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.