The gloom of springtime in Paris

It’s springtime in Paris and I’ve been here a little over two weeks.  But although a sunny 21 degrees is expected on Saturday, being here at this time is not entirely enviable. 

I’d missed the floods and heavy rains that had made life miserable for Parisians earlier this year. But when I first arrived, there was snow cover at the airport and it was even snowing in my street in the first arrondissement. Temperatures were sub-zero, and they took some days to approach a level of relative comfort.

However the real gloom in the air was created by the strikes in the public sector. The unions released a calendar of train strikes that will take place three days a week between now and the end of June. Air France had two strike days last week and there will be another two next week. In addition, the public electricity utility EDF is also expected to be subject to strike action.

On my flight to Paris, I was sitting next to the mayor of a small town in the Loire Valley. He explained that it was about resistance to President Macron’s agenda to curb the cushy conditions that are an obstacle to France’s economic competitiveness in the modern world.

In my experience, strike action is often a mix of idealism and worker self-interest, with self-interest often dressed up as idealism. 

When I worked at the ABC in the 90s, it was creeping commercialism eroding the values of public sector broadcasting. That was real. But it seemed those values were inseparable from upholding a longstanding and arguably unrealistic high standard of working conditions that I never enjoyed in my post-ABC employment.

According to survey results reported on the nightly television news on France 2, about half the general population is broadly supportive of the strike action. I suspect there’s an element of nostalgia for the past and skepticism about globalism and its purported benefits for the those who don’t belong to the economic elite. Not too dissimilar to the sentiment in the UK that led to the Brexit vote.

The nightly news tends to focus on the gloom of those waiting on train platforms for the approximately 20 per cent of trains that are still running using what we might call ‘scab labour’. But I think there are also those who are able to dodge the worst effects by working from home or travelling outside the peak. 

My Air France flight to Sicily next week was booked for what became a planned strike day. Luckily I was able to bring my departure ahead three days. My Sicilian holiday is extended and I will avoid both the Air France strike and the two successive days of train strikes that could have prevented me from travelling to the airport. 

Yesterday a friend observed that the transport paralysis seemed to have reduced the number of tourists in circulation, suggesting that today - another strike day - might be a good day to visit one of the usually crowded museums. That is my plan for the afternoon.

Coming late to style

Today I had lunch with an old friend and work colleague I first met 30 years ago. 

She recalled two other female colleagues taking me on as a 'project' to try to give me a sense of style. 

I was very much lacking in that aspect, partly because I was still a Jesuit. We proudly regarded ourselves as counter-cultural. 

Most of us were from comfortable middle class backgrounds. But we sought to 'identify with the poor'. I remember my mother buying me an expensive suit that I was too embarrassed to wear. 

We dressed down, grew beards when they were out of fashion, and gave each other rough haircuts. Overweight was OK, and working out in the gym to build a beautiful body would be to worship an alien god. Our style was to eschew style. 

But in effect we were making a virtue of sloppiness. Eventually I worked it out that sloppy does little to enhance the dignity of the poor. Whoever the poor were, I hope they did not pay too much attention to the well-intentioned standard we set.

Thirty years down the track, my colleagues' wish for me has been fulfilled. 

I try to be mindful of my dress and grooming. I also pay attention to how others present themselves. 

I sometimes find articles of interest in GQ men's fashion magazine, although my current favourite is the Men in This Town blog that pays homage to men who express their personality in the clothes they wear.

A visit to the gym each morning has taken the place of daily Mass. It can centre me as a human being or it can be boring. But my better body shape, and attention to dress and grooming, contribute to a greater sense of well-being.

The real scandal is Joyce's schooling

One of the friends I caught up with at the weekend is a therapist who has just published a book titled Kind Man, Strong Man. 

I bought it for my Kindle and read much of it last night. It is about violence in men towards their intimate female partners. The author – Eric Hudson – worked for five years providing emotional support at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

From my reading, his book is about attitudes and values that contribute to a society in which women are not respected or treated as equals. The question of physical violence is often irrelevant.

Hudson says: ‘I remember so clearly the moment when a woman said to me, “You know, he has never hit me, never laid a hand on me, but there are some times when I wish he would hit me! Because then I would have the bruises on the outside where they can be seen, not on the inside where no-one can see them.”’

The recent commentary about Barnaby Joyce that has resonated most with me has centred around the words ‘power imbalance’. It suggests – rightly or wrongly – that we are dealing with male abuse. In other words, the circumstances in a man’s life where all the women are not respected or treated as equals to men.

I don’t think it is helpful to judge Barnaby, especially in the way the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did on Thursday. It’s better to focus on a critique of the culture. 

We can hope that Barnaby and other influential men will see the reality of how they treat women and act for change. There’s no point in provoking them to try to defend the indefensible.

It is true that Barnaby’s personal choices appear to have caused immense suffering in the lives of the women in his life. But because he is the product of a culture that has little respect for women, the odds are that his actions will reflect that. 

I would say that it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he was schooled to treat women as second class citizens. 

It was the same for me. He was a country kid in an all male Jesuit boarding school, St Ignatius College Riverview in Sydney. Just a few years earlier, I was a country kid in another all male Jesuit boarding school, Xavier in Melbourne. For months at a time, we did not have girls around us to relate to as fellow human beings and equals. 

Girls were always on our minds, as sex objects. It is not surprising that boys from similar schools graduate to institutions like the infamous St John’s College at the University of Sydney, where the ritual humiliation and abuse of women and less macho men was not questioned until recently. That is the real scandal.

Joyce’s leadership of the Nationals may be no longer tenable, and the Nationals are having to deal with that. But the best thing our political class can do for the long term is to make laws that foster respect for women.


LINK: Kind Man, Strong Man

The mission of a bank nerd

I think I'm what you would call a bank nerd. I count the number of accounts I have rather than the amount of money they contain. There's no doubt that the accounts count produces a more remarkable figure.

I have accounts with twelve banks in Australia and one in France. I am proud of the fact that I avoid fees in all but my French account and that I have the best ongoing savings interest rates on the market.

It's something I learned from my father. I remember he shopped around for the best deals and switched his business from the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) to CBC (NAB) at a time when most families were loyal to the one bank for generations.

He encouraged us to save our pocket money and to invest in a quasi-bank that was known as a Permanent Building Society, which offered seven per cent interest. Then he got us to switch to another that offered nine.

I'm thinking about this because yesterday one of my banks - ING - informed its customers that we would need to make at least five transactions per month on our debit cards in order to keep our currently high 2.79 per cent interest rate.

I exercised my mind and found a solution to that one. But I'm still coming to terms with the ethics and practical challenges posed by Citibank's changes to its credit card rewards program.

Citi's rewards now direct its clients towards its 'partner' merchants. Before the changes, certain cards earned one point for every dollar spent anywhere. Now there's one point if they shop at Coles or Woolworths and zero points if they shop at IGA.

I sometimes wonder whether such nerd - or maven - behaviour enhances the personal wellbeing of the nerd, or of society in general.

I think it does. Because some of us are more demanding of businesses, they are kept on their toes and are less likely to exploit the non-nerds. If everybody was a bank nerd, the banking royal commission would not be necessary.

I have been trying to convince a friend to stop paying ANZ the $5 a month fee for a basic account and switch to an account elsewhere that offers interest and no fee. But he just laughs and tells me to get a life.

The problem is that dismissing the need to be more engaged in our consumer behaviour plays into the hands of greedy businesses, especially those that are prepared to behave unscrupulously.

Many banking customers get a much worse deal than my friend when the self-interest of their trusted financial advisors causes them to accept bad advice that is destined to cause them financial pain down the track and diminish their personal wellbeing.

I know what it's like to be overwhelmed by all the choices we have as consumers. I have no interest in studying the detail of either home and contents or health insurance products. As a result, I pay a lot of money for insurance that undoubtedly serves the needs of the companies much better than it does mine.

What happened to my Australian accent

I spent the summer of 1983-84 in the Philippines. During this time I fell in love with the Philippines and its people and felt ashamed to be Australian.

I can't remember exactly why I was ashamed, but I think it had something to do with Australia's misplaced sense of superiority in South East Asia. It was the era in which Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew felt he had to warn Australians that we were in danger of becoming the 'white trash' of Asia.

I decided that I did not like the Australian accent because it reflected this ugliness, which we ourselves did not seem to be aware of.

Not entirely tongue in cheek, I worked to modify my spoken English. I wanted a neutral accent that would ensure I was not immediately recognisable as Australian. When overseas these days, I still get told that I don't sound Australian.

After three and a half decades, my shame is not what it was. But I am keenly aware that every week there are new reasons for me to feel even more ashamed. A few days ago it was news of the planned overhaul of Australia's national security laws that could lead to journalists being jailed for doing their jobs.

Indeed if there is such a thing as an international shame index, Australia would have to be much more prominent today than it was in the 1980s. We are punching below our weight in so many areas. Examples include the promotion of human rights and acting to mitigate the effects of climate change.

I tell myself that Australia is a work in progress and that for every step backwards there is arguably a step forward.

We had Paul Keating's 1994 Redfern speech on the treatment of Indigenous Australians, which was broadly accepted by the general population. It gave us a lasting sense of national contrition that led to the 2008 Apology.

Now we have genuine and widespread criticism of the Australia Day celebration as inappropriate because it represents invasion and the beginning of annihilation for the first Australians. The celebration is on the nose to the extent that the online advertising and marketing website Mumbrella is warning brands that they should not risk damage by endorsing Australia Day.

I'm not against Australia Day, as long as it evolves to include an element of contrition alongside the self-congratulation. Shame is not a bad thing, to the extent that it acts as a reality check. And it could even bring the nation together.

Actual slow travel is better than watching a long train journey on TV

In recent weeks we've seen the surprising success of SBS TV's experimentation with the Slow TV genre. They've screened three and 17 hour versions of their documentary on The Ghan rail journey from Adelaide to Darwin.

The three hour 'director's cut'  was the station's highest rating program for the past year. The popularity of the three hours was such that they broadcast the 17 hour version the following weekend. Perhaps they will even try for 54 hours, which is the actual length of the journey.

But it's one thing to watch a long slow train journey on TV, and another to actually do it.

About this time last year, I was at Strathfield station in Sydney and saw an ad for NSW Trains Discovery Pass. I bought one the next day.

For $550 first class and $420 economy, the ticket allows six months travel on NSW country trains and buses that travel north to Brisbane, west to Broken Hill and south as far as Melbourne. I did one trip from Sydney to Brisbane, one from Sydney to the Gold Coast hinterland, one to Albury, and about four day trips to Canberra.

Friends thought I was a bit odd. Most people write off long distance rail travel in Australia because it's 'too slow'. But for me, slow is the best way to go if I can make the time to do it.

I think most people can if they really want to and make it a priority. Those who say they don't have the time to do such things probably pack too much into their busy lives and can't see the wood for the trees. They're the people who don't have the time to read novels.

Those who only have time for travel by air, or fast trains overseas, will never get to take in the meditative experience of the gradual change of landscape and vegetation over many hours and days. For me it is the equivalent of a religious retreat, and Australia's lack of enterprise in not building fast trains can be construed as a virtue.

Slow travel can also take the form of a long drive.

I discovered that it awakened something deep inside of me in 2003 when I drove from the east to the west coast of Australia. I had always wanted to do it because it's a thing many Australians 'must' do once in their life, just as Muslims go to Mecca.

The drive across Australia was such a peak experience for me that six months later I was off on a driving holiday through the wide open spaces of the USA.

I flew into San Jose and drove through the California Desert and along the old Route 66 to the Texas pan handle. I then went north towards Wyoming and Montana before returning to San Jose from Washington state close to the west coast. Around 9000 kilometres.

I also enjoy very long distance slow bus trips. In 2015, I took a bus for 25 hours through the windswept terrain in southern Peru between Lima and the Chilean border town of Arica. Then a day or so later I travelled in another bus for around 32 hours, through the Atacama desert - the world's driest - to the city of Valparaiso, not far from the capital Santiago.

Of course I do 'drop in' travel as well. But there's nothing like taking lots of time to reach a destination. Or not having a destination at all, which was actually the case when I set out from Albury for my 2003 road trip that ended up taking me as far as Meekatharra in Western Australia.

Who really killed confession?

Amidst the negative publicity the Sacrament of Confession received after last Friday's release of the Child Abuse Royal Commission final report, one positive moment stood out for me.

It was the religious broadcaster Noel Debien making a personal allusion on Friday evening on ABCTV's The Drum discussion panel. He 'outed' himself as a practising Catholic who goes to Confession.

He was suggesting that his practice of the faith, including Confession, was a means of enrichment in his life. That struck a chord with me and I felt that I too would like to go to Confession when the opportunity presents itself. But on my own terms.

I think that most Catholics have stayed away from Confession for decades because the thought of it has made them feel small and unworthy. Good on them.

It's not dissimilar to the dynamic of sexual abuse, which made its victims feel small. It is part of what critics of the Church see as a power play that is designed to tighten the screws of the institution's psychological grip on its faithful.

But it needn't be the Church at its worst. Confession can offer a pathway to wholeness and growth. 'I can and want to be a better person.' Who does not have that aspiration in their life?

The good news is that ethical and moral virtue is within our grasp.

I felt this yesterday during a phone call with a friend who is a spiritual mentor in another context of my life. We were discussing the Royal Commission report and Confession and my sense of how cathartic it can be when done right.

As if to demonstrate my point, I mentioned some of my actions from last week that I wasn't particularly proud of. I manifest them to him and owned them. Then, right on cue, I felt I'd taken a step up the ladder towards virtue nirvana. I'd become more whole as a person.

I questioned why the Church cannot seem to give us that experience.

After Vatican II, it was on the right track when it renamed Confession the 'Sacrament of Reconciliation'. It was as if it was offering us our own personal truth and reconciliation commission. The kind of thing they have when they want to right wrongs and make a fresh start in countries where there have been human rights abuses.

Then came the pullback of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. It reverted to Confession and the rhetoric once again implied the play in which the Church and its officials make us feel small and that this is somehow for our own good. They killed it.

When church teaching says Confession should be killed off

As a junior bishop during the Church's World Youth Day in 2008, the now Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher angered many when he suggested that raising historic cases of child sexual abuse amounted to 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Nine and a half years later, he's made another statement that is memorable for the wrong reasons. At his media conference following yesterday's release of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he said that 'killing off confession is not going to help anybody'.

He was responding to the Commission's recommendation that a new law be passed to require priests to report cases of child sexual abuse that they learn about while administering the sacrament of confession. Such a law would conflict with the 'seal of confession' of the Church's own canon law.

Archbishop Fisher fears it would 'kill' confession. But Melbourne canon lawyer Ian Waters suggested last night to viewers of ABCTV's The Drum that priests hearing confession have infinite room to move pastorally and that there are means of ensuring abuse is reported to police without necessarily breaking the seal. Where there's a will there's a way was his message.

If a priest did find himself breaking the seal, he would easily find reassurance from Pope Francis himself. Francis has become well known for his insistence that the imposition of church law and doctrine must be qualified by a demonstration of love and mercy towards those who are most vulnerable.

Ten years before Francis became Pope in 2013, the leader of the Australian Jesuits Father Mark Raper made clear to viewers of the ABC's 7.30 Report his view that the Church as an institution is less important than the people it cares for.

Responding to the suggestion that rejecting legal advice by apologising to a child sex abuse victim would be costly to the Church in terms of financial compensation, he said: 'Well, the assets are not as important as the people that we seek to serve. What is the point of doing what we're doing if that's not the case?'

Yesterday my thoughts turned to the principle of 'subsidiarity', which is the bottom line of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity, which is most commonly applied to workers' rights, insists that any regulation of economic and social affairs must give priority to the dignity and rights of individual persons.

The principle of subsidiarity is not usually mentioned in the context of sacramental theology. But for me, it's enough to give confidence that 'killing off confession' is justified if the dignity and rights of sex abuse victims are at stake.


Links: Waters | Raper | Subsidiarity

 

Mothballing the clerical collar will help prevent clergy sexual abuse

About 15 years ago, I was editing the Catholic Church's online news service CathNews when stories about clerical sexual abuse were beginning to appear in significant numbers.

It was usually difficult to find a photograph or other visual image to illustrate the abuse stories. But eventually I settled on one generic image that I felt would suit all of them. It was a plain and simple graphic depicting a priest's clerical collar.

I recall that we stopped using it following representations from more than one bishop.

The first was a gentle plea. We were tarnishing the good name of the clergy and damaging the reputation of the Church. Then came the more heavy handed 'cease and desist' order that gave us no choice.

There had been no protracted deliberation involved in my choice of the image. Like a lot of decisions editors made on the run, it was intuitive. But in hindsight - as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wraps up - it seems prescient.

I say this after seeing this week's issue of the email newsletter from Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council. One of its headlines was extracted from a story published in the National Catholic Reporter in the US: 'Australian bishop urges end to clericalism'.

The article features the views of Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta based on a talk he gave in August that was published in the December issue of the National Council of Priests newsletter The Swag. It points to the culture of clericalism as a major cause of sexual abuse.

'In my testimony at the Royal Commission I maintained that we need to dismantle the pyramid model...which promotes the superiority of the ordained. ... Abuse in the area of sex is a form of abuse of power. I believe that we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture in which unhealthy attitudes and behaviours are fostered.'

It is often possible to know a priest's views about power and privilege in the Church simply by looking to see if he is wearing a clerical collar. In many circumstances, priests will make a deliberate choice whether or not to wear the collar, knowing its symbolic power.

I remember being a Jesuit novice in the late 1970s and the intense speculation about which of us would choose to wear a clerical collar rather than a suit, when we took our first vows at the end of the two year noviceship.

In retrospect, I think it was the most powerful statement we could make concerning whether we believed we were entering a life of power and privilege or one of service.

Indeed I can now suggest with confidence that an attitude of superiority on the part of a priest or other religious functionary carries with it the distinct possibility that they will abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of someone less powerful. On the other hand, if they genuinely think of themselves as servants, sexual abuse is most unlikely.

I think it's now time for the Church to consider mothballing the clerical collar. This would be a fitting follow up to Bishop Vincent Long's suggestion that 'we cannot address the issue of clerical sexual abuse without examining the clerical culture ... of power and control that has been our cultural captivity'.


Link: newsletter

Tribalism and Australian marriage equality

This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.

I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.

At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.

The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.

In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.

These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.

As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.

With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.

It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.


Links: Nunberg | The Conversation