Lebanon: A dogged position

It is quite a collection of demoralizing and dismal failures that make up the recent history of Lebanon. An intensely sectarian country, which still seems bleary eyed from the civil war that ravaged it from 1975 till 1990. Numerous arbitrary killings and arrests, the disappearance of at least one political figure, reports of the government engaging in torture, which is not even prohibited by law.

The government cannot even claim to control all the territory. Armed groups remain active despite two UN security council resolutions requesting the government to forcibly disband them, including Hizbollah which lobs the occasional missile into Israel. Sunni and Shia authorities claim significant influence, clashing with violent effect. Religious courts hold authority over personal law, like marriage. They have recently focused on watering down a law protecting women from domestic abuse. Such a law they fear would jeopardize their position, as it would all Lebanese men, since to them sharia protects women sufficiently, including a husband’s basic right to rape his wife. All the better to force her into an endless succession of pregnancies to make it as hard as possible for women to find the courage to leave their abusive spouses. 

A few women have nonetheless managed to leave, with the help of NGOs like Kafa (Enough) who have helped women trapped in chronically abusive marriages divorce their husbands and leave. But it is rare for a woman to successfully free herself. If the shock of her parents and reality of heaving behind their children and being vilified by those around her is not sufficient to scare her into staying put, the husband may murder her. Ar least 15 women are known to be murdered each year by their spouses.

The women are fighting back, there were significant protests on the streets of Beirut recently, women taking their anger into the public domain, challenging Judges who claim a husband has exclusive rights to his wife’s body whenever he sees fit, regardless of her protestations. Still the law protecting woman has been reduced to severely that is will not be worth the paper it is written on, and certainly not worthy of the blood of the women who are suffering under the unmerciful Sharia.

This should shock western society, who should never be reluctant to lend a hand to liberate such backward, disgusting societies. We also need to guard against the intolerable threat posed by fundamentalism, masquerading as multiculturalism. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, once advocated in a speech giving the Muslim community in Britain the right to practice Sharia among themselves. This is a dangerous and philistine attack on civil society, where everyone must obey the same laws. Of course the old Welsh sheep can rattle on about accepting Sharia on the basis of multiculturalism, and extremist Muslims can keep demanding that “their” women in western countries wear the full chadri form of the burqa (where only the woman’s eyes may be seen), but we must also speak up in rebuttal. Freedom of speech works both ways, it has to otherwise the entire doctrine is meaningless. Far to often the inhabitants of civil societies fail to make themselves heard, and for the sake of wanting to appear progressive and multicultural they allow the prelates who enslave women and castrate enlightenment values to gain an advantage.

But where women thrive and empower, poverty and disadvantage for all in society diminishes. Therefore as the women of Lebanon fight bitterly for their rights, and little by little ground is yielded to them, the country will begin to strengthen and prosper. It is with this in mind that we can afford to be a little optimistic when contemplating the nations of blood and sand. Any chance you get dear reader, to support the women campaigning in Lebanon for the right not to be raped, I implore you to seize it.  

Smarty Pants John Key, Parata’s his pet

I thought for this post I might swap the endlessly frustrating depths of international issues, and instead transverse into the parochial soiree of New Zealand politics. There has been a long standing feud between the public and the Minister for Education Hekia Parata. Upon taking her post in 2011 she got off entirely on the wrong foot by proposing to increase class sizes in schools. This is something of a pressure point for kiwi parents who argue that smaller classes are more academically successful. This sentiment was shared by the Prime Minister who gave a quote some years back to that effect. The opposition found the quote, embarrassed the government, and Hekia Parata reneged on her proposal.

This was not the last of Parata’s woes, the Novopay system introduced to cover teachers wages was found to be riddled with holes, thousands of teachers being paid late if at all. Hekia Parata became the most unpopular minister in the government. It was a surprise to many then when she kept her job after Prime Minister Key’s recent cabinet reshuffle. Crack minister Steven Joyce was given the task of fixing Novopay, making some wonder why Parata was still in her post at all, when others were dealing with her problems.

This dear reader leads us to the here and now. Today’s copy of the Dominion Post contains the results of a Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll, showing that 60 percent of the public believe the education minister should have been relieved of her post. The number is 70 percent in Canterbury where Parata just announced the closure or merger of nearly 20 schools. So why is she still in her post? This is a question the media seems unable to answer, an indication that imagination and guile have bereft our dear print media.

The reason is abundantly clear, it is smarty pants John Key. Hekia Parata could easily be fed to the public, but more than a year away from the next election there would be no tangible benefit. The support for the government is still high, Parata’s inept conduct is reflecting on her, she is not yet radioactive as they love to say, toxic to the government. So it pays to have her continue, have Joyce clean up the big messes, while further mistakes are absorbed by the sand bag minister. Then Mr Key knows that when his government starts really slipping, and the howling public demands cabinet flesh, he can feed them Hekia Parata. She is now a buffer-minister, a shield for use further down the track.

It is cunning of the Prime Minister, and also what one would expect of the “smiling assassin” from Merrill Lynch. It is also indicative of what sets the Prime Minister apart from his counterpart on the opposition benches, he is smarter and more of a consummate politician than David Shearer will ever be. 

For whom the gun fires

At this still rather early juncture of the year, the headline issue above economic woe, civil strife in the middle east, and runaway Popes, is guns.

We in the non-American slice of the western world can not fathom how a country as powerful and proud as the United States of America, can possibly allow itself to be ravaged by gun violence and stand idly by while more guns are supplied to any who seek them. It is an incomprehensible tragedy that of the total amount of children killed in the 23 wealthiest countries in the world, 87% of them are American. It is a sick and twisted argument that the answer to bad guys having guns is to have good guys packing too. It is an argument divorced from reality, as former space shuttle commander Mark Kelly (husband of the former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in the head in Tucson, Arizona in 2011) reported recently in an interview with Diane Sawyer, there was a “good guy” with a gun in the Tucson car park that day. He almost killed the person who took down the murderer. 
It is arguments that do not meet common sense, that the opponents of gun control hide behind. The same people who would claim that proponents of gun control hate guns, by definition. This is demonstrably not so, as both Giffords and Kelly remain proud gun owners. President Obama has been reported to shoot skeet to relax at Camp David. It is not inconceivable that someone can be for guns, and in favor of sensible gun laws. Holding both opinions does not condemn anyone to untenable hypocrisy. One’s head will not automatically explode, although in the USA one might expect it to fall prey to a shattering bullet. Nearly twenty thousand people experienced that from 2010-2011.
Overall crime has decreased in the United States, as it has elsewhere in the west. Gun crime too has decreased. But major mass shootings are on the rise, whether it be in Tucson, a Colorado movie theater, or an elementary school in Connecticut. In response to these shootings a paranoid population rushes to arm itself, fueling greater profits for manufacturers (the gun industry was worth $31 billion in 2011) and higher stakes overall. The decline of crime including gun crime since the 1990s must not be taken for granted. 270-300 million guns in the country raises the risk of the crime trend reversing; 62% of online gun retailers reporting they probably could not pass a background check, demonstrates that the flood gates have opened and guns are more readily available than ever before. 
The tinderbox is stocked and the fuse lit. It has not yet gone off, but we are running out of time to deactivate it. President Obama is in his most powerful position after the first State of the Union address of his second term. He clearly intends to pursue gun legislation this year, but by the end of the next year he will already start lamely quacking. If he can’t make gun control happen this year, he never will. In the meantime schools will become more like fortresses or prisons, everyone will have a gun and no-one will be safe.

The Popeless Breath

By Joe Boon

At eight o’clock on the evening of the 28th of February, the holy see becomes vacant and the ossified Pope Benedict XVI discards his white robes and dons his old dusty crimson as Cardinal Ratzinger. After an indeterminate breath of time (there won’t be the usual mourning) the Cardinals under the age of eighty will cloister themselves in a historic conclave to set about electing the 266th bishop of Rome.

They are not by any stretch spoilt for choice. The Catholic Church is at a dire crossroads, crumbling under the weight of conservatism delaying a long postponed rendezvous with the modern world, shamed by its disgusting compliance in the revelations of clergy raping and molesting children, and eroded by the intolerant stubbornness of its position on female priests and married clergy, while poaching the married Anglican priests to try to maintain its pathetically waning priesthood. The resignation of the pontiff (and since the last three have been inaugurated rather than crowned, I shall not employ the term abdication) presents a golden opportunity to turn the ship around and steer it to calmer and altogether more ecumenical waters. 

The Catholic Church claims 1.2 billion followers, a figure presumably reached by comparing baptismal records. The actual number of practicing Catholics therefore is much smaller, nonetheless the true figure is significant and the Church is extremely influential. The expanding congregations in Africa, South America, and Asia indicates that in the developing world the Church hold immense sway, its capacity to improve the lot of hundreds of millions is very high indeed. However, the Church has and is poisoning this very capacity by refusing to budge on issues like sexuality, contraception, the empowerment of women, and maintaining a supercilious outlook on other religions, thereby hurting the chances of religious cooperation. That is the case for a new direction, possibly a third Vatican council to redefine the role of the priest and the place of women, among a host of other issues.

It would not be unheard of or even unprecedented for the Church to alter its doctrines, it did so with the nauseating belief in limbo as “a place on the edge of hell” for unbaptised children killed in infancy. This was repudiated in 1992 when the church decided that although the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to have first been baptised, God is not bound by his own sacraments and may save them if he wishes. Since the logic that God is not bound by his own sacraments and therefore presumably his own statements, the Church could validate the reversal of almost any doctrine. It could recognise homosexuality on the grounds that Jesus preached the golden rule of love thy neighbor as thyself, therefore since God passes the final judgement, the Church could ignore the ugly scribblings of Leviticus and still wholeheartedly embrace the teachings of Christ, on whom the Church is based. It certainly would not be beyond the pale to do so, the rules for selling one’s daughter into slavery are wisely ignored, as are the godly warnings about idols (where would the church be without the veneration of saints, and the rich history of religious iconography).

No, there is no valid excuse for holding back on drastic reform. However, after nearly 35 years of ardent conservatism in the holy see, the college of cardinals has been bled dry of liberals and progressives. That brings the shortcomings of the Church’s capacity to produce a reformist pope into grave doubt. Change may be forced upon the succeeding pontiff, for without it the Catholic Church can only expect fewer ordinations, more empty pews, and a public that is after their scandalous clergy. Individual parishes and diocese must foster grassroots demand for reform, and not leave it to an empty chasuble Vicar of Christ. 

This is an exciting time to be looking on the Catholic Church from the point of view of a secular humanist. While it is true that I favour the decline of faith and hope that more people will shake off the mind forged manacles of religious belief, I see the potential good the Church can do with its great power and influence. This popeless breath could be the most important moment for the Church this century, I sincerely hope the chance is grasped by the new pope.