Friday, 31 October 2008

peter norman deserved better

I've never been a great fan of the Olympic Games, but I take an interest in the fortunes of Australians who compete. And so I can remember the silver medal won by Peter Norman in the 200m sprint in the 1968 games. And of course I can remember the "scandal" of him standing on the dias with two black American athletes giving what was said to be a black power salute. But I didn't know the rest of the story until now.

Photo from Wikipedia

Norman died two years ago, and the two black athletes in the picture, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, flew to Australia to be pall bearers. Why? The story has now become public with the release this year of the award-winning film "Salute", made by Norman's nephew Matt Norman.

Before the games, Norman was not expected to earn a medal, but he qualified for the final in world record time, and followed this up with a run half a second faster than his previous best to win silver. Amazingly, it is still, thirty years later, the fastest 200m time by an Australian, and would have been fast enough to win gold at many subsequent Olympics. So Norman proved to be a wonderful athlete.

But Norman proved to be more than that. The two US runners told Norman before the presentation that they were going to protest against racism in the US, and Norman offered to support them by wearing a badge for the "Olympic Project for Human Rights". Then when Carlos realised he had forgotten his black gloves, it was Norman who suggested they wear one each (thus explaining what had always puzzled me, why the two Americans raised different hands!).

Smith and Carlos were sent home, and Norman, who also expressed public criticism of the then "White Australia Policy", was disciplined. But worse followed, when Norman, still 5th fastest in the world four years later, was not even picked in the Australian team for the 1972 Olympics, and he dropped out of athletics and public view. The Australian Olympics Committee has often been accused of being hidebound and out-of-touch, and this appears to be an example.

When the 2000 Olympics were held in Sydney, Norman was the only surviving Aussie Olympian not to be invited to participate in a lap of honour. But Norman was something of a hero to black US athletes, who did not expect a white man from another country to support them, and champions such as Ed Moses and Michael Johnson welcomed Norman to their quarters.

Photo taken from Youtube.

Smith and Carlos had remained in contact with Norman over the years and appeared in the movie. And so it was that they were keen to attend his funeral and act as pall-bearers, as a last opportunity to express their respect for Norman.

Norman's stand, and the price he ultimately paid for it, were not a surprise to those who knew him. He was a committed christian with a Salvation Army background, and had a strong belief in equality and human rights.

Norman was a fine sportsman, a good bloke, he supported the underdog, clashed with the authorities and stuck to his beliefs. This should qualify him as a genuine Aussie "hero".

Read media reports about Norman in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (which includes a photo of Smith and Carlos carrying Norman's coffin) and BBC News, and a review of the film.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

advertising atheism

It has taken a while, but it is now happening.

A few months back it was reported that British atheists were being asked to contribute to an advertising campaign to counter christian advertising on London buses, but only a fraction of the money had been raised. The ads were to say: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.'

More recently it has been reported that Richard Dawkins has offered a significant amount of money, matching whatever is given by others, to begin the campaign.

This was discussed by comedians on Sydney afternoon radio last Friday, and a couple of comments suggested the advertising might be underwhelming:

"If they were really serious, the ads would say: 'There's probably no God - sin away!'"

"Imagine if the ads said: 'There's probably not a bomb on this bus, so get on board.' Would you?"

Monday, 20 October 2008

two heroes - barak & john green

Episode 3 of The First Australians introduced four people who deserve to be remembered, two of whom lived heroically.

The episode told of the displacement of the indigenous people by the white settlement in Melbourne, and how one tribe, the Wurundjeri, led by Simon Wonga and later Barak, chose not to oppose the whites by violence, but rather to seek the independence and prosperity of their people. This necessitated some degree of acceptance of the European takeover and some accommodation with white culture, while still preserving traditional culture.

They sought to be given a grant of land (a small part of what had been their country), and finally settled on land on the Yarra River at Corranderrk. They made a success of farming, and prospered. In all this they were assisted by a Scottish minister, John Green, who supported their independence and treated them with the respect they deserved. His wife, Mary Green, provided education for aboriginal children, a necessary step if they were to survive economically.

Officialdom was initially on their side, recognising the Wurundjeri ownership of Corranderrk, which became an aboriginal mission and reserve, and appointing Green as manager of the station. Unlike other managers of similar stations, he set up governance processes which put the tribal leaders in authority, and the Wurundjeri prospered.

But the Aboriginal Protection Board (which in reality had no such helpful aim!) started to interfere, leading Green, unwisely, to resign in protest - he later withdrew his resignation but the Board wanted him out, so they accepted the resignation anyway. Around this time, Wonga died and Barak took over as leader. He negotiated tirelessly and with integrity and intelligence with a Board that lacked that integrity, many times making the 60 km walk into Melbourne to press his case, to have Green reinstated and Corranderrk to be administered freely by the Wurundjeri. At times he was aided by socialite Anne Bon, who stuck her neck out for the aboriginal people.

Eventually the Board set up a process which removed many of the Wurundjeri people from Corranderrk, and the community collapsed. Barak died an old and somewhat disillusioned man, but not before he documented in paintings his now doomed culture. Corranderrk was sold, but was purchased by the aboriginal people recently.

Green and Barak come out of this history with great credit. They showed courage, humanity, respect for those different to them, and demonstrated that aboriginal-white relations could have been so much more productive and egalitarian if only the white Australians had treated them with respect and recognised their human rights. I'd never heard of Barak or Green before, but they have become two of my heroes.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

stand up!

Basically, it's pretty simple.

  • Lots of people in the world are mind-numbingly poor.
  • In 2000 leaders of 189 countries signed up to the Millennium Development Goals, a global plan to halve poverty by 2015.
  • The world is way behind target.
  • People are still mind-numbingly poor.
  • We ought to do more to help them.

So a number of organisations around the world, including Make Poverty History in Australia, asked people to join them in reminding governments of their promises on halving world poverty, by joining in events which included a time of standing up together, symbolising unity around the world on this matter. Last year, 43 million people joined in. This year's event was this weekend.

And so it was that 255 people at our local church stood up while the "Stand Up and Take Action Pledge" was read out.

Will it make any difference? I dunno, but it's worth a try.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

the first australians

Australia's indigenous people are believed to have been on this continent for somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand years, arguably making their culture the world's oldest. But that culture didn't long survive the coming of Europeans to begin a colony in Sydney, and later elsewhere.

The interaction between the two cultures and races is the subject of a powerful documentary series that began screening on TV this week.

The first episode told of the attempts by people of goodwill on both sides to reach an accommodation that would allow both cultures to coexist. One historian thinks they nearly succeeded. But the unfortunate actions of some unprincipled whites, the need or desire for the whites to spread out to find productive farming land, the enormous differences between the cultures, and the impacts of two white man's diseases, smallpox and alcohol, put an end to that.

The aboriginal people were overrun, and it is a sorry tale. Most of them come out of it with more credit than many of the whites - Governor Phillip, and army officers Tench and Dawes being exceptions.

Even after so many lives and so much land were lost, one settler family out Bathurst way and the tribe in whose country they had settled, reached a peaceful and even friendly coexistence that showed what might have been achieved with more goodwill and less rapacious ambition by the whites.

The rest of the series promises to be valuable, but sometimes harrowing watching.

Monday, 13 October 2008

growing up too young

Paul Sheehan had an interesting article, titled We live in a sexual twilight zone, in last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald. He starts from considering two current films, Towelhead and Candy Girl, which have themes of sexuality in young teenage girls and young women, and Bill Henson's photos of naked pre-teen girls which caused a furore in Australia recently (Sheehan defends Henson).

He quotes sources indicating a high level of sexual interest and fantasies in young women and even young teens. For example, one Australian study shows that almost all children had seen internet porn by the age of 15, and for most of them it was their primary source of information on sex. A third of 13 year old girls have had sexual experience. (However the study was small and almost certainly not representative.)

He doesn't blame the internet, but considers "it may have created a more accurate mirror of who we collectively are as a society, in conflict with the laws and conventions we have constructed." That's a scary thought. And he concludes with this sobering idea:

"Frankly, it is our culture saturated with debt, consumerism, two-income families, one-parent households and a coarsening public domain that has done more to truncate the innocence of youth than random perverts, a reality we have barely begun to acknowledge."

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

teach your children well

In Australia, children generally live longer than their parents, because medical science is improving all the time and prolonging our lives. But now many people are saying (it has almost become a cliche) that the current generation of children will likely be the first not to outlive their parents.

A recent report from the government-run Australian Temperament Project outlines some good and bad news about the generation now in their twenties. The study has tracked 2,400 children from birth to their mid twenties and has recently found that 80% of them appear to be doing well - generally studying or working, and often in committed relationships.

However 40% were showing signs of problems such as depression (16%), anxiety (16%), antisocial behaviour (10%) and/or illicit substance abuse (about 15%), with some having multiple problems. Since the late teens, depression and anxiety have declined but substance abuse has increased.

About 20% drink alcohol in unhealthy amounts, and 7% are considered to be "risky" drivers. Of interest is the fact that risky drivers can be detected from mid-childhood, and risky driving is commonly associated with anti-social behaviour, substance abuse and difficulties at school.

Earlier data from the study shows that most parents and teenagers relate well, although only about half communicate well. However it seems that the teens who didn't relate well with their parents are much more likely to be at risk in late teens and mid twenties.

Obesity is a growing problem among Australia's children. Australia has been found to be the fattest country on earth, with our obesity levels now surpassing those of the US. A quarter of children are classified as "overweight" with children from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds most likely to be obese. And the rates are rising fast.

According to Prof Fiona Stanley, we're eating more and moving less, leading to weight gain and associated health problems such as type 2 diabetes, which in turn can lead to depression and (ironically) eating disorders. She advocates research to gain a better understanding of vulnerable populations, and innovative solutions that go beyond telling people to eat less - perhaps teaching parents quick and cheap alternatives to fast food, and provision of more playgrounds and open space.

It seems that the quality of parenting and the level of social disadvantage of the family are major causes of the problems being experienced by both children and young adults, but changing this may require the rest of us to accept that more taxes need to be spent in these areas to address potential problems before they appear.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

happiness, 2008

The latest information on what makes people happy continues to confirm that happiness doesn't come primarily from wealth or possessions. A recent study compiling a Happiness Index found that experiences such as relaxation, eating, sex, spending time online and spending time with friends all made people happier than material things.

Some of the results:

Activitymen made happywomen made happy
Meals & time with family45%55%
Online activities50%39%
Drinking with friends38%28%
Buying a gift19%36%

The Happiness Index is determining what makes people happy at the time (something other surveys may describe as "pleasure"). It is not the same as the Australian Wellbeing Index, which measures wellbeing and satisfaction of a more lasting nature.

Nevertheless, we learn again that it is who we are, what we do and what we value that make us happy more than what we own and how wealthy we are. So it is ironic that this survey was conducted to help Australian businesses better target their customers.

Read the Sydney Morning Herald's report, or background information on happiness.