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The Daily Briefing 05/12/05#1


Your round-up from today's newspapers plus the best writing, analysis, critical thinking and humour from around the world.

In today's email:
1    Ellen Goodman on Vatican backsliding over gay priests/Washington Post (7 links below)
2    Adam Cohen on the fight to commercialise Christmas/NYTimes
3    Zbigniew Brzezinski on linking communism and Islam/Washington Post
4    MEDIA: Richard Beeston on bombing Aljazeera/Spectator (5 links below)
5    Camille Paglia on Madonna and disco critics/Salon (4 links below)
6    Jeremy Clarkson on the Bugatti Veyron/Times (link below)
7    JK Rowling on being down and out in Edinburgh/Scotsman (link below)
8    Catherine Seipp on the lack of modern manners/National Review
9    "Bush was Right"/Quick Time (link below)
10    IN THE PAPERS: National, Opinion, Business round-up

1 The Vatican, gays, Jews and the Rapture
Can God please, please make up his mind! As Supreme Beings go, the Catholic version is starting to look a bit flaky. TDB is still getting used to the idea that it is no longer a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. (What did God say to that bunch of once-were-sinners when they suddenly turned up at the Pearly Gates? "Sorry about that" hardly seems enough after a taste of eternal damnation, helfire and brimestone for once failing to confess after a sly BLT burger for Friday lunch.) Then there is poor old Limbo, suddenly bulldozed off the celestial landscape without so much as an eviction notice. What happens now to the salvation fence-sitters who called it home? Counting angels on the head of a pin seems like child's play next to sorting out that theological can of worms. Then there is the "poofter problem", if you'll excuse an indelicate turn of phrase. Once it was fine for gays to be priests, as long as they, like their hetro brothers, didn't go pointing Percy at anything other than porcelain. Now they can just bugger off, so to speak, celibate or not. (By the way, how did gays and lesbians get to be part of the design in the first place, God being such an intelligent designer?)

Ellen Goodman takes a somewhat more serious approach to these issues in The Washington Post (link below) and wonders if there might be yet more ethical dilemmas ahead. "Science may well offer some future shocks. Imagine, for a moment, that we could tweak the "gay gene" in a petri dish or a womb. What would the religious right, which opposes both homosexuality and embryonic cell research, say about eliminating the "sin"? What would the left, which favors reproductive choice but is appalled at the idea of "curing" a population of homosexuals, say?"

Conservative columnist, blogger, and conflicted gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan has followed this issue closely at his blog, The Daily Dish, and points out that one of the heroes of 9/11, gay priest Mychal Judge would have been barred from the priesthood under the new edict.

The US has just executed the 1000th person (BBC report) since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976. Mother Jones reports that Catholics are becoming a powerful force opposing the death penalty.

Into this strange mix of life, death, God and what consenting adults do with their privates, let's add this one from Sarah Boseley in The Guardian reporting that "Europe, led by the UK, last night signalled a major split with the United States over curbing the Aids pandemic in a statement that tacitly urged African governments not to heed the abstinence-focused agenda of the Bush administration."

Michelle Goldberg in Salon reports that the alliance between evangelicals and American Jews is beginning to splinter. "Traditionally, Jewish leaders have been among the most vigilant guardians of American secularism, seeing the separation of church and state as key to Jewish equality. But faced with an evangelical president who seemed inviolable and an alliance of convenience with the religious right over Israel, Jewish leaders didn't raise much of an outcry when billions of taxpayer dollars were diverted toward religious charities through Bush's faith-based initiative. They didn't make a fuss when the administration filled the bureaucracy with veterans of groups like the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition."

One of the things Jews and Evangelicals have shared in common is Israel, although for rather different reasons. Whereas Jews think of it as home, conservative Christians are interested in it as the place where Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, will be fought out. Carl Unger in Vanity Fair joins Tim LaHaye, the 79-year-old co-author of the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic Christian thrillers, on a tour of this battlefield to be and reports on the influence this brand of Christianity has in the White House.

And for those of you who have been wondering how nigh the end might be, it is time once again to check the Rapture index, and things are not looking too grim - currently it's on 155, down from a high this year of 161.

2 The fight to commercialise Christmas
Staying with matters religious (at least religious to the extent that Christmas has anything to do with religion these days). Two weeks ago TDB linked to a Salon article which noted that warnings about the threat to Christmas have been around at least since 1959, when the recently formed John Birch Society issued an urgent alert - the heathen Commies and the "Godless UN" were attacking Christmas. The more things change, the more the threat stays the same - only the source of it changes. Now it's the "professional atheists" and "Christian haters".

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that "Evangelical Christian pastor Jerry Falwell has a message for Americans when it comes to celebrating Christmas this year: You're either with us, or you're against us."

Bill O'Reilly and Fox News have also taken up the cause again this year, although Adam Cohen in the NYTimes (link below) points out that what they are promoting is the commercialised version of Christmas that Christians from the Puritans on have resisted. "The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens' wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way" a crime."

3 Communism and Islam
As part of his recent speeches to shore up support for the continuing occupation of Iraq, George Bush has likened the threat from Islamic fundamentalism to that posed by Communism during the Cold War. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter now a professor of foreign policy, explains why he does not believe that the analogy is appropriate or wise. "The analogy to communism may have some short-term political benefit, for it can rekindle the fears of the past while casting the president in the mold of the historic victors of the Cold War, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. But the propagation of fear also has a major downside: It can produce a nation driven by fear, lacking in self-confidence and thus less likely to inspire trust among America's allies, including Muslim ones, whose support is needed for an effective and intelligent response to the terrorist phenomenon."
4 Aljazeera goes mainstream
In the article linked to below, Richard Beeston meets with Aljazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar and wonders why George Bush and Tony Blair would ever have thought of bombing the network which he says is going mainstream and therefore helping to bring democracy to the Middle East "where many of their experiments have failed". "Al-Jazeera is becoming richer, bigger and more a part of the establishment that it once loved to undermine. It wants to shift coverage away from news to human interest stories, and in its most ambitious project plans to broaden its audience beyond the Arab world and become a real global player. Next year it will launch an English language channel and has hired veteran television journalists from the BBC, ITN and Sky to run the operation. Its star sign-up is Sir David Frost who was recruited as a presenter. Among the correspondents will be Mark Seddon, the former editor of Tribune magazine, soon to be al-Jazeera’s man covering New York and the United Nations."

Public Editor for the NYTimes Byron Calame looks at the problems that arise when a newspaper covers its own activities, and (scroll down) goes on to consider the hostile reaction to George Bush trying to "escape" a press conference through a locked door.

Harpers Magazine has announced the appointment of an editor to replace Lewis Lapham when he steps down in April (NYTimes).

In The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott looks at the politics of photographs, and what can be read into the way newspapers use them. "An image that is both nakedly political and very beautiful is automatically contentious -- just as the big Soviet symphonies of Shostakovich or the films of Leni Riefenstahl still trouble us today for the way in which their aesthetic pleasures short-circuit critical detachment. Photographs of the president (any president, since Reagan, at least) are among the most manipulated and crafted images in our society. Are photographers too easily complicit in the crafting of these pictures? Does the natural quest for beauty by photographers make them unwitting propagandists?"

The man sometimes described as the "thinking woman's intellectual", Michael Ignatieff, is entering politics (New York Observer). "The Harvard professor of human-rights policy, intellectual supporter of the war in Iraq and contributor of many thousands of words of copy to The New York Times Magazine .... (has) officially announced that he is suspending his career as an American academic-media star and moving back to Toronto, his hometown, to become a professional politician (for the Liberals)."

And in The Guardian, Christopher Hitchens reviews the depiction of journalism in literature, and concludes: "In any case, the literature of old Fleet Street was to a very considerable extent written by journalists and for journalists. Most reporters I know regard Scoop as a work of pitiless realism rather than antic fantasy. The cap fitted, and they wore it, and with a lop-sided grin of pride, at that. Perhaps this assists us in answering the age-old question: why does the profession of journalism have such a low reputation? The answer: because it has such a bad press."

5 Camille does Madonna down
Camille Paglia makes a return to Salon, and Madonna may have wished she hadn't. Paglia, who in 1990 declared Madonna to be "the future of feminism", takes apart her most recent CD "Confessions", the reviewers who have praised it, and wonders if the diva has lost it. "In cannibalizing her disco diva days, Madonna runs the risk of turning into a pasty powdered crumpet like the aging Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Will she become a whooping Charo shaking her geriatric hoochie-coochie hips on TV talk shows? Or should we expect a sudden, grisly collapse from glowing beauty to dust, like Ursula Andress as the 2000-year-old femme fatale in "She"? Too hungry to connect to the youth market, Madonna goes on childishly using naughty words and flipping the finger (as onstage at Live 8 last summer). Marlene Dietrich, her supreme precursor, knew how to preserve her dignity and glamour."

Salon also runs Camille's disco playlist, "A history in songs: From soul and funk to disco, 1960s-'80s."

Tickets for U2's Australian concerts in March go on sale today. David Carr in the NYTimes spells out what he thinks are the keys to the band's success as a business.

The paper also reports that the remaining member of the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia have left us to jam on a celestial harp) are creating tensions with their fans, aka Deadheads, "by cracking down on an independently run Web site that made thousands of recordings of its live concerts available for free downloading".

And The Washington Post reports that Austin, the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, is benefiting from an influx of musical refugees from New Orleans. "Among the estimated 1 million Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina are musicians trying to reestablish New Orleans's distinct second-line beat in a city better known for folk and roots, rhythm and blues, indie rock and country rock."

6 A petrolhead's dreams come true
Jeremy Clarkson is about to become a feature on the tele, girt by sea, now that SBS has picked up his BBC motoring show Top Gear. The column linked to below will not only serve as a taste of what is to come, it is also a rollicking read. And who knew that the world was now home to an 8 litre, 16 cylinder car with 10 radiators that produces 1000 horsepower and can reach speeds around 400 km/hr. How did we ever make do without them? "On a recent drive across Europe I desperately wanted to reach the top speed but I ran out of road when the needle hit 240mph. Where, astonishingly, it felt planted. Totally and utterly rock steady. It felt sublime. Not quiet, though. The engine sounds like Victorian plumbing — it looks like Victorian plumbing as well, to be honest — and the roar from the tyres was biblical. But it still felt brilliant. Utterly, stunningly, mind blowingly, jaw droppingly brilliant."

Clarkson also writes a non-motoring column for The Sunday Times. Yesterday's effort shows off some of his blokey political and social attitudes while offering some amusing insights into how the fame game is played.

7 Harry to the rescue
The book "One City", proceeds to go to fighting social exclusion in Edinburgh, will be released on Friday. J.K. Rowling has written the introduction in which she shares "her experience of grinding poverty and nights when vandals, burglars and drunks would make her life a misery" before Harry Potter came to the rescue. "When she arrived in Edinburgh in December 1993, a single mother with hardly any money and no job to go to, she soon became aware of the barriers, "invisible and inflexible as bullet-proof glass", between the rich and those, like her, on the fringes of society."

Another "best books of 2005" list, this time from reviewers for The Washington Post.

8 Modern manners
The conservatives at National Review Online have taken time out from defending George Bush and all his works to make space for Catherine Seipp to bemoan the loss of civility and manners, among young women. "I’ve written before about boorish modern men. But if anything, modern women can be worse, because even the very concept of ladylike behavior seems to have nearly vanished from contemporary civic life. This extends not only to public conversation but general public decorum, and you don’t have to be an avowed fussbudget like Truss to notice. “I now can’t abide many, many things,” she admits, “and am actually always on the look-out for more things to find completely unacceptable"."
9 Sing along: "Bush was Right"
How about a little bit of balance around here? George Bush has been coping a pasting of late, but not everyone has given up on him, and The Right Brothers have put their support to music - "Bush was Right" (Quick Time link below). Andrew Sullivan recently posted some background on the group on his blog.

And that feisty political vixen Wonkette has posted a montage of photos on her blog to illustrate Bush's evolving take on events in Iraq.

10 IN THE PAPERS: National, Opinion, Business round-up

Alleged terrorists and assorted bad guys have taken over the papers again this morning (and may not relinquish it for the duration of the summer "silly season" - they make such great copy.) The Fairfax papers share an investigation that found men suspected of terrible war crimes remain free in Australia for years while other asylum seekers, innocent of everything except arriving illegally, are being locked up or fast-tracked out of the country. The story focuses on one of Saddam Hussein's former personal bodyguards, Oday Adnan Al Tekriti, who has been given temporary safe haven and is living in Adelaide after initially being refused a visa when the Department of Immigration found there were serious reasons to consider he had committed crimes against humanity. (There are other links to other related stories beside this article.) The Australian reports that police have offered fugitive terror suspect Saleh Jamal a deal to return to Australia if he turns informant on six men he is alleged to have recruited to jihad and pleads guilty to planning an attack on Sydney Harbour. And The Age says the recent arrests of terror suspects in Melbourne and Sydney have not removed the threat of an attack in Victoria, the state's new head of counter-terrorism has warned. (Ah for the good old days when "Jaws" fed summer's biggest fears.)

Otherwise, the papers are scratching around for a decent yarn. The Herald reports that high child-care costs have little impact on married women's decision to take a job, and more generous government subsidies to make child care cheaper are unlikely to increase their labour-force participation, according to new research; that 80 per cent of Sydney suburbs will be quarantined from home developments under an ambitious 25-year government planning blueprint that aims to squeeze 1.1 million residents and 500,000 jobs into a few key areas in order to save scores of single-home neighbourhoods; and that upper house Christian Democrat, the Reverend Gordon Moyes dislikes Santa, Big Brother and homosexuals.

The Australian reports that the influential National Civic Council is backing Health Minister Tony Abbott over Treasurer Peter Costello to succeed John Howard as prime minister ("influential"? Some influence perhaps, but a shadow of what it had under B.A. Santamaria in the 50s and '60s.) It also reports that welfare groups yesterday savaged Peter Costello's plan to strip "bad parents" of their social security payments, saying the proposal designed to help Aboriginal families would not work in the wider community; that retailers have predicted another record spending spree this Christmas, but shoppers are likely to opt for more practical "jocks and socks" style gifts as tighter economic conditions bite; that doctors and education groups are calling for schools to screen students for sexually transmitted diseases after a study found teenagers as young as 15 had contracted STDs; and that credit card providers are being beaten at their own game by a growing number of customers switching from plastic to plastic to milk honeymoon balance transfers and cash-back offers.

The Age fills a lot of the space around its ads with Commonwealth Games stories, which you will find here. It also reports that Lex Lasry, QC, arrived back in Melbourne yesterday morning to the embrace of his children after losing the battle to save the life of a man who he said had become like a son to him; that anti-Jewish attacks in Australia have decreased this year, but the latest figures show assault, vandalism, intimidation and harassment of the Jewish community is still 10 per cent above average; and that state schools have been warned not to force parents to pay "voluntary" fees as fears grow that students are being disadvantaged.

Cartoonist Sean Leahy neatly sums up the question of whether the new sedition laws are needed; and you may enjoy reading about the judge shocked at the sight of bottled water in court (and the try to tell you that in this free-for-all, anything goes society we have lost our ability to be shocked.)


The Age: Dirk den Hartog thinks an American style underclass could follow the new workplace laws and offers some suggestions for avoiding it; Christopher Bantick worries that computer games and the internet are stripping wonder from the lives of children; Leslie Cannold says making the abortion drug RU486 available is basically a question of good governance and that postponing the decision is bad news for women; Philip Huggins (Anglican bishop) report that concerns about terrorism is raising tensions in the suburbs and therefore "we must act now to build a broad coalition of support for a democratic, civil, multicultural Victoria"; and Alan Taylor takes an unremarkable look at the life and death of George Best.

The Australian: Glenn Milne says Costello supporters were "livid" at John Howard's "Peter came to me" comments on Insiders linking the Treasurer to the appointment of Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank, that it shows the level of tensions in the Liberal Party over the leadership, and that Costello needs "a buffer of ideas" to promote is ambitions; John Stone says the appointment of Gerard shows a lack of due process and the extent of the decline of our Westminster system standards under successive governments during the past 20 years (glad you've noticed John, and don't lose interest in the subject); Kendra Okonski runs the Bjorn Lomborg argument that money and effort spent on dealing with climate change would be better spent elsewhere (the holes in this argument are so big they, like the Great Wall of China, are one of the man-made objects visible from space); Ian Moore attacks barrister Robert Richter and journalist David Marr for comments they made about the execution of Nguyen Van Tuong and Dick Morris thinks the successful outcome in Bosnia shows what might happen in Iraq with perseverance.

The SMH: Peter Singer looks at link between avian flu and factory farming and argues for a tax on factory-farm products until enough revenue is raised to pay for the precautions that governments now have to take against avian influenza; Brigid Delaney worries that Christmas parties are no longer bacchanals, but opportunities to network, and says the new "working Christmas party" is a sign of things to come: a world where everything is work, where everyone is a potential contact, and where everyday interaction is networking - a lonely world, where there are few friends but a lot of contacts; Paul Sheehan attacks the "state-funded, ideologically driven lobby" which support "heroin chic" in Australia, in particular the NSW Users & AIDS Association and the Hepatitis C Council of NSW (Julia Gillard also gets a whack along the way); and Anne Davies says the ghosts of former state leaders Bob Carr and John Brogden were still haunting Macquarie Street when Parliament wound up on Thursday.


Robert Gerard and the Reserve Bank dominate the Herald, which reports (John Garnaut) that Robert Gerard's hefty presence will not be missed on the Reserve Bank board, where he appeared more interested in Melbourne horse races than setting interest rates, but that it won't be so easy for the Treasurer, who has been less than forthright about the worst appointment he has ever made and has blown valuable political capital defending it; that an estimated $5 billion is moved out of Australia each year to tax havens around the world, according to Deputy Commissioner of Taxation Paul Duffus; and that the new-look Reserve Bank board meets tomorrow, with most economists expecting it to keep interest rates on hold in the face of falling home prices, creeping unemployment and subdued inflation.

The Age lead says companies are increasingly looking overseas to invest as the high cost of Australian assets dampens local merger and acquisition activity. It also reports that just five days after OzJet's first flight, it not only faces a lack of passengers, but also mechanical glitches with its fleet of 737-200s; and that the Qantas board is expected to approve the launch of Jetstar International on Wednesday and allow a $20 billion order for up to 100 long-haul aircraft.

The Australian reports that China fever has taken hold of the Australian coal mining services industry, but the rush for deals may be too little too late; that Qantas's decision on whether to choose Boeing or Airbus for its $15-20 billion fleet upgrade is going down to the wire as the international arch-rivals fight tooth and nail to offer Australia's flag-carrier the best possible deal; and that South African retailer Edgars Consolidated is among a shortened list of trade and private equity buyers set to move to the next stage of the $450 million-plus Myer auction.


The Daily Telegraph: Children are being regularly stalked and assaulted on their way to and from school in an alarming outbreak of "stranger danger", confidential Government reports reveal; Sydney is to become a city of cities as more than 1.1million more people are squeezed in over the next 25 years and the Government tries to spread new jobs across the metropolis.

The Herald-Sun: Teenage terrorism suspects will be held in a new high-security jail at the state's main youth detention centre; A plan to strip family payments from deadbeat mums and dads who don't look after their children has been blasted by welfare groups.

The Courier-Mail: Besieged former health minister Gordon Nuttall has declared his political career is not finished and is determined he will not resign; A water war is looming between the gardening and pool industries in southeast Queensland.

The Advertiser: Local councillors and mayors would receive pay rises of up to 600 per cent under a plan that would add more than $2 million to ratepayer bills across the state; The ongoing delay in opening Adelaide's new airport terminal had become a state embarrassment, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said yesterday.

The West Australian: Peter Costello wants to take automatic welfare payments away from parents who neglect their children and give the money to other, more responsible adults in the family; A leading think tank has called for the pension age to be raised, possibly to 70, to deal with the growing burden of an ageing population and a skills shortage.

The Mercury: Christmas decorations in Hobart's CBD are dull and unfestive, retailers and shoppers say; P-platers make up an alarmingly high proportion of drivers killed or seriously injured on Tasmania's roads, crash figures show.


Pakistan beat England by an innings in the last of the three test series to win 2-0; Peter Roebuck looks at what went wrong for England; Hockeyroos praised despite champions trophy loss; After a superb eight iron to the last at Coolum yesterday, Robert Allenby has the chance to become the first to claim Australian golf's triple crown.


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