Acts of Recording (Part II)

I write/draw, therefore I am.

It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.

Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.

I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.

As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:

For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.

And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.

Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And also:

We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.

Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.

Is this documentation rational?

Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?

This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.

Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.

So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.

If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.

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The Secret Happiness of Strangers

Or: Why People (Don’t) Steal, and how many slaves work for you.

Today I lost my phone. Clean, shiny, heavy with photos and text messages (and all their attendant memories) barely four months old. I realised its absence only when leaving the cafe, patting my back pocket only to feel that familiar cold nausea spread across my skin. Half walking, half running down two blocks to State Library, that most beloved, trampled intersection of paths, we swept our eyes over the bench and surrounding concrete, quite hopeless.

Minutes later a young man approached us, and asked what we were searching for. Is it a phone? Tell me what it looks like. What colour is the case? What is the wallpaper? Pretty soon you know it’s a test. Nope… not blue. No, sorry, that’s not correct. But his eyes are laughing! He’s having fun, but this isn’t fun. Not quite. What’s going on… PLEASE….! I’M DESPERATE.

He motioned for me to follow him to the entrance of the library, where he withdrew my phone from his bag. Indeed, the case is blue. (Of course it is, I’m the one who bought it.) I collapse into happy, inarticulate, nervy gratitude, the sort that shakes and is generally unattractive. His name is Asif and he is a Hazara from Afghanistan. We talked some more, and I learn some interesting facts, like how his grandmother is from Mongolia and he liked my wallpaper (stick-figure girl next to a poem in curly Arabic writing).

As D and I leave, savouring the delicious feeling of escape from some feared, certain outcome, one thing we cannot stop reflecting on out loud is how unbelievably LUCKY we were. That a stranger would pick up my phone, safeguard it from other random strangers, and watch over the space for hours. Unbelievable, right?

And this all makes me think…

…What makes us do things for others – what possibly makes us care about the happiness of strangers?

Is it for recognition, for some potential reward, or merely for the warm glow from acting kindly?

As some person once said, it is easy to empathise when your friend hits failure or sorrow – it is far more difficult to be happy when he succeeds…

But with strangers – somebody whose emotional wellbeing you have no personal stake in – what makes us go, ‘yes I’ll wait’ or ‘no I’ll steal it’? Given the choice to either absolutely contribute more happiness or more sadness to the world – who would say no? And yet people do, time and time again so that it is the norm – the norm to expect never to see a mislaid coat in a dodgy restaurant again as someone has ‘most likely taken it’. It is also institutionalised, in our policies, our politics, our calculi of efficiencies.

It must depend on variations in family upbringing, socialisation, but also this: how involved you are in the situation – relative or absolute.

Where you absolutely stand to gain from selling a phone on the black market and making a few $000s, self-interest and competition may drive ‘finders keepers’ behaviour. Rational self-interest is so to-be expected it bores me. As you can tell I’m more interested in the other situation.

When we are relatively (never absolutely) removed from any gain in either outcome of a choice, are we naturally primed to act to make strangers happy? Or the alternative – apathetic? Most of us will at some point find ourselves playing small to hugely instrumental roles in shaping strangers’ lives, and making such choices on a day to day basis. Actively. Deliberately. Lazily. Rejecting loans. Screening transfer/job/visa/marriage/asylum seeking applications. Ruling on child custody/appeal/life sentences.

And more often that not, these choices WILL remain insignificant to us, one ‘task’ out of a hundred others; periphery to our own busy, individual lives. But sometimes they do not.

I think it largely comes down to a theory of abstraction. The higher the degrees of separation between you (or often your computer screen) and your object of action, the more legitimately excused you are of empathy. From sitting in a stuffy office – to consuming as an innocent (in all other interpretations of the word) consumer in a rich country. Or so it seems. When are we ever truly innocent?

Consumerism and its ethical consequences is THE greatest moral challenge of our time. Slavery Footprint, an interactive tool that calculates how many slaves work for you – yes you dear reader – provides a somewhat forceful nudge back to this fact.

It also offers up casual, terrible facts such as these:

How do I look in this dirt?

Every day tens of thousands of American women buy makeup. Every day tens of thousands of Indian children mine mica, which is the little sparklies in the makeup.

Shrimp Cocktail, Anyone?

Bonded labor is used for much of Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, which supplies more shrimp to the U.S. than any other country. Laborers work up to 20-hour days to peel 40 pounds of shrimp. Those who attempt to escape are under constant threat of violence or sexual assault.

Dig Out. Plug In.

Coltan is an effective capacitor found in electronics. A U.S. State Department official was interviewed about Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, “The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.”

School’s out for cotton.

1.4 million children have been forced to work in Uzbek cotton fields. There are fewer children in the entire New York City public school system.

This wonderful interactive methodology combines facts with a plan for action – nothing much here to critique – but the one thing I do have beef with is this.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.23 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.40 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.50 AM

Is this line of comfort supposed to feel genuine?

After all – when are we ever truly innocent?

Individually, maybe yes. Collectively, historically though – no way. Guiltily gilded guilt. But here’s the thing. What counts as collective, and what counts as individual? Are consumers a shapeless, irreducible group or is each consumer directly accountable to the consequences of his/her own consumption?

I think our need for innocence, for assurances of non-guilt which naturally graduates into a sense if entitlement, both intellectually and materially – is the greatest toy the Politician can have. All of them – I say the Politician to represent multinationals, the Establishment, anyone who stands to gain more than the average Joe from the status quo. And boy is it working – because it always has. Until now.

The ironic, despairing truth is that the existence of each of us is, to varying degrees, a configuration of guilt, shame and complicity. Advertising – glitzy, soothing, indulgent and always affirmative – dulls this reality.

But the rapidly expanding, dizzying freedom of information that is flowing in from exploited corners of the world – anarchical and held down by no one – pierces through all this bullshit. In broadcasting photos of bloody, fuming carnage from Syria, or breaking down the average number of slaves that work for you, we are no longer allowed to lounge around in a fog of comfortable ignorance. And hallelujah.

Miller said that ‘in this age of information, ignorance is a choice.’

This declaration that I hope, no I am sure, will become increasingly less true as information pervades every millimetre of our social consciousness.



*Just as an elucidator: My number was 52.

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Of a Mediocre Photograph (Part I)

It is the last day of winter

and as I walk to the city library slipping from the glove of the Melbourne Writers Festival shaking off some final lingering thoughts, I pass the last bulky complex in a row of imposing buildings giving way to open space and a wide, symmetrical cascade of steps. Patterned multigrain bricks stretching up to the sloping plain at the top go escape my peripheral line. Pairs of people are sitting in various configurations at the top, conversing, hand-gesturing and sipping indistinguishable beverages.

I find this scene immensely pleasing to the eye and am unable to resist snapping a quick picture.

Scrolling through my photo gallery I am somewhat shocked to realise that I have tens – no – hundreds of similar photographs. Ordinary, you could even say meaningless, snapshots of landscapes, street crossings, the odd view from a cafe with empty cappuccino mug in the frame, and taken under atrocious lighting more often than not.

In other words these were flat, purely cross-sectional ‘documentations’ that did not draw on the complexity of the scene. They neither conveyed statements nor attempted character studies into any of the faceless strangers in the photographs. Why then did they exist, and in such multitudes?

Upon contemplation, I came to realise that this was not the intention of these amateurish records at all.

Imagine reaching the highest altitude level in Paris, offering up the most magnificent aerial view like a gift. You can substitute that for Mt Fuji, Niagara Falls, the observatory deck of Eureka Tower. What do you do? Let out a gasp/sigh, take it all in and realise you’ve been holding your breath involuntarily a few seconds later. Then – you’ll remove your camera from your belongings to snap off a few clicks, almost all of which you’ll look back on later and concede do not do the place justice, but probably won’t delete anyway. This too is involuntary.

It is never just about capturing the time or place – these random variables mean nothing when taken in isolation without our feelings imprinted across them. If it was just the superficial record of a particular breath-taking landscape or period that we were after, then we would as a matter of competitive disadvantage defer naturally to professionals with the award-winning pictures. Instead we continue to manufacture our own amateurish creations with an insatiable sort of hunger. It is of some vague human solace to us.

And what is that?

If you pressed me to explain, I would go back to the afternoon’s little discovery. I would probably say something about how the accidental combination of sunlight and my mood had registered some sort of a poignant response in me. My frame of mind at the time – which, wandering, free-ranging, and pleasantly buzzed from the unexpected liaison I’d just left, happened to be perfectly ready to accept such a simple visual delight  – something that surely would not ordinarily produce the same result, and completely out of the question had I been stressed, harried or in a rush.

Taking into account these preconditions of mind, place and time, seemingly necessary for such an involuntary stimulation of the senses and the newfound appreciation of my physical surroundings, of course means that the same photograph alone would be unable to evoke similar reactions (which I suspect are simply hormonal releases of pleasure) upon review. Yet still I take them by the hundreds, hoping vainly that such random documentation will allow for a few choice, perfect moments to live on, or more accurately, to be relived some time later at whim. Perhaps it is subconsciously pre-emptive: a misguided act of preservation to stockpile emotionally pleasurable stimuli if ever my reserves run low.

As I reflect a few hours and kilometres later, indeed I hope that looking upon this photograph on a future day will bring me back to this unique feeling, here and now, at the intersection of the time of day (4.50pm) and place (moderately crowded crossing at Swanston/Flinders Lane); that is, a moment of utter peace, being in touch with my surroundings, and the warm taste of promise that one cannot help sucking in from the almost-spring air.

Some exhibits from a dubious gallery

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The Innovation of Loneliness

‘I share, therefore I am.’

Social networks promulgate three fantasies:

1. We can put our attention wherever we will be
2. We will always be heard
3. We will never have to be alone

Self-image promotion, connection vs conversation, loneliness vs being alone. Some distinctions to keep in mind.

The Box Man knows that loneliness chosen loses its sting and claims no victims. He declares what we all know in the secret passages of our own nights, that although we long for perfect harmony, communion, and blending with another soul, this is a solo voyage. The first half of our lives is spent stubbornly denying it. As children we acquire language to make our selves understood and soon learn from the blank stares in response to our babblings that even these, our saviors, our parents, are strangers. in adolescence when we replay earlier dramas with peers in the place of parents, we begin the quest for the best friend, that person who will receive all thoughts as if they were her own. Later we assert that true love will find the way. True love finds many ways, but no escape from exile. The shores are littered with us, Annas and Ophelias, Emmas, and Juliets, all outcasts from the dream of perfect understanding. We might as well draw the night around us and find solace there and a friend in our own voice.

The Box Man, Barbara Lazear Ascher

The Box Man

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Brave New Ideology

On whistleblowers, freedom of privacy, and the collapse of liberal democracy

I have a little theory I sometimes like to play with in my head – by no means illuminating – which is that strong ideas always attract other ideas, and as these pebbles of analytic gold set off on a roll they gather pace and eventually culminate in thought processes resembling nothing less than a full blown metaphorical maelstrom.

Having a gravitational force of their own would explain the lulls in creativity (lack of foundational ideas) or those saturated, golden stretches of productivity and invention (this idea that idea all these ideas IDEAS IDEAS)

It is with this childish, Shintoist musing on the nature of ideation that I want to open a post on liberalism, neo-liberalism, modern politics and matters of national security, especially in light of the recent NSA scandal. The main bullets of this discussion are shaped by two items of food for thought I was exposed to over the weekend: Alex Gibney’s new documentary ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks‘, and Waleed Aly’s 2010 essay ‘What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia‘. In order to talk about the first, I’m going to begin with a spiel on the second. Hopefully this won’t take too long…

Liberalism or Neoliberalism?

The crux of Aly’s argument is that as far as coherent political ideology goes, classical liberalism has been superseded by neo-liberalism in Australian politics and indeed in all other developed Western nations.

Liberalism, as set forth by John Stuart Mill and built upon the ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau, has always been first and foremost a political ideology that holds the individual in the highest esteem. The rights of the individual to freedom of thought and speech (which means nothing if it doesn’t mean the freedom to offend), freedom of belief must be safeguarded against the majoritarian pressures of society to the extent that these expressions of individual freedom pose no harm to anybody else. Government, or the state, exists solely to maintain this protection of the individual against society and its tyrannical customs. In Australia, the tenets of libertarian belief in the classical sense have mostly dissolved. It is resurrected by politicians now and again for reasons of political expedience, out of convenience. ‘Freedom of speech’ is perhaps the most enduring legacy of this ideology in modern, everyday political language. However the freedom to belief, notably religious belief, has largely collapsed – not as a consequence of lack of constitutional rights such as wearing headscarves or congregating in places of worship – but because it is tied quite inextricably to cultural freedoms and the corresponding expectations of assimilation. Aly cites a passage that illustrates thus:

We don’t care where people come from; we don’t mind what religion they’ve got or what their particular view of the world is. But if you want to be in Australia, if you want to raise your children in Australia, we fully expect those children to be taught and to accept Australian values and beliefs.

whereby the ‘Australian identity’ is seen as a solid, non-fluid character template that can be ascertained and distributed via legal instruments such as citizenship ‘naturalisation’ tests.

A discussion into what constitutes Australian values and beliefs however, would most likely reveal these as fluid and reactionary over time, depending on the latest crisis, and more often than not, the incubation of political rhetoric and dictation by the media. As an example, see if you recognise any of these often ideological positions taken by prime ministers at different points of time:

  • John Howard:”This is an assault, as much on the freedom and the values of Australian society as it is on the freedom and the values of American society.”
  • Or: We are against the use of violence and acts of terrorism and will do anything to fight the War on Terror (September 11)
  • We are against using terror to fight terror (after ten years of foreign occupation)
  • We are against illegal immigration, we can/will/should decide who gets to come to Australia and the means with which they do it (Children Overboard)
  • We do not acknowledge the Stolen Generations and special treatment for Indigenous Australians because we are one nation (before the apology)
  • We are for national (indigenous) reconciliation (after the apology)

Identity politics is a boat navigating wave after wave of public sentiment, steered by the sometimes directionally challenged, sometimes unwilling or cowardly captains that are our political leaders.

Moving onto neoliberalism, which emerged victorious after the Cold War in the 1980s and has grown to dominate the multipolar, globalised world since. As a simplification, neoliberalism can be seen as a hyper manifestation of liberalism, where individuals must be allowed to pursue their own diverse ends. For this reason state interference is kept to an absolute minimum. This is an ideological imperative.

But that is where the similarity ends. Though chiefly a manual for economic activity, the custodians of neoliberalism namely Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Paul Keating took the liberty of extending it further to change existing social structures. Neoliberalism transformed cultural societies into a singular, global market society where things and people are perceived as valuable only to the extent that they are assigned market value (note that this fluctuates according to market forces). This necessarily leads to commodification of anything and everything – sex, religion, family education – the proliferation of market-based solutions to social problems, and insecurity of the mind, body and money/employment. Thus neoliberalism became not just a way of economic organisation, but also of social organisation. The state is immobilised, the individual is god, and the corporation is virtually invincible.

So that’s liberalism and neo-liberalism. But where do we live?

Strictly speaking, it would appear that the answer is neither. We live in liberal democracy – Australians, Britons and Americans all. Liberalism gives us the freedoms outlined briefly above – freedom of thought, speech, belief, movement. Liberal democracy is synonymous with economic rationalism, or the Middle Way. That may give some indication to the supposed moderation of the political ideology that governs our states today. While both Australian major political parties advocate trust in free markets and privatisation above all, they also acknowledge the role of governments to pre-empt, intervene and provide in instances of market failure – verging on Keynesian macroeconomics (in the case of the Australian Labor Party this is certainly true). As for democracy – this simply denotes a system of election that takes into account the will of the people. Take note, because this is interesting. Democracy respects the wishes of people because it is a system of rule that sees people as equal in their ability to choose leaders and policies – it does not discriminate along lines of educational attainment, ethnicity, religious or moral persuasion.

While this is perfectly fine in matters of fiscal, labour, domestic importance (it may be the only equitable way of political organisation if you want to avoid imposing ideological doctrines on the people without consultation) what does it mean for national security?

Defense of the state is a considered, two pronged endeavour: it depends on limited intelligence and also on elite decision making. This means we entrust matters of a classified nature to a small body of adept professionals trained in the science of data and threat analysis (small only in theory, in practice these circles span government networks and security corporations).

As a matter of natural conclusion, it is impossible for all such intelligence to be made public.

Julian Assange and Private Bradley Manning send the message both explicitly and implicitly that all information should be free. Should it really? Personally I cannot agree, and am sure there are many out there who draw the same conclusion. I would rather be better protected from any real threat, foreign or otherwise, and be more ignorant for it. A government charged with doing the public’s work should not necessarily make that work public.

Yet I realise there is a trade-off we must make. Governments make mistakes in war, conflict, violate jus ad bellum and jus in bello, as in elsewhere. Generals and soldiers perpetrate and condone crimes of torture, war crimes in practice if not by name. Wikileaks, through the source of Private Bradley Manning sought to expose these, to deposit this information in hands of the people, so they could make informed opinions, to then make informed decisions when voting for political parties on the basis of foreign policies. To keep government accountable. If the exposure of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs foiled security plots and spoiled diplomatic relationships, potentially increasing threat or risk to national security, that is a trade-off I would be willing to bear.

So then: what kind of checks and balances should we submit departments and organisations of national security and intelligence?  This is the conversation we should have been having in the aftermath of Wikileaks and indeed now, over Edward Snowden and alleged National Security Agency (NSA) espionage.

Though nowhere near as explosive, the leaked documents about NSA ‘Prism’ and ‘Boundless Informant’ surveillance systems should be a cause for national concern.

A debate on absolutist terms is of no use here. More than ever, we need the logic of relativity. What are the trade-offs we are prepared to make here?

We value life: that much is axiomatic amongst different cultures and societies. But how much privacy do we require to live our lives with dignity, and how much is simply a matter of preference or worse, a knee-jerk reaction to ‘spying’, ‘snooping’, Orwellian paranoia? How much privacy would we be prepared to give up n return for a reasonable level of national safety? How much privacy would we be willing to surrender to prevent more marathon, parade, mass bombings, shootings? This requires introspective questioning on the meaning and value of privacy to us today.

And if we were to surrender part of our individual and collective privacy, what are the kind of dangers are we likely to be exposed to? What kind of information do we need to make these choices? How much information should we know before, during and after the launch of foreign invasion or war? Should the rights to this data be guaranteed constitutionally?

In the same way that the Treasury delivers budgets and spreadsheets every year to justify fiscal policy plans, should we have public releases of the information used by security analysts to come to their conclusions? How much security is compromised by such action, how much would ‘aid the enemy’?

The truth is, Neoliberalism is impoverished when it comes to national security: it has pretty much nothing to say on the topic of war. The best neoliberal ideology can muster on the topic is the democratic peace theory, or Thomas Friedman’s theory of Golden Arches, which posits that two neoliberal, democratic countries (both with the presence of McDonalds) will not go to war, deterred by the financial cost of disruptions to trade. This is a concept that theorises on the improbability of war; it does not address the how, why or what of war. Nor is this the fault of the ideology itself: its insight was intended (exclusively even) for the organisation of markets. This is precisely why it is a mistake for governments to take on any single ideology to serve as a comprehensive governing force.

Countries often have other reasons for going to war, reasons informed by ideology other than neoliberalism. A radical doctrine to export democracy to another, so-called illiberal country is one such reason. So if we do not operate by liberal democracy for the intents and purposes of war… then what?

And if we do not have free access to the information we may need to support a government for going to war, then can we still call ourselves a liberal democracy? If not – then what are we turning into?

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Robert F. Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation Speech, 1966.

Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress. This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease — a man like the Chancellor of this University. It is a revolutionary world that we all live in; and thus, as I have said in Latin America and Asia and in Europe and in my own country, the United States, it is the young people who must take the lead. Thus you and your young compatriots everywhere have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.[1]:.


First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in the isolated villages and the city slums of dozens of countries. Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.


The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people across the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspiration, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities — no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic or hard-headed to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgement, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief; forces ultimately more powerful than all the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.


A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us “At the Olympic Games it is not the finest or the strongest men who are crowned, but those who enter the lists. … So too in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize.” I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.


For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction O.K.?

The full version of a story originally published on Vibewire here.

In matters of life and death, religious doctrine often plays a considerable role in the formation of an individual’s ethical agenda. For example, the Catholic Church maintains a firm position on abortion, rejecting its use as a violation of the fundamental belief that all human life has a right to life, and must be protected from the moment of conception. As dictated by canon law, both woman and all ‘formal conspirators’ would face automatic excommunication from the Church. Most of these ecclesiastical declarations are based on specific recorded examples of or clerical interpretation of the ancient religious texts.

As modern biomedical science has broken through previous technological restrictions in assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as in vitro fertilisation-embryo transfer (IVF), artificial insemination by donor (AID), it is up to religious authorities to establish an official position as guidance for their adherents.

More recently, posthumous reproduction, which involves in vitro fertilisation of a woman using sperm collected from her deceased husband or partner, has enjoyed debate in the wider religious community.

Each of the three Abrahamic faiths has distinctive attitudes towards ART practices. These should be viewed through a strictly moral (and in many ways primordial) lens in contrast to elsewhere in society, where parallel discussions focus mostly on the health and psychological welfare of the resulting children and more ambiguously, on the parentage and inheritance rights of such children.

First of all, all three religions in discussion here require full marital relations and fidelity as a precondition to procreation. Fertilisation is supposed to fulfill a conjugal act between husband and wife for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Artificial insemination by donor (AID) is considered adultery and thus out of the question.

Let’s start with Christianity.

The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church resolutely oppose assisted reproduction in the fullest sense of the practice. Thus, while treatment for low sperm count and ovulation problems is fine, artificial insemination is not (even if using the husband’s sperm).

The Donum Vitae, issued in 1987 by Roman Catholic scholars, instructs Catholics on the importance of marital union and the act of sexual intercourse in the procreation of offspring. These two conditions make it necessarily ‘wrong’ and unnatural to seek IVF-embryo transfer, surrogate motherhood and cryopreservation (slow freezing and storage, usually for later use) of embryos.

For Protestants, it is acceptable to use ART given two stringent conditions: both gametes are to be produced from a married couple (ruling out sperm or oocyte donation and surrogacy), and no harm to the pre-embryo is to be done. No Christian denomination has yet to release official positions on the phenomenon of posthumous reproduction.


Islam encourages the treatment of infertility as a duty borne by the couple and society, as the Koran celebrates marriage and family formation. Artificial insemination by husband (AIH) using IVF is thus acceptable.

Like Christianity, Islam also rejects posthumous reproduction. But while the Christian faith defends the dignity and right of the child to his/her conception without medical intervention, Islam forbids it because the act of conception falls outside the marital term. At her husband’s death, the wife loses her reproductive rights in liaison with him.


In the case of Judaism, it gets interesting – and a great deal more liberal.

While Catholics take their judicial beliefs from canon law and Muslims from Sharia law, Jews operate through Jewish law. All three laws can differ significantly from the civil laws of different countries.

While Israeli law is communally accepted and administered to Israeli citizens of all religions and ethnicities; matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, paternity, and legitimacy are referred to rabbinical courts and judged by the eye of Halakha, the Jewish law. Halakha looks favourably upon AIH if it is medically testified beyond doubt (given 5-10 years of attempts at natural procreation) that such a procedure is necessary.

God’s first commandment to Adam to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is a good approximation of modern Israel’s perspectives on reproduction and assisted reproduction. The multi-ethnic make-up of the Israeli population (25% non-Jewish, the growth of which could be a threat to the Jewish state and security), combined with an emphasis on family integrity makes it a national objective to grow the Jewish population.

As such, Israel is one of the leading countries in research and development of reproductive technologies, with the highest number of fertility clinics per capita in the world. Israeli women are also the highest per capita users of the procedure.

Predating artificial insemination technology, partial surrogacy was practiced in biblical times. In Genesis 16, Sarah wife of Abraham was childless and had a maid bear Abraham a son, Ishmael before being miraculously cured of her infertility. Other stories in the Old Testament serve as a guiding example for modern Jewish clergy when advising infertile couples.

As for posthumous reproduction, the discontinued practice of wedding a man to his brother’s widow was the most feasible way of producing a dead man’s heir. Judaism follows the law of matrilineal descent, which means that a child is a Jew only if born to a Jewish mother.

The marriage ideal in religion comes into play as assumptions of a loving relationship are used to condone the bequest of a man’s sperm to his wife after his death in order for her to have his genetic child (even without prior consent). It is not too surprising then that posthumous reproduction today is supported by both Israeli law and Halakha.

It is important to note that while the sperm of a dead man can be used to fertilise his wife, the frozen embryos of a dead woman is forbidden from being used to produce the man’s genetic heir, as this would involve a third party, the surrogate mother.

Even so, in 2011 the parents of a 27 year old dead Israeli man, Ohad Ben-Yaakov applied for legal permission to use his frozen sperm to produce a grand child. The man was not married or in a relationship, and they would have had to find a willing, single mother who would raise their grandchild. Their lawyer Rosenblum said, ‘It’s an idea of continuation. It’s a dream. It’s magic.’ Cases like these take Israel’s pro-life attitudes to the extreme, signaling an ever-progressive national and global debate on the ethics of posthumous reproduction. The ‘dream’ of postmortem parenthood would shift the odds in favour of life away from the finality of death.

God’s directions to Adam ‘to work the garden and to preserve it’ (Genesis 2) are sometimes interpreted as an order to improve upon the human creation and to meet its needs, which justifies Jewish flexibility in regards to reproductive ethics. The needs of a mother to survival therefore supersede the unborn life of a fetus, making abortion permissible in circumstances where bringing the pregnancy to full term would endanger the mother’s life. Indeed, in Halakha the pre-embryo that is younger than forty days old from conception is described as ‘mere water’.

Religious institutions offer an ethical dimension to the assisted reproductive technology debate. These considerations are often forgotten in the judicial maelstrom that busies itself with semantic battles over legitimacy and social security.

Change is happening already. Posthumous reproduction, amongst other new reproductive technologies, looks set to be part of a new medical and social reality. Society must choose its battles wisely. In championing diversity of family structures and new technology, we cannot ignore the many couples and families who hold staunchly to these religious beliefs.

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