About Stevie Modern

I am an arts and cultural Web commentator. I've published articles on subjects as diverse as politics, film, literature and architecture. My writing style has been influenced by intellects who have examined the symbols and literary meanings behind today’s cultural evolutions, critics such as writer Susan Faludi, Ayn Rand and Christopher Hitchens. Born in Melbourne, I changed my name during an Architecture degree (University of Western Australia) to 'Modern' serving to symbol my own passionate convictions about our future possibilities. It's my aim to share them here with you. Currently living in inner city Perth, Australia, I work both as an interior designer and journalism undergraduate at Curtin University.

who is Joseph Anton?

Stevie ModernNot his real name, ‘Joseph Anton’ only half-belonged to a man half-belonging among free people.

Salman Rushdie [Photo: David Shankbone]

Nevertheless, ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie’s secret service alias during his over-a-decade in forced hiding, is the fully fleshed pivotal character in the West’s mortal struggle over freedom of speech, and so its identity.

Like all heroes, the Anton we read in Rushdie’s compelling Joseph Anton: A Memoir is flawed and afraid. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his very identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

Defence-less. Against a fatwa, no defence is possible. Defences are made against judgements handed down by a recognized court having “jurisdiction over him”. Rushdie writes of 1989 with tender vulnerability. A man afraid in his bed, huddled close to his wife on the fateful day from when “All Muslims” – the fatwa directed – were to “execute them wherever they find them”.

Despite the known death squads dispatched from Iran and Lebanon to London in the years that followed, (an international as well as personal violation) the memoir tells of Rushdie’s plight held too long in abeyance by diplomatic circles hoping to negotiate with the hostage-taking Iran. A particular shock comes when despite years and promises of diplomatic progress, Rushdie is face to face with Thatcher, the British prime minister, who offers wistfully that, “little can be done without a change of regime”. “That’s it?” his fiancée demands, receiving no response.

The new regime in Iran wasn’t making promising noises. A birthday message came from the new “moderate” president Khatami: “Salman Rushdie will die soon.”

Protests against novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ Jan. 1989. [Photo: Robert Croma]

The events to follow the fatwa; the threats, fatal shootings and stabbings of those involved – and in many cases not involved – in the distribution of The Satanic Verses (who did not share Rushdie’s protection) are documented with fervour. As are the bombings, book banning and burnings. Rushdie’s concern here is for that ignored broader issue, the importance the (unfairly) named ‘Rushdie Affair’ represented to freedom.

When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific… it’s just about him; …. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.

Along with the blackbird, insults and blame fly in and roost. John Le Carre, Germaine Greer – pen in hands – write blood onto Rushdie’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘tolerance’ (not of Rushdie, of the mobs calling for his death), and Prince Charles, staggeringly, complains of the costs to the public purse for Rushdie’s protection.

Where only justified bitterness might be expected for censors, critics, apologists for the hate-mongers burning him in effigy, we find in Rushdie’s memoir a larger insight. There are surprising accounts of virtual imprisonment often patiently endured for the safety of family, publishers, airline passengers, audiences and foreign-held hostages. If the expected support of his government never materialises, (The Blair government sought to extend blasphemy laws) he shows gratitude for those literary and moral supporters that included Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens.

One hundred Arab and Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays, written in many languages and published in French, ‘Pour Rushdie’ [For Rushdie] , to defend freedom of speech…”We have the obligation to tell him that he personifies our solitude and that his story is our own.”

Where Rushdie brings literature, where he brings Rushdie in his memoir, are the complex layers of ‘Joseph Anton’ and his other self struggling beneath the bullet-proof surface. Hunched in getaway cars. Fitful sleeps turning him roughly in unfamiliar beds. Days away from the thing he loves most – writing stories – costing him at moments his sanity. Rushdie snatches from just above the surface of this suffocation and fear, rare and happy gulps of friendships and trust. These lighter moments cherished in peril never quite achieve normality, surrounded – even if gratefully – by armed guards.

joseph-anton-a-memoir-by-salman-rushdieIn fiction, Rushdie fused his earlier life experiences with the mixed-identity characters of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is instead the story of Rushdie’s struggle for unmixed realization. Beneath the subterfuge he senses another kind of extinguishment. Have the armed protectors succeeded where the fatwa has not? As the anxious Rushdie mixes deeper with ‘Anton’, we are suspended at numerous critical moments: Which ‘character’ will overcome the other? What boundaries of control will be drawn between Rushdie and ‘Anton’ in their unhappy truce between the will to happiness and the need to survive?

When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired in a sense, free will.

Like his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s name “disappeared into the front pages”. It disappeared into the epithets and ‘Satan Rushdy’ avatars of clerics burning for his murder. A name no longer his, free will becomes no longer an option the Secret Service is able or at times willing to accommodate.

Literary criticism of Joseph Anton has centred on Rushdie’s use of third person, the ‘he’, ‘his’, ‘him’ of Anton rather than the ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ of Rushdie. Even as the author gives deeply personal unvarnished accounts of Joseph Anton’s – that is his –  troubled love life, of raising a family in a climate of fear and death, the device remains strange and discomfiting.

Critics have brittly marked this disconnection in the memoir and yet ignored how this device offers firsthand Rushdie’s dissociation from the ‘fully free society’ where he only half-existed. Rushdie has spent the period of this story negotiating anguished boundaries of identity, and the brilliance of the device preserves for the reader his unwilling masks and fugitive feet.

Ambiguous, ‘Joseph Anton’ dramatises a man not enough free to use his name. It’s a disconcerting parable for a free-society not enough brave to articulate what that freedom means. By dissociating from its principles and one of its prized authors, that society endeavoured to remain ‘free’ to avert moral combat with the broader threat brought down by Khomeini’s fatwa.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list: freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex…

Where Rushdie could be forgiven for his focus on a situation never more vivid and personal than saving one’s own life, he demonstrates Olympian regard of the larger picture. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing…We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love… Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Forgotten in the events following its publication were The Satanic Verses’ satiric and literary qualities. Incidental as they may be to principles of free speech, they are not to its gains. Open its cover and a hijacked jet-liner makes a post-explosion dive above the city of London, and among the flying debris of plummeting seats and trolleys, transformative incarnation in cloud-filled descent takes hold of two of its passengers. It would be hard to nominate a more pyrotechnic beginning to a tale spanning centuries and continents. The language is modern, jarring, electric, magic-real. Deep in its pages, an angel Gibreel messages an ancient prophet Mahound in mad vision, “tilting” and “panning” its locus like a futuristic camera. Just as explosively, arguments over the story’s literary quality were superseded as London (and the world) plummeted into the ensuing controversy and real life terrorism that almost forced the novel from print.

Sandakat Kadri writes that Arabic lore, which The Satanic Verses made novel use of, details a period “several Qur’anic scholars of great standing have accepted as the truth.” Legend tells at Islam’s birth of Mohammed’s acceptance of other idols. Such a story would contradict notions of Mohammed’s ‘perfection’ and an unchangeable Qur’an. Kadri observes that,

Those offended were never very likely to read them. Rushdie’s book raised hackles for reasons other than its contents, however. Its title echoed a legend known in Arabic…when the Prophet briefly faltered in his mission… [His] supposed revelations were not divine. They were the whisperings of a demon (shaitan): satanic verses.

As with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s camera widens beyond seventh century myth. In Joseph Anton, stories are to him as they were his father’s who freely mixed in bedtime stories to the young Salman. Stories belong to everyone, but were also “his, all his… to alter and renew and discard and pick up again… to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by”. 

Sacred or profane, they were ‘untrue’ but an access to other truths. These are the accounts of a Rushdie before the Anton ‘subterfuge’, before British clerics feigned promises of withdrawing the fatwa’s threat, before an anxious ‘Joseph Anton’ is pressured to sign a repudiation of his beliefs and art. It was a moment in Joseph Anton, alone, too keen to be understood, and “loved”, that Rushdie labels his “great Mistake”.

Rushdie emerged from Anton a name to renew and pick up again. Joseph Anton‘s story, if not fiction, should be ours to live in, and with, and by. Shortly after the fatwa, New Yorkers began to wear ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges in public solidarity. “I wished I could’ve worn one of those,” Rushdie writes. Now, with Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he does ♦


a tale of two sisters

Christy Turlington-Burns, No Woman No Cry (2010)

Christy Turlington. [Photo by Fortune Live Media]

Stevie ModernFor some, pregnancy can be a death sentence.

Consider for a moment that the number one cause of death for adolescent girls in developing countries today is from pregnancy complications and childbirth, and that in almost all cases, these deaths are preventable.

For Christy Turlington, an American former supermodel, that personal discovery came after serious health issues arose during the birth of her first child. A post-partum haemorage put her in the ‘living’ category of a condition that claims the highest number of deaths among women giving birth worldwide.

What shocked me … was the fact that, of the 358,000 women who die each year, almost all can be saved with adequate medical care. It’s incredible that we know what it takes to save most women’s lives in childbirth, and yet thousands die each year because even the most basic care is out of reach. How can this be?

Turlington-Burns, C. 'No Woman No Cry' [Film Documentary]The answer she says, relies firstly on ‘political will’. Her research in maternal health lead her to produce and direct her own documentary No Woman No Cry.

Since that time, Turlington has been a passionate advocate to save and enhance the lives of mothers around the world.

Every Woman Counts, an organisation she founded, seeks to redress the health of mothers as a modern global priority. Turlington attributes her passion to empathy, what she has called a ‘sisterhood in motherhood’, to develop often simple practical solutions. Through experience working with the CARE organisation, she saw firsthand how significant reductions in maternal mortality can be achieved.

For Turlington’s ‘sister’ Agnes in Tanzania, labor caused both the loss of her baby, and fistula. Fistula, a rupture during childbirth, is an operable condition. Like the estimated two million women the WHO estimates are living with fistula, lack of hospital access meant Agnes was unable to control bodily functions, and remained untreated for ten years. Her condition ostracised her from her community, and lead her to be hounded and labelled as ‘cursed’ by fellow villagers.

Every Mother Counts tells how Agnes instead came to be an educator on fistula to her community in this short 6-minute video segment.

Turlington identifies the cause of avoidably high death rates from pregnancy not only in poverty and restricted healthcare access. Much of the solution she says lies in also identifying root cultural causes and preventing their harmful practice. She blames many maternal fatalities in the developing world on traditional cultures promoting child (and therefore forced) marriage. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 56% of worldwide deaths from pregnancy occur, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18. The chance of death during childbirth for girls under 15 is five times that of adult women, and twice as likely at this age than girls aged 15-20 years.

Speaking at a recent Trust Women conference, Turlington says,

If we can get girls to be girls as long as possible, then we can delay early marriage and first pregnancies and a lot of the ongoing health implications of those practices.

Consider that: The risk of death is halved in developing countries by ensuring girls ‘remain girls’ beyond 15 years of age. Any future target to reduce maternal death rates, Turlington says, should focus on adolescent girls – these most vulnerable. Pregnancy at an undeveloped age raises terrible health consequences, including fistula and infant death. The World Health Organisation notes obstructed births (where the mother is too young or undeveloped to safely deliver) are responsible for 8% of infant deaths.

Changing the culture of child marriage, and focussing government attention on the social and economic costs of maternal death should form important conditional priorities for wealthy donor countries. Every mother counts. Much of that realisation can be credited to Turlington, who by modern example has shown ‘sisters’ (and brothers) must raise their own voices in making a real difference ♦

If we can recognise our inherent connection to other mothers, we can make saving their lives a priority.

Christy Turlington-Burns

Turlington describes her film motivations in this interview with CARE Pres. Dr. Gayle King. No Woman No Cry (DVD) is available for order here on iTunes.

paved paradise

1111 Lincoln Rd Miami Beach. [Photo by X. de Juareguiberry]

1111 Lincoln Rd Miami Beach. [Photo by X. de Juareguiberry]

Herzog and de Meuron’s 11 11, a radical Miami Beach parking garage, shows mixed use and modern design can revive an urban environment.

Stevie Modern

Commissioned by developer Robert Wennett, the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron departed from the staid tradition of parking garages that too frequently, blighted rather than improved their urban environment. With 11-11, there were to be no uniform floors stacked in repeated fashion. V-shaped and canted columns instead reach into street view, muscular forms supporting the building’s elegant, slender floor plates. These floors would be layered at irregular intervals of between eight to 34 feet. The perimeter would remain open- celebrating the structure, heightening a generous sense of internal space and its connecting views to the city. Parked cars- openly displayed- crest above street level. An open central stair connects light from a landscaped rooftop above. “In America,” Herzog explains,

Architecture is all about cladding. That the building is all bones and muscles is one of its most interesting aspects.

The architects and developer sought to celebrate rather than hide 11 11‘s true function as a 300-car garage.

We all know how look- they either pretend to be buildings or they are clad in some funny, self-consciously design-y way.

The radical design forms part of developer Wennett’s intention to create an iconic space, drawing visitors to special events held alongside more permanent retail and restaurant spaces housed at the fifth and ground level (see video). .

1111 logo creates place identity Photo by miamism

These encourage users’ movement through the building’s mixed use layers, activity that adds safety and desirability to the environment. To this end, landscaping, artworks and four residences are housed within the property. The developer’s commitment to the address extends to incorporating his own residence- by Herzog and de Meuron- at its rooftop. Smart business: the mixed use made for a profitable increase in allowable floor space.

Rooftop 1111 Lincoln Rd Photo by X. Juareguiberry

Rooftop 1111 Lincoln Rd Photo by X. Juareguiberry

While the $65 million project required planning permission to exceed height restrictions and design permission from the Miami Beach preservation board, there are signs Herzog and de Meuron’s reconceived parking-design approach has gained influence beyond its Lincoln Rd address. International architects Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry have separate plans in development for mixed-use garages, likely to become added landmarks in the area.

1111 Lincoln Rd- Photo by X. de JuareguiberryDeveloper Wennett has said the advent of the internet has meant physical spaces such as 11 11 will need to work harder in creating enticing modern experiences. Herzog and de Meuron, awarded for large-scale projects including the Beijing Olympic stadium and LondonTate Modern, also have a history with smaller-scale aesthetic responses to more mundane elements of urban fabric. Their critical response to the parking garage revives possibilities for the extraordinary, and restarts modernist dreams of the car, left parked by an increasingly dynamic age ♦

reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.

the ‘lesbian’ virus?

Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: the New Science of the Meme

Three years ago a woman achieved high office, amidst a resurging a virus threatening large parts of the United States. During Elena Kagan’s US Supreme Court nomination, she may have expected news media to assess her judicial philosophy. For reasons later explained, they focussed almost entirely on her single status and questioned whether it indicated she was a lesbian. Though Kagan had made no public statement of sexuality, CBS News published an online column. Kagan could , it read, become “the first openly gay justice”.

Justice Elena Kagan [Photo: Wikipedia]

“If Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time. This is a measure of how far women have come,” announced The New York Times. It then demurred, “Two will be single and childless. This may be a measure of something else entirely”. That ‘something’ remained unexplored, left to the implicit concerns of its readers. Even the liberal Slate Magazine headlined Kagan’s nomination ‘An Unnatural Woman’ among a short-list of nominees the magazine judged “overpopulated by women who are single, childless, or divorced”.

The now rapidly spreading virus remained unreported.  Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme explores why some ideas continue to resurface and spread, often regardless of any truth value. A ‘meme’ is any idea or packaged concept that humans come in contact and share with each other, for example by talking. Other behaviours spread memes too: language patterns, mannerisms, signals, or a song. Memes reproduce from one brain to any witnesses’ brain. They are retained in memory and may remain dormant for long periods, only to resurface and multiply at later times. Often, memes survive because they fulfil some very basic patterns of human behaviour, often without our conscious understanding. As the original author for Microsoft Word, Brodie offers the computer as a metaphor for understanding our relationship to memes.
Would we expect a computer to “understand” its own program? No! It just needs to run. And our brains evolved not to understand themselves, but to perform very specific tasks… Meme evolution selects for the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and myths that we pay the most attention to.

Phantom Dominances are memes about power roles, writes Richard Brodie [Photo: Uncyclopedia]

As memes, packaged concepts spread not only down generationally, but across from person-to-person, much like the ‘virus’ of Brodie’s title. 
Brodie cites the attention men have paid since prehistory to the opportunities for power. Power represents a place in the dominance hierarchy, governing access to resources, including perceived access to women.
Attaching ‘lesbian’ for example- a potent concept around ‘rejection’ of men-  acts like a fear response in the presence of female challengers to power roles.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash refers to these power plays as ‘phantom dominances’, responses which reinforce no longer existing roles. Yes, gay rumours seem a far-fetched reflex for a Supreme Court judicial appointment. At the level of memes however, it’s a widespread and potent ‘virus’ that can be documented at short intervals in today’s public mind.
What astute American news viewers may notice in the ‘lesbian meme’ is its unhelpful attachment time and again in response to female achievement, especially in a country traditionally emphasising the importance and power of public office. It seems an implausibly long list to remain so undetected. To include just some of the ‘lesbian meme’ victims; former US Attorney General Janet Reno, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Reaching positions of prominence, each have been rumoured in the media as lesbian. Fascinatingly, each instance appears from its media vantage point as a profound rupture to the status quo, despite the meme’s repeated (and repeatedly debunked) emergence.

Brodie’s Virus of the Mind is not an abstruse reasoning for prejudices or bigotry. It explores instead the genealogy of ideas, how they come to spread, which ideas have a tendency to survive and reproduce. Through understanding the science of how ideas blend and reproduce, we better understand forces behind some of our knee-jerk responses and deeply held beliefs. In so doing, we may take further steps to raise the level of our modern consciousness. To be aware of memes is to take part in steering them to more productive ends ♦

grandeur, without delusion: dawkins

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Think ‘primal urges’, and a picture of greed, hunger, fear, and sexual lust bounds readily from the cave of our imagination. Indeed, Natural Selection easily and readily accounts for our early survival instincts, writes biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Through The God Delusion, Dawkins also explores evolutionary explanations for our higher moral codes – common values like compassion, giving and the care we extend beyond the bounds of our immediate family. How did these seemingly unselfish traits arise in furthering survival?

Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’

The human origins beneath our developing moral codes are among many scientific questions tackled by Dawkins’ The God Delusion. All known human societies for example, have extended beliefs in a supernatural order, of spiritual beings and divine punishments. Many religionists argue for this reason that without faiths, humans would be without moral compunction.

Arising across different cultures, races and geographic origins, religious beliefs, with the usual aim of benefitting a particular ‘in-group’, carry similar and often repeated patterns of ritual and belief. These suggest the powerfully reinforced behaviours designed with benefit to mutually excluding groups. They may have genetic origins that furthered early group survival.

As Dawkins argues in The God Delusion however, these offer a poor basis for moral decision making.

[This book] is intended to raise consciousness- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

Science now offers a logically simpler origin story that takes into account the multitude of solar systems and galaxies, replacing the mythically central human position in the cosmos. By decentering the human from cosmology, many of the divine claims of race and subjugation are revealed to be false and damaging.

Rembrandt, (1634) Abraham and Isaac.

Genetics have linked us within the animal kingdom, and debunked racial justifications in the Torah, Holy Bible and Quran for genocide and tribal exclusion. Biological recognition has similarly allowed feminism and tolerance to replace patriarchy and the scripturally codified values of the tribe.

Given the religious claims of moral guidance, it would be expected that various religious and non-religious people would act differently in moral situations. Scientific study does however support Dawkins’ contention that “our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past”. Thought experiments have shown underlying moral universals do cross seemingly disparate ethnic, religious and geographical lines.

The subjects were asked to choose in various hypothetical situations which actions were morally ‘obligatory’, ‘permissable’ or ‘forbidden’…The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer’s study was that there were no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments.

In a generously referenced, orderly and readable prose, Dawkins offers an alternative cosmological grandeur. The God Delusion not only measures the improbability of a designer more complex than our own universe, but illustrates an historical pattern of human movement – albeit with periods of regression – toward a more modern liberal behaviour. As scientists unravel the natural workings of the human brain, they find a morally urgent being capable of goodness without fear. That too, is a basis for not only our own guidance, but genuine optimism aswell ♦

Richard Dawkins has been previously reviewed in imodernreview’s ‘a new turing test’ (The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing) and ‘genesis and the genius’ (documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin ).

gay war hero memory at code red


[ An earlier version of this article, ‘Code red for WWII code breaker’ appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of The Western Independent ]

Alan Turing, WWII codebreaker.

Away from the fierce naval gun battles and front lines of History’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy calculating sums that would save millions of lives.

Australia is missing among World War II allied countries marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing. The British code-breaker used mathematical logic to decipher the wartime German ‘Enigma’ device. Nazi generals used the random code machine, thought to be ‘unbreakable’, to send secret battle plans.

Historian Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine, says Turing’s contribution was central to the Allies’ success, saving potentially millions of lives during WWII.

“Turing devised the technique for automating the cracking of the naval Enigma code,” Dr Watson says.

“Historians generally agree the code breaking work shortened WWII by up to 2 years.”

Watson, ‘The Universal Machine’

These simulations also enabled Turing’s contribution to the first modern-day computer.

“The requirements for handling massive  amounts of data quickly meant it became obvious the process needed to be mechanised,

“If the war hadn’t forced these requirements then I think the development of the computer, both in the US and the UK would have been much slower.”

University of Wollongong digital communications lecturer Teodor Mitew says Turing’s genius lay in simulating all the mathematical possibilities of the Enigma device. The intelligence proved decisive to the Allied forces in crucial naval battles.

“His contributions are incalculable, yet he remains a largely unknown figure in Australia,” he says.

The Turing Centenary Advisory Report lists WWII allies Canada, France, Britain, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and The United States among 13 nations to host commemorative events this year marking the centenary of Turing’s birth. No Australian events have been listed however.

“The reason Turing has not been commemorated in this country has been his relative obscurity and the secret nature of his contributions,” Dr Mitew says.

“Put simply, these don’t fit the heroic war narrative our general public has been fed.”

Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian reported on a petition signed by 21,000 British citizens urging their government to posthumously pardon Turing’s criminal record for homosexual activity recorded shortly after his war service. The petition was unsuccessful, but the centenary has brought renewed efforts to obtain the necessary 100,000 signatures to force a vote in parliament. As of this writing, 35,000 citizens have signed. Moves have also been underway to feature Turing on the £10 note.

Various biographical accounts detail Turing being forced to undertake ‘chemical castration’ for his homosexuality under threat of a  prison sentence. In 1952, he was removed from his official position. He died two years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Dr Mitew says it is “just not enough” that Australians have forgotten about Turing’s life-saving work.

“You have this intellectual giant, with contributions ranging from philosophy through mathematics [to] computer science, and biology,” he says.

“Due to political and historical reasons he has been pushed into complete obscurity.”

Dr Watson says Australians, many of whose lives Turing helped save, should honour his services to the Allied war effort and urge the British government to pardon Turing’s criminal conviction.

“The law under which he was convicted was unjust and I think society would send a clear message by pardoning him – Thanks, you deserved to be treated better.” ♦

[ Photos courtesy Dr Ian Watson. Excerpts from Turing’s Computing and Machine Intelligence previously featured in imodernreview article ‘a new turing test’ ]