Sunday, 23 December 2012

Whose birthday is it anyway?

Well, Christmas is on us again, if we believe it! Every year it seems to start earlier, seem scarier (we just never got when were younger what a mad scramble it is to get all the gifts nor did we know that a fifth of English men buy their presents on Christmas eve in service stations) and to involve less religion. Think about it, could you find a religious advent calendar? Cards with a message mentioning God? A nativity set on sale beside the innumerable Santas?

I do understand that a lot of people celebrate Christmas despite being atheists or Buddhists, or whatever, but it seems to me that the difference between our modern celebration of Christmas and the ancient Roman Saturnalia is becoming increasingly obscured. And do you want my verdict on why this is happening? Yeah, sure you do, it's Christmas, you're rushed off your feet and worrying that the Joneses are going to arrive over from next door any moment now and find that your house  (unlike theirs, which has a giant blow-up reindeer on the lawn and a 'jingle-bells' door alarm) looks as though a bomb has hit it--and what you want to think about is spirituality in modern society.

I think that religion is being leached out of Christmas because of the vanilla problem. People are crying out for a spiritual compass in today's hard times but Christianity in particular (though other religious traditions such as Judaism or Buddhism in Japan have the same problem) is just too beige these days. Where once they used to erect large cathedrals filled with some of the best art and music ever composed by mankind, today's Christians worship in white-washed suburban boxes in which they mutter dirge-like hymns. Where's the emotion, excitement and beauty? Well, there's certainly some temporary excitement to be gained in evangelical mega-churches, but we all know that that isn't the same.

Maybe next year we should try to make Jesus as exciting as Santa Claus, if only to make it easier to explain to children whose birthday it is.

Merry Christmas,

Monday, 10 December 2012

Liberalism and Democracy

Today on the news, I saw a guy from the Egyptian National Salvation Front talking about how Morsi should not use his majority to act against "universal human rights" and "democracy". This seemed to me to sum up how little most of us in the twenty-first century understand what democracy is really about. Mostly we confuse "democracy"--decision-making via majority vote--and "liberalism"--a doctrine of respect for the life choices of individuals. In fact, these two concepts, while historically entangled in nineteenth century Europe, are analytically entirely distinct.

So often today we see believers in liberalism--usually urban and educated--agitating for a political system which in actuality allows the mass of the populace who have very different values to choose leaders whose views are totally incompatible with liberalism. There can be a positive relationship between democracy and liberalism--as there was in the nineteenth century in Europe--but there can also be a quite negative relationship--as for example, in many European countries in the twentieth century.

We really do require greater clarity of thought when considering political philosophy, so it's just a great shame that we don't ever seem to teach political philosophy in universities any more...


Monday, 3 December 2012

TV in a Time of Poverty

In television as in anything else, there are fashions. For example, there seems to be a wave of fantasy shows recently, as there was a wave of soapy medical shows not so long ago. What I think is interesting is American audiences' love in this time of economic scarcity of stories of people living the high life, as in Revenge with its snappily-dressed billionaires or Downton Abbey with its early twentieth century aristocrats. This more than anything else brings home to me that we live in a depression period--remember all those shiny movies from the thirties in which there is lots of singing, dancing and lingering shots of food! It also strikes me that reality shows today are not like reality shows from a little while ago--today people are obsessed with the Cinderella story of talent shows, it's almost like a Jimmy Stewart movie...


Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Kevin & Malcolm Show: Q&A Ozland

So, today is the last Q&A of the year for Ozland.

It will probably be a letdown after last week, which gave a convincing demonstration of why one would want to watch shows such as Q&A, and what is missing all too often in dispatches from the commentariat. Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, Helen Ridout and Judith Sloan are four highly intelligent, well-informed and engaged citizens of planet good sense. The conversation was respectful, insightful and even entertaining. Contrast this with the turgid, ideology-driven, bumper sticker type drivel which all too often passes for social comment.

And isn't it an indictment of the current Australian parliament that two of the smartest people in it are largely on the fringes of their parties. In the case of Malcolm T, he is (as he says) in the shadow cabinet...but it must surely be one of the great stupidities of the ALP that they have relegated Kevin Rudd to the backbench. The nastiness, pettiness and pure childishness of the campaign against Kevin Rudd by his own party is sure to go down as a perfect example of a party engineering its own downfall. And they wonder why the electorate has lost faith in them!

What utter nongs!


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Not-so-private lives: The digital living room.

Stories about celebrities finding themselves in the doggy-do because they have tweeted, blogged or put out into the digital space offensive or inappropriate comments are a dime a dozen these days. The current brouhaha in the UK about Lord McAlpine and the libellous comments made by public figures is a case in point.

Meanwhile, individuals who have made deeply offensive comments on the internet have even landed themselves in jail.

It's an interesting conundrum. How do we balance the freedom of the internet with the need to protect the rights of others? What do we do about it? Well, first of all, we have to understand it.

One could see it as a form of narcissism whereby the speaker is so wrapped up in their own agenda that, like a toddler, they feel that their wishes and perceptions actually do constitute the world itself (and yes, the internet can seem abuzz with precisely that!).

However, one major aspect of the problem is probably purely neurological i.e. that our brains have not caught up with the fact that a seemingly private action (sitting at one's computer or using a mobile phone) is actually a public one.

Our brains still respond to a conception of the public/private divide which more matches that of an 18th century English village than the global village in which we now find ourselves.

Therefore many people fail to recognize that the public space (whether the physical or the digital world) is not their living room, and that actually their living room may be in plain view to the often disapproving gaze of that world. Most of us have had the excruciating experience of being forced to listen to a stranger's mobile phone conversations - often about deeply personal topics, that quite frankly we don't want to share! It's as if these folk feel they are warm and comfy, feet up, on their lounges not in the railway carriages, buses, restaurants or cafes that they share with us.

The disease of our times is an almost wilful reduction in the notion of privacy, yet that sense of privacy, of the need for personal space, our right to it, and the limits of it, is key to political theory, to creativity and self-expression, to solitude and philosophical introspection, to maintaining healthy personal relationships and to just staying sane!

While TV shows like the Kardashians take people into the private lives of strangers, our own are (ironically) in danger of being eaten up by the ongoing push for "transparency".

We need to find a way to share the public space of the digital world, while not giving away the precious private space of our own souls.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Wanted, Spiritual Leader...

Is anyone else surprised that the latest Archbishop of Canterbury is an ex-oil executive? It made me think of the qualifications a person needs to be a religious leader. I mean if you are choosing a Dalai Lama you are free to educate the four year old into an appropriately learned man but most religious leaders have lived before discovering their vocation and what is one looking for as a selector?

Sometimes people's pre-vocation lives can be a great embarrassment to their reconstructed selves--think of Saint Augustine's bastard children or Pope Benedict's unwilling stint with the Nazis--on the other hand it's hard to imagine a former hermit making it at the top in any field.

Maybe a man who has been successful in the corporate world really is just the person to lead the Anglican Church. Presumably he has skills in negotiating and focusing on important goals at the expense of other intentions.

Good luck, Archbishop...


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Politics of Apathy

I said in my last post that I felt foreign opinion on Australian politics was meaningless, so I'll restrict my comments on the American election to the most general terms. Sometimes elections are close because both sides have inspiring energising platforms. And sometimes elections are close because the electorate has great difficulty getting excited about either candidate. This American election reminds me of the last Australian election--except with voluntary voting! How is democracy meant to work when most people aren't interested? I haven't a clue...But it is a bit sad when you consider how important the issues are.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Aussie Politics...A Novelty Story

How much do you guys outside Australia know about it? From your news I reckon it's mostly snakes and spiders and the occasional story about boozy fun. What's been unusual recently is that there has been a little coverage of Australian politics internationally--first Julia Gillard gave an inspiring speech about Tony Abbott's sexism then she went to India and fell over in heels. That's right Australia, people are as interested in our politics at the moment as they were a few years ago in South Korean politics when their parliamentarians had a brawl in which they threw their lunch at each other! The last time people were this interested in our politics was when Kevin Rudd was caught allegedly eating his snot.

So, degree of meaningfulness of international opinion on domestic affairs of small nations...0%


Friday, 12 October 2012

An Age Without Record

"For I suppose if Lacadaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power...Whereas if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to be twice as great as it is." Thucydides I.10 trans. Crawley

Luckily for the Spartans' glory, they had the Athenian historian to tell posterity in indelible ink how powerful they had been when time inevitably overtook them. Many other peoples have been less lucky. Think about how little you probably know or care about the fall of the Roman Empire. You reckoned it had something to do with Caligula and Nero, those tyrants hymned by the famous historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Think again. It happened four centuries later when all the great minds were in the church, which is why you don't know about it... History relies on its historians. No event, no matter how significant, really catches posterity's imagination without someone with an attractive style to write about it. Thucydides goes to a lot of effort to show how important the conflict he writes about is, but the truth is, that in the context of all human history, its chief distinction is that it had him to write about it.

Which got me thinking about how little we live in such a historically blessed era. Not only do we lack a great historian, we don't write much literature of survival value, or even create many material objects likely to make it into the coffee table books of the distant future. Plato's philosophy survived Byzantine taste, in the main because of its entertaining and immediate style, ditto Francis Bacon's essays or Chaucer surviving changing literary fashions in subsequent centuries.

To me it looks as though it's more likely to be television that anyone is still holding on to in a few centuries' time, a medium which like classical tragedy or Eizabethan drama is actually intended to be enjoyed (a word to underline in relation to contemporary theatre, for example) by everyone from the most educated to the least. What we should spend more time doing is thinking about what will survive us and what will not...I think we'd be surprised what proves to be ephemeral.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

J K Rowling's New Book

I popped into our local independent bookstore recently to check out J K Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy. Sorry Jo, I’m sure you’ll be massively disappointed to hear (irony alert) that I’m not a potential fan. 

There are two main reasons for this—and they are interconnected. Firstly, the writing is just too thin. Rowling has a straightforward and somewhat flat writing style. For the average young reader (as in the Harry Potter series), this was a plus—they aren’t used to challenging texts, and in fact generally find the mere length of a Potter novel difficult enough. Some young readers will go on to read more complex works, however the majority will merely move sideways into equally lightweight YA novels which require the kind of skim reading that the digitally-connected now find easiest to do.  For a reader seeking a richer reading experience, however, Rowling’s style has neither the limpid clarity of Jane Austen, the poetic resonance of Hardy, nor the magisterial moral depth of George Eliot—all of whom deal with “ small worlds” (in different ways!).

Secondly, in detailing her particular “small world”, Rowling seems to engage in some pretty clichéd characterization. Like her writing style, there’s just not enough to it. I think Rowling has spent too long in the land of the YA novel where the tired old stereotype and the clichéd trope still haven’t passed their use-by date.

The big book about a small English town was written long ago. If you are interested, make an expedition to the wilds of the Nineteenth century English novel section of your local library—some of the finest minds, the deepest thinkers, the most compassionate of observers of our muddle-minded human kind can be found there.


Peter Costello's dragon-slaying battle against the tax system!

I thought we might review the last week or so in politics, because, to me, it seems barking mad! Since when is Australian politics scandal-ridden and American politics anodyne! To recap, this week we had Alan Jones dying of shame, the recrudescence of the HSU saga, more Slipper mania and to top it all off, Margie Abbott's insistence that her husband is a nice guy (which is a strategy from the US, taken straight from the playbook of Anne Romney). Meanwhile the Americans had a debate which Romney (surely one of the most boring men in the world) actually won. What is going on? Gone are those sane days in which the US could boast Congressmen propositioning interns while us guys stuck with Peter Costello's dragon-slaying battle against the tax system...


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Dr. Who...Memo to the Writing Room.

I'm a big TV nerd and one of my favourite genres is sci fi, so imagine my disappointment when Doctor Who started going off the boil again. I say again because, for those of us who recall it, the series was originally cancelled back in the days of yore because of such appalling examples of terrible taste as the giant killer liquorice allsort in what was supposed to be a satire upon Margaret Thatcher (don't ask!).

While it might not be in quite the same league, the totally unnecessary voice-over in a Southern accent in last week's episode (you remember, the one with the cute guy from Farscape in it, albeit occluded behind facial fur) seemed to me a harbinger. It was what people suffering from Gareth Evans syndrome (and who have been watching far too much To Kill a Mockingbird) call a good idea.

In the golden age of Hollywood they often used to lock recalcitrant writers up to get them to finish screen-plays (I heard one where the studio locked them in a train carriage) and while this may have worked with talented but difficult Continental artistic types, for Doctor Who writers it seems to cause a strange sort of brain malaise which can be described in the following terms:
(a) inability to tell a "good idea" from a good idea (see above);
(b) inability to remember that you've told a story before (see the episode following, which should have been titled "Yet Another Alien Invasion Involving a Hospital");
(c) inability to see that a story is too confused to follow (that first one with the Daleks and the undead).

You guys in the writing room need to watch the episodes from the eighties which display these syndromes... This a show that is so easy to write badly. It's meant to be eccentric, not unnecessarily wacky.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Playing Taglines...

You might think that in an age when advertising had spawned Mad Men and the Gruen Planet, it would have made great leaps and bounds since 1941 and you'd be right...and wrong. Yesterday I watched Citizen Kane and its tag line was the simple but effective "It's Terrific", which is descriptive, isn't it...! And I visited my local bookstore which is trying to sell J.K. Rowling's new book with the immortal line "The Big Book about a Small Town". "It's Terrific" looks pretty sophisticated by comparison. So I started thinking about the whole taglines thing. Mad Men's (for those people with an amazing memory or the DVD box set) originally was "Where the Truth Lies", which is cute, people, right, but you really have to think about it, like the show! And one of the few things that brilliant series shares with Fifty Shades of Grey is a good tagline--in that terrible book's case, "The Book Women All Over the World are Talking About...Quietly". Ah, the art of the tagline, seemingly neglected by some but linked massively with success...

Thus, in honour of christening this new blog, I reckon I ought to give it a tagline.

Cato's Whispers "It's Terrific! The Little Blog with the Big Voice" Or not...


Sunday, 30 September 2012

Welcome to Cato's Whispers.

Philosophicat. Politicat. Poeticat. Historicat. 

Welcome to CatO’s blog, where we’ll give you a clear-eyed feline philosophical view of the world outside the window. If you are interested in ideas, if you are passionate about history, literature, politics and how to live that examined life, then this is the home for you. Curl up on our mat, culture cats. Welcome to our world!