioning the point of a visceral account of a war, in which emotions take precedence over the facts. Was the film presenting truth or fiction, or perhaps something in between?

Last Men in Aleppo

A few months ago, I'd read of accusations that the White Helmets had passed on false information about the Idlib chemical weapons attack because they wanted to see the end of the Assad regime.

The attack was being described as a propaganda event staged by the 'pro-western' White Helmets. I was shocked that an organisation charged with providing humanitarian assistance could be accused of taking sides in a war.

That is apparently quite common now. As it is with news organisations, which used to pride themselves in reporting facts rather than passing on propaganda.

I remember there was disquiet at the embedding of reporters with elements of the military during operations in the Iraq War. Now this kind of thing has become the norm, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that war reporting cannot be trusted to the extent that it could in the past.

Yesterday I listened to an interview with the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, whose book War and the Death of News was released earlier this month.

Martin Bell - War and the Death of News Reflections of a Grade B Reporter

He believes there is little hope for truth in war reporting, and in journalism in general. 'We don't have a clue what's going on ... As technology advances, journalism retreats.'

The problem is that Bell himself was influential in the unravelling of objectivity in war news reporting.

A few years ago I was studying journalism and remember his championing of what he called the 'journalism of attachment' while he was reporting the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

This was defined as journalism which 'cares as well as knows'. War reporting as we knew it had been an amoral activity, which is not surprising given that it sought to be objective and dispassionate. But Bell argued that it needed a moral purpose.

At first glance, I liked the journalism of attachment. But then I began to wonder what journalism is about if it is seeking something other than the whole truth. It is as if we are on a slippery slope towards what is now referred to as 'fake news'.

Marie Colvin

Practising 'attachment', war journalists - like the White Helmet humanitarian workers - become moral combatants and subject to strikes from the opposing side. That explains the death of the celebrated Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and her photographer while covering the siege of Homs in 2012, allegedly targeted by Syrian artillery fire.

Colvin said she considered her job was to shine a light on 'humanity in extremes, pushed to the unendurable... I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village.' But this made her a player in the war rather than a resource that can be respected by both sides.


Links: Last Men interview book Attachment

Choosing the pleasure principle over self-denial to lose weight

This morning I noticed an article on ‘mindful eating’ in the Australian edition of the Huffington Post. I was interested to compare the writer’s ideas with my own, which I set out in a list before visiting my nutritionist late last year.

My personal journey towards a right relationship with food goes back to primary school, when I was stigmatised as the fat boy in the class. Subsequently it became a life goal to reach normal weight. I was never obese, but over the next four decades I was mostly overweight, sometimes significantly.

I would tell myself that I was happy being moderately overweight. But I don’t think that was really the case. I wanted my weight to be ‘normal’.

I achieved my goal two years ago. The turning point was selling my car in 2012. I had felt the need to justify owning my car by using it. When I no longer had a car, I adjusted my life so that many of the services I routinely accessed were within walking distance.

Measurement was important. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day and set and achieved high step goals, which I monitored using the various electronic pedometers I owned.

My scales talk to the Fitbit app, and - as a matter of both pride and weight maintenance - I keep my eye on the graph in the app that tells me my weight is in the middle of the recommended range.

I was not preoccupied with diets or counting the calories of my food intake. But I would have very productive conversations with my nutritionist, who did not recommend crash or fad diets.

I have been keenly aware that most people who lose weight put it back on within a year. Not me. I set a new goal for myself, which was to develop a habit of what I called ‘mindful eating’.

That is something I worked out for myself. It includes spiritual and ethical dimensions as well as practical measures such as eating with small bowls. I didn’t realise until I read this morning’s Huffington Post that mindful eating is a concept talked about by the experts.

For me, the underlying principle is that it’s like meditation. Focus on the food rather than extraneous thoughts. Watching TV or doing another activity while eating is taboo. Even unchecked eating with others in a social situation works against mindfulness unless the conversation is about the food.

The Huffington Post writer Juliette Steen is familiar with what happens if you take your mind off your food: ‘You start eating a meal and look down a few minutes later to see an empty bowl, even though you don’t remember eating everything’.

I’ve often wondered why the French tend not to be overweight even though their diet includes many high calorie foods such as butter and goose fat. My theory is that they’re always talking and thinking about the food they’re consuming. Their eating is mindful.

The idea is that the pleasure of eating is maximised by the level of awareness, not the quantity on the plate. This is something the French know and Americans (and Australians) don’t. It’s also the basis of the ordered pleasure principle of the ethics of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Clinical psychologist and author of Mindsight Dan Siegel says that in developing the capacity to label and describe our internal world, we become more nonjudgmental and develop a greater sense of equanimity.

As a means of dieting, and indeed regulating our intake of any of life’s pleasures, it beats self-denial. Indeed it makes us much nicer and more balanced human beings.

Selfishness as the new moral norm

Many people were relieved this week because President Trump finally gave a speech in which he tried to be nice rather than nasty.

I’m not relieved. It’s merely a change of tone in his behaviour and rhetoric. He’s not moving away from his ‘America First’ philosophy that makes a virtue out of selfishness.

The most unfortunate thing is that because he’s finally learning how to be presidential, he could end up a two term president rather than a ‘mistake’ one-term president.

We will have a generation of young Americans growing up thinking that it’s good to be selfish. Moral aspiration will be focused on keeping Americans safe rather than making the world a better place to live.

To this end, on Monday Trump signalled a $54 billion increase in defence spending and a corresponding decrease in foreign aid.

There is no question that Australia will follow America’s lead. Within a week of Trump taking office, Scott Morrison was uttering the phrase ‘Australia First’.

Yesterday – Ash Wednesday – was the beginning of the Project Compassion Lenten Appeal of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church.

I thought that the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ pitch of the giving campaign was sadly out of step with modern times.

Instead of ‘$10 a month during 2017 could provide 110 children in Cambodia with anti-malaria treatment and vaccines’, it could have been ‘$10 a month could power a border patrol vessel to prevent refugees entering Australian waters for one hour’.

Caritas Australia and other aid and development organisations such as Oxfam have always put a lot of their resources into education. Caritas has worked hand in hand with Catholic schools to teach young people to be good neighbours. That is why graduates of Catholic schools have often had a strong sense of social justice.

This is at odds with the Federal Government’s new emphasis on good citizenship that means putting Australia first at the expense of our neighbours.

 

 

My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.


Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

Bond University: What's in a name?

At the weekend, when I stayed with my aunt and uncle at Robina on the Gold Coast, I was within ten minutes walk of Bond University.

Walking through a university campus has long been part of my lifestyle, having lived within ten minutes walk of Sydney University for almost 24 years. I have welcomed the proximity as if, through some process of osmosis, it conditions me to be a more questioning, reflective and ethical person.

But with Bond University, the feeling is more ambiguous.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful modern university campuses I have walked around, and I have noted that the privately owned not-for-profit institution is one of Australia's best performing universities.

But I can't quite get over the reality - for me at least - that the university is a gigantic monument to one of Australia's most notoriously dishonourable businessmen, Alan Bond.

In Australia, Bond was synonymous with the corporate excess of the 1980s. He was one of the central figures in the WA Inc scandals of the time. A few years later he was declared bankrupt, with personal debts approaching $2 billion. Then he was jailed after being convicted of fraudulently appropriating $1.2 billion.

It's a long time since Bond University severed links with Bond and Bond Corporation. But it is perverse that it appears to have the discipline of business administration at its core, with the Bond Business School one of the university's more prominent and successful entities.

The obvious question is what kind of implicit or explicit inspiration does the School take from Alan Bond the man of business. Is it at all proud of Bond's legacy in business? What kind of business ethics does it teach?

Try putting bond business school business ethics into Google and the search result will point to the 'truly personalised educational experience' and - almost comically - end with the search engine indicator: 'Missing: ethics'.

I would guess that this gives a wrong and unfair impression. But so does the university's name. In recent days, I've read with interest about Yale University's decision to rename one of its undergraduate colleges because its name has honoured the white supremicist and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

The Yale University statement said that having one of its colleges named in honour of such a person 'fundamentally conflicts with Yale's mission and values'.

Yale's action could be a trigger for Bond University to examine how its name sits with its mission and values.

How I can be both pro-life and pro-choice

I have just read Catherine Marshall's powerful Eureka Street article 'Trump moves against vulnerable women'. It is about his recent executive order that health organisations receiving funding from the US must not provide abortion services or advice, even if the money is not used to fund these services.

It has reminded me of my own inner struggle with regard to abortion. I am resolutely - but not proudly - pro-life.

In my own personal world, I cannot accept that any human being has a right to choose when to end the life of another (born or unborn) human life. That is God's prerogative.

But I am in favour of the current civil laws permitting early term abortion if the mother's physical or mental health is at risk. These are the vulnerable women that Catherine is talking about in her article.

I also think that it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic publication like Eureka Street to advocate pro-choice positions in this way because they are pro-tolerance positions.

Tolerant Catholics - including me, I hope - do not impose their religious views on others. That is what religious extremists do. I accept that my particular religious views are out of step with the common sense reality of the community I live in. I don't mind that. In fact I cherish it. I like living in a multicultural, multifaith society.

Why I am not proud to be pro-life is that those who are proudly pro-life are often intolerant of the views of others. They are bigots. I like to think that I am not a bigot.

I might try to pretend that abortion is not my business. That it's for women, and perhaps couples, who are having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. But if I think of it, that's not fair on unborn human beings, who are defenceless. They need the state to advocate on their behalf.

The only point of contention is a big one. It's when human life begins. My religious belief is that this point is the moment of conception. But I don't have a right to impose that on anybody else. In reality, I support the common sense definition that life begins when the foetus is at an advanced stage of development, as determined by the state.

Without considering myself an expert, I think the state - Australia - has got it about right. Until a week ago, America had it about right. That this has changed is reason for protest and civil action.

A visit to the Christchurch earthquake reconstruction zone

An earthquake registering 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated the centre of Christchurch at 12:51 pm on 22 February 2011. It was one of a series of earthquakes that struck the city within a twelve month period, with a death toll of 185.

Of those who fled the city seeking refuge elsewhere, some were too traumatised to return, and Christchurch lost its status as New Zealand's second most populous city to Wellington. Those who did come back were very much determined to reconstruct the city, and their efforts are only beginning to take shape.

Walking around the city centre on Sunday, I could see that much of the area was fenced off and yet to see significant reconstruction activity. I could sense the panic and suffering that took place in this area and was struck by the relative lifelessness there is today.

The 'green shoot' that was most evident to me was the Transitional Cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch, better known as the Cardboard Cathedral.

The NZ$5m A-frame structure was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and opened in August 2013 on a site located a few blocks from the original cathedral that was destroyed by the quake.

My visit transformed what was for me quite a desolate experience of the city centre. I appreciated the beauty of the construction, the welcome of the volunteer guide, and the pervading hope that the whole city centre will one day come back to life. There was the very unusual and mesmerising architecture, and also simple touches such as the flowers in the garden beds in front of the main doors.

I can't recall ever visiting the scene of a natural disaster in the interim period between clean up and major progress in reconstruction, and I did feel quite paralysed by the experience. But it was a Sunday, and I imagine that it could be a much more optimistic feeling if I go back there today when where will be more activity.

It did make me think about the concept of disaster tourism, which is defined as the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter or curiosity. This can include 'rubbernecking', or travel with the specific intention of paying respect, or something in between.

I remember being in New York in December 2001, a little more than three months after the 9-11 terror attacks. I had no thought of going to Ground Zero but I did talk to a local who said that residents were disturbed by tourists visiting the scene to take a look. In time Ground Zero has become a destination for those wishing to honour the victims of the disaster.

Peter Singer on what's wrong with empathy

Recently I read Peter Singer's review article 'The Empathy Trap' on the Project-Syndicate.org 'opinion page' website.

Singer is the Australian philosopher most famous for applying John Stuart Mill's 19th century utilitarianism principles to modern ethical dilemmas. My study of ethics and moral theology in 1980-81 coincided with the publication of his classic text Practical Ethics. Singer was the bête noire of my teachers and I have since regarded his thinking with both interest and suspicion.

I was captivated by the social justice advocacy and activism of the time, which also featured prominently in the secondary school religious education curriculum. I remember Wendy Poussard's school text book Walk in My Shoes, which was used to teach students empathy with the poor.

Poussard's text represented the view that there were particular values that were non-negotiable. They could not be subjected to any kind of utilitarian calculus. The argument against this is that the ethics of empathy can be extraordinarily subjective. We can put ourselves in the 'shoes' of whales, but what about other animals or human beings? As Singer argues, 'empathy makes us kinder to [beings] with whom we empathise'.

He says: 'Trump, in his campaign speeches, made use of the tragic murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant to stoke support for his anti-immigrant policies. He did not, of course, offer any similarly vivid portrayals of undocumented immigrants who have saved the lives of strangers, although such cases have been reported.'

Singer's review article relates to the the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, written by Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

He supports Bloom's argument that our ability to reason has a crucial part to play in ethical decisions, and empathy is just as likely to lead us to do the wrong thing. 'Animals with big round eyes, like baby seals, arouse more empathy than chickens, on whom we inflict vastly more suffering'.

I notice that The Conversaton has today begun a series on empathy, including the question of whether doctors and other professionals need more empathy, and when it can be counter-productive. It gets into questions of how empathy can be measured and contained, and whether it should be.

In December The Conversation had an article on Matthew Flinders' encounters with Indigenous Australians. It looked at genuine evidence for his feelings of empathy and sense of morality but concluded that they were always contained by his sense of duty, which was to explore and map the Australian coast and keep his ship's company safe.

If Flinders' empathy was relative to his sense of duty, Singer's empathy is subject to his own particular kind of rationalism. In other words, Singer's rationalism is limited in the way that economic rationalism is subject to the principles of free market economics. He can't pretend that his is the king of all rationalisms. I think that we need to agree with him about the absurdities that he points out regarding the manipulation of empathy, but use art and spirituality to supplement the dominant rationality in our society.