Thursday, August 22, 2013

Our American story: Divorce, denial and the death of God

On Christmas Eve 2011, I opened our front door to find one of my teenage daughter’s friends, sobbing. Her parents had divorced months before, and her dad wasn’t around. Her mother started bringing men home regularly to spend the night. The girl told her mom that having the men around made her feel uncomfortable. Her mom kicked her out of the house. On Christmas Eve.

This could be a single story of one young girl and the fall-out of one divorce, but it’s not. It’s becoming Our American Story: adults who do as they wish with little regard for the child, divorce, cohabitation, children with a revolving door of adults in their lives, no longer a family but a group of people with tenuous ties to each other, their community, their faith.

There are plenty of statistics that bear out that this American Story is the norm (the CDC report here and a report from the Institute of American Values here.) How did it become Our Story?

Mary Eberstadt takes on the tangled threads of faith and family in How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2013). Despite the title, it’s not simply a book about religion (or lack thereof); Eberstadt makes it clear that faith and family are undeniably linked. She uses the visual of the DNA double-helix strand: religious commitment and participation as one strand, strong and healthy families as the other, with ladder-like bars holding the two together. With the collapse of one, she argues, the inevitable happens: the breakdown of the other..

It’s a chicken-or-the-egg riddle, whether the disintegration of the family came first or the collapse of traditional Christian faith did. (For the purposes of this book, Eberstadt focuses solely on Christianity, since she is concerned here with Western culture.) Too closely intertwined to make a call, Eberstadt does pin a date on the collapse of this double helix: 1960.

Why 1960? Why did God stop mattering at that point? Why did the family falter?

    "The underlying and underappreciated quantum leap toward irreligiosity in the 1960s, one can argue, owed most of its force to the approval in 1960 of the birth control pill, which would change relations between the sexes – that is to say, with the natural family – as never before."

Whether one “likes” the Pill or not, Eberstadt is firm: the Pill and the associated sexual revolution are the “linchpin of change in Western religiosity.” What’s the fall-out? Fewer marriages, fewer children, fewer children growing up in intact (biological parents married to each other) homes.

How does this affect Christianity? Eberstadt argues that the collapse of the traditional family is an “unseen engine of secularization”: People don’t like to be told they are doing something wrong. If you go to church on Sunday and hear a sermon condemning cohabitation or artificial birth control – which you practice – you’re probably going to be unhappy. Maybe you won’t go back. Eberstadt points out that Christianity has a message – core precepts that it is compelled to teach. The more people in “broken and frayed homes” take offense to traditional Christian teaching, the less likely they are to transmit the faith to the next generation, the very faith that helps hold families together, Eberstadt argues. The two strands of the double helix continue to unravel.

Didi Martinez, a young journalist makes a telling plea in a piece called “A Millenial’s Appeal To Parents”:

    "We are a thriving generation, but a hurting one as well. Whoever says that parents are not an essential element within a child's life and development is a fool. We have lost a desire for tradition, we have lost a desire for permanence, we have lost a desire for automatic respect, and have become more secular in our lifestyles -- glorifying temporary and frivolous things that will only lead us to become more unhappy when it's all gone. Let us mend our relationship. Lead us back."

“So what?” one might say. If folks want to live together, have kids with multiple partners and not go to church, why should we care? Why should we care, as Didi Martinez puts it, that we have a “hurting generation” on our hands? If we are interested in a healthy society, where children are given the best opportunity to flourish, know a sense of place and purpose, we must care. Philosophy instructor at Calvin College, James K.A. Smith, says this:

    "A healthy, flourishing society depends on structures and institutions beyond the state. Even the economic life of a nation cannot be adequately (or justly) fostered by just a couple of “spheres” (as Abraham Kuyper called them) like the market and/or government. Societal health requires a robust, thriving civil society, with all kinds of “little platoons” working creatively and in common, without being managed by the apparatus of government or constantly seeking the permission of the state.

    Opportunity, for example, requires the foundation of a home and family that provide security, support, and an education in virtue…

    In short, if our society wants to foster upward mobility and economic stability—the good features of the American dream—then we need to call into question the dogmas of secularist progressivism."

Eberstadt’s thesis is plain: The success of Christianity relies on the success of the traditional, nuclear family and vice versa. While we must acknowledge the many single parents who are striving under difficult circumstances to live their faith and raise their children well, we must also recognize we are in a calamitous state, affecting not only family and faith, but also the economy, the culture, politics: society itself.

Eberstadt, in her book’s notes, reminds the reader that from Genesis to the Pauline letters, marriage is meant to be a fruitful and protected state. She speculates that the Judeo-Christian call to protect family and marriage is also a way to protect society at large. To “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) is a rejoinder not just for family life, but all of culture.

Do we care? I know one person who does. The girl on my doorstep, sobbing over the fact that her mother chose a succession of men over her on a cold Christmas Eve.


Men's bonuses are higher than women's because women know that money isn't everything

By Cristina Odone

Glamour magazine's summer issue is dedicated to boosting its (female) readers' self-confidence. Sandwiched in between photos of Jessie J and tips on the best summer skirts to buy, its key section focuses on how to ask the boss for a raise.

Glamour knows its readers. Most women between 20-45, from all walks of life, share a secret: they lack the will, and sometimes the gumption, to rise to the top in their profession. Yes, there are Alpha females who stop at nothing to further their careers; they park their kids with childminders and then boarding schools to get them out of the way of their work; and see their partners and friends in terms only of whether they can further their ambitions. But the majority is not like this.

The statistics prove it. They are dire, as we found out today: women lose about £150k over their lifetime because they lose out on bonuses. Some of this is down to myopic and misogynist bosses who cannot reward female talent. These men (and women – who can be far more cruel to female colleagues) should be shamed into changing their ways. At the same time, those women who would dearly love a bonus and simply fail to ask for it, should be taught – by school, as well as glossy magazines – how to be assertive.

But the main reason women lose out on bonuses is because they are too family-centred to care about bonuses, salary raises, even promotions.

You'd never know this category existed, by watching TV or listening to the radio.  Alpha females so dominate the airwaves that their message of invincible womanhood overwhelms the chorus of the majority. Yet, as I found out in researching What Women Really Want for the Centre for Policy Studies, most women would rather give up that bonus for a few extra days off with the family. They would prefer to have a government that supports their choice to raise their own children, rather than one who pushes them out to work – where they may or may not earn a bonus.

Yes, the stats look bad – but most of  the women behind them know that a bonus is not everything in life.


Boris Johnson to revisit Australia

CITY Hall, home to the Greater London Authority, is a glass edifice on the south bank of the Thames in the shadow of Tower Bridge. The leaflets in racks against the wall are similar to those one would find in a mid-sized town; London may be one of the world's great financial and cultural hubs with a population of eight million people, but it's a mixture of the grand and parochial. Johnson has presided over the kind of dream events that usually only occur once in a lifetime - the Olympics, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a Brit winning Wimbledon - and give plenty of lustre to the job.

I'm ushered up to the top floor and the man himself swings into view, clutching a helmet, fresh from a briefing about a 160km charity bicycle ride the following weekend.

Johnson is shorter than I expect but the hair is boy-band magnificent. His most recent biographer, Sonia Purnell, who worked with him at The Daily Telegraph's Brussels office, claims the messy locks take work; that he actually wakes up every morning with a neat side parting.

"Where will Boris sit?" I ask as his press secretary ushers me towards a long table and then realise I'm being over-familiar. I start to apologise but Johnson is at my elbow, full of genial good humour. "Ha ha," he booms in his distinctive public school tones, "call me whatever you want!"

Getting down to the nitty gritty of the interview, I ask what it's like being mayor of London. "It's the best job in British politics by miles and I feel increasingly morose that I've forsworn the idea of standing again," he responds emphatically. "As the date draws nearer, like all people who love their job, I'm starting to think 'oh no', but it probably is the right thing to do to give another three years of real effort and then pack it in."

He won't be drawn on what he plans to do next, except, he says, firmly on message, to put the full weight of his support behind Cameron.

Johnson's brother Joseph, seven years his junior, was recently appointed as head of the Number 10 policy unit. As the eldest, Boris has always done things first and in many respects Jo Johnson has journeyed in Boris's slipstream, with a similar career in journalism and stints in Europe. What if his brother were to become prime minister first?

"I think it very likely and I think he'd be brilliant," he responds robustly.

"So you're not like the Miliband brothers then?" I ask, referring to Ed and David; the former is leader of the Labour Party, a position his older and more experienced sibling was widely expected to win.

This provokes an instant rebuke. "Absolutely not," he says, "we don't do things that way, that's a very left-wing thing ... only a socialist could do that to his brother, only a socialist could regard familial ties as being so trivial as to shaft his own brother. I mean, unbelievable! Only lefties can think like that ... they see people as discrete agents devoid of ties to society or to each other, and that's how Stalin could murder 20 million people."

OK, I reply, somewhat perplexed; weak social ties are not something one usually associates with the Left.

What about amoral familism, I suggest, naming a sociological term for a right-wing phenomenon of fierce loyalty to the family at the expense of society. When I offer the Sicilian Mafia as a prime example, Johnson lights up with enthusiasm. The Mafia turns out to have been an early interest. "That's a very interesting point and when politicians talk about the primacy of the family there's no doubt there's a bit of that going on," he concedes.

"The Godfather is a classic text, a great political text," he continues, claiming it made a profound impact on him when, at the age of 13 or 14, he bought a copy of Mario Puzo's novel for 10p at a village fete.

As a child, Johnson says, he read everything he could lay his hands on, but had a light-bulb moment at the age of 10 when an aunt gave him a copy of Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle. "It was such an obvious explanation for how things were and it was intuitively right," he says of Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Another explosive text was The Iliad. Johnson is known as a fine classics scholar and says Homer's tale has had the greatest ethical influence on him of any writing, "though probably not in a good way". He identifies with the hero Achilles. "You've got Agamemnon, who is the titular chief, and he happens to be there through some constitutional accident, and there's Achilles, who's really the natural leader." The Iliad, he continues, "has the blinding intensity of the sun at noonday".

It's been said that for Johnson the classical world is still very much alive (a large bust of the fifth-century BC Greek statesman Pericles dominates his office), so if he could go back to ancient Rome, I ask, would it be to the republic or the mperial era?

"Which would I choose? Which is the more glorious? That is a wonderful question," he says. "The differences between the two were not as great as you might suppose. I'd want to be there at the transition; the greatest story of all would be to see Rome from the death of Julius Caesar in 44BC to the death of Augustus. That would be amazing, the programmatic event in our civilisation."

So, are leaders born or made? There's a pause. "I think that we're all accidents of upbringing and genes, and a combination between the two." Another pause. "Hard to say."

In the case of his own family, Johnson says, the psychological profile is straightforward. "I was the eldest, then 18 months after I was born, my sister Rachel appeared, and ever since my life has been a constant struggle for resources and attention."

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964 to British parents. His mother, Charlotte, is an artist; his father, Stanley, an author and former member of the European Parliament, is an expert on environmental issues. In 1970, Stanley Johnson wrote a book titled Life without Birth: A Journey Through the Third World in Search of the Population Explosion, in which he exhorted others to avoid the errors of his procreating ways. "Act now. Act now. Oh God! ... How can I face the row of small blond heads bobbing over the cornflakes knowing I am statistically accountable for the burdens they will add to society?" he wrote.

Alongside bobbing blonds Boris, Rachel - a writer and former editor-in-chief of The Lady magazine - and Jo, there's Leo, an environmental consultant and the family's only non-Tory. The children were brought up in Brussels and England and encouraged to compete with each other from an early age: who could read The Times leader best, who could run fastest, who had the fairest hair. Boris was the leader. When as a small child he was asked what he wanted to be he said, "the world king".

He won a scholarship to Eton, where he was a high-achieving if lazy student, and at Oxford he hung out with a raffish upper-class crowd, was a member of the elite Bullingdon Club and president of the Oxford Union. Although Johnson may seem the epitome of solid English upper-middle classness, his ancestry includes a Turkish great-grandfather, the Ottoman politician Ali Kemal Bey, Jewish forebears on his mother's side and, further back, descent from George II. His wife, Marina Wheeler, is half Indian. He describes himself as a one-man melting pot and is a firm advocate of immigration.

I mention the latest political clash in Australia over asylum-seekers. With the federal election in full swing during his visit, Johnson says he'll "be careful not to intrude", then launches into praise of an open-door policy. "I think 40 per cent of Londoners were born abroad; immigration's been the lifeblood of London, Australian immigrants included. What you want is people who are ambitious and have energy, and a city like Melbourne benefits hugely from that."

"Including people in leaky boats?" I venture. "Yes, they've got a lot of balls."

The Romans let everyone in, he continues, and that's what made them the greatest civilisation on earth. "But if you want to live in London, there are certain things you've got to sign up for - gender equality, freedom of speech, religious freedom." Immigration scaremongering makes his blood boil. "I mean, for Christ sake, who do they think founded this city? A bunch of pushy Italians!"

Did I know, he continues, that with 250,000 French residents, London counts as the sixth largest French city on the planet? A thought suddenly strikes him. "I bet I'm also the mayor of one of the largest Australian cities in the world. Yes, in returning to Melbourne and Sydney I am simply returning to my own country, because, I'm proud to say I'm probably the mayor of the eighth biggest city in Australia!" (For the record, there are about 200,000 Australians in London, bringing his fantasy Australian town in at No 12, slightly smaller than Hobart and just beating Geelong.)

The latter is apposite as it was at Geelong Grammar that Johnson had his first taste of Australia as a 19-year-old teacher of Latin, English and PE. He returned briefly in the early 1990s as a guest lecturer in European thought at Monash University.

Alongside mooching in Melbourne's bookshops and watching St Kilda play, he says he enjoyed banter with the "lefty intelligentsia" at the Monash campus. There were robust debates about Aboriginal art, he says, "and whether it was superior to the Sistine Chapel - and there was a strong view that it was. Then we had an argument about the [Australian] republic, and they were all convinced that there was going to be one," he recalls.

I ask if he can provide details of his sparring partners. "I think I'd better not embarrass them by mentioning any names," he chortles.

Does he favour a republic?

"Of course not," he snorts, and he's returning to Australia to collect on a 20-year-old wager. "One of them will definitely remember that he bet me $100 that Australia would be a Republic in the year 2000," he says. "And he is yet to cough up, so I'm coming to claim my hundred bucks."


Repressing women is sharia's raison d'etre

Four is the number at the heart of the violent counter-reformation that confronts our Western values. Four is the number of wives the Koran says a man may have. No such latitude is afforded to women. Osama bin Laden, above all a man of the Koran, took his full quota of wives, a luxury not available to most Muslim men. He was 17 when he married his first wife, who was also his first cousin. She was 14. While this was in accordance with historical custom, in our culture it would have been statutory rape.

Her name was Najwa Ghanem. She had her first child at age 16. Her second at 17. Her third at 19. By the time she was 21 she was the mother of four. In 1982, when bin Laden was 25, he married again, to a woman with a doctorate in child psychology. They had one child. He married a third time, a marriage which produced four children. Then a fourth time, and another three children. All up, 19 children from four simultaneous marriages. In our culture, that would be bigamy.

The cult of personality and mythology that grew around bin Laden masked the real menace, and real cause, for which he stood. Because when you scrape away the layers of rhetoric of such jihadists, or those who rationalise their actions, it is evident their primary concern in seeking to impose strict sharia is to control and constrain women's freedom. This is the core cultural impact of sharia.

Though sharia is embraced or tolerated by most Muslim women, it is unforgiving, even dangerous, towards those who defy the control allowed to husbands, fathers, brothers. This is not confined to the wild Wahhabist fringe that bin Laden inhabited. The constraints on women imposed daily by sharia are imposed on hundreds of millions of Muslim women by hundreds of millions of Muslim men.

In this context, the whole concept of Islamic holy war has been in part an expression of sexual repression and sexual oppression. Bin Laden was not a great warrior. His greatest asset was inherited family wealth, which he used to buy influence among warlords, fund recruits and support his greed for women.

After money, his most valuable asset was the pipeline of men willing to murder innocents in the name of Allah. Like all activists willing to murder, his terrorist cell was able to cast a very long shadow on a very small budget. Thus the concept of al-Qaeda was, and remains, a viral, self-managing movement which justifies murder and intimidation by invoking the Koran, a deeply contradictory document. The self-styled religion of peace is a self-styled religion of war.

Al-Qaeda's harsh and anti-democratic version of Islam was irrelevant in the Arab spring earlier this year, when tumult against oppressive regimes rocked Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait. Women took to the streets. In Egypt the unemployment rate for young women is almost 60 per cent. They have a huge stake in reform. But when a steering committee of 10 prominent Egyptians was set up to fill the vacuum left by the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, women were conspicuously absent.

Not just sexual inequality, but sexual repression, is a structural problem in the Muslim world. Millions of young men cannot have a girlfriend and are unable to find a wife because they are unable to find a job. A glimpse was provided on February 11, during the anti-government demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, when a blonde, attractive American network TV journalist, Lara Logan, was set upon and sexually assaulted by a throng of men after she was separated from her bodyguards. It took a wedge of Egyptian soldiers half an hour to extract her.

Whether the Arab spring translates into greater democracy and greater rights for women remains unknowable. In Egypt, the most organised political group is the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants strict sharia.

And the last time a regime was toppled by people power in the Middle East, on the streets of Tehran in 1979, it was led by left-wing students and many women. But their victory soon gave way to theocratic oppression, a long night which has not lifted after 32 years.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.



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