April 25, 2010 | Ronda Jambe

Have a good dump!

The newspapers report that there are more mobile phones than toilets in India. Hardly surprising, given the number of times a bush was the best we could do for a ‘comfort stop’ on my recent tour, and the number of men along side the road as the bus pulled out of Agra in the morning.

Imagine if there were men squatting, pants around their ankles, along Kings Avenue Canberra with Parliament House in sight? Or under the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Many of my observations while travelling in Rajasthan were confirmed by the White Tiger. This marvellous novel by Aravind Adiga (thank you Jennifer!) says more about contemporary India and its culture of corruption than a year of pouring through social research. Fully deserved the Man-Booker Prize, too.

The scandal prompting the resignation of cricket chief Shashi Tharoor is just the tiny tip of a huge iceberg. For every well intentioned policy move in India there is a counter-force demanding compensation or consideration. No wonder their government is more of a shuffle than a dance.

And where do the women do their business? Perhaps they are all working in call centres, where maybe they have access to toilets, but I doubt it. The White Tiger is very much from a male perspective, with selfish grannies, fat rich women and Russian prostitutes for gender balance. Tragically hilarious, with a strong scent of reality.

What does it say about a society that has more mobile phones than toilets? How tame Australia is, with our publicly funded online map of public toilets. How sweet, how egalitarian (even the rich need a public toilet now and then), and above all how functional.

Maybe Australia is still dependent on its rocks and flocks (more the former than the latter these days) and maybe it retains a lop-sided distribution of funding for health and education. There will be many more COAGs before that gets sorted out to full public benefit.

But at least we have some priorities right: what is more fundamental than public hygiene? But in India, the caste system is visceral rather than vestigial. You can visit temples where rats are worshipped and  priests drink out of the same bowl with them. Or maybe you’d like to watch the lunchtime performance of a devotee as he flogs himself.

Another interesting statistic: in Africa at least 70% of people identify themselves as ‘deeply religious’, whether they are Muslim or Christian or combine these with pagan rituals. In the US that drops to about 50%, and in Sweden, a mere 8%. Which is more civilised, where would you feel safest, and which place would seem to best uphold the values that religion is supposed to uniquely provide?

Next time I find myself talking to someone from a call centre in Kolkata or Mumbai, I’m going to ask them if they are rest room facilities. And wish them a good day.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 2:07 am | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized

April 15, 2010 | Ronda Jambe

Religion as obsessive compulsive disorder

One of my hobbies is photographing ladies’ loos from around he world. I’ve got some doosies from India, both beautiful and horrible.

Another of my globalised frivolities is the observation of ‘good hats’, mostly associated with religious masters. Notably, there are few really great hats for female religious leaders. If you recall Felini’s Roma, a movie which featured a splendid fashion parade of ecclesiastic garments, each more extravagant and obscene than the previous, you can guess where I am taking this.

Hats are just a manifestation of wider obsessions associated with our greatest faiths. There are the beads, the chanting, the travelling in circles while hitting brass bells, the offering of candles, or flowers or burning herbs to scare off demons. Hinduism requires that one move only clockwise through temples. Islam used to demand praying almost the whole day (was 20 times?) , but in the interests of rationalism (and getting the chores done) they reduced it to just five times.

Religion gives succor not just through social programs, fellowship and shared beliefs. It also unites adherents by fostering shared rituals. Successful religions quickly turn these into controlling practices that command ever more detailed compliance. Power demands it, and those who question the link between being a good person and dressing or eating in particular ways are ostracised. Is there any religion that actually encourages fornication? If there is, I’ll consider it carefully, but I’d want to see the hats first.

Humans are herd animals, and I guess both the Inquisition and the Reformation were successful in their own way. Faced with torture, I would have converted to almost anything, and adopted the required rituals. Or maybe I would have been burned at the stake.

A religion that is preoccupied with negating other religions can’t be helpful to its members. In sixteenth century India, Akbar the great became tolerant of other religions. He even formed his own fusion of Islam and Hinduism, but it didn’t work out. Today, after more than 60 years of partition, there are 160 m Muslims in India, and the various religions still don’t get along that well.

You won’t be surprised that it brings me great comfort and solace (but no rituals) to hear that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson are in effect impeaching the Pope. El Papa ain’t immune from the virus of outrage, and the same useful lacuna in British legal systems that allowed Pinochet to be arrested is going to be applied to the once almighty head of the Catholic church.Would you believe he put the Church’s reputation above protecting children?

All together now, 3 times in an equilateral triangle, and then in reverse: hats off to the high priests of atheism!

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 8:01 am | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Uncategorized

April 07, 2010 | Ronda Jambe

Is the US getting loonier?

Lunatics with guns is not the kind of democracy the founding fathers of the US had in mind. The number of militias has increased in recent years, and probably the number of serious death threats to elected officials as well.

One man convicted of murdering an abortion doctor was unrepentant on TV. Some of the ‘tea parties’ are determined to overthrow the health bill Obama miraculously managed to get through Congress.

While there are serious concerns about the likely effectiveness of his health reforms in keeping costs down while providing wider coverage of health insurance, there should be no doubts that the process was (sort of) democratic. At least if you don’t take into account the deep pockets and profound influence of the health insurers, who will remain front and centre of health attention and wealth absorption.

But the bill has passed, and threats of violence or rebellion should not be part of civilised governance.

The drug debate is also characterised by extreme positions. Drugs flow across the border, with heavily armed gangs staking out their share of the market. Just like on The Wire, which I imagine is a somewhat soft depiction of a slimy crew.

And where do the guns come from for the Mexican bandits? They flow the other way across the border of course, creating gainful employment for many god-fearing citizens in the US.

Marijuana is, thankfully, the most commonly trafficked. I say that because by most assessments, it is no worse than alcohol, even when abused. California led the pack on decriminalising it via medical provision, and at least 13 other states have followed. That way they can tax it, like alcohol.

A country as diverse, and massive as the US will always have massive dissent. My take is that the militarisation of their society is fuelling more extreme responses to what should be genteel public deliberation, with lots of evidence and openness. Here our population debate is slowly opening up to discussion, without the need for foot stompinfrom groups that intent to ‘take matters into their own hands’.

But when the US national policy is to dump a form of elected government on tribal groups, without reflecting on the usefulness of this after so many years of failure (Afghanistan, Iraq, and maybe Pakistan to follow) then hubris will come back to bite them (or shoot them) on the bum.

Maybe they need more drugs to calm them down, with stoned pow-wows and naked love-ins.  I could probably be convinced to vote for that.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 4:41 am | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Uncategorized

April 01, 2010 | Stephen Minas

Second as farce: Asylum seekers and Piers Akerman

Piers Akerman has been testing his vast capacity for self-parody. His piece in Monday’s Telegraph on asylum seekers reads as if written on a bet or a dare. The frenzy whipped up over asylum seekers after the Tampa’s arrival was a tragedy for this country. Akerman seems determined to repeat it as farce.

Akerman brands the government’s ‘asylum seeker policy’ a failure by any ‘objective criteria’. I suppose the mention of ‘objective criteria’ at the start of an article hectoring readers with visions of a ‘flood’ of ‘boat people’ is one of life’s little ironies. There is nothing ‘objective’ about Akerman’s assertion that the ‘[r]efugee trade puts security at stake’.

He claims that asylum seekers are entering mainland detention centres ‘with minimal security checks’ and then changes the subject, citing no evidence for this jaundiced proposition. He then brings up the SIEV 36 disaster and claims that those implicated by the Northern Territory coroner should have their visas cancelled on character grounds. Apparently, coronial inquests can now substitute for criminal trials in courts of law, which can now be dispensed with and all the judges, jurors and lawyers can go home.

Akerman then comes up with this statement of the blindingly obvious: ‘Christmas Island is little more than a temporary sanctuary on the route to the Australian continent.’ As opposed to what, exactly? A gulag? A black hole into which asylum-seekers must be flung, never to return – a fitting punishment for their temerity in invoking Australia’s protection obligations? Akerman’s snide reference to ‘sanctuary’ for asylum seekers, coupled with his indignance that their time on Christmas Island might be ‘temporary’, speaks volumes about his miserable starting point on this issue.

Of course, there was more: ‘The front page of The Brisbane Sunday Mail yesterday showed a picture of happy Afghan women and children shopping at a suburban mall.’ Akerman invites us – presumably after recovering our composure and collecting ourselves from the floor – to share his displeasure at this ‘image of newly-arrived asylum seekers with overflowing shopping trolleys’. What conclusion is he implying? Obviously not that Australia is a civilised society in which people with status determinations pending can go about their lives in relative peace. No, he seems to be suggesting that asylum seekers should not be let out in public, or not be fed, or not be fed well, to send ‘a strong message to those hoping to come here’. Or, perhaps, that if they are allowed to have groceries then they must not be photographed with them, in case any potential boat arrivals happen to be reading The Brisbane Sunday Mail.

Malice and supposition are no substitutes for reasoned analysis. If Akerman set out to demonstrate why he is not a credible commentator on public life in this country, then Mission Accomplished.

Posted by Stephen Minas at 6:15 am | Comments (14) |