Tuesday, September 19, 2017

War is hell. 6.

I watched the premiere of the first episode of the new ten-part documentary The Vietnam War on PBS. I thank my mother-in-law for suggesting it.

This long interview with the directors is worth watching. The series took ten years to produce!
They claim understanding this war is key to understanding much of the division that persists in the USA today.

US readers can view the first episode here.

The New York Times review of the series is helpful and insightful.

I learnt a lot of history from the first episode, which covered the period from French colonisation to the French withdrawal, and the beginning of USA escalation. One "trivia" was how the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) originally supported Ho Chi Minh.

Several things are highlighted included the mis-calculations of the French and US, their complete underestimation of the passion and commitment of Vietnamese nationalism, mistakenly imposing a Cold war conflict perspective on a civil war and postcolonial struggle, and the lies that both sides told their people for domestic political purposes.
The metric madness of McNamara played a significant role in the self- and public- deception of US military and political leaders.

Humans have an incredible capacity to hate, to inflict brutalities on one another, to deceive, to believe what they want to believe, and to cling to power.

The most important (and painful) messages are War is Hell, there are no real winners, and people don't learn from history.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The painful division of colonial India

My wife and I enjoyed watching Viceroy's House. It chronicles the last days of British colonial rule in India and the events leading to the partition into two nations, India and Pakistan. It uses the powerful device of "upstairs downstairs", showing how the political negotiations and events happening with the Viceroy "upstairs" play out in the lives of the servants "downstairs". This effectively shows how the political decisions of the powerful bring pain and conflict to the everyday relationships of ordinary citizens.

One surprising thing, particularly given it the Indian screenwriter, was the very positive and sympathetic portrayal of Mountbatten and his wife. Others do not view them in such a way. Here is one critical review of the movie from my favourite Indian newspaper.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A hierarchy of moral choices and actions

What is the relationship between personal moral convictions and public policy?
These days public debate is often acrimonious as different groups try to "impose" their views on one another. People on both the left and the right do it.
The issue could be tax evasion, human rights, sexual harassment, abortion, swearing, smoking, hate speech, substance abuse, religious discrimination, gambling, pornography, ...

Suppose I believe that action X is morally wrong. Then I think there is a whole range of possible responses and actions I can take, moving from the private to the public.

I decide that it is my goal to personally not do X.

I tell people I am in close relationship with (e.g. family members) that I believe they should not do X.

Although I believe that X is wrong I do not publically tell others they should not do X.
This might be because I don't think I have the right or because of the relational breakdown that may occur or public ridicule or I don't think people will actually listen.

I publically state that people should not do X.

I take an activist role to raise public awareness that X is wrong.

I advocate that the government should make action X illegal.

I vote at an election solely for candidates or politics parties that want to make X illegal.

I undertake civil disobedience to try and stop people performing X. I am willing to go to jail.

I am willing to use physical force (violence) to stop people doing X. [For example, subduing a rapist].

I find this hierarchy helpful because I think it is actually what most people do, although subconsciously.

What do you think?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Not the greatest movie of the 21st century

Normally I only post about movies that I enjoy and recommend. My son and I recently watched There will be blood.  We were motivated partly by the recommendation of the New York Times that it is the greatest movie of the 21st century (so far). The lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his performance and it has been widely acclaimed by many. Although there are dissenting voices such as Peter Walker in the Guardian who picked it as the most-overrated film.

Why don't I like it? It is slow, very long, tries too hard to be arty, and there is a complete absence of any characters with redeeming qualities.

Why does it have so much appeal to some?
Some of the scenery and cinematography is creative and engaging. It does show the emptiness of the main character as he seeks wealth and power and avoids any emotional engagement and self-reflection. There are somewhat interesting contrasts and similarity of his juxtaposition with a charlatan Pentecostal preacher. But this is only worthwhile if you like to spend almost three hours hammering home the point emotionally that the life of such people is shallow, forlorn, empty, and in the end, they come unstuck.

There are two other "great" "classic" movies that I have never been able to understand their critical acclaim: Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why do I like Downton Abbey?

My wife and I recently watched all six seasons of Downton Abbey. For some reason, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed it so much. Perhaps, this is because there is an element of soap opera and "wealth porn" to the show. However, what I think I actually enjoyed and valued was the history, social commentary, characters, and dialogue.

I had not appreciated before how the first world world war brought about great social change in England, particularly in the decline of the aristocracy. I was aware that the second world war also brought about a lot of change, but not the first.

The series begins about one hundred years ago, but seems a world away from today. I was particularly struck by the attitudes and prejudices about social class, unwed mothers, birth control, homosexuality, women's roles, royalty, dress, war, rape victims, the death penalty, Catholics, .....
On the one hand ninety years is a long time, but on the other hand that is the era that my parents were born in. Now (unfortunately, belatedly) I have a better appreciation of some of their values, habits, and aspirations that seemed strange or debatable to me growing up.

I felt that some of the characters were very "real" and human, reflecting a desire to often do good, yet struggling to do so and sometimes making a mess of things, as we do.

I don't envy the wealth, opulent lifestyle, and leisure of the Family. But, I do envy some of the characters witty lines, ability to guide conversations, frequent desire to be gracious, and to part on good terms with others, even those who have hurt them.

On the lighter side here are some classic lines from Cousin Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, who I came to appreciate more as a peace maker, as the series went on.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 1 (take 2)

My sermon last week was too long and there was no time for questions.  Tomorrow, I get to give the talk again at a different congregation, Unichurch, which is mostly students and recent graduates. I have cut out material (and commentary) in this version, reducing the length by almost half.

My recommendations on background books and videos are the same as before.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 1-2

At our church,  a new sermon series is starting on Genesis. I was asked to give the first talk. Here is the current version of the slides.

For background, I recommend comparing and contrasting Genesis with the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish, which is nicely summarised in this short video.

Another helpful short video is Science and Genesis, featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and others.

I have found helpful the book How to Read Genesis  by Tremper Longman.
An excellent introductory book that puts my talk in context is Exploring Science and Belief by Michael Poole.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Christian academics talk about their research

Today I am looking forward to attending a Draft Day in Brisbane [organised by the Simeon Network] where Christian academics talk about issues related to their research.

Here are some talk titles.

"The success of the Victoria Institute and the failure of the metaphysical society"

"Considering the role of the church in population ageing"

 "How artificial intelligence may affect human decision-making"

"Justice and inequalities in cancer outcomes"

 "The 1958 Prisons Act: Queensland's missed opportunity in reform"

"The demotion of Pluto and the sociology of Science"

Here are some of the slides from my talk on "Engaging universities with the big questions"

Monday, April 3, 2017

Yearning for forgiveness, redemption, and justice

Western societies today present a paradox. Truth and morality are said to be relative and contextual. But in reality, people seem to be more passionate than ever about what they think is right, whether in politics or social behaviour.

David Brooks has a fascinating column in the New York Times, The Strange Persistence of Guilt. Here are a couple of extracts.
American life has secularized and grand political ideologies have fallen away, but moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least — like the members of the alt-right — who seem the most fervent moral crusaders....Sin is a stain, a weight and a debt. But at least religions offer people a path from self-reflection and confession to atonement and absolution. Mainstream culture has no clear path upward from guilt, either for individuals or groups. So you get a buildup of scapegoating, shaming and Manichaean condemnation. 
Why can't we escape this yearning for righteousness, justice, and redemption?
It seems to be hard-wired into us.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Was Steve Jobs a hero?

I enjoyed watching the Steve Jobs movie, based on a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin [to me famous for West Wing]. It has the creativity and intense dialogue that one expects from Sorkin

I have a few minor comments.

I never quite understand people who go on about how Jobs "changed people's lives" and "transformed the world" and is a hero like Gandhi, Einstein, Gutenberg, Edison, ...
To me, he was one of several key players in the computer revolution.
The movie shows how Jobs had a cult-like status and people were just "dying" to attend his latest product launch.
I agree his creativity and achievements were significant. I love my Mac and much prefer it to a Windows PC. But I just don't feel this gives my life more meaning, purpose, or enrichment.

Given the way he poorly treated many work colleagues, should he be respected? A key issue is whether you believe that the ends justify the means. I don't.

The movie shows how people can have a lot of professional and financial success but at the end of the day what matters is close personal relationships; with family, friends, and colleagues.
We all hunger for acceptance, recognition, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Science and the Bible talk

Tonight I am giving a talk on "Science and the Bible", sponsored by the UQ Chaplaincy.
Here are the slides.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A long journey of emotional resolution

My wife and I went to see the movie Lion. It recreates the true story of an Indian boy who is separated from his poor family and ends up getting adopted by an upper middle-class family in Australia.

I highly recommend it. Besides being a moving story it deals with several substantial issues:

the incredible emotional bond between children and parents, whether adopted or biological

the jarring disparity between the material poverty of much of India and the material wealth and comfort of upper middle-class Australia (something I am too familiar with),

the tragedy of street children.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Why are some communities poor?

Is it due to external and structural factors such as exploitation by foreigners or neoliberalism or racism?
Or, is due to internal factors such as culture and breakdown of families or moral values?
Why did poor working class whites recently help elect a billionaire with a history of exploiting workers to be president of the USA?

For Christmas, I (along with several other family members) received a copy of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance.

I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it for three reasons.
First, it is a fascinating and moving story that is well written.
Second, it does attempt to address the issue of the causes of poverty for one specific community.
Third, it does provide some insight as to why Trump does appeal to some poor working class whites.

It is for the third reason that the book and the author has attracted considerable attention, although Trump's name never appears in the book.

Vance says in his community the view is:
We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society.... There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”
Nick Aroney brought to my attention a very stimulating review of the book by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker that focuses on the second issue, particularly that of culture vs. economics. Here is one choice quote.
Americans have tended to answer the question “Why are people poor?” by choosing one of two responses: they can either point to economic forces (globalization, immigration) or blame cultural factors (decaying families, lack of “grit”). These seem like two social-science theories about poverty—two hypotheses, which might be tested empirically—but, in practice, they are more like political fairy tales. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote earlier this year, the choice between these two explanations has long been racialized. Working-class whites are said to be poor because of outsourcing; inner-city blacks are imagined to be holding themselves back with hip-hop. The implicit theory is that culture comes from within, and so can be controlled by individuals and communities, whereas economic structures exert pressures from without, and so are beyond the control of those they affect.
Poverty, economics, and culture are complex and interact subtly with one another. To me it is simplistic to claim that poverty is largely due to either culture OR economics. Yet, that is what political conservatives (such as J.D. Vance) and liberals, both respectively do.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A romance where the personal meets the political

A hot and enduring romance began in Chicago during the summer of 1989: that of my wife and I!

However, a more famous romance that began there and then was that of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. A new movie, South Side with You tells the story of their first date.

My wife and I enjoyed watching it. Some people might find it a bit slow since the emphasis is on character development through dialogue. However, I think the movie does well to deal with a number of complex and sensitive issues, particularly as the personal intersects with the political. These include:

community involvement vs. corporate careers

disenfranchisement of black communities

the cultural, economic, and political chasm between black and white communities in the USA

the pressures and prejudices faced by employees who are hired partly for affirmative action reasons

judging others for life choices and failures.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Transforming a community through youth football

For Christmas, my sister-in-law's family gave all the extended family a copy of the book, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference, by Warren St. John.
Hopefully, we are going to have a book club about it.

The flavour of the book can be found in this 2007 New York Times article from which the book was developed.

The book is a gripping read. I was in tears (both sad and happy) a few times. It is quite moving and inspiring. But, at times I felt angry because of the lack of support and opposition the coach and refugees got. The book highlights a number of things.

The strengths of the USA: political and personal freedoms, immigration, diversity, and opportunities.

The weaknesses of the USA: racism, inequality (economic, social, educational), violence,...

Youth sport (when done appropriately) can teach important life skills (discipline, hard work, teamwork, self-control, dealing with disappointment, ...)

Refugees often face incredible odds to reach Western countries. When they arrive they may be traumatised. Adapting and surviving can be incredibly difficult.

Immigrant children are "third culture kids". They neither belong to their home culture nor to their new culture.

How important and challenging community development work is.

The value, importance, and demanding nature of high-quality journalism: "pounding the pavement" and talking to people at the grass roots.

The Western world is changing rapidly. Can it adapt?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Who are they running from?

My family enjoyed watching the movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A teenage boy bounces from foster home to home, before ending on a farm in the wilds of New Zealand with an eccentric couple. Tragic events lead to a wild chase through beautiful wilderness as a Government social worker tries to capture him. Largely the movie is funny, the scenery is stunning, and it has a redemptive message. But, it also does highlight the tragedy of such children and how they are failed by not just their own families but by government agencies who are meant to be protecting them.