tag:mullins.id.au,2013:/posts MICHAEL MULLINS' TINY LETTER 2021-01-17T23:47:43Z tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1641480 2021-01-17T23:47:42Z 2021-01-17T23:47:43Z Deplatforming ourselves The deplatforming of Donald Trump has brought this new word into prominence. Twitter, Facebook and several other social media platforms have effectively silenced the outgoing US president by suspending him from using their services.

While that is of course very significant, I’m more interested in the idea of deplatforming ourselves, which is sometimes referred to as social media ‘detox’.

I have a history of this. I was an early adopter of various forms of social media, but then just as quickly abandoned them as I became aware that they were taking over my life and exploiting my usage data.

I remember my Twitter consumption being at its peak when Julia Gillard successfully challenged Kevin Rudd for the Labor Party leadership in 2010.

Shortly afterwards, I realised that I was checking my Twitter feed whenever I had a spare moment. I marvelled at how well informed I’d become.

But I was also aware that my total wellbeing had taken a hit. I had to either moderate or effectively abandon my use of Twitter. I chose the latter, though I agree that moderation is always the best way to curb addictive behaviour.

About two years ago, I decided to work on improving my skills as a photographer by posting a photo a day on Instagram. I kept it up for a year but stopped because I didn’t like it that Instagram was part of the ecosystem of Facebook, which I’d strenuously avoided because I genuinely believed it was more evil than good.

In November 2019 I decided to remove Google from my life as far as possible. You can’t do that completely if you own an Android phone as I do. But you can try.

I googled ‘no more Google’ and found a website listing alternatives to Google. Now my googling days are over and I use the DuckDuckGo search engine and many other services that do not send my usage data to Google or Facebook.

I’ve been a constant user of Fitbit health and fitness monitoring devices for nearly six years. So I was dismayed when Google purchased Fitbit a year or so ago. I could see Google monitoring my weight and trying to sell weight loss products to me whenever it sees I’ve gained a kilo or two.

An email from the Fitbit CEO last week promised that wouldn’t happen. But the Australian regulatory body the ACCC looks like it will only be able to achieve a moratorium on such predatory practice for a limited period of time. It is about to rule after receiving submissions from members of the public including myself.

If I count podcasts, I’m still as addicted to social media as anybody I know. This morning I decided to switch off my podcast feed while I was at the gym and give my full and satisfied attention to my body’s reaction to the weights I was lifting.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1638359 2021-01-10T22:34:06Z 2021-01-10T22:34:06Z The era of colonial exploitation has never ended

Yesterday I watched a 1970s fantasy documentary that sets ‘backward’ Filipinos against the more technologically advanced and superior Western nations.

Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare was Sunday’s film of the day on my favourite streaming platform Mubi.

In a whimsical semi-autobiographical style, the jeepney (mini-bus) driver in a small village is mesmerised by the American dream of space travel and hi-tech industrialisation. He attends a Scouts convention where he meets a rich American who promises to take him to the US, but they first spend a year in Paris working for his bubble gum machine business.

Jeepney Driver

It’s there that he gets to identify with the traditional street market vendors, who are losing out to the spread of supermarkets. He becomes an advocate for pushback against the consumer capitalism that has so thoroughly exploited his own country. The Philippines was formally an American colony between 1898 and 1946, and informally for much longer.

The film took me back to my three month visit to the Philippines in the summer of 1983-84, where I stayed in villages with people who aspired to be part of the modern world even though they had been impoverished by the self-serving actions of the wealthy nations and their investors.

I remember being disturbed and perplexed by people rotting their teeth drinking Coke and Pepsi and feeling good about it.

I spent time with the Mindanao Development Centre, which was involved in social analysis to lobby on behalf of the poor people who were losing their livelihoods to the multinational corporations. I also visited an Australian priest - Father Brian Gore - who was jailed for emboldening sugar industry workers to assemble and fight for their rights.

I remained interested in the effect of colonialism and neocolonialism on the wellbeing of people in poorer countries. I remember travelling through Java in 2014 and visiting the museum of the 1955 Bandung Conference that sought to unite developing nations against the stranglehold of the developed world.

Then on Saturday, I bought East Timor coffee at my local Carriageworks market in Sydney. I talked with the stall holder about my work with Caritas in East Timor in 1999. She told me about establishing the development aid projects which my coffee purchase was helping to sustain.

But while individuals and small organisations from the developed world continue to do what they can for those in developing countries, the behaviour of governments is as shameful as ever.

We have the continued slashing of aid budgets. There is also the aggressive action by our Federal Government in prosecuting the whistleblower Bernard Collaery, who exposed our government’s 2004 bugging of the East Timor cabinet offices in an effort to gain an unfair advantage during negotiations for a petroleum and gas treaty.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1635346 2021-01-03T21:58:44Z 2021-01-03T21:58:44Z The right amount of wine For many years I enjoyed half a bottle of wine with my evening meal. I think that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol my parents consumed while I was growing up, though they drank beer rather than wine.

Although I imagine it’s more than most of my contemporaries, I have been comfortable with that amount because I’ve never exceeded it, at least not regularly. My reasoning was that if I had more than half a bottle one night, I’d be left with less than half the next.

I know it’s always good to monitor our drug and alcohol consumption, even if it’s firmly under control. So when I received my regular blood test results about six months ago, I asked the GP if he could see signs of excess alcohol consumption.

He said no. I asked the same of my nutritionist, and she agreed.

They probably recognise the mental health benefit of drinking a modest amount of alcohol each day, and that half a bottle a day is less than what most problem drinkers consume.

Nevertheless I continued to question the half bottle. Aside from the cost - about $10 over two evenings - drinking that amount meant that my head was not clear enough for me to do any serious reading after dinner. I thought that I would like to be able to read more at that time of day.

So I decided to have a quarter of a bottle a day instead of half a bottle. That worked in that I did not notice any loss of enjoyment of the wine and I had a clearer head afterwards.

Then a few weeks later the National Health and Medical Research Council released its updated guidelines. They suggested that 10 standard drinks each week is the most we should consume if we want to reduce our risk of harm from alcohol. A standard drink is 100ml of wine - half a glass, or a little more than an eighth of a bottle.

I decided that I would try keeping to one standard drink each day. This is less than the 1.4 standard drinks allowed but it assumes I will have more when I go out.

So far it has worked, and arguably my enjoyment has increased because I’m learning to savour wine rather than drink it.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1630092 2020-12-20T23:51:04Z 2020-12-20T23:51:05Z Have an evidence-based Christmas!

A week or two ago my neighbours across the street erected an inflatable decoration with the greeting 'Have a Magical Christmas!'

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I found the emphasis on magic more thought provoking than most Christmas or holiday greeting sentiments.

It affirms this as the 'silly season', suggesting that Christmas is rightfully a time to suspend our usual behaviours in order to give momentary credence to irrationality and wishful thinking.

Magic is based on illusion rather than evidence. We are briefly putting ourselves under its spell so that we can recharge the batteries of our rationality.

It is important that magic does not become the year-round norm for us - as it is for some, including leaders of some of the most powerful nation states.

When my neighbours' greeting went up, I was pleased to see the way they were highlighting the need for our annual refocus so that we can better confront the serious challenges before us.

But circumstances changed quickly and now Sydney's silly season must be suspended until the virus can be brought under control. The message has to be negated. Don't have a Magical Christmas.

Whether or how effectively the virus is brought under control is entirely dependent upon our ability to suspend silliness and keep our minds tuned and eyes open to the evidence. Instead of letting down our guard, we're to wear masks and accept mandatory mask wearing if it is decreed.

It is of course unfortunate that the deliberate emptiness of the 'silly' season is routinely conflated with what Christmas is intended to celebrate. That is the Christian believers' moment of hope for a better world that is real. Arguably this hope is something that rationality depends upon but can't itself deliver.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1627567 2020-12-13T23:23:19Z 2020-12-13T23:23:19Z The Sunday Obligation lives on for a diminishing minority of Catholics

When I was growing up, practising Catholics were very aware of the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and certain feast days that were designated 'Holy Days of Obligation'.

In a society that was still to some extent sectarian, it did not seem fair that we Catholics were compelled to go to church while Protestants were free to choose. But the Sunday Obligation was a loathsome marker of Catholic identity that you did not question.

I hated having to go to Mass and would often go by myself to an early mass, to get it over with, so that I could enjoy the rest of my Sunday.

To be fair, Sunday mass had some positives. These included its music and theatre, and the engaging craft of some of the priests. But for me, all of this was negated by the Obligation.

When I reached adulthood and developed a broader and quite significant appreciation of certain aspects of the Catholic faith, I grew out of my cultural need to honour the Sunday Obligation.

Indeed, on Sunday mornings to this day, I experience a mild sense of euphoria in being free from its yoke. I would even suggest that this signifies that I suffered from a form of PTSD associated with the Obligation.

During the pandemic, the Sunday Obligation has of course suffered something of a blow, with church authorities having to endorse the state's ban on mass attendance.

I'd hoped that this might have had a lasting effect post-pandemic, with Catholics taking responsibility for deciding on their mass attendance in general, in the way that all citizens are now taking decisions about how to act appropriately in social gatherings.

But last week, Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher put paid to this in his pastoral letter 'Come Home to Mass!' He said:

'I rescind my decree of 20 March 2020 dispensing the faithful of Sydney from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and the Holy Days of Christmas and the Assumption. Under canon 1247 attendance at Mass on those days is now obligatory once again.'

Leaving the Sunday Obligation in its state of being cast aside might have usefully helped Catholic church leaders demonstrate humility in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

The need for this arises from the Royal Commission finding that power dynamics in institutional cultures allowed sexual abuse to flourish. But Archbishop Fisher's pastoral letter - and a similar one from the Archbishop of Hobart - has shown that they are determined to exercise a powerful grip on the lives of the faithful.

The good news is that they are fighting a losing battle, with an increasing 90 per cent majority of Catholics rejecting the Sunday Obligation.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1625099 2020-12-06T21:28:17Z 2020-12-06T21:42:14Z Tattoos that heal the scars of war

On the train to Canberra yesterday, I read a newspaper review of the Ink in the Lines tattooed war veterans exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.

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I've avoided visiting the War Memorial because expert commentary I've followed depicts it as a propaganda tool in the culture wars. But I decided to see this exhibition because it seemed different. And it was.

Its focus was on veterans getting 'inked' as a way of dealing with the trauma of war, including killing and witnessing the killing of comrades.

That trauma is now referred to as PTSD, but it was originally labelled 'shell shock'. I remember my mother explaining that her father had experienced shell shock after serving in the First World War.

To me it explained why my grandfather always seemed distant, and it occurred to me that this must have had an effect on his style of parenting. I'm sure this is not uncommon.

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As depicted in the exhibition, tattoos are able to tell the stories that veterans keep to themselves because they are too painful to verbalise. This is how Elaine put it:

'A transformation’s just happened after the tattoo got put on, and it’s like an armour for me to say, "Wow. There is life after. You can recover. You just got to reach out and ask for help."'

I've never thought about getting a tattoo because it's not something that those of my generation and social grouping do. That is unlikely to change. But when I consider the scars of my years of institutional living, I can see how tattoos can help with the healing.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1622703 2020-11-29T23:09:33Z 2020-11-29T23:09:34Z How not to help people who seem to be struggling

A few months ago somebody complimented me on my positivity. But I also remember another person earlier criticising me for my positivity, insisting that I didn't know what it was like to be in the dark place he was.

He rejected my constructive and rational solutions to his lamentable situation.

'You're not helping', he told me.

'How do I help?', I wondered.

Last week I read an article in The Independent in which a psychologist recalls a book that influenced her practice.

The book's author Dr Irvin Yalom was always keen to avoid diagnosis, which he argued was useful only for 'accessing a particular service'.

'You have to tailor your treatment plan to fit the actual person in front of you'.

That reminded me of the approach of the elocution teacher I had as a ten year old. I was terrible at memorising poems to recite, and I rebelled. She got me to write stories instead, and I excelled.

If her brief was to prepare me to win voice-speaking prizes at eisteddfods, she would have failed. Instead she considered it more important to help me to find my creative voice.

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Last week I also read an interview with American talk show host Trevor Noah, who has developed rapport with a white homeless man who sleeps near his TV studio.

'I remember once, when I first got here, I felt guilty. I was like, "Hey, man, can we do anything?" He said, "No…I'm fine living the way I live".'

Moreover the man challenged Noah's world view: 'He's homeless, but he'll say super-racist or sexist shit to my employees, like the women.'

'It's a really interesting dynamic. In the rules of wokeness, I don't know how it works. I don't know what the rules are.'

Noah's instinct was to immediately call out the man's racism and sexism. But he came to realise it was smarter to first understand it.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1620037 2020-11-22T20:43:52Z 2020-11-22T20:43:53Z Listening to our body

Yesterday somebody I was talking to posed an important question for self-reflection: What do I find calming?

Then last night I visited a tantric masseur's blog that I discovered two years ago, about the same time as I considered the suggestion of a friend that we 'listen to our body'.

She was referring to diet, but the principle also applies to physical exercise, as well as attempts to avoid the over-thinking that can undermine our calm, and much more.

The tantric masseur is a young Frenchman named Florian. He presents himself as a life coach focusing on intuition and 'emotional presence'.

I guess intuition makes him some kind of clairvoyant, and the primacy of emotion is archetypically French. His approach is non evidence-based, unashamedly so. It's intended, as he says, to 'complement ... actual therapy'.

His English and French websites are different. On the English he talks about 'Shadow Work' allowing us to 'understand and integrate the mechanic of our emotions, our [troublesome] subconscious behaviors which repeat themselves in our life'.

Meanwhile on the French, he explains his role as a masseur: 'As I lay my hands on your body, I feel your blockages'.

He goes on to discuss the reality of 'corporal' expression and the need to listen to what our body is saying.

'Your body ... knows what it has to do. It knows [when] it needs to move, what it needs to put in order. It knows and it speaks to you, through pain, and through well-being'.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1617285 2020-11-15T22:12:55Z 2020-11-15T22:12:55Z How to overcome the fear of failure

After I wrote that I'd been meditating, a relative reminded me of a previous discussion in which we both indicated we'd sworn off meditation after our earlier negative experiences of it. Mine involved a brutal power play by the novice master not long after I began my Jesuit training as an 18 year old.

After that, I always felt diminished when I attempted meditation. However in recent years I've developed the confidence to reassert myself pursuing various activities I'd struggled with earlier in life because of a power imbalance between myself and another person.

'Power imbalance' is used to describe the exploitation of one human being by another where the exploiter has significant power and influence over the exploited. It can involve the sexual gratification of clergy or politicians where the victim is a minor or a junior staff member.

But it can also be a more insidious assertion of the cultural dominance of all-powerful institutions.

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Catholic schools were infamous for having certain teachers who would try to get their students to make something of their lives by telling them they would never make something of their lives.

Some students took this as a defeat, while for others it was a challenge.

The Irish born actor Gabriel Byrne tells of overcoming the negative aspects of his Catholic schooling, to become an actor, in his memoir Walking With Ghosts. I read this last week, after getting to know him through watching all 106 episodes of the TV series In Treatment - in which he plays a therapist - as part of my lockdown routine earlier this year.

He writes about how he learned acting: 'Sealed off in a windowless room, I dare to take risks. To free myself from judgment. Battle with doubt and fear of failure. Marry movement to emotion. Be brave. Be still. Trust myself. This Sisyphean pushing of a rock up a hill; slowly gaining confidence.'

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1614067 2020-11-08T21:50:27Z 2020-11-08T21:50:27Z News junkies who meditate As US president-elect Joe Biden's early disappointment was being reported on Wednesday afternoon, I was arriving at the home of friends at the other end of Newtown.

I mentioned the count and was stunned to hear them say they knew nothing about an election taking place. Moreover they did not seem to care when I expressed regret that the envisaged 'blue wave' had not materialised.

They explained that they did not follow the news, it seems not even on Facebook. I was meeting them for meditation, and implicit in their attitude to me was that I should calm down.

I asked how they informed themselves on how to vote when there's an election in Australia. One explained that he simply trusts and votes for the political party he favours. The other appeared unconcerned.

Earlier in the year, I was attending an event and got into discussion with two other participants. They both thought it was a good thing that Trump had got elected and shaken up the political establishment.

I was shocked but agreed that international politics could benefit from fresh blood, to hasten progress on urgent matters such as climate action. However I remained disturbed by the thought that the world's most powerful leader would leave the world a much more dangerous and less co-operative and gracious place to live when he eventually departed office.

On Wednesday evening I was in a Zoom reflection meeting. I mentioned my discovery earlier in the day that I had friends who appeared not to care about the world. Another participant, who portrayed himself as a fellow 'news junkie', was also carrying the weight of the expectation of another four years of Trump. He understood both my concern and my excess news consumption.

I sometimes joke about being a news junkie. But I do believe that we have to continually inform ourselves if we want a better world. However I have to confess that I too can cover my eyes when the news is too bad to bear. I remember doing this earlier this year when I heard that mining company Rio Tinto had blasted and destroyed the two ancient Aboriginal rock caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

Such events beg action. But not without the perspective that activities like meditation can bring, when they help to ground and protect us from excess. The paradox is that we have to close our eyes to meditate.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1611068 2020-11-01T21:46:00Z 2020-11-01T21:47:21Z Saving money for good karma

On Saturday I caught a bus home from the city. Despite the rain, I got off at the stop before the one closest to my house, to ensure I paid the short journey fare and saved 68 cents. I got slightly wet but was pleased that I'd saved the money.

Yesterday I read journalist Rick Morton’s new short book On Money. It's an essay about social inequality, with reference to his own relationship with money, which could hardly be more different to mine.

Cover of Rick Morton On Money

His friends tell him he's ‘terrible with money’ and he doesn't deny that. He writes that he didn’t own a car for a month after moving to Canberra for work. But instead of catching a bus to the office every day, he spent $600 on taxis. Later he mentions paying $75 for a valet to park his car while staying at a hotel in the Sydney CBD.

Morton grew up in poverty and was never taught to save or invest. He's only now earning enough to think beyond his own basic needs. He's reached the milestone of being able to help his still financially struggling mother by providing a few comforts including a $14,000 bathroom renovation.

I was brought up quite differently, in a middle class family where we learned to save and invest for the future. I believe that some degree of financial education is the key to avoiding falling into poverty or relative poverty. My father made sure that I understood about compound interest, and the difference between good and bad debt.

Good debt is absolutely essential for maximising our investment potential. However after paying off my house, I've decided that I prefer the karma that comes with having no debt.

Leaving aside the purchase of essentials and the occasional luxury - and supporting good causes - I've come to believe that money is meant for saving more than spending. Its purpose is to provide cross-generational security, and we are its stewards. In the way that we take care of the natural environment for those who come after us.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1608462 2020-10-25T20:14:37Z 2020-10-25T20:14:37Z The bastards and other unwelcome visiting forces This year one of my Melbourne University student nieces has been living in a house in Park Drive, Parkville, not far down the street from where I lived in 1980-81 while a student myself.

I have fond memories of my house companion Father Arnie Hogan, an Irish Jesuit moral theologian who'd made his life in Australia. In facing the demands of his religious superiors, he had a battle cry - Don't let the bastards get you down! - which he'd sometimes express in Latin to give it elevated status.

His sense of self-preservation came to mind a few days ago while I was listening to an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in the podcast On Being.

She urges us to have compassion for ourselves. She was speaking about 'equanimity', which is the capacity of our hearts to stand back and see what we're being put through, by others and ourselves. It's the ability to hold these things at a distance in an attempt to avoid having them cripple us. It's keeping in check 'visiting forces' such as greed, hatred, jealousy and fear. The bastards in our lives.

Over the years, my visiting forces have included Catholic guilt and other forms of self-loathing. Fortunately they have substantially fallen away and these days I care about different things, such as respecting the people around me, and the cultural and environmental heritage of the world I live in. These sound like motherhood statements but they're real for me.

If I want to, I can catch a glimpse of my past self-loathing by going to my bookshelf and picking up one of the diaries from my tormented teenage years. However I choose not to do that. Instead my meditation is on the equanimity of my life now, even if my 'inner city elite' state of privilege puts me out of touch with many of my fellow human beings.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1605740 2020-10-18T22:17:43Z 2020-10-18T23:05:19Z Respect as a crowd pleaser In August, my mother's cousin Bill contracted the coronavirus and quickly died in his Melbourne aged care residence. I'd met him only once, when I paid a visit while passing through Melbourne on my way to Gippsland last February. In fact I got to know him only in recent years, when he started reading and responding to my Tiny Letters.

What struck me was that he never took issue with any of my commentary, even though I was sure that my opinions were not his. He'd been a career public servant in the Department of Finance and remained a keen follower of news and current affairs until the end. He was a contemporary of Cardinal Pell at school and, in his emails to me, never sought to distance himself from the cardinal.

When I was young, I would make sure I knew which side of the political fence a person stood, and then judge them accordingly. But if I judge somebody these days, it's much less likely to be about ideology than the degree of respect they hold for those with opinions different to their own.

I remember spending time with an Opus Dei representative at a religious media conference some years ago. Afterwards it was disarming to admit to myself that I liked him and enjoyed his company even though we must have been poles apart ideologically. I felt respected by him and I respected him in turn. I found myself wondering what made him tick and was consciously determined not wish him ill, even if I still loathed what Opus Dei stood for.

I cherish the moments when rival politicians show empathy for each other, in comments they make or in their exchanges during media appearances.

On yesterday's ABC Insiders, Federal Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek expressed solidarity with the besieged NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian. She said: 'I feel actually, as a human being, very personally sorry for the premier... It is hard to form and maintain relationships in our line of work.'

She rebuffed the interviewer's repeated attempts to have her endorse an attack dog newspaper commentary against Berejiklian that was written by Plibersek's Labor colleague Kristina Keneally, even though it was well argued and she probably agreed with it.

Recently I've started listening to podcasts of Ben Fordham's interviews from his 2GB breakfast radio program. Fordham replaced legendary shock jock Alan Jones earlier this year with a brief to wind down the offence levels in order to avoid public protest boycotting of the program's advertisers.

While Fordham maintains an uncompromising shotgun interview style, he manages to treat his interview subjects with respect. This is how he ended his interview with the local MP about the troubled plan to move a heritage building to make way for construction of the new Powerhouse Museum: 'Geoff Lee, the member for Parramatta. Good guy, bad idea'.

It's pleasing that the recent audience survey showed that Fordham has maintained Alan Jones' ratings dominance. This suggests respect can be just as much of a crowd pleaser as bullying.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1603276 2020-10-11T22:29:25Z 2020-10-11T22:29:26Z Neighbourhood bonding in a time of social isolation A few weeks ago, I was sitting outside my front door when a passer by smiled and said: 'You live in the best street in Sydney'.

She had a point. The street is known for its beautiful canopy of trees. It's also wide and quiet and five minutes walk to a sought after inner city alternative culture and shopping precinct.

When I arrived 27 years ago, there were still factories and warehouses. Many of the now gentrified residences were workers cottages. That's what they'd been for the hundred years or so since the street was constructed on a creek bed in the late 19th century.

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My first house was a small semi towards the top of the street. Then eight years later, I upgraded to a larger living space in a terrace twelve doors down.

During the lockdown earlier this year, I replaced the dead pot plant at my front door with a chair. Then I started sitting there most days. Like the old timer I have become while living in the street.

I didn't think it out too much. However I sense the chair placement was partly out of a desire to luxuriate in the tree canopy that I'd largely ignored all these years. But it was probably more that I wanted to be part of a neighbourhood, and it was a means to that end.

Somebody has probably written somewhere that a neighbourhood doesn't exist unless those living in it do something to make it happen. That's true.

I'm sorry to say that I spurned the neighbourhood making initiative of some people a few doors from my original house when I first arrived in the street. They invited me for a cup of tea but I politely declined out of shyness.

In the years since, that shyness has deprived me - and by extension my neighbours - of a sense of genuine neighbourhood.

But earlier this year things began to change. A couple from across the road left a packet of small Easter eggs and a nice note in our letterbox.

Then we reciprocated a month or two down the track by leaving some rhubarb compote at their front door. A while later, they accepted our invitation to afternoon tea. Now I often wave to them when I'm sitting on my chair and they're walking their dogs.

The chair has facilitated nods and eye contact and sometimes conversations with other neighbours, as well as passers by from other streets, and residents from the more densely populated warehouse conversion apartment blocks at the bottom of the street. I like to think that this year of necessary social isolation has also been for me, a time of social bonding and neighbourhood making.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1600591 2020-10-04T21:48:38Z 2020-10-04T23:34:39Z Canberra gazing Yesterday I did a day trip by train to Canberra. That is something I get to enjoy a few times a year. I have the time and the means and the desire to get out of space-poor inner city Sydney, to an urban setting that is culturally alive but offers fresh air and open space in a bush setting.

Like capital cities in many countries, Canberra is an indulgence that all Australians are entitled to use but most don't. Its cultural institutions attempt to define the nation, which is important for social cohesion and the sense that we all belong. It's about continuing education, and encouragement to specify what we like and don't like about professional curators' ideas of Australian identity.

On my visits to Canberra, I sometimes catch up with a friend of nearly 40 years, which is what I did for the first couple of hours yesterday (he told me he regretted the infrequency of my Tiny Letters, hence this one). We walked nearly 10km around Lake Burley Griffin and the Molonglo River reserve, which is a nature and recreational reserve reclaimed from dairy farming. Then I spent the rest of the day at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia.

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These two institutions, along with the National Library, are the ones I visit most, as they are a convenient 40 minute lakeside walk from the Railway Station.

The Portrait Gallery is probably my favourite. Currently there's the 'Pub Rock' exhibition of images of popular musicians from five decades from around 1960. There are depictions of groups such as Sherbet (pictured), which were very much part of my teenage years, and others such as Midnight Oil, which were less part of my formation, as their heyday was during my years of religious life rebellion against popular culture.

But there doesn't have to be a special show for me to come alive studying the regular collection's photographs and paintings of Australians whom the curators have judged notable. I guess they have to focus on the rich and famous, but the images I like most are of Australians I've never heard of. Yesterday's visit inspired me to imagine the photos from my collection I'd put in a portrait gallery of notable people from my own life.

The National Gallery is preparing for a larger exhibition opening next month, but there's the main collection and several small exhibitions. I saw some of them last time, but one titled 'The Body Electric' was new to me.

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I thought it was going to be about the female gaze at the male body as an antidote to image-making's dominance of the male gaze at the female body. It was. But it was much more than that, exploring androgyny and gender fluidity, and also ways of subverting sex consumerism.

Polly Borland (image pictured) is an Australian artist who has lived and worked in the US for many years. She has some artfully ugly images that are 'resistant to easy consumption', and - in contrast to regular pornography - they deliberately 'refuse to satisfy'. She likes to subvert the marketers' hold on our sexual desires, where '[sex is] controlling us, we're not controlling it'.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1564023 2020-06-24T02:55:53Z 2020-06-24T02:55:54Z The question of toppling statues
One of the readers of my last Tiny Letter emailed with a question she thought I might answer in my next. She gave me a reason to write another Tiny Letter. Perhaps others will do the same.
 
Before I answer the question, I will say that the idea of a question for the blogger reminds me of how the musician Nick Cave writes his blog The Red Hand Files. 
 
Each of his blogs is an answer to a reader question. In the most recent, a New Zealander asks: 'Do you ever look back at your anthology and wish you had been more overtly politically outspoken?’ In the previous one, there is this from the UK: 'Would you consider compiling a list of 40 books you love?’
 
The question about books had me thinking about the bookshelves in the front room of my house, in a way that answers my friend's question. 
 
As I get older, I am becoming aware that each book on my shelves is in some way a memorial to a person or moment in my life. I think this was always the case, but now it's a thing I dwell on.
 
I sometimes reposition a book to give it greater or less prominence. Authors or subjects I feel warmly about get pride of place. Those at the other end of the spectrum are relegated to a less desirable spot. 
 
There is one particular book that also has its spine reversed, to hide the title and author's name from view. Its author is my former brother in law, whose actions caused significant suffering to members of my family.
 
Why didn't I just toss the book in the bin?
 
My answer to that is also the answer to my friend's question, which incidentally was: 'I would be interested in your views re statue-toppling’.
 
It is that I want to avoid erasing all knowledge of people's misdeeds from my consciousness, because it amounts to a denial of history. 
 
In other words, it's best to preserve some memory of the anti-hero. Future generations need to know about bad deeds as well as good deeds.
 
Two years ago I visited the town of Stalin's birth in the Republic of Georgia. I was impressed that the locals refrained from toppling his statue when he fell from grace, or when they were celebrating Georgia's regaining independence from the Soviet Union. They simply moved it to a less prominent position.
 
My opposition to erasing the memory of anti-heroes also applies to place names. I have been following calls to rename Faithfull Street in Nick Cave's north-east Victorian home town of Wangaratta. It was named after a pastoralist who was involved in Aboriginal massacres in the 19th century.
 
Rather than removing Faithfull's name completely, I would prefer to see some kind of creative reversal of his honouring, such as renaming it Faithless Street.
 
What to do about Faithfull Street could be a question to put to Nick Cave.
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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1559020 2020-06-13T20:09:23Z 2020-11-01T21:49:24Z The only kid in the class without a TV These days I enjoy reconnecting with my media rich childhood in Albury-Wodonga, by reading the Border Mail newspaper online and watching the Prime7 local TV news. 

Yesterday’s paper included an obituary for Olgamary Savage (née Whelan), who was the first on air presenter at the TV station then known as AMV4. 

AMV4 commenced in 1964, when I was four years old. However my family did not purchase a TV set until 1966, I think because our mother wanted us to become devoted to reading rather than television. In my first year at school (1965), I was the only kid in my class whose family did not have a TV. It was clear to me that my mother was quite proud of that particular instance of child neglect. 
I never saw Olgamary on AMV4 because she got married and ended her mainstream career in 1965, before my family had TV. But I did know her as a colleague in the mid 1980s, when she was an interviewer and I was the production assistant on the Catholic Church’s niche current affairs program Sunday Magazine. We were given facilities and airtime on Channel 7 in Melbourne as part of their licensing agreement with the Federal Government.

Olgamary's life resonates with mine to the extent that it embraced both popular media culture and a keen sense of social justice and - importantly - an ongoing attempt to connect the two. This was the focus of Sunday Magazine, and also her political involvement on the NSW South Coast later in life.

Reconciling popular culture with social justice was also on my mind yesterday after reading a Q&A in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum supplement. It featured the perspective of 23 year old Greek-Australian popular culture archivist Michael Alexandratos, who has just released an audio compilation titled Before the Boomerang Came Back - Musical Aboriginalia (1949-1962). The collection contains mostly kitsch appropriations of Aboriginal culture by white artists. I was listening to it on Spotify, and reading his fascinating academic paper on cultural appropriation, at the end of a week that saw continuing Black Lives Matter protests and streaming services banning content that includes blackface and other representations deemed to be offensive.

The paper, which is published on his blog Amnesiac Archive, refers to ABC Radio's 2015 banning of My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, a 1961 recording by English comedian Charlie Drake. Alexandratos argues: 'Although it may be an embarrassing legacy for some, it is also an important resource that Indigenous creatives and musicians can use to resist, re-purpose and de-colonise – on their own terms.’

He cites La Trobe University academic Liz Conor’s 2018 article in The Conversation - ‘The politics of Aboriginal kitsch’ - which savages cultural appropriation. He then quotes Wiradjuri elder Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s reaction to Conor: ‘She [Conor] attempts to convince Aboriginal people and others to think the same way that she does that we shouldn’t like Aboriginalia or have anything to do with it. How dare she!'

Obviously Conor was following the instincts of her own academic culture. She later updated her original article to say that she was ‘mortified’ that her attempt at respect turned out to be insulting.

That is a trap I’m sure I’ve fallen into more than once, and it is unwitting prejudice. I’m moved by the approach of former colleague Catherine Marshall, a travel writer whose adventures have schooled her in relating to cultures other than her own. A few days ago she published an article titled ‘How travel has changed me’ in the women’s travel magazine Travel Play Live.

Describing ‘[her own] face glow[ing] like a ghostly lightbulb amidst this communal flow of brown-skinned people’, Marshall sees herself as 'an obvious interloper … forced to adjust the viewfinder, to refocus as the telescope’s prisms invert the known world and subvert [her] place in it’.

Perhaps that’s how I felt as the only kid in a class of five year olds whose family didn’t own a TV.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1528827 2020-04-08T22:00:32Z 2020-04-08T22:00:32Z Blind obedience and the Pell trial jury While I was training to be a Jesuit in the late 70s, I learned about, and practised, ‘blind obedience’. I recall being told that if something appeared black but the superior said it was white, we were to put aside our own perceptions and reasoning and believe that it was white.

Rightly or wrongly, what I learned about blind obedience has informed my understanding of how juries work in the court system. Once a jury is properly constituted and successfully reaches its verdict according to the rules of the judiciary, we are to put aside our own opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused, in order to accept that the jury verdict represents the truth.

There will always be arguments to counter the jury’s conclusion, but we must either accept the truth of its verdict or keep our contrary reasoning and opinions to ourselves and our inner circles, out of respect for the rule of law that underpins the social order.

That is why I was dismayed last year when several prominent church related legal experts, and one archbishop, went public with their opinions contradicting the jury verdict. They all had the added authority of being respected community leaders, so I felt that their undermining of the credibility of the jury was especially threatening to the social order.

I thought that the right place for them to air their views was behind closed doors or within legal circles. I imagined that their opinions about the evidence of the witness might find their way into the minds of appeal judges in a manner that was not public, and I felt there was no harm in that.

I could appreciate the logic in their assertions, but to my mind it was not their place to raise doubts that would undermine public confidence in the rule of law.

In line with the principle of blind obedience, we all try to align our thinking with jury’s conclusion, again for the sake of the order of society. I remember writing the following while processing and reaching a positive assessment of the Pell jury verdict in my own mind:

The more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony.

Convinced as I was of my own opinion, and that jury verdicts are sacred, I’m now struggling to bring my mind around to conform with the judgment of the High Court, in the spirit of blind obedience.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1520397 2020-03-16T03:52:04Z 2020-03-16T10:11:08Z Self-isolation to avoid the coronavirus The coronavirus has changed the plans of many. I was to depart for Paris tomorrow, but now I’m staying put here in Sydney.

The decision was taken out of my hands by the the airline, which cancelled my flight. But in any case, I’d all but decided to abandon the trip after seeking personal advice from four doctors. Three of them said I should be OK to go but the one who said don’t go was the most persuasive.

I have a friend who travels to Paris several times a year who told me about his own fatalistic approach. If I hadn’t been somewhat fatalistic in the past, I would have missed a lot of the interesting travel I’ve done. But now I’m older and wiser and the circumstances are different to anything I’ve experienced before.

In recent weeks I’ve been consumed by opinion and media coverage relating to the coronavirus. I’ve noticed quite a divergence between views influenced by politics and those of medical experts able to speak freely.

One morning last week I heard the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan listing the deficiencies of the American response. He argued that Australia should be requiring quarantine from incoming US travellers ahead of those from any other country. Hours later, our PM followed Trump’s lead and did the opposite, restricting travellers from Europe.

In reaching my own position, I was most persuaded by the fearless passion and well-argued stance of Sydney immunologist Dr Dan Suan, whose Facebook post I read this morning. He said: ‘It is possible I will get into trouble for saying all of this. But now I do not care’.

Advocating strict social isolation, he contrasts the successful approach of a handful of jurisdictions including Hong Kong and Singapore - which isolated their populations early - with the costly delayed response of most other countries. He said Australia made a good start in efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, but urgently needs to take significant further steps before it is too late.

He said: ‘Hospitals are completely overrun in Northern Italy like they were in Wuhan... so many deaths. Spain is soon to follow, as are cities in America. I am deeply sad for what we are about to see unfold.’

I can now see the wisdom of rejecting the temptation to be fatalistic about my trip to Paris. It is lucky that I like being in my house in Sydney because I will be spending nearly all my time here, most likely for several months. My diary is 100 per cent clear for the next two months, the time I’d envisaged being overseas. Now, with very few exceptions, it will stay that way.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1513554 2020-02-25T21:43:02Z 2020-02-25T21:43:02Z Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power Like many, I was saddened and disillusioned to hear reports last weekend that Jean Vanier had psychologically manipulated and sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005.

Vanier was a French Canadian philosopher who founded the worldwide network of l’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. He died last May at the age of 90.

I remember visiting the L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra in 1985. I returned in 1990 to record interviews for an ABC radio documentary that won a Human Rights Commission media award later that year.

Vanier’s teaching, which was lived out in the communities, seemed to have particular resonance for me. It was that difference and diversity was to be celebrated and not shunned.

Vanier’s fall from grace does not change anything about my appreciation of his message. Instead it has me reflecting on the very human practice of idolising people whose values we like, and how our idolisation can set them on a path towards the destruction of themselves and others, in addition to bringing discredit to their message.

The US Jesuit writer James Martin said after Vanier’s death that ‘[Vanier] and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics’. In using the word avatar, Martin was referring not to the icons used to identify us in social media but rather the incarnation of gods in Hindu mythology.

Treating people like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

In his case, I think we have to ask why the loyal deputies did not see and report the signs that he was abusing the six women.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the deputies. I suspect we would act in the same way if we were in the shoes of the deputies because our religious and celebrity cultures ordain certain people and treat them with deference.

‘Ordain’ in this sense does not necessarily refer to religious priesthood, and sexually-abusing celebrities such as Michael Jackson are every bit as ‘ordained’ as Catholic priests who abuse their power and sexually exploit their subjects.

I think that we have to admit we are party to abuse of the power that comes with ordination if we don’t call it out when we suspect it. We are doing both the perpetrator and victim a profound disservice, not to mention the message that has drawn us in the first place.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1496757 2020-01-08T04:50:22Z 2020-01-08T04:50:22Z Pushing the boundaries of sex education in 1973 Over the holidays I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of a former priest who was responsible for the boarders when I first went away to school in 1973 at the age of 13.

I understand he left the order in the early 1990s after his superiors upheld complaints from school parents relating to allegations of him pushing the boundaries on professional standards matters. Rightly or wrongly, that would have dogged him for the rest of his life.

I remember the young, not yet ordained Jesuit pushing boundaries in the boarding house one evening. This was when he gave us a spontaneous hour-long briefing about human sexual relationships.

We’d just watched a television program that included a reference which he thought required explanation. I think it might have related to syphilis.

In any case, he gave us exactly the sexual education that many today would argue we should have received from our parents and the school curriculum. At the time, if we asked our elders about syphilis, we’d usually be told that we ‘don't need to know about these things’.

In hindsight, I suspect there was an element of prurience in the young Jesuit's delivery of the information, and it's arguable that he robbed us of our innocence to some degree.

But I’d prefer to think that it was our ignorance that he took away, and that any child exploitation that might have occurred was outweighed by the benefit.

Looking back, he was prescient in that serious teaching about human sexual relationships in schools was to be one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships that was initiated by the Whitlam Government in that same year, 1973.

The final report (1977) called for programs ‘giving sex information and an integrated program covering related social and psychological matters’. The object was 'a community more open and tolerant in outlook, and better able to form meaningful relationships’.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1484797 2019-12-02T20:53:11Z 2019-12-02T20:53:11Z Leaving Google
Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their 'surveillance-based business model' that is 'predicated on human rights abuse’.

Back in 2004, Google’s founders expressed their corporate philosophy in their prospectus with the declaration: 'Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world.’

I recall a colleague telling me about the company’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services over the years. Until last week.

That was when I finally pulled the plug on Google by cancelling the G Suite subscription that I’d been paying for since 2007. I was attracted to this professional version of Gmail because it allowed me to have an email address with my own domain name mullins.id.au, rather than one containing Google’s company name.

I had long thought that giving users an email address containing the name of an internet service provider was a sneaky anti-competitive way for the company to discourage users from moving on to get a better deal elsewhere. For nobody wants to change their email address or telephone number.

This applied to email addresses ending in bigpond.com, optusnet.com.au or similar, that were supplied by the telcos. It was then possible to get around this with a hotmail.com or gmail.com address that unleashed you from the telco at the expense of chaining you to Hotmail or Gmail.

I opted for the paid Google service so that I could use an address with my own id.au domain. These domains were launched by the Australian Domain Registry in 1995 but sadly never took off.

As I understand it, ‘id.au’ domains were intended to allow Australians to retain their digital identity and not cede it to the service provider. I was sold, and came to think of this as maintaining my digital ‘sovereignty', avoiding being 'colonised' by the service provider.

As time went on, I learned that Google had other ways to trap me. But, more insidiously, tracking and surveillance was the basis of the ‘do no evil’ company's business model.

I was alerted to this most acutely about ten years ago when a respected church official asked me why he was getting so many ads for porn on his screen. He was shocked when I told him that it was likely somebody was looking at porn on his computer.

As an apparent gesture to users who value their privacy, Google now offers ‘incognito’ windows in its Chrome browser that are supposed to avoid tracking. But who is naive enough to trust them?

About three years ago I discovered Fastmail, a reputable Australian alternative to G Suite. I wanted to switch from Google but was dismayed to discover how difficult they would make it for me.

For example I’d lose all the Android phone apps I’d paid for over the years, as Google policy does not allow them to be transferred to another account. It would be costly in the short term, so I stayed with Google.

I finally decided to act a month ago when Google bought Fitbit. I realised that Google would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and they would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

So now I have eliminated Google from many aspects of my digital life. I have started to use Fastmail and other services that I trust to do the right thing with my data. These include the non-profit Firefox browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, and HERE WeGo maps. I have asserted my digital dignity.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1477484 2019-11-14T05:36:39Z 2019-11-14T05:36:39Z Moving beyond the need to be self-critical Three years ago today I signed up for the free newsletter emailer at TinyLetter.com and started a blog. Like most bloggers, I was very faithful to my writing for the first year or two but then mostly overlooked it. This year I’ve averaged less than one Tiny Letter a month.

I’m always humbled to receive replies from friends who appreciate my thoughts when I do express them. They don’t always agree with my opinions but invariably seem grateful when I articulate them. They appear delighted when I write but don’t judge me when I don’t.

Significantly I don’t judge myself when I don’t write. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements in life that I have moved beyond the need to be self-critical in this way.

Self-criticism is common in young people. With particular generations including my own, it might be a product of religious teaching. Or it could be a matter of poor self-esteem that is the result of bullying or other psychological or sexual abuse.

A turning point for me occurred on this day three years ago, when I had a private session with the Commissioner at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I’d always regarded my experience of sexual abuse as insignificant. The meeting with the Commissioner did not change that. But it helped me appreciate the context of the abuse, which was the psychological power plays in institutions that prevented many children from growing into confident adults.

This often occurred at the hands of authority figures in the institutions who themselves were damaged human beings. Their behaviour tended to go hand in hand with distortions of religious doctrine that fostered guilt and diminished young people’s self-image.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was affected by this right up until the moment of my retirement, also three years ago. It was not coincidental that I’d spent a large part of my working life working for religious institutions, for the most part adopting a subservient demeanour.

But I feel I was able to draw a line under this self-critical pattern of behaviour in 2015, around the time of my retirement and my meeting with the Commissioner.

On the day of that meeting I had a sense that I was shedding the yoke of my past and entering a new life in which nobody including myself would judge me. That has proven to be the case.

That day was in fact my my birthday, as is today. I’ve just turned 60 and officially become a Senior in the eyes of the NSW Government. I have my Seniors and Gold Opal transport concession cards as a badge of this particular honour.

For me, being a senior means that I am affirmed and not judged. There can be many challenges for people at this stage of life, including health, loneliness, finance and often greater suffering when natural disasters strike.

But if other seniors have learned the lessons I have, our often newfound psychological resilience can allow us to face adversity in a way we couldn’t when we were robbed of self-confidence in our younger days.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1469358 2019-10-23T17:09:00Z 2019-10-23T17:09:01Z The purification of Holy Innocents Cemetery At the centre of the square next to my Paris street - Rue de la Ferronnerie - is the Fountain of the Innocents. It is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and a focal point for the groups of young people that gather there.

The other day I saw a very old map of the city. I noticed that the square was marked as a cemetery, and it included a church named after the Holy Innocents. Innocents refers to the male infants King Herod ordered massacred, according to the biblical narrative.

I did some research and discovered that the space had indeed been a burial ground from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was then condemned as a health hazard.

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The corpses and bones were subsequently exhumed and transported to underground storage near Montparnasse, on the other side of the city. This site is now known as the Catacombs and open to the public as a tourist attraction. The Innocents church was demolished and the fountain moved to the centre, where it still stands.

I’m now half way through a 2011 novel on the exhumation, by Booker Prize nominated British writer Andrew Miller. Titled Pure, it recreates the story of the removal of the corpses, which it depicts as a purification.

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This took place on the eve of the French Revolution, which could crudely be described as the forces of reason replacing the cloud of religious superstition. A purification of sorts, though the term refers more directly to the foul smell that permeated the area. It would turn fresh produce rotten and taint the breath of the residents.

The main character is a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a fervent believer in rationality. The family he boards with are given to superstition and are hostile to his work once they discover what it is.

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My interest is heightened by the coincidence concerning the historic Camperdown cemetery at the top of my street in Sydney. In the late 1940s, ghost stories and a murder led to demands for the ‘purification’ of a large section of the site.

This took the form of the transfer of headstones to the area next to adjacent church, and use of the space for the creation of the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Today it’s a well frequented meeting place for young people and dog owners.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1464274 2019-10-09T14:38:02Z 2019-10-09T14:38:02Z The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse In recent days I've had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she'd been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan's part. The resignation came after the Church's investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country's most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: 'In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.'

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

'However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.'

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order's schools 30 years ago. While I wasn't technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents' homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they'd whisper behind the cleric's back that he was a 'sleaze'.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: 'Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.'

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

'Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently "Call me John" about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.'

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish 'dismissed it'.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy's hands with a self-deprecating 'Yes Father' attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to 'Geoff' in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they're a race apart - and take sexual liberties - because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and live with the consequences.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1462993 2019-10-05T07:57:33Z 2019-10-05T07:57:34Z The challenge of tranquillity on Rodrigues Island After a week in Mauritius, I arrived in Rodrigues with my Australian-Mauritian friend. Rodrigues is a small Indian Ocean island with a population of around 40,000.

It is part of Mauritius, though some distance away. Further than the island of Réunion, which is culturally close to Mauritius and Rodrigues but a Department of France.

Rodrigues has a distinctive relationship with Mauritius. I realised this when we had to go through passport control when leaving the island of Mauritius and arriving on the island of Rodrigues, as if it was a different country.

There is an autonomous Regional Assembly that makes at least some of its own laws. Most notable for us was the ban on plastic bags that doesn't exist on the island of Mauritius.

We were instructed to surrender all plastic bags upon arrival at the airport. An unusual pleasure, though a few hours later we were disappointed to see plastic bottles on the beach.

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Rodrigues' ethnic makeup is different to that of Mauritius, with a mainly Creole population of African origin and very few Hindus and Muslims. It seems dry and barren compared to Mauritius. Water is obviously very precious, with low pressure and interruptions to the supply.

However that is part of the simplicity of the experience. We're staying in the Oasis Vacances guest house in the isolated location of Point Diable. It feels like a two star hotel, but it's clean, and that's my preference.

Upon arrival the biggest challenge for me was the tranquillity, which provides quite a contrast to the vibrance of Mauritius.

I can't recall ever having stayed on a small island before, and it seemed there was nothing to do. But that, I realised, was the point.

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Like many people, I'm oriented towards doing things, and indeed that is how I filled my week in Mauritius.

But here time is passed looking out at the ocean and reading, while sitting around at the guest house. Apart from a few roosters crowing, there are few sounds.

Yesterday I was apprehensive about how I'd fill the two and a half days, thinking that is was closer to a religious retreat than anything else I'd experienced. But now I'm feeling it's something I could get to like.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1460385 2019-09-28T03:53:19Z 2019-09-28T03:53:19Z English and French in Mauritius I arrived in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius at lunchtime yesterday, here for a ten day visit with an Australian friend whose homeland it is.

It was a clear day so I enjoyed glimpses of the island from the air and noted the engraving of the national symbol the dodo on the disembarkation card.

I also observed the odd mixture of English and French, often used together. The street where my Airbnb is located is Père Laval Street - not Rue Père Laval or Father Laval Street. My host is a real estate agent and she explained that the transactions are negotiated in French but based on English law.

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Père Laval was a 19th century French missionary priest, who is more properly referred to as Blessed Jacques-Désiré Laval. His cause for canonisation was given a boost earlier this month when Pope Francis visited the island.

Laval was medical practitioner who'd written a doctoral thesis on rheumatoid arthritis. As a priest he is best known for devoting his energies to the poor in Mauritius, and he remains a unifying figure who is also respected by the increasingly Hindu majority.

Walking around the streets was a little dangerous, as they do not have footpaths and the cars travel at speed. We called at an old-style street shop and noticed it was selling napolitaines.

They are a sweet treat made by sandwiching jam between two shortbread cookies, prepared with flour and butter and covered with a layer of pink icing. I knew about them from Australia because a Mauritian friend made them commercially because she felt drawn to introduce as aspect of her family's culture to Australia.


More photos on Instagram.


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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1459669 2019-09-26T13:36:07Z 2019-09-26T13:36:08Z Paris the home of bad coffee
Paris is known for its café culture but not for good coffee. A 2010 article in the New York Times asked why it’s so bad. The answer included old beans, over-roasted beans, second-rate machines, and coffee ground in batches and not to order.

Coffee in Paris is in fact getting better. But it’s mainly due to the influence of foreigners, including Australians and New Zealanders. 
 
Pfaff, a business near me, sells coffee machines but not coffee. When I went there earlier this year I met a genial Frenchman named Guillaume, who learned to make good coffee when he worked in New Zealand. He will offer you a cup of his first class espresso if you’re chatting with him, perhaps in the hope that one day he’ll sell you one of his expensive machines.

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In Australia, it’s usual to have to travel some distance for a good cake shop or delicatessen. In Paris you have to do the same for a good coffee. I didn’t know exactly where to go until last weekend, when an Australian friend sent me a list of six of the best cafés in Paris for coffee. I’ve been walking the inner arrondissements and sampling one, each day this week.
 
The first I visited was Fringe, in the 3rd arrondissement. Its American owner has trained his American baristas in precision extraction (there’s a mathematical formula). There they put the hot water through the ground coffee for exactly 27 seconds. I didn’t hear any French spoken by the clientele. It was all American accented English. But the coffee was the best.

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I’m no expert in what makes a good coffee but you know it when you taste one. The flavour is intense and it stays in your mouth for hours. At this moment I’m still savouring the Ethiopian double espresso that I had a few hours ago at Coutume, in the 7th arrondissement. While I was there the baristas were in WhatsApp contact with their Australian boss and co-founder and they seemed pleased but not surprised that an Australian customer had tracked them down. 
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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1459347 2019-09-25T16:10:07Z 2019-09-25T16:10:07Z Filth with a purpose
Knowing I was in Paris, a friend taunted me by sending an article from the Guardian titled ‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’.

I replied that it was just another English put down of the French. I added the suggestion that the filth is partly a reflection of the anarchy and right to protest that the French respect.

Foreign tourists tend to treat Paris as a kind of Disneyland for grown ups. To them it’s an aesthetic and cultural haven. They like to think that time has stood still and nothing is out of place. 

So it’s no surprise that they are upset by the ubiquity of the graffiti tags, or the shop windows that have been damaged by members of the Yellow Vests protest movement. 

So am I. Until I read about how the French underclass has been disenfranchised by political leaders who are most sympathetic to big business, which includes tourism. I begin to understand how the tags are a medium of expression for those who are otherwise voiceless.

Earlier in the year I attended a talk by Edouard Louis, a young public intellectual from a working class background. I had been reading his three short autobiographical novels.

As a philosopher, he is recognised as a bridge between rationality and the Yellow Vest movement, which is regarded by many as barbarous. 

Louis managed to extract himself from the underclass from which the Yellow Vests originate. He understands their grievances only too well, though he stresses his abhorrence for the racism and homophobia of some of them.

He was asked to comment on the Yellow Vests’ acts of vandalism against the Arc de Triomphe, an important symbol of the Republic. He said: ‘You really have never experienced misery to be able to think that a tag on a historical monument is more serious than the impossibility of living [a decent life].’

From now on, I will try to respect graffiti tags I see around Paris, and even back home in Sydney.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1381085 2019-03-04T04:18:38Z 2019-03-04T04:18:39Z Unlocking the truth about George Pell's conviction

George Pell’s conviction was a surprise to me. I’m at a loss to explain to myself how it came about. It is astonishing to think that a man of his stature and cunning could have done such things. The victim’s presentation to the jury as sole witness must have been compelling. 

When I’m part of a ‘did he or didn’t he’ conversation, I argue that we cannot pretend to know if Pell is guilty because we were not present for the testimony of the witness. 

I am not an expert, but the more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony. 

Increasingly I’m reluctant to take literally words in the recall of a witness. In the same way, I’m not a biblical fundamentalist and therefore don’t read the Bible literally. I interpret its words in the light of a range of factors including studies in history and literature.

In the case of the Pell trial, I’m imagining that the jury would have interpreted the verbal recall in light of emotions the witness was displaying. They would have provided the key that those of us not present do not have to inform our judgment.

Many people dismiss any element of testimony that is thought to be guided by emotion. Court proceedings are based on rational argument that takes what a witness says literally. If holes can be picked in the verbal narrative of the witness, the allegations remain unproven. This might stand to reason, but I think the approach needs to be rethought.

I’m currently reading the recent book Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Human Memory, which was written by two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other a writer and journalist. It looks at the evolution of our understanding of memory, including the watershed questioning by the father of psychology William James, in the late 19th century.

‘When James was alive, people thought of each memory as a unit, a copy of reality, like something that could be pulled out of a folder in a filing cabinet.’

But instead the key to understanding memory came to be seen as the seahorse, ‘slowly swaying in rhythm with the sensory areas and the emotion and awareness centres of the brain’. 

Hence the Greek word for seahorse - hippocampus - was used to name the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, thought to be the centre of emotion and memory.

The fact that our recollections are influenced by emotions and sense perception - such as taste and smell - means that two people who have experienced the same phenomenon will often have completely different memories of it. 

This could explain why contextual information about Pell’s sexual abuse that was provided to the media by others does not square with the witness testimony of the victim. Because it's said to be unlikely that Pell would have returned so quickly to the sacristy, the victim's testimony is thought to be discredited.

The ABC journalist Louise Milligan is one of the few people aside from the jury to have met the victim. She said ‘I defy anyone to meet this man and not think that he is telling the truth.’

Perhaps we should refrain from advancing opinions on the truth or otherwise of the victim’s testimony until we get to meet him.

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