Oh Glorious Sun!

A “HYMN” for Sunday Assembly by guest blogger,
Rod Bower (Secretary, Humanists Australia).
Presented here in celebration of the Solar Eclipse on 10 June 2021

Joshua Earle on Pixabay .

One of the reasons for the early success of the Salvation Army was their “borrowing” popular songs of the day and putting new “Salvationist” words to them. Thinking about Sunday Assembly I thought it might be time to return the favour, so here’s a start, using a tune that I used to love singing beside my grandfather as an adolescent visitor to his church…

(Sung To the tune, “How Great Thou Art”)

Oh Glorious Sun, when I perceive the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, powered by your rays
You rule all life on land and sea and under,
You give us light, and tides, and rainy days

CHORUS:
With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!

In awe I see the galaxies and stars shine,
And through the year, your arc move low and high
The planets’ glow, reflects your light at night time
As does the Moon, migrating ‘cross the sky

With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!

In times of doubt when signposts all have shifted,
I look for answers and a sense of peace.
I feel your rays, and with my spirits lifted
and body warmed, my heart is more at ease.

With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!

And when at last my time of life is over,
as for all lives, and death has set me free,
Back to the Earth I’ll go, but not forever
Because your power will make new lives from me!

With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!

© 2021 Rod Bower/Geoff Allshorn
All rights returned to Rod Bower.

Take Our Future Seriously

Jasmine Trecento is guest blogger for World Environment Day (5 June).

School Strike 4 Climate, Melbourne, 21 May 2021. Photograph by Jasmine Trecento.

On 21 May, as a secondary school student from rural Victoria, I took a trip down to Treasury Gardens in Melbourne to take part in something that has a huge impact on my generation’s future.

A protest organized by ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ was being held in every state in Australia, to bring attention to the ongoing issue of climate change. The strike, aimed at the Morrison Government, was to show that instead of creating thousands of jobs for Australians in the renewable energy industry, they are lining the pockets of gas and coal companies. Such companies are the main contributors to the climate crisis.

With the strike beginning at one o’clock, students from all across Victoria began to make their way to central Melbourne. The protest started with Ella Simons and Anjali Sharma acknowledging the custodians of the land that we were gathering on, which was and always will be stolen land. They then went to on to explain to the crowds why we were all here and what this protest was aiming to do: to show the government that despite their efforts to ignore the problem, we, the upcoming generation, are going to fight for our future and planet. After a few more speakers took to the stage, the strike began.

With over 20,000 people coming together, the majority of them being school students from various schools across the state, it was a massive show of unity and strength. We are not going to let the government that is supposed to be protecting us, ruin our chances of having a future. We are calling on the Government to take our future seriously and treat climate change as what it is: a crisis.

School Strike 4 Climate, Melbourne, 21 May 2021. Photograph by Jasmine Trecento.

I believe that the reason so many students participated in this strike is because we know that without us acting upon the issue, nothing is going to change, and we will be stuck in a world that current politicians have neglected. By taking action, we are hoping that the government will know that we will not accept their ‘efforts’ to look after future generations. If they don’t start making changes soon, we will be the ones in power before too long, and we will not let this issue continue to be ignored.

The millions of dollars being spent and put towards mining fossil fuels is an amount that could be used in so many different areas to save our planet. If the money being spent on the things that are creating so many issues on our earth were instead put towards collecting energy from natural resources like sunlight, rain, tides, waves, and wind, not only would we be creating jobs and a sustainable way to live but saving resources and our lives.

We will not stop protesting and fighting for our right to be able to live our lives without the worry that we won’t have a future. Fund our Future, not gas.

© 2021 Jasmine Trecento/Geoff Allshorn
All rights returned to the author.

We Are the 1%

NASA Photo: ‘The Blue Marble’ photo taken on 7 December 1972 by Apollo 17 (the last human mission to the Moon), some 29,000 km from Earth on the way out to the Moon.
Wikimedia Commons.

Even as a child, I used to wonder at our self-obsessed culture.

Every advertisement is aimed at instant self-gratification: buy our product to become smarter, sexier, cooler, more popular, and only worry about yourself. Forget about metaphorically storing treasures in heaven, just make sure you horde everything you need for creature comfort today while your neighbours starve.

Every popular song in the ‘hit parade’ is aimed at ME ME ME. I can’t get no satisfaction. I love you, yeah yeah yeah. Love me tender. Man, I feel like a woman. You know you love me. I will survive. My heart will go on. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

The cultural worship of narcissism.

As a child, I also used to puzzle over Boris, a widowed World War Two Polish refugee who lived in my neighbourhood. He lived a lonely and troubled life, and the neighbourhood was replete with stories about how he had allegedly dug escape tunnels in his back yard in case of a night raid by Nazis, and how he had concreted up his electricity meter box so nobody could tell if anyone was living inside his shuttered-up home. As a boy, I recall seeing him sitting in the gutter outside his house, using a spoon to share a can of dog food with his only friend – his pet dog – and I wondered why the adults in my neighbourhood used to ignore him. Didn’t Jesus or Santa Claus also love him?

Confronting Capitalism

I don’t condemn our culture for obsessing over self-preservation – selfishness sells at least as much advertising copy as its constituent components: sex or vanity. There is of course nothing wrong with healthy self-preservation, nor with ensuring that you survive along with your immediate family. My concern is that our culture promotes the falsehood that family stops outside our front door.

I even accept that self-preservation can be a fine, upstanding platform of morality – provided it does not trump other morals such as loving thy neighbour. And our culture creates false divisions between neighbours: Not in my back yard. Protect our borders. Punish the dole bludgers. Hide the homeless in another location. Lock away the sick old people where we cannot see them. Stop the queue jumpers even when the queue for those fleeing war or poverty extends over 150 years. Charity begins at home – and ends there. Privileged white lives matter too.

Wherefore art thou, Boris?

Our idolatrous promotion of capitalism is based upon two falsehoods: the first is that self trumps society, that the individual is paramount and should remain the focus of our capitalist system. After all, the myth proposes, people need to be rewarded for initiative, because otherwise free handouts via godless socialism simply make people lazy. Hence our culture prefers to hold billions of humans in economic servitude and allows millions to die each year from starvation, disease, or other poverty-related problems, rather than organise fair and equitable sharing of our resources. Universal Basic Income, anybody?

Culturally, our society honours those whom it sees as being worthy of praise – usually conflating affluence with hard work – and disrespects the poor and disadvantaged, as though blaming them for their failure to be rich. Our worship of economic rationalism and ‘trickle down economics’ – philosophies that are largely immoral and discredited – permeate our lifestyles, causing us to behave in ways that, to an objective observer, are not the optimal ways for humans to treat themselves or others: from undertaking exploitative employment through to the way we approach charity – giving the poor a few breadcrumbs off our table.

The second falsehood in capitalism is the idea that we can all consume abundantly and shamelessly, and that our planet can and will absorb our mindless pursuit of hedonism and selfishness. Who cares if the oceans will soon be depleted as long as we can gorge our gullets today with lobster? So what if forests and the Great Barrier Reef will be gone within a generation, as long as we can eat, drink and be merry today? Who cares if in few years’ time there will be a billion climate change refugees, as long as our borders are secure and we can keep out the black people?

A friend of mine recently discussed similar points on Facebook, and with her permission I quote from her wisdom with some minor adaptations.

When people angrily denounce the 1% as being the evil bastards who keep everything for themselves and neglect everybody else, I remind them that WE are part of the 1% wealthiest people on Earth, just by being born here. We are those evil people who think a meat meal at a restaurant is more important than the lives of the 9 million or so people who will starve to death this year… or the tens of millions who will never manage to lift themselves out of borderline starvation.

In Australia we live really well — even the poorest of us… and I am one of those poorest. I don’t own a car or home. I eat one meal a day, only having protein (a little tin of sardines which I feel guilty about) one day a week. I don’t buy myself much of anything. But I have access to the vast riches of the internet, I never starve, I have a (leaky) roof over my head, am warm and happy. We are not starving to death. We have the dole and pension and many charities that hand out food and other goods. My brother works (for free) in a charity shop that has ridiculously low-priced goods, which they often give away to needy people.

We are sooo lucky here. Most people don’t realise. I come from a well-to-do background, so I have always known a wide spread of people, from filthy rich to destitute. I’ve always been amazed at so many of my wealthy friends believing they are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is always the people who are richer than them who are the problem. The thing is, we all are. We Australians are among the biggest energy consumers on Earth. We produce more greenhouse gases per capita than any other western nation. We produce more rubbish. We do less recycling than almost any other 1st world nation. We really need to ditch this selfish government that encourages selfishness in us and do our part to help fix the world.

At the same time, I don’t think less of those who don’t. It is entirely understandable that most people don’t realise how much better off we are than the vast majority of the world’s people. It is unfortunate, but not really anybody’s fault. It is changing slowly.


Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

So you think this is an exaggeration? The USA and Australia are among the top ten richest countries in the world, as measured by GDP per capita. Maybe reassess whether you are rich: if you received more than $1500 US (or $2000 AUS) last year, you are among the world’s richest 20% of income earners; if you earned $50K US (or $65K AUS) then you are among the richest 1%.

It might be argued that our economic focus upon progress has disconnected us from the real world. My friend explores the idea that we need to reform even our concepts of what it means to practice charitable living and giving:

These days I spend a lot of my time, money and effort helping disadvantaged people in some parts of Africa. And I was never very rich in time or money to begin with, living below the poverty line and having way too many projects on the go simultaneously. But we here in Australia are unimaginably wealthy — even those of us, like me, who live below the poverty line.

I help people in Africa who are in danger of dying. The greatest difficulty is that death is knocking at the door for so many there, it is difficult to triage the problem and spend the money in the most effective ways. Helping people set up a shop, buy land, build a house, get mosquito nets (against malaria), get solar powered lights so they don’t have to pay for fuel or cut down precious vegetation…

I should add that I don’t see myself as virtuous in any of this. I’ve been a pretty selfish shit for much of my life. Helping others is not atonement for that or anything. It just makes good logical sense. We all benefit from an improved world.

Everybody benefits from making the world a better place to live. Where will the next genius come from who might change the way we see the universe? That person might be a young girl in a slum. Who will be the person to gain new insights into the best ways to build and use artificial intelligence? It might be a young boy who gets saved from poverty in a Brazillian favela. Who might be the inspirational person to bring about world peace? It might be a young gay man trying to survive in a deeply homophobic society. Who might show us the way to live lightly, yet luxuriously on this planet? That might be a child yet to be born to a young woman struggling to survive in a land devastated by war and broken agriculture.

If you doubt this, consider the following:

A man who escaped extermination, as a member of what was considered at that time a race of vermin, totally altered the way we understand the universe. He was Albert Einstein.

A young black woman in the insanely racist south of USA grew up in a time where girls did not do math, but her abilities ended up making her one of NASA’s most valued people. Her calculations were respected more than those from the new computing machines. She was Katherine Johnson.

A young boy, the son of illiterate black parents in racist, apartheid South Africa, grew up tending cattle, but believing in fairness. He ended up peacefully dismantling Apartheid and leading that country forward. He was Nelson Mandela.

A young Italian boy, born illegitimately, out of wedlock, realised as he grew up that he was gay at a time when that was a very serious “crime”. He became perhaps the greatest artist/scientist/technologist/inventor in all history. He was Leonardo da Vinci.

We don’t know where the next geniuses will come from who will deliver new ways to understand the universe, life, and psychology. We don’t know if those poorest people will give us the tools to live lightly and luxuriously upon the earth. Maybe those key insights will come from wealthy 1st-worlders like us, or maybe they will come from the much greater numbers of poor people. In the past, some of the most oppressed people have given us some of our brightest stars.

This time we live in now is a Renaissance. It is the beginning of a new era for humanity. There are more geniuses alive today than ever before in all human history. We have vast amounts of free information available to us at our fingertips. People living in poverty have supercomputers in their pockets that let them access this information and communicate with other people all around the planet. Society is shifting to greater tolerance and empathy faster than ever before. Great social changes, which used to take a hundred years, now occur in decades, or even less.

It is true that we have great problems to solve: the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, religious extremism, increasing waves of disease… but we are smarter than ever, more peaceful and cooperative than ever, and more knowledgeable than ever.

If every person in Australia helped some people in the poorest parts of the world, we might eliminate deep poverty and starvation. We might end wars over resources and stupid gods. What might the human race then become? Knowledge, art, and culture are really the only unlimited resources. Imagine how that could enrich us all.

I find her words compelling and her spirit admirable. She suggests that if we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves. But she also warns us that this change must be sustainable:

One of the big problems with trying too hard to help fix the problems is burnout. It is difficult to maintain perspective. I worry sometimes that I might end up giving up on the impossibility, instead of concentrating on small things that can make a big difference to people.

My friend’s warning about sustainability moderates both our desire to help others and our perception of what is needed to implement real change. I am reminded of a childhood memory: I was out doorknocking for a charity called, ‘The Freedom From Hunger Campaign’, when through a flywire door I observed a man eating lunch. In a splinter of my mind’s eye – undoubtedly coloured by my somewhat disapprovingly emotional memory of the event plus subsequent life influences – I seem to recall him as a large, almost obese fellow, gorging himself upon a lunch while displaying the temperament, dimensions and character of Jabba the Hutt. In between loud chews, he asked me what I wanted, and I invited him to make a donation to feed the hungry. Without breaking chews, he loudly and rudely replied, “No!” and turned his attention back to stuffing his face. In my more excitable moments some fifty years later, I recall this man and wonder if he serves as a metaphor for myself, my country or my world.

Museums Victoria

I do believe that the world has big problems and things must change. Whether through social evolution or revolution, real change is coming and it will hurt. Climate change, economic inequality, political instability, dwindling resources, science denialism… we face many challenges, but I would argue that the human species has the resources of intellect and courage to overcome these with rationality and selflessness. If we choose. But just as war often imposes rationing, we are living in an era when the Third World War (a war to save what we patronisingly call the Third World) is already underway, and we need to adopt a collective mindset wherein we act to help our human family by being prepared to use our affluence to help those who have less.

Whether we act pre-emptively and mitigate imminent change – or continue trying to ignore it as long as possible until it overtakes and overwhelms us – this is our choice both as individuals and as a society. How we each respond to that call determines our ethics as human beings and our civilised values as a human society. As Sarah Connor, once said, “A storm is coming” – and this will necessitate lifestyle change for us all.

I am not necessarily advocating the overthrow of capitalism; but I do propose its humanising: an economic system based upon compassion not consumption, predicated on helping instead of hoarding. We need a world built upon apposition not opposition; upon coalition not competition.

Any rational and ethical concept of human identity must include a healthy perspective of being collective and collegiate. This includes a morality which is based upon human need and human reason. The concept is not hard – even children can grasp the concept that sharing is preferable to selfishness, as expounded in the ‘Pronoun’ song from the old children’s TV series, HR Pufnstuf:

“Mine is a selfish word,
Yours is a thoughtful word,
But ours is the nicest word of all.”

The human factor – indeed the organic life factor – must surely comprise an important part of anyone’s perspective if they wish to be fully alive and fully human. This leads to certain inescapable conclusions. Life is not a shopping spree nor a game to see who dies with the most toys. History will never thank you for watching every episode of your favourite TV series, for going on that overseas holiday, or for painting the back verandah a special colour last summer. But if you instead gave equivalent time, money and effort to help others, then you may leave a human legacy wherein some future family can literally thank you for their home, their environment, or perhaps for their very existence – a much better form of immortality than that found within many religions and philosophies.

Do you want to see the world change? Then get out there and change it.

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

Here is an opportunity to support some of the work that my friend supports,
helping homeless people and saving lives:
Lunko House in Kenya and Uganda.

And here is one of mine, supporting people directly in Kakuma Refugee Camp – building shelters and toilets, providing life saving night lighting, feeding people, saving lives with medicine:
Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees.

Another opportunity for direct assistance in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Helping those who have nothing. They currently need food and firewood.

Directly funding a self-sustaining project, the Rainbow Refugee Food Program in Nairobi. Feeds refugees, supplies gainful employment and income and rent.

A direct fundraiser for Nairobi-based rainbow refugees
run by my trustworthy friend in the USA. Feeds and clothes, provides shelter and medicine. Saves lives and gives hope.

Or you might like to commit to helping a safe house give shelter to marginalised refugees who might otherwise be homeless and in great danger:
Marginalised Refugee Empowerment Program Africa (MAREPA)

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

National Volunteer Week

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

“What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” – Aristotle

I recall some years ago, an Australian politician thought he would demonstrate how ‘in touch’ he was with the common folk. He suggested that volunteering was a great thing to do, and proposed that everyone in Australian should volunteer one hour per week to a voluntary cause. Sounds great and noble, eh?

The response from one national social service organisation was probably not what he expected – they observed that if everyone in Australia donated only one hour per week to volunteer work, the entire economy would collapse in a heap. From sports teams to school lunches, from meals on wheels to fire fighting, from human rights to home care, from activism to animal welfare – volunteering comprises a large component of our individual and collective civic life.

Although statistics are somewhat fluid, it appears that some six million volunteers in Australia donate over 700 million hours of volunteer work per year.

I recall stories of my own.

“Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” – Halina Wagowska

In the 1980s, I began my volunteer involvement with a human rights organisation that included writing letters to overseas governments in the days when the pen was mightier than the keyboard. My friends and I wrote in particular to a certain government whose human rights abuse of its own citizens made it a target of activist letters. Word was that the President of the nation became quite agitated because his government had to actually employ extra staff to open and respond to the many letters they received from around the world.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some years later, that government fell and was replaced with a civilian government that rewrote its national Constitution in order to enact new human rights protections for its citizens. Around that time, I met a church minister who was visiting Australia from that nation. I told him that my friends and I had written letters to their former government, and I asked whether or not such activism was helpful or simply a sanctimonious waste of time. He smiled warmly and told me confidentially that he could not walk down a street in his town without talking to people whose lives – or the lives of their families and friends – had been saved by activist letters.

“My friend,” he told me warmly, “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it. You are changing lives.” Those words fuelled my activism for many years because they taught me that volunteers really can change the world.

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
Barack Obama

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

By the time we met, she was already an older woman depending upon a walking stick for personal mobility – and yet her spirit was indomitable. She was a front-line fighter in an epidemic that has now extended for forty years, and like a commendable few around the world, she was there at the height of the battle. While others (mainly young gay men, often rejected by family and Australian society) were becoming ill and succumbing to what we now call AIDS, she donated countless hours of volunteer time to be their mum. She befriended them, cared for them, took them shopping or to medical appointments, visited them and held their hands as they lay dying in hospital, attended their funerals, and then began again with the next young man in need. She stopped counting their funerals when they reached one hundred, but she never stopped caring.

I met her because our volunteer work overlapped at the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where she memorialised many of her extended family of lost young men, attended workshops to support the grieving, marched with those living with HIV/AIDS, and demonstrated that a little old lady’s heart was a formidable weapon against widespread social stigma and discrimination. She was living proof that although love cannot cure the world’s ills, it can make them more bearable. Now gone herself, Mary was my hero.

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Image by carol_austin1 from Pixabay

Two students of mine – a quiet boy and girl – had volunteered to visit an old folks’ home as part of their weekly community service activities. They had avoided the loud, popular activities, featuring crowds and kudos and other youngsters, choosing instead to chat quietly to grandmas and grandpas. At the end of that year, a woman arrived at the school and asked to speak to the teacher in charge of sending teenagers to that nursing home. She was greeted with some trepidation (“what have those kids done wrong?”). Instead, she explained that her mother was a resident at the nursing home, and that she had visited her mother that week while the students were there. It turns out that, unknown to anyone else, these teenagers had smuggled formal evening wear and a disc player in their school bags, had dressed up when they reached the facility, and had waltzed with each of the residents in turn, while playing old melodies. This woman had seen the sparkle in her mother’s eyes, and those of the other old folk, as these shy teenagers had danced and laughed and shared, and had then given out Christmas gifts of biscuits and cakes that the girl and her mother had personally baked at home. None of this was ever spoken about at school by the kids involved. They wanted no fame or glory; they were just happy to treat these elders with grandparently care, respect, and human love. (Naturally, I ensured that they got a letter of commendation from the school – a quiet reward that did not publicly draw attention to them with their peers, but which still acknowledged their efforts). Those kids learnt an important lesson: in seeking to create a better world, we also improve ourselves.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” — Dr Syed Muhammad Zeeshan Hussain Almashhadi

National Volunteer Week

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

A Tale of Two Cities

A Comparison of Community Responses to HIV/AIDS
in San Francisco and Melbourne.

In honour of the fortieth anniversary today of the first article to ever be published on AIDS, by Dr Lawrence Mass in the New York Native.

Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

In 1988, a mere seven years into the epidemic, the Mayor of San Francisco told the US Presidential Commission on AIDS that his city had already lost more young men to AIDS than it had to World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam – combined and doubled. (Agnos, 1988, 1).

This rather horrifying thought evokes the assertion by Leslie Banks that ‘geographical aspects of disease date back to the earliest of written records’, linking locality and disease as being both interdependent and interactive (Banks, 1959, 199). Thus historians have traditionally examined how local conditions may have given rise to the spread of disease across place and time, as demonstrated in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, where we can see the clustering of cases around a polluted water pump in London (Snow, 1854).

A study of place, however, can also show vectors of infection through forms of human migration, as demonstrated by the spread of diseases such as Bubonic Plague beyond their place of origin (May, 1953, 22 – 27). HIV/AIDS may have been the first worldwide pandemic to enjoy international transmission at the speed of the jumbo jet, but it will not be the last.

The trans-national spread of HIV/AIDS has been compounded through its interweaving with what Dennis Altman refers to as the ‘globilisation of human welfare’ (Altman, 2001, 73). His concern over the dominance of western medical discourse is understandable when considering its possible incompatibility or inappropriateness in other places or cultures. In studying the responses to HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and Melbourne, we can see a mix of varied outcomes within two locations that are geographically distant but culturally and socially interactive.

The arrival of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s transformed both San Francisco and Melbourne. Rodgers et al assert that: ‘During the early 1980s, when the epidemic began, AIDS had no social meaning. Individuals had to create meanings regarding its definition, social context, epidemiology, and causes.’ (Rodgers et al, 1995, 665) While the USA and Australia were still formulating their national, political and cultural responses to HIV/AIDS – responses that would at times include hysteria, fear, stigma, vilification and discrimination – it was the gay communities that led the fightback, which they defined within the context of saving lives, caring for the sick, celebrating diversity and promoting gay rights.

San Francisco and Melbourne can be seen to share some historic and social intersections. Both are locations in relatively affluent ‘western’ democracies which were originally inhabited by indigenous peoples who were later dispossessed by white European colonizers; both cities received a boost in economy and population from the mid-19th century Gold Rush; and both places are now seen as centres of culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Image by handsoftmz from Pixabay

Despite such similarities, San Francisco and Melbourne also have differences of population, status and local culture which are as disparate as are San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Melbourne’s Westgate Bride. San Francisco is both a city and a county, registering some 805,235 residents in its 2010 census (US Census Bureau, n.d.; Office of the Mayor, n.d.) but serving as a major focus for the San Francisco Bay Area, comprising 7.1 million residents (Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d.) A 2006 study reports that 15.4% of San Francisco’s residents identify themselves as being gay, lesbian or bisexual, the highest percentage of any city in the USA (Turnbull, 2006). The municipality of Melbourne contains an estimated 100,611 residents (2011 estimate) and its greater metropolitan area covers some 4,169,103 residents (City of Melbourne, n.d) but there are no known estimates of the size of Melbourne’s gay community.

While Melbourne was traditionally viewed by many as a city where much of its culture appeared to stop upon six o’clock closing, its post-war immigration encouraged the evolution of a more cosmopolitan, multicultural society. Meanwhile, San Francisco was popularly known as a centre for bohemian culture. In 1950, legal protections for gay people were already being established by law in San Francisco (San Francisco History Index, n.d.), while this did not commence in Melbourne until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1980. In the 1960s, Scott McKenzie was encouraging people to join the hippie counter-culture by travelling to San Francisco – and ‘be sure to wear a flower in your hair’ (Phillips & McKenzie, 1967). In the 1970s, the Village People encouraged young gay men to ‘Go West‘ and to join the gay community of San Francisco because ‘life is peaceful there’.

Both cities became a destination for an influx of young gay men who were seeking escape from oppressive country towns, as fictionalised in San Francisco’s Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. San Franscisco’s gay culture was epitomised by Harvey Milk and civil rights activism. Historian Alan Petersen gave an example of the dichotomy between Melbourne’s private/public spaces and the restrictions that were traditionally placed upon Melbourne’s gay community, with a cluster of gay venues as the central, covert focus of its social existence and the majority of gay people being more hidden in suburbia (Petersen, 2012, 4). In my own studies, I have been told by gay men that they socialised in Melbourne’s gay venues on weekends and then went and lived more closeted lives at home and work.

Image by PatternPictures from Pixabay

In November 1980, a gay man named Ken visited his doctor’s office in San Francisco and was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer connected with AIDS, and he would later become the first officially registered Person With AIDS (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 85 & 86). His life and death are documented, along with those of other early protagonists in the fight against AIDS from San Francisco and New York City, in Randy Shilt’s study And the Band Played On. It is reported that by 1989, almost half of the gay men over age 26 in San Francisco were infected with HIV (Rodgers et al, 1995, 669) and that by 1995, the city had the highest per capita infection rate of any city in the USA as well as the highest percentage of AIDS-related deaths (1.7%)” (ibid, 666).

In December 1981, young Bobbi Campbell from San Francisco publicly disclosed his status as a person living with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. He created a poster about “Gay Cancer” which he placed in a pharmacy window (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 86 & 87.) Campbell was one of the first gay men to attempt to seize control of his situation and agitate for public education and action. We can see the start of local activism that would affect not only San Franciscans but also have an international impact. San Francisco not only served as a place where local conditions – in this case, a large collectivised gay community – would provide one locus for an infective agent; the city also demonstrated that epidemics – and human responses to such epidemics – could ebb and flow into and out of localised geographical centres and travel the world.

San Francisco received no prior warning of AIDS, and by the time they rallied, many people had already been lost. By contrast, Melbourne’s gay community received warnings in advance, and they had time to develop community support networks and distribute information. There are no statistics available on the estimated number of gay men living in Melbourne in the 1980s or 1990s due to the covert nature of homosexuality at the time and due to the absence of a strongly united gay community as there had been in San Francisco. Statistics do show that in the early 1980s, hundreds of gay men were diagnosed annually with HIV/AIDS (Author unknown, 1999).

At the 25th anniversary of the Victorian AIDS Council, founding President Phil Carswell recalled the dread and apprehension which they all felt back in those early days and their inability to fully grasp the gravity of the coming problem:

Looking ahead, we thought we could see a tsunami was coming. What we failed to understand was that it wasn’t a tsunami; it was a whole climate change” (Carswell, 2009).

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

In 1983, when Australia’s first AIDS fatality occurred in Melbourne, the story appeared on page 3 of The San Francisco Chronicle (United Press, 1983). Its prominence in this newspaper might suggest that the patient – known to have lived in the USA for some years – may have had friends in San Francisco.

A number of comparisons could be made between community responses in San Francisco and Melbourne, and this is the first and most obvious. In San Francisco, the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation was started in April 1982 and was later to be renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF, 2012). In Melbourne, the Victorian AIDS Action Committee was founded in July 1983, later renamed the Victorian AIDS Council. Both organisations were started by coalitions of gay activists and doctors, and both were born out of a groundswell of community concern. There was open liaison between both cities, as is demonstrated in this 1984 Melbourne document, which talks of the San Francisco response (Carr, 1986 (1990) 196 – 203; Author unknown, n.d. (Ian Goller Collection); Goller & Carswell, 1985; Scroope & Carswell, 1987.

The San Francisco model of health care became somewhat of a template for the Melbourne response. This ‘model’ encompassed medical staff, carers and volunteers working collaboratively in every aspect of patient care and treatment, including collaborating closely with local community organisations. This included the emergent, grass-roots volunteer care teams and other support structures; thousands of hours of volunteer work from both homosexual and heterosexual people, possibly the first time that so many volunteers had rallied to confront an epidemic.

Randy Shilts wrote of this model in 1992:

The importance of San Francisco General Hospital in the history of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overstated. The model of care now used the world over was pioneered in those buildings.” (Shilts, 1992, ix and x.)

My own study in 2011 suggests that Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne was also a centre of medical excellence and innovation, one of synergy between doctors and activists; a place where patients became self-empowered to define and determine their own treatment options (Allshorn, 2011). Although it was closed in 1996, the hospital’s legacy is a paradigm of collaborative discourse between patients and doctors, a redefinition of the medical discourse away from the traditional western model proposed by Foucault, in which medicine has been constructed and regimented as a form of social control (Gordon, 1980, 175).

When we look at both cities, we can see differences emerge even when close correlation is apparent: the SFAF expanded its services to assist affected cohorts, including gay men, injecting drug users, women, and CALD communities (SFAF, 2021). By contrast, the VAC focussed its work predominantly on gay men. This may reflect differing social hierarchies in these cities: San Francisco’s gay community had enjoyed greater civil rights, whereas Melbourne’s gay community was more covert and emergent, and evidently saw a need to establish their own exclusive support structures.

Strangely, the activism in both cities may have been energised by converse governmental responses to HIV/AIDS. In the USA, Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, just as AIDS was being discovered. Many commentators criticise his failure to significantly address AIDS as a public health issue for the first seven years of his eight year administration. Suggested one critic: ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS’ (Pareene, 2011). The San Francisco Mayor stated in 1988 that: ”What threatens to overwhelm San Francisco is not the increased caseload of AIDS, but the continued lack of leadership from the federal government’ (Krohn, 1988).

In Australia, our federal government took steps to work cooperatively with affected communities in order to develop effective responses to the epidemic (Carswell, 1986). This meant that unlike San Francisco, where the activist community was forced into activism due to the inaction of their national government, Melbourne’s activists were being empowered by governmental recognition. Despite somewhat tangential political actuation, both cities achieved a similar result and created a powerful local activist movement.

Community activism in both cities did include forms of protest. The group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a radical protest group founded in New York City to fight for those with AIDS, particularly to demand their access to potentially life-saving drugs. Chapters of ACT UP formed around the world. ACT UP Melbourne was enthusiastic but short-lived, perhaps lacking the rage of their US counterparts because of our more collaborative government.

AIDS memorial rituals were also developed in San Francisco and exported to the world. These include Candlelight Vigils, starting in San Francisco in 1983 and continuing to this day (SFAF, 2012). Melbourne’s Candlelight Vigil has almost disappeared in recent years. Similarly, San Francisco boasts a National AIDS Memorial Grove, while Melbourne’s AIDS Gardens remain largely forgotten.

The AIDS Quilt, created by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones in 1987, remains available for display across the USA, while most of Australia’s AIDS Quilt is now stored in a Sydney museum and Melbourne – perhaps surprisingly – boasted its longest surviving chapter. These varied outcomes demonstrate that even when community activism is directly transmitted by human and cultural interaction, the resulting outcomes are reliant upon local conditions and personalities.

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

Rodgers et al assert that “When a major event threatens the stability of a system, it forces the members of the system to construct new and changing meanings of their community.” They also suggest that HIV/AIDS reconstructed the social fabric of San Francisco (Rodgers et al, 1995, 676). Dennis Altman has recently called for greater acknowledgement that HIV/AIDS has contributed to the development of Australia’s modern gay community. My study demonstrates the complexities faced by trans-national communities even when they are facing a similar problem or share some cultural antecedents and aspirations. This comparison also shows the ability of local communities to develop their own systems of self-empowerment and to adapt templates to suit local needs when facing challenging times. Such a template might be adapted to suit local conditions in other places.

The world needs to learn lessons from this history because there will be another time, another place and another epidemic. Cleve Jones recalls that the SFAF’s phone started to ring before they had even advertised its existence. He evokes a universal symbolism for local activist communities everywhere: ‘The phone never stopped ringing. Thirty years later, it’s still ringing’ (SFAF, 2012).

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

Original paper entitled, ‘AIDS Response in San Francisco and Melbourne’ was presented at the ‘Putting History In Its Place’ Conference, La Trobe University, 28 September 2012, and can be found here as part of the conference program that was available on iTunes. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Bibliography:

Melbourne:

Geoff Allshorn, 2011. Heroes of the Epidemic: A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the 1980s, unpublished Masters Preliminary thesis, La Trobe University.

W K Anderson, 2002. Fever Hospital: A History of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

Author unknown, n.d. ‘Visitors to AIDS Conference’ (undated note), Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

John Ballard, 2003/2007. Untitled Review, in Neal Blewett, AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years: Reflections on Australia’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic, Sydney: Australian Policy Institute, University of Sydney, Commissioned Paper, 35 – 38.

Neal Blewett, 2003/2007. AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years, Sydney: Australian Health Policy Institute, Commissioned Paper Series.

Phil Carswell, 1986. ‘International AIDS Memorial’ (Press Release by Victorian AIDS Council), 23 May.

Phil Carswell, 2009. Founding President’s speech, VAC 25th anniversary celebration, Fawkner Park, South Yarra, 5 April. Quote confirmed by private communication 25 September 2012.

Adam Carr (ed.) 1986 (1990). Meeting the Challenge: Papers of the First National Conference on AIDS, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986; reissued Abbotsford: La Trobe University, 1990.

Adam Carr, 2011. ‘When We Were Very Young: The Early Years of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Victoria’, in Graham Willett, et al, eds, Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne, Parkville: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, pp. 149 – 152.

City of Melbourne, n.d. ‘Melbourne in numbers’, at http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/AboutMelbourne/Statistics/Pages/MelbourneSnapshot.aspx accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

Timothy Conigrave, 1995. Holding the Man, Ringwood: McPhee Gribble.

Fairfield Hospital, 1994. Annual Report and Financial Statement 1994, Fairfield: Fairfield Hospital.

Fairfield Hospital, 1995. Annual Report and Financial Statement 1995, Fairfield: Fairfield Hospital.

John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Port Melbourne: Minerva.

Ian Goller & Phil Carswell, 1985. International Conference on AIDS, Atlanta Georgia 14th – 17th April, Melbourne: Health Commission of Victoria, 1985, Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 2, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Lou McCallum, 2003/2007. Untitled Review, in Neal Blewett, AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years, Sydney: Australian Health Policy Institute, Commissioned Paper Series, 2003/2007, pp. 32 – 38.

David Menadue, 2003. Positive, Crow’s Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Alan Petersen, 2012. A Historical Geography of Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Club Scene c. 1970 – 2000, seminar paper, La Trobe University, 26 April.

Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, n.d. The Hussies Handbook: A Guide for Sex Workers and the Law, St Kilda.

Allen Scroope & Phil Carswell, 1987. ‘Report of Visit to San Francisco and Conference on Health Department Leadership and Community Response’, Melbourne, Attachment 4: ‘Shanti Project’, Ian Goller Collection, Box 14 Folder 7, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 1, October 1983, ALGA Collection.

VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 2, March 1984, ALGA Collection.

San Francisco:

Art Agnos, 1988. Quoted in An Epidemic of Loss: AIDS in San Francisco’s Gay Male Community 1988 – 1993, report from conference of 30 October 1987, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 25 March.

Author unknown, 1999. ‘Estimated HIV Incidence, observed AIDS Diagnoses and projected AIDS Incidence’ in National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (ed.), HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia: Annual Surveillance Report 1999, Darlinghurst: National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Figure 2, p. 8.

Author unknown, n.d. San Francisco History Index, z Publishing.

Author unknown, Visitors to AIDS Conference, undated note, Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, accessed 20 September 2012.

Wyatt Buchanan, 2006. ‘SAN FRANCISCO: Pride parade salute for an unlikely ally / Police officer who reached out in 1960s to be grand marshal’, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 June.

Adam Carr, ed., Meeting the Challenge: Papers of the First National Conference on AIDS, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986; reissued Abbotsford: La Trobe University, 1990, pp. 196 – 203.

Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d. ‘Population and Land Area’, at http://www.bayareavision.org/bayarea/index.html, accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

Matthew Kane, ‘Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria’, Cineaste, Volume 31 Number 4, Fall 2006, ProQuest Central, p. 104.

Susan Krohn, 1988. ‘Agnos lobbies Washington AIDS – Reagan criticized for ‘lack of leadership’ on AIDS’, United Press International, 26 March.

Gary Laderman, 2003. Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 140 – 144, 198 – 200.

Leon McKusick et al., ‘AIDS and Sexual Behavior Reported by Gay Men in San Francisco’, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 75 Number 5, May 1985, pp. 493 – 496.

Alex Pareene, ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS‘, Salon, 11 February.

John Phillips (writer) & Scott McKenzie (singer), 1967. San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), MCA Music Publishing.

Carol Pogash, 1992. As Real As It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic, New York: Birch Lane Press.

Everett M Rodgers, et al, 1995. ‘Communication and Community in a City Under Siege: The AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco’, Communication Research, Volume 22 Number 6, December, pp. 664 – 678.

Office of the Mayor, n.d. ‘Mayor Lee Announces U.S. Census Bureau Results for San Francisco Population’, Office of the Mayor, City and County of San Francisco, at http://www.sfmayor.org/index.aspx?page=281; accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

San Francisco History Index, n.d. ‘A Timeline of San Francisco History: 1950 – Present’, z Publishing.

E Stephen Searle, 1987. ‘West Coast Lessons – AIDS in San Francisco’, Health Education Journal, Volume 46 Number 3, pp. 130 – 133.

SFAF, 2010. 10 Moments that Changed History, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

SFAF, 2012. The View from Here: Cleve Jones & Dr. Marcus Conant, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

SFAF, 2021. ‘SFAF History‘, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

SFAF, n.d. (b). ‘AIDS Walk San Francisco 1987’, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Randy Shilts, 1987. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.

– – – 1992. ‘Foreword’, in Carol Pogash, As Real As It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic, New York: Birch Lane Press, pp. ix – xii.

Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, 1996. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chronicle Books.

Lornet Turnbull, 2006. ‘12.9% in Seattle are gay or bisexual, second only to S.F., study says’, Seattle Times, 16 November, at http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2003432940_gays16m.html, accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

United Press, 1983. ‘First Death from AIDS in Australia’, San Francisco Chronicle, 11 July, ALGA collection.

US Census Bureau, n.d. ‘Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Demographic Profile Data’, US Census Bureau: American Fact Finder, at http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk; accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

David Weisman, 2011. We Were Here, Peccadillo Pictures, 2011.

Other:

Dennis Altman, 2001. Global Sex, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

A. Leslie Banks, 1959. ‘The Study of the Geography of Disease’, The Geographical Journal, Vol 125, No. 2, June.

Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, 2006. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, New York : Basic Books, 1 & 2.

Laurie Garrett, 1995. The Coming Plague, New York: Penguin Books.

Colin Gordon (ed.), 1980. Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Other Writings, New York: Pantheon Books.

Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst, Space, Place and Sex: Geographies of Sexuality, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2010.

Jacques M May, 1953. ‘The Geography of Disease’, Scientific American, Volume 188, Issue 2, 02/1953.

Simon Naylor, 2008. ‘Historical Geography: Geographies and Historiographies’, Progress in Human Geography, Volume 32, Issue 2, 265 – 274.

Dr John Snow, 1855. “Dr. Snow’s Report,” in Report on the Cholera Outbreak in the Parish of St. James, Westminster, during the Autumn of 1854, in Peter Vinten-Johansen, The John Snow Archive and Research Companion, accessed 20 September 2012 and 5 May 2021.

©2012 Geoff Allshorn

Religious Rights, Human Wrongs

Image by Brigitte make custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

Some years ago, I applied for employment in a religious school.

I was young and full of enthusiasm, with a respectable religious background and church upbringing. I had appropriate teaching qualifications and impeccable references.

The job interview went well, and we all seemed mutually happy, as a panel of administrators and parents asked me to respond to their school ethos, educational requirements etc. It was going swimmingly, and we were discussing educational practice until one parent asked me a hypothetical question out of the blue:

“Imagine you are on Yard Duty, and one of the students in the schoolyard asks you the question: ‘Are Adam and Eve in the Bible true?’ – How would you answer?”

I immediately recognised that this was a potential trap and that they wanted me to say: “I would tell them that if it is in the Bible, of course it is true.” But I also knew that such an answer was unsatisfactory to me. As someone who had been taught to think for myself within my Christian upbringing, and as a teacher, I could not ethically encourage children to blindly accept indoctrination.

Pausing for a moment, I came up with an answer which I felt would be acceptable to me as a teacher, and to them as Christians: “I would tell the student to go read the Bible, read their student Bible commentary, ask their parents, ask their teachers, ask their pastor, ask their friends, and then make an informed decision.”

“Thank you for coming,” replied that parent immediately, smiling thinly and gesturing to the door. I thanked them for their time, and left the room with my head held high. I had not betrayed my professional ethics as a teacher, and therefore I was useless to them.

This is one of many reasons why religious freedoms – the fake news being peddled by our federal government in an attempt to introduce a law that would abuse human rights under the cover of religiosity – must be opposed.

Everyone expresses concern about the ability of religious schools to fire gay teachers, Muslim gardeners or single mothers whose ‘chosen lifestyle’ is incompatible with the proclamations of religious bigots. I agree – but I wonder if the greater long-term damage might be in teaching students to NOT think critically about themselves and the world around them?

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Fandom of the Opera

Remembering the birthday of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (2 May 1890 – 31 August 1965)
and commemorating Star Wars Day (May the 4th).

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

I miss space opera.

I recall my younger days, travelling into town and visiting Space Age Books. As I stepped through those bookshop doors, the everyday sounds of traffic and mundane life were left outside and I was free to explore other worlds and other times. I felt as if I had traversed a cosmic portal and left behind my mundane existence as a schoolboy to become, for all too brief a period, an adventurer and researcher at Hogwarts or in a modern-day Library of Alexandria.

I miss the days of looking upward, of being inspired by Moonwalkers who held much of the planet breathless in shared excitement. I miss Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who encouraged us to consider the stellar void as testimony to both our cosmic beginnings and our future as a species. I recall my imaginary explorations as a crewmember aboard the Skylark, the Spacemaster, or the USS Enterprise; or as a citizen of Trantor or Arrakis. I admire the modern equivalents of these vistas, but somehow (to me at least) these newcomers lack the grandeur of the old masters – or maybe that is simply my nostalgia instinct kicking in and giving special deference to my halcyon days as an avid and excitable teenage SF reader.

It has been reported that 60% of post-war baby-boomer children in the UK were avid readers of Dan Dare comics during the 1950s (Holland, 2008, 6). They later matured by watching Thunderbirds and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armstrong’s one small step on the Moon. It may have been inevitable for me to join this same cohort, as I was born between the launch of Ham the Chimp and Yuri Gagarin.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As someone who was first exposed to SF via television programs such as Space Patrol, Lost in Space and Space: 1999, and the pulp SF novels of Captain WE Johns, I recognise that the science in these stories was often embarrassingly inadequate, but they nevertheless portrayed something marvellous – the grandeur of the universe and the sense of wonder which can be inculcated by our viewing of cosmic vistas.

Nowadays, the demands and realities of mundane existence have largely replaced my youthful dreams and visions – I have not gafiated so much as fafiated. And yet, when I pause and look up into the night-time sky, there is a primal call which echoes in my soul. Despite my attempts to ignore this compulsion, I still miss space opera, that traditionally maligned sub-genre of science fiction which encompasses both the grandeur of Apollo and the ordinariness of pulp culture.

Defining the Undefinable

NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In its purest form, SF holds the potential to not only anticipate a variety of possible futures, but to actually contribute to such outcomes (Bonfiglioli, 2010, 40; Kreuiter, 2009, 26-28). This holds true both sociologically and technologically, as demonstrated by the public silence that largely greeted NASA’s 1996 announcement of possible Martian microbial fossils inside Meteorite ALH84001. No politician mocked the concept of little green men; no religious leader proclaimed the divinely-ordained anthropocentric nature of creation. Life on Earth continued as before – evidence that SF had prepared our species to accept news of possible ET life.

I observe a similar lack of controversy in the discovery of thousands of extrasolar worlds circling nearby stars. Once again, our cultures and cosmological understandings have been prepared in advance for exciting discoveries. This shows that SF has an incredible, literally world-changing power, in no small part due to its implicit optimism. SF has even helped students to understand and learn scientific concepts (Laprise and Windrich, 2010) and has inspired many people to enter scientific careers or to create technological inventions (Jones, 2005; Easton & Dial, 2010).

‘Flight 16’ – Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Science fiction inculcates an open mindset in which its practitioners might explore all sorts of possibilities: diversity and learning to appreciate the metaphoric alien in our midst, wondrous scientific discoveries, future utopias and dystopias available to humans, new human identities and futuristic societies, vast cosmic vistas that transcend space and time and humanity. I have previously noted how Carl Sagan has invoked the sense of wonder that can be found in the cosmic vistas of science. Science fiction pioneer and monster afficionado Forrest Ackerman was one person who embraced and popularised many science fantasy elements, but he personally disavowed any belief in religion or the supernatural, and embraced hard science. As an atheist and secular humanist, he looked ahead with hope to the future awaiting possible construction by humankind:

“My hope for humanity – and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in this direction – is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence… I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an accepted citizen of Utopia.” – Forrest J. Ackerman

Bridging the Gap

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

CP Snow suggested that we need to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’, ie. the chasm that exists between science and arts (Snow, 1959). I would suggest that science fiction may be one way to popularise science and critical thinking in ways that are artistic, creative and innovative. This may help to steer our culture away from fake news, Trumpism and Brexit, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience.

Science fiction has a potential to transcend its own limitations and expand further into the paeans of literature. It can do this by borrowing extensively from other literature for its theme, character and setting (Casimir, 2002) or by utilising mythical archetypes that allow Luke Skywalker to be Odysseus. SF can give expression to feminist and other progressive ideas. Among its many fans, science fiction attracts those who are marginalised by mundane society and we should listen to such voices:

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
Octavia Butler.

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Dr Bronwyn Lovell.

We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.
Shayla Lawz.

Science fiction can therefore be an antidote to bigotry and intolerance, and an educational tool for promoting diversity and difference. How can someone hate their fellow humans after they learn to appreciate the ‘alien’ within SF literature?

The Fandom Menace:

In SF, we meet people who are forever changed by the advances in science which have affected both their world and their very humanity. It is when we stretch these boundaries, not only of science, but of our concepts of what it means to be human, that we achieve the level of classical literature.

August 1930 Amazing Stories. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It is thus we see a connection between Jules Verne’s The First Men in the Moon and Plato’s stories of Atlantis; we understand that Star Trek is a modern-day reworking of Jason and the Argonauts or Gulliver’s Travels; we can view Asimov’s Robot stories as 20th century modellings of medieval morality plays. We understand that tales of astronauts exploring strange new worlds are re-visitations of Robinson Crusoe or The Odyssey. We appreciate the Superman stories as secular retellings of Biblical folklore; and that Sarah Connor’s space opera adventures reboot female archetypes Athena or Minerva.

All such mythologies examine the timeless themes of what it means to be human in a wider, breathtaking cosmos.

Perhaps most of all, science fiction gives us a mirror within which we can glimpse who we are, and who we might become. In creating the possible worlds of science fiction, we are also creating ourselves:

“The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water …” ― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

References:

Catriona Bonfiglioli, 2010. ‘Science ↔ Society’, in Chemistry in Australia, RACI, Volume 77 Number 9, October.

John Casimir, 2002. ‘Clone Wars’, in The Age, 16 May, B3.

Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial (eds), 2010. Visions of Tomorrow: Science Fiction Predictions That Came True, Skyhorse Publishing Inc, Canada.

Steve Holland, 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Steve Holland (ed.), Rick Random: Space Detective, London: Prion/IPC Publishing Group.

Julian Jones (writer and director), 2005. How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions Inc.

Allan Kreuiter, 2009. ‘The Science of Science Fiction’, in Australasian Science, Volume 30, Issue 10, Nov/Dec.

Shari Laprise & Chuck Winrich, 2010. ‘The Impact of Science Fiction Films on Student Interest in Science’, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 45 – 49.

C.P. Snow, 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Love Don’t Need A Reason

“ ‘Cause love don’t need a reason
Love don’t always rhyme
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time.”
Love Don’t Need A Reason

In memory of Michael Callen
(11 April 1955 – 27 December 1993)

They Are Falling All Around Me

Michael Callen was a US singer and gay man who became an important AIDS activist during the terrible pandemic that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s – and which continues to this day in many parts of the world. One of his legacy songs, Love Don’t Need A Reason, was co-written by Australian-born singer Peter Allen (who also died of AIDS) and singer Marsha Malamet.

My personal introduction to Michael Callen took place at the US National March on Washington on 25 April 1993, not because I attended the event, but because I watched film clips from the March on the ABC News in Australia. I was visiting a lesbian friend who has since passed away, and we were captivated by Michael’s song – a moment of beauty and peace during a stormy era when our civil rights were under attack and many of our friends were suffering and dying from a dreadful epidemic.

Do Not Turn Away

Michael Callen was a musician in The Flirtations, but his long list of activist achievements forms an impressive resume in itself. He rallied People With AIDS, formed support networks, led activist protests, wrote and edited activist books and literature, and appeared in a number of HIV/AIDS-related films during an era of terrible stigma.

Although he came from a background where he had enjoyed a lifestyle of sexual freedom and ‘promiscuity’ within gay male communities, he later spoke against this behaviour in the era of AIDS, and expanded his activist work to support all who were affected by HIV/AIDS – women, children, minorities, haemophiliacs, and others.

He ‘coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims’ and spoke of empowering them:

“Michael Callen used to say there was ‘a special magic in the room’ whenever a group of people with AIDS got together. Because our lives were at stake, we generally did our best to share what we were learning without judgment, without personalizing our arguments, without any agenda except to learn.”(Strub, 2014, 296)

Michael Callen worked passionately to agitate for those with AIDS. He even helped to invent the then-revolutionary concept of safe sex. Impressive work for one individual – a musician by trade, an activist by calling.

Living in Wartime

I do not know if he considered himself a Humanist, but he was an atheist and he certainly undertook activist work that upheld Humanist principles, by working for the dignity of others and empowering the dispossessed. Although he testified to members of New York Congress in 1983 that, ‘At age 28, I wake up every morning to face the very real possibility of my own death’, the most recent book on his life and works notes that his atheism contained elements of ‘hope and optimism’ (Jones, 2020, 349), which I see as another Humanist trait.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, he noted the insidious nature of living with AIDS:

“Two weeks ago… I looked down and noticed my first KS lesion on my leg. A biopsy has confirmed my suspicion. I thought I’d made a separate peace with AIDS, but it’s continually negotiating in bad faith. AIDS is a wily adversary. One cannot turn one’s back for an instant.” (Callen, 1988, xix)

Two years later, he displays a more positive attitude during the era when HIV remained a virtual death sentence:

“While I would never have wished for AIDS, the plain truth is that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Having AIDS has been like going through ten years of therapy – every week.

“AIDS has taught me the preciousness of life and the healing power of love. I’ve been more productive than at any time prior. I’ve travelled the world and met hundreds of wonderful people that I’m sure I would not have met any other way. I’ve tried to see AIDS as a challenge to begin living, instead of a sign to begin dying.

“AIDS forced me to take responsibility for my own life – for the choices I had made and the choices I could still make. For better or worse, AIDS has made me the man I am today.” (Callen, 1990, 10)

We could surely all learn from his uplifting attitude.

The Healing Power of Love

Perhaps one of Michael’s greatest gifts to the world was his strong hope. Author Sean Strub reports of Michael’s 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, written at a time when HIV was largely seen as a death sentence:

“In Surviving AIDS, Callen interviewed people with AIDS about why they thought they were alive. He found that those who had survived the longest shared three important traits: They believed survival was possible; they could identify a reason to get up in the morning; and when asked how they treated their illness, they could rattle off a list of different strategies. What was on the list wasn’t important. Survivors sought survival; seeking and experimenting with various treatments and strategies was the key.

“Callen told me he was accused of offering people with AIDS ‘cruel hope’ by suggesting that survival was possible. “I tell them there’s no such thing as cruel hope,” he said, “Hope is hope – either you have it or you don’t.” ” (Strub, 2014, 236).

Such a concept as ‘hope’ might be open to accusations of demonstrating a religious mindset. Lawrence Rifkin suggests an alternative view of hope, divorced from the populist vision of a utopian, dreamy-eyed fantasy that denies the ugly face of reality:

So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.

It seems to me that this is actually the form of hope that Michael Callen grasped and shared widely. A gay cliché of dark humour during that same era was that if life offers you lemons, make lemonaids. This is what Callen did, not denying the world’s problems but defying them; offering enlightenment to those facing darkness; offering a tomorrow for those whose today offers little. We can learn a lesson from him a generation later, whether facing cancer or COVID, poverty or prosperity, pride or prejudice.

On The Other Side

Australian AIDS historian Nick Cook recalls Michael Callen’s ‘show-stopping speech’ at Australia’s Third National Conference on AIDS in Hobart in August 1988, where he ‘gave a rousing address about refusing to be ashamed of his infection’ (Cook, 2020, 143). This encouraged, ‘the first major coming out of people with HIV’ in Australia, led by activists Chris Carter and Terry Giblett (Menadue, 2014, 20) – a virtual takeover of the conference by HIV-positive Australian activists gatecrashing the stage, coming out to the world – and to each other – for the first time; amidst applause, cheers, tears, hugs and a standing ovation from the audience – in defiance of widespread stigma and discrimination across the nation (Cook, 2020, 144 – 150). In that event, Michael Callen changed Australia.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I am fortunate to own a copy of Michael’s books, in one of which he has inscribed to its previous owner: “Celebrate diversity and heal AIDS with love!” Such words are surely worth remembering during this current pandemic and beyond.

“Together we have come this far
Don’t wonder where the heroes are
You are one!”
– The Healing Power of Love,
(c) 1986 by Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet
(Callen, 1987, 94)

Michael Callen died of AIDS at age 38 on 27 December 1993. Had he been spared that fate, he would have celebrated his 66th birthday just this month. We can only wonder what music, what activism, and what hope he might have offered the world during those fruitful years of life that he was denied. Maybe that is his last lesson to us: to grasp every day and every opportunity while we can. Because love is all we have for now, what we don’t have is time.

Thank you, Michael.

This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References include:

Berkowitz, Richard & Callen, Michael, with editorial assistance by Dworkin, Richard (1983). How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, New York: News From the Front Publications, May.

Callen, Michael, ed. (1987). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc.

Callen, Michael, ed. (1988). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS Volume Two: Collected Wisdom, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc., August.

Callen, Michael (1990). Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollins.

Cook, Nick (2020). Fighting For Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Jones, Matthew T (2020). Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen, punctum books, 11 May.

Menadue, David (2014). ‘Stigmatised but largely invisible’, in John Rule, ed., Through our eyes: Thirty Years of people living with HIV responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemics in Australia, Newtown: NAPWHA, July, 18 – 21.

Strub, Sean (2014). Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, New York: Scribner.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Do You Remember the Era of AIDS?

‘Take Me To Paris, Johnny’, by John Foster

For Juan (and John)

In 1993, Minerva Books published a memoir written by Melbourne academic, John Foster, which immortalised the life and death of his partner. A generation later, we are experiencing another pandemic, and this book – subsequently reissued by Black Inc. in 2003 and most recently in 2016 by the Text Publishing Company – is something of an overlooked classic. Given its literary merit – Peter Craven (1994) praises this writing as “unparalleled in Australian letters” – it is surprising that John Foster’s book has not received wider acclamation.

The answer, it seems, might be found in the historical context of the times. A generation has now passed since the arrival of AIDS, and much of our societal ignorance, fear and hysteria have dissolved into the calm of complacency. AIDS, which was once loudly denounced everywhere from pulpit to Parliament, has instead succumbed to the ultimate stigma: that of being generally forgotten and invisible. Foster’s novel is both a victim of, and a challenge against, such invisibility. It reminds us that HIV/AIDS is still here – and that we are greatly diminished when we overlook the courage of its heroes.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is the real-life story of Juan Céspedes, the Cuban refugee and US emigre who arrives in Melbourne in 1986 to begin a new life filled with love, cautious hope and limited possibilities – only to be struck down with AIDS. Foster’s affectionate testimony to Juan’s resilience transforms the young man into the human personification of John Donne’s call for compassion: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” Juan’s Cuban mother and grandmother – whose distant lives interweave a mixture of both compassion and heartbreaking tragedy – are also transformed by Foster into figures who, through their suffering and loss, are evocative of the mother of Jesus. Such religious allusion subtly enriches Foster’s writing at different times throughout the novel.

Foster’s devout religious convictions might puzzle anyone who believes the term “gay Christian” to be potentially oxymoronic – even more so in the 1980s, when religious-based vilification was aimed at many people with AIDS. Such contradictions, however, are apparently not unusual for John Foster: an administrator who hates bureaucracy (Robertson, 1994) and an academic who falls in love with a self-educated dancer. Most paradoxically, Foster is an historian who teaches his students about the horrors of the Holocaust whilst conceding in his book that history holds a callous disregard for mere mortals: “Mostly it neither absolves nor condemns; it simply forgets”. Like his teaching, Foster’s personal memoir is a protest against such oblivion – this latter being a tribute to his partner, Juan, whose deathbed exclamation of heartbreaking despair, “I have accomplished nothing”, sparks Foster’s determination to document his life and death (Rickard, 2003).

The story is large and literate in scope, evocative even of a Shakespearean epic. Foster’s star-crossed lovers battle both society’s disapproval of their relationship and a deadlier ‘plague on both their houses’. Whereas Shakespeare’s fictional characters die in suicidal despair, Foster’s real-life lovers find consolation within their relationship: “We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?”

John and Juan’s relationship can also be seen as an Australian story because it is the embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity. Their potentially intergenerational partnership – common enough in the gay community (Wilde, 2008) – is complicated by differences of race, education, class, culture and language. Foster nevertheless demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance, for example by accepting Juan’s infidelities either by choosing wilful ignorance or through a dismissive attitude akin to “boys will be boys”. Such is the nature of their unconventional partnership; one which some religions might propound as being symptomatic of the ‘sinful’ nature of homosexuality, but which Foster, as a Christian, presents without apology or reservation – his is neither a tale of political activism nor moral turpitude (Dessaix 1994), but simply a narration exposing a facet of what he considers to be real life.

Despite this implicit documentation of ‘ordinariness’, Foster’s writing also resonates with his personal sense of ‘otherness’ as revealed in his earlier book about WW2 German Jewish refugees when he summarises the effects of war, flight as refugees and subsequent cultural assimilation: “In Melbourne, German Jews have ceased to be a community…It is the memory of a past which is proud, terrible and still problematic” (Foster, 1986). Such mixed feelings and fears are reflected in Take Me To Paris, Johnny when Juan’s difficulties as a refugee and a gay man with AIDS allude to the plight of “pariahs” within Australian society (Baker 1994); they imply a concern by Foster that AIDS might decimate his own gay family just as life’s harsh realities ravaged members of the German Jewish community. There may even be a further parallel concerning the struggle within Foster’s own faith as a gay Christian, a minority within a minority which was under attack from both disease and discrimination. It may indeed be John Foster’s very underlying assumption – that gay men can find acceptance and love within the religious community – which has contributed to the avoidance of this text by some Australian readers.

Artwork used with artist’s permission.

Juan’s more obvious ‘otherness’ exposes different possible interpretations of his life and motivations. Readers might criticise Juan for relying on the financial support of older men in order to compensate for his own lifelong failure to forge a successful career for himself (Dessaix, 1994). A more benign interpretation might see Juan as someone who strives to improve his lot (Hanrahan, 2003) but upon whom fate inflicts many cruelties – until he is blessed through the friendship of John Foster. Williams (1994) evokes this latter alternative in his character description of Juan: “attractively elegant, talented, flawed, and unlucky in just about everything, except his choice of lovers.” As an example of the fickle finger of fate, Juan lies dying just as the “Grim Reaper” campaign is terrorising Australian television in 1987, and this fills Foster with impotent rage. After all, the faceless ‘other’ who is being publicly vilified as someone to fear is none other than gentle Juan. In the end, it matters not whatever might form the course or cause of Juan’s life journey; readers are uplifted by the end of his vigil when he discovers the redemptive power of love.

“Who, in their right mind, would actually want to read a book … about AIDS?” – apparently wrote one reviewer of an early New Zealand AIDS anthology, and was soundly criticised for this comment by Tom McLean, a Scottish journalist who was living and dying in New Zealand at around the same time as the characters in Foster’s book. McLean wrote his own AIDS autobiography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, dying three days after its publication (Young, 2002?a) – departing this mortal coil, like Juan Céspedes, on a Good Friday (Young, 2002?b).

The vexed question remains: “Who would want to read a book about AIDS?” – particularly in this decade when AIDS is seen as being barely newsworthy. Perhaps the answer is obvious: Everyone, because in learning about John and Juan, we are learning about ourselves. Why?

Indeed, why did the world find Anne Frank’s diary about the Holocaust to be so compelling and personal? It is an endearing coincidence that Anne Frank and Juan Céspedes share a childlike optimism despite imminent disaster; moreover, both their testimonies resonate with a mix of inner personal voices and external human truths which echo poet Walt Whitman’s decree: “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Robin Grove (1994/1995) summarises another parallel in Foster’s book: “JUAN is JOHN, John Juan, each in the language of the other…” and this is the first of many parallels which are replete within and without the memoir. Juan receives almost identical care at the start and end of his life; his compassion for the friend who probably gave him HIV is shown through his caring support as the other man lies dying of AIDS – and mirrors the care he receives in due course from Foster, to whom he probably transmitted the same virus; the lovers both have funerals at Easter (Brady, 2004) and are buried together in Kew Cemetery. Such is the level of connection which unites John and Juan in both life and death; such is Foster’s skill that he can weave together such disparate threads of memory into a colourful tapestry of love and loss.

The book’s original subtitle, A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS, was a refutation of Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and defeat. This subtitle was deleted for the subsequent reissues, and may reflect the changing face of AIDS in Australia since Foster’s book was first published. The genre of Australian novel-length AIDS life narrative was a transitory and largely overlooked phenomenon; commencing with an autobiography by Eric Michaels (Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, 1990) and ending with another by Robert Newey (Lessons Learnt, 2005); the arrival of new drug regimes then ended the conspicuity of suffering and death. AIDS now inspires little interest for most Australians; they see it as affecting marginalised peoples who are geographically or emotionally distant from their own lives. This is another tragedy of the pandemic: we fail to recognise noble heroes and role models. As one character comments in Foster’s book: “I sense from your account… that many people are increased in their humanity because of Juan’s presence among them.” A common truism is equally fitting: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Most significantly, John Foster’s text is a story of humans and families: individuals, lovers, friends, biological versus adoptive families, religious and gay communities – and indeed the whole human family. In this mix, Juan is presented as both child and adult seeking his way in the world, while John Foster becomes both lover and mentor. The heartbreak of Juan’s biological family as they lose him to refugee flight is counterbalanced with the pain faced by Juan’s adopted Melbourne family as he is fades away with AIDS.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny has acquired extra layers of meaning since its initial publication. Juan originally escaped from Guantánamo in Cuba – a place which has taken on a new resonance around the world in more recent times as the location for other forms of cruelty – and his identity as a refugee also places his story within a more contemporary Australian context of discrimination and alienation. Most pointedly in recent times, the whole world has learn what it means to endure under the spectre of pandemic. Foster could not have envisaged that his book would remain as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines in the decades following his death.

John Foster shows his consummate skill as an author through his realism and compassion: love may not conquer all, but it makes everything bearable. His legacy is a work which echoes with the voice and essence of his departed friend, Juan Céspedes. In turn, readers can only wonder how many other Juans have been forgotten, with their stories left untold. Perhaps Juan’s greatest accomplishment is that, in the pages of this memoir, he speaks on behalf of them all.

This is based upon an unpublished book review written in 2010, related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References:

Mark Baker, 1994. ‘Gentle Critic of the Hills Hoist Culture’, in Michael Visontay (editor), ‘Time and Tide’ (obituaries), The Australian, 18 May 1994, p. 16.

Jim Brady, 1994. ‘Eulogy’, in Baker, Mark, editor (1997), History on the Edge: Essays in Memory of John Foster 1944-1994, University of Melbourne History Department.

Peter Craven, 1994. ‘A Rare Thing’, in Voices, Vol. IV Number 2, Winter, pp. 118 – 122; an excerpted version of this essay was reprinted as the Foreword to the 2003 reissue of John Foster’s book.

Robert Dessaix, 1994. ‘The Dark Rose’, in Meanjin #1.

Stephen Dow, 2003. ‘AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying’, in The Age, 28 September, Agenda section, p. 10.

John Foster (editor), 1986.Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne, Allen & Unwin.

John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.

John Foster (reissue), 2003. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Black Inc. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

John Foster (reissue), 2016. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Text Publishing Company. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

Robin Grove, 1994/1995. ‘A Memory’s Shape’, in Island No 60/61, Spring/Summer, pp. 68-71. (Note: this article contains a beautiful photograph of Juan which is not available in any of the other literature).

John Hanrahan, 2003. ‘Loving and Dying’, in Australian Book Review, November.

Tom Mclean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Benton Ross Publishers, p. 56.

John Rickard, 2003. ‘Afterword’, in John Foster, 2003, as above.

Ian Robertson, 1994. ‘Obituary: John Foster’, in The Age, 14 May, ‘Extra’ p. 8.

Winston Wilde, 2008. Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding, Haworth Press.

Stephen J Williams, 1994. ‘The Personal Will Be History, One Day’, in Overland No. 136, Spring, pp. 84 & 85.

Hugh Young, 2002?a. ‘HIV/AIDS in New Zealand‘, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History, Queer History New Zealand.
– – – – – – – 2002?b. ‘A Chronology of Homosexuality in New Zealand: Part 5 – From Law Reform to the Present’, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History: Part 5, Queer History New Zealand.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Where Is The Outrage?

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Image by joy engelman from Pixabay

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia

Many years ago, I worked in a country town. I was somewhat startled by some local attitudes towards First Nations inhabitants – attitudes which wavered between open disinterest and openly racist. I was concerned at the social distancing between European and First Nations communities, and attempted to bridge the gap within my personal and professional spheres of influence. As a young, naïve, relatively uninformed but idealistic first-year teacher, I made an effort to learn and implement indigenous culture within my subjects.

I took aside my indigenous Year 9 students and apologised to them that the Australian History curriculum that I had been mandated to teach actively excluded the existence of their communities after 1788, and I invited them to contribute ideas or to put me in touch with local adults who could help me make the subject more inclusive. They shrugged casually and remarked, “Nothing personal sir, but we’ve been putting up with this shit of being overlooked all our lives”. Naturally this encouraged me to redouble my efforts – working with the union to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the curriculum; seeking counsel from a local Koori Liaison Officer; incorporating indigenous stories, perspectives and culture into my classes; taking my younger students onto the school oval to throw boomerangs and spears under the guidance and direction of appropriate local First Nations elders.

After I left the town, I bumped into one or two of my former First Nations students in other social settings, and we maintained a positive relationship until life took us in different directions.

I did not find out until some years later, however, that the year before I had arrived in the town, there had been a death that would ultimate feature within the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. During my time there, I had not heard a word – not amidst the social gossip, not within otherwise snide racist innuendo, not even in the context of professional concern at the social isolation of individuals with whom I worked – nothing. This man’s death had been invisible and ignored and unheralded in the town, like dirty laundry that nobody wanted to air.

One First Nations perspective regarding this same Royal Commission expresses profound human disappointment:

The Royal Commission produced many reports, including individual reports for each death investigated. The Royal Commission found that First Nations people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody. Almost 30 years later and First Nations people are still far more likely to be incarcerated than the non-Indigenous population. The final report was signed on 15 April 1991 and made 339 recommendations. The recommendations focused on health and safety procedures for people in custody, liaison with First Nations community groups, police education and improved transparency of records. According to the Federal Government’s own measures, most of these recommendations have either not been implemented or only partially implemented.

This human catastrophe continues today:

Since the Royal Commission handed down its findings in 1991, at least another 455 Indigenous people have died in custody, according to the latest-available statistics from the 2018-19 National Deaths in Custody program.

And so it is now, some thirty years after that Commission – its recommendations largely ignored; the societal discrimination that it attempted to address still remaining unresolved due to a continuation across Australia (and beyond) of the same attitudes I observed in my local country town all those years ago – a marriage of open disinterest and open racism.

Image by Zesty from Pixabay

We should all learn from Gamilaraay Kooma woman Ruby Wharton: Where is the outrage? In the name of our humanity, we need to do more than read (or write) blogs. There is a need for tangible and real action. People are dying; do we care? It is time – nay, it is a time long overdue – to take action, as individuals, as arbiters of humanitarian laws and standards, and as a community.

There is a saying: I used to wonder why somebody didn’t do something, and then I realised that I was somebody.

What can YOU do?

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Cosmonautics Day, Yuri’s Night

Commemorating Sixty Years of Humans in Space, 12 April 2021
International Day of Human Space Flight

“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin

1965 Soviet Union 12 kopeks stamp. Cosmonautics Day. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.

I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:

YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee

Poet John Gillespie Magee recognises the common human need for awe, rapture and transcendence. We can all sense the wondrous, and feel transformed by its touch, even those of us who do not assign divine agency to such profound emotion. Thus the voyage of Yuri Gagarin into our night sky allowed us all to revisit the wide-eyed curiosity, exhilaration and pleasure of a child dipping their toe into the gently lapping waves of a cosmic sea shore.

While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:

“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”

The Tyger by William Blake.

The boldness of such human spirit is demonstrated by the many changes that have served as a quantum leap for our species. These include the discovery of fire, our first modern DNA ancestral male or female, the invention of language or the printing press, the development of ancient/indigenous cultures, the invention of agriculture or cities, the abolition of slavery, gender equality, the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the invention of antibiotics or the Internet; or any of many other possible watershed moments in our history. Each of these has, in its own way, redefined what it is to be human – as may our evolution from Earthbound species to space-faring one, even though that evolution may seem imperceptible at the time to those who experience the change. Already, NASA has catalogued over 2000 spinoffs from the space program that have enhanced our lives and our world – many of these being ubiquitous items in our everyday space-age lives.

So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.

Yuri Gagarin, AZ Quotes

Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.

1961 Gagarin Souvenir
(Personal collection)

On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:

May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spock

For First Contact Day, 5 April 2063

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)

NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.

Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)

Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:

“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)

In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.

Science is Golden

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.

The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.

The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:

“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)

May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.

Outer and Inner Space

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:

Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).

However, it has been suggested that Spock’s stoicism was actually problematic:

“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”

Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:

“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”

In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik:
Saavik: He’s so – human.
Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.

The Alien Within

As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:

“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)

I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:

“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)

Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

Modern Mythology

We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:

“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).

To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:

(I have added my modern secular reworkings of how Spock conforms to archetypal characteristics).

Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess)
Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador)
Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid)
Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain)
Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet)
Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world)
Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?)
No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child)
Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space)
Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures)
Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring)
Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador)
For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet)
He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer)
Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh)
Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle)
Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya)
His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped)
His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan)
Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)

According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’

What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.

“We Are All Spock” – Karin Blair (Blair, 1979, 160).

Image by mdherren from Pixabay

Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.

References:

Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.

Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.

Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

Indick, William, 2004. Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero. Media Psychology, 9.

Nimoy, Leonard, 1975. I Am Not Spock, Millbrae: Celestial Arts.
– – – – – – – – -, 1995. I Am Spock, Sydney: Random House.

Whitfield, Stephen and Roddenberry, Gene, 1968. The Making of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy Birthday to Us All

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.

As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.

In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.

A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.

More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.

Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.

“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

“ And that’s a pretty big hope. ” – Greta Christina.

Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.

The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.

But it also exposes the need for a reality check.

An Australian Christmas tree in its natural setting, Bonnie Doon, Victoria. (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

We Are The World

When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:

For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).

Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”

Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).

The Human Adventure

Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?

Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.

Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.

Image by DrSJS from Pixabay

Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.

Neanderthal by Petr Kratochvil (CCO Public Domain).

In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?

Future Shock

Old Telephone by Greg Ptashny
(CCO Public Domain).

I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?

Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.

I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.

I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.

Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said

However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.

DeGrasse Tyson 2014 Christmas Day tweet

Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.

Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected:

Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees
Thanks for your humanity and compassion.

An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.

References:

Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.

Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.

Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.

Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.

Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.

Jake Sturmer, 2013. Science literacy on the decline among young adults, ABC AM radio, 17 July.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy #AtheistDay!

For World Atheist Day, 23 March 2021

Atheist Day Symbol

Welcome to a day that celebrates NOT having a belief. One Internet source claims:

Atheist Day was originally about a fictional case of an Atheist who had decided to sue the government. The reason for the fictional lawsuit was a simple one—unlike all the major religions, there was no day for Atheists, to which the judge said that April 1st (i.e. April Fool’s Day) was their holiday. While this case was just a hoax, the story spread quickly and was actually accepted as fact.

The Atheist Republic website explains that the circular symbol (above) stands for a null set (as in zero belief in god) and a fertile wholeness of completion that results. In a city that recently celebrated ‘donut days’ (days when our COVID cases dropped to zero – or a donut) perhaps we should celebrate Atheist Day as Cosmic Donut Day, giving it an almost Australian vernacular.

The Atheist Republic also explains:

A central component of Atheist Day is raising awareness of the discrimination and stigma faced by atheists around the world. Atheists are your loved ones, your friends, your doctors, your social workers, your teachers, your police officers and in short, the people in your life who are hiding in plain sight.

Having a day to celebrate and commemorate a lack of belief might seem to be somewhat frivolous or vexatious. After all, we do not (yet) have a day to celebrate those who disbelieve in Santa Claus or aliens with anal probes. And yet the right to celebrate atheism is as fundamental as any other right to freedom of thought, belief or religion.

Thanks to BrainyQuote.

To me, atheism represents non-conformity with tradition and faith; it demonstrates a willingness to be different and to think divergently. It resists tradition and dogma for their own sake, and potentially offers an open-minded approach to diversity of race, sexuality, gender and gender identity. Atheism and agnosticism and freethought and secular humanism demonstrate a wish to think critically and autonomously, and hopefully exemplify a keenness for seeking evidence via science and rationality. Free from the shackles of anthropocentric religions, atheism inspires the courage to admit that our human existence is pretty insignificant within a cosmos that is wondrously awe-inspiring, but vaster and stranger than we can possibly imagine:

There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.“- Carl Sagan, Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15

Agnostic astronomer Heather Couper acknowledges that there is plenty of discovery still to be made in our human quest for knowledge:

“Have we discovered our Galaxy yet?” And I think the answer to this question is “No, not quite”. There is plenty of work ahead for the next generation of astronomers.”

Amidst this immensity, it is up to each of us to find or create meaning in our own lives.

Part of our answer is surely celebrating the very human essence that lies at the center of our existence – and beyond that, the moral and intellectual biocentric imperative to uphold other sentient life. Perhaps Carl Sagan expressed it best:

“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
― Carl Sagan, Contact

Happy Atheist Day – may you enjoy whatever meaning you create for yourself.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

The Writer’s Plight

For Trinidad
(a poet and reader, and human rights activist who died on 12 April 2021 after being attacked by a firebomb terrorist in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, on 15 March)
and Jordan
(who I hope will survive and be strong)

To scratch an itch,
To quench a thirst,
To meet a need
From deep inside;

To take a seed,
Nurture its growth,
Then spread its fruit
Both far and wide;

To leave a thought,
A part of self,
A spark of life
Upon a page;

To dare to seek
Immortal stuff,
Regardless of
Critic or age;

It’s not mere pride
Nor vanity,
It’s part of who I am,
It’s me.

And so I write
As I must breathe,
Or feed, or share
An inner wealth;

An act of love,
Creating life,
To procreate
My inner self.

Ideas birth
And seek to grow –
I write them down,
And let them go.

© 1991 Geoff Allshorn
This reprint © 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Choose to Challenge

In commemoration of International Women’s Day 8 March 2021.

Image by pasja1000/Pixabay

As a child, I had an elderly relative who was the stereotypical maiden aunt – an ‘unmarried spinster’, an eccentric who possibly modelled herself after Margaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple, a slightly tomboyish figure who once bicycled interstate dressed in khaki – and someone who spent many years being zealously involved in her local church. She spent decades doing voluntary work to assist her local male clergy, undertaking many of the same duties without official acknowledgement or credit or payment. She was happy to be exploited by a church that denied her equality based upon her gender.

What may have been the most tragic aspect of this dear lady’s life was that her unmarried status, and her close friendship (in younger days) with a ‘special friend’, suggested that she may have been lesbian – a largely unspoken suspicion within my family until years after her death. I was puzzled why such a woman would desire to devote her life to a homophobic institution. Was her cloister a closet? Did she suffer from some ingrained self-loathing religious impulse that encouraged her to live in denial for her entire life, in much the same way that closeted gay men might seek sanctuary within a homophobic church, or in the way that cognitive dissonance features disproportionately within religious LGBT populations?

A more famous female ancestor of mine – though geograpically and psychologically more distant, and I never actually met her – was also religious, also single, and founded a Ugandan religious community which later relocated to England. In its day, her community was subjected to suspicion from varied perspectives, ‘ridiculed as a naïve group of ‘do-gooders’, or, worse, as supporting the Mau Mau insurgency’. Distance and unfamiliarity prevent me from drawing any specific conclusions about her sexuality, except that she, like my other family ‘maiden aunt’, appears to have lived a life of celibacy and religious devotion. Curiously, she appears to have become concerned about ‘the need for love between missionary colleagues‘ and she ultimately founded a retirement home for unmarried former missionary women – ironically, what might have been the perfect possible retirement home for my other, aforementioned relative.

Image by wajari/Pixabay

Their stories are not uncommon when we acknowledge that women are often asserted as being more religious than men, despite the inbuilt sexism and misogyny that is rampant within so many religious communities and societies. It has always puzzled me why women give so much support to a sexist institution such as a church. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome, perhaps it is a desire to feel significant given a lack of understanding of the true glories of science and the surrounding universe – seeking instead to be an individual living example of the metaphoric ‘Bride of Christ‘ that is more traditionally attributed to the collective Christian Church. Such women are represented by my ‘maiden aunts’, who like 95% of women with traditional religious backgrounds, have been brought up to believe that female sexuality is ‘bad’ (Hite, 1976, xxix) as a wider reflection of their theologically asserted gender deficiencies. Why in turn, do so many women support the very religious traditions that oppress them? They have other options available.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Other oppressed groupings also suffer from religious entrenchment. Decades before the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement helped to propel the struggles of US African Americans into the spotlight, Ishmael Jaffree observed: ‘African Americans are among the most religious people in the world. Religion offers us hope – hope that we will receive some benefits in the hereafter, though the cruel realities of the present seem like living hell.’ (Jaffree, 1991, 187). Often, the contribution of African-American (and Latino) atheists, agnostics and humanists, has been overlooked even by the very communities they have helped.

A generation ago, Humanist Emmanuel Kofi Mensah attributed the persistence of Eurocentric African religion, in part, to a resistance among some people to engage in rational debate which may question religious assumptions: ‘You are an Antichrist! Go away!…I am going to call my pastor.’ (Mensah, 1991, 203). The continuation of these religious ideas has caused untold suffering across Africa. Despite this, I observe modern-day African LGBT refugee communities (some in the adoptive nation of my missionary ‘aunt’), comprising individuals who have suffered family rejection, terrible forms of community discrimination and violence, and who yet cling to the same religious consolation that fueled the very homophobia which victimises their lives. Even in the USA today, African American diasporas struggle to acknowledge the oppressive traditions of religion upon their predominantly religious (and homophobic) communities.

In Australia, traditional indigenous societies (Ford & Beach, 1965, 139, 141) appear to have mirrored those of other ancient cultures (GLAA, 1994) in their acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity (Burg, 2002; GLAA, 1994; Greenberg, 1988). Andrew Farrell cites Troy Anthony Baylis as noting that ‘since European contact, Indigenous Australians have been stripped of their diverse and customary sexual and gendered practices through the imposition of a new social and cultural order’ ie. the white man’s Christianity which even today still seeks to impose itself over indigenous cultures. Some First Nations communities have adopted the culture and religion of their oppressors, and coined a popular viewpoint that homosexuality is a ‘white man’s disease’ (GLAA, 1994, 9). Despite this, the very existence of brotherboys and sistergirls reveals the reality of trans and non-binary folks as exemplars of LGBTQIA+ people within these ancient cultures – as one sistergirl stated, ‘The Gender Binary Arrived With The Boats‘, meaning that colonisers brought Christianity and homophobia/transphobia with them. (In response, perhaps we should invert modern-day white-Australia xenophobia as fuelled by some self-proclaimed Christians in Australian Parliament, and use their own words against them: in terms of entrenched colonial attitudes, it is surely time to ‘stop the boats’).

“We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets”
Harvey Milk

I note the same entrenched religiosity within LGBT communities, where theists get priority treatment at queer conferences and in LGBT media (Allshorn, 2018 & 2019). Religion is a major rationale behind the promotion of gay conversion therapy. Ex-Muslim atheist Eli Heina writes of queer spaces in the USA:

“It is bizarre, to say the least, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.”

US blogger Alex Gabriel makes a plea for queer inclusion of atheists, and an end to gaslighting the godless:

“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding up our community with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us… if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hate, it is not bigotry.”

Greta Christina observes the same queer religious privilege: ‘… I’m finding that I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community’. Similarly, US trans atheist blogger, Tab, calls for LGBT communities to practice greater critical thinking: ‘The queer community desperately needs skepticism, much more than it needs to kowtow to the religions that despise it. It needs the humanism that provides a system of equality…’

Therein lies a solution…

“The Women’s Movement and the movement for homosexual rights have thus far traveled on a dark road which has posted many obstacles in their way. Now it will become brighter and brighter around us and in the hearts of the people.”
– Dr. Anna Rueling, Berlin, 1904. (Daley, 2010, 23).

Unweaving the Rainbow

Henrietta DugdaleMargain & Jager, Place Grenette, Grenoble, France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On 13 April 1869, London-born Camberwell resident, Henrietta Dugdale, became possibly the first Australian woman to publicly call for gender equality. She is attributed with being ‘a pioneer Australian who initiated the first female suffrage society in Australia‘.

Her published work became a spearhead for societal evolution and social reform: ‘The new claim of woman to a political status is itself an honourable testimony to the civilization which has given her a civil status new in history.’ Dugdale promoted gender equality and female emancipation, and a humanist world view through science and social justice. According to Humanist Leslie Allan: ‘She gave hope to the utopian ideal of the perfectibility of humankind, which she saw as the lesson to be drawn from the science of evolution.’ Dugdale stands as an example of a woman who rejected religious oppression by imagining a future, secular world that was far removed from her own society within which religion had left an indelible footprint:

“What a happy age is this far-off one! No skeletons of mythology are here deadening or vitiating one-seventh of these people’s lives. How different are those faces to those of my century! – where nine-tenths are stamped with the hideous seal of hypocrisy.” (Dugdale, Chapter XXII, 103).

Vashti McCollum, Wikimedia Commons.

The fight for humanity and against oppressive religious tradition has also been fought overseas. While Madalyn Murray O’Hair is most famous for her stand against religion, earning her the nickname, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’; it was another, earlier female US activist who impacted most directly upon her country’s religious supremacy: Vashti McCollum, a Humanist who admitted that her activism had also made her ‘a very unpopular woman‘. An Illinois housewife, mother and academic, Vashti changed her country by challenging religious education that was being taught to one of her children:

She believed that public schools had no business allowing outside groups to come in and promote their religious views… When she told school officials that Jim would not participate in any school-sponsored religious education, an uproar ensued… Unable to persuade public schools officials to reverse course, Vashti turned to the courts.

She and her family endured a protracted trial that Time magazine and The New York Times observed shared “features that made the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ a sideshow’’ of the 1920’s”. The traumatic and expensive trial aftermath caused ongoing personal and professional difficulties for family members, and their family cat was brutally killed.

Part of the scandal was the equation of atheism with godless communism during this era, as explained by Humanist Robert Bender (p. 14):

The atheism of communists was seen as an essential part of communist evil, so all things atheist were by definition dangerous and evil. Therefore supporting religion as an integral part of the American way of life was one way of declaring one did not share the nastiness of ‘godless communism’.

Ultimately, her case was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and reinforced the separation of church and state in that nation by establishing that public school facilities cannot be used to promote religious instruction. Freedom of belief and speech includes the right to freedom from belief and freedom from the speech of those who seek to dominate and oppress others.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

This story began with two women – members of my biological family – whom I see as having suffered from oppression; it ended with two other women whose humanist efforts contributed to freedom from such oppression. They are sisters to each other, and to our larger human family; we can learn from them all. On International Women’s Day – and every other day – let us learn to uphold the voices, the experiences, and the empowerment of women. They can change our world.

Non-Digital References:

Geoff Allshorn, 2018. ‘A Case for Rainbow Atheism’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #2, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 115-119.
– – – – – – – – , 2019. ‘Sodom Today, Tomorrow the World: Gay Liberation and Atheist Liberation’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #3, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 172-180.

Robert Bender, 2012. ‘Vashti McCollum and separation of church and state in the USA’, in Rosslyn Ives (ed.), Australian Humanist #106, Council of Australian Humanist Societies Inc., Winter, 13 – 14.

B R Burg (ed.), 2002. Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, New York: New York University Press.

James Daley (ed.), 2010. Great Speeches on Gay Rights, New York: Dover Publications.

Henrietta Dugdale, 1883. A Few Hours in a Far Off Age, Melbourne: McCarron, Bird and Co.

Clellan S Ford & Frank A Beach, 1965. Patterns of Sexual Behaviour, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Gays and Lesbians Aboriginal Alliance (GLAA), 1994.’Peopling the Empty Mirror: The Prospects for Lesbian and Gay Aboriginal History’, in Robert Aldrich (ed.), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney, 1 – 62.

David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 25 – 241.

Ishmael Jaffree, 1991. ‘The Quest for Humanist Values’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 186 – 188.

Shere Hite, 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, 1991. ‘Thoughts from Africa’s Leading Secular Humanist Atheist’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 191 – 209.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Child To Man

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #2, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2002.

Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

When I look back on younger days
(When things were black and white),
The Enterprise epitomised
My transport of delight.
A life of young simplcity
(A heart both bold and brave),
And fantasy epitomised
The promises life gave.

Roll back the years on memories!
(Role models in my past…)
From Kirk and Straker to Armstrong
Their influences last.
A youth who searched for adulthood
(A literary goal),
From self esteem to romance –
Such adventures filled my soul!

Come back to present time with me
(Come fly the sky in dreams!)
I thank the past for giving me
The vision that life seems.
And as I soar to reach the skies
(And into the unknown),
I thank others who shared their dreams
So I could seek my own.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Loving Thy Neighbour

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

In commemoration of World Day of Social Justice 20 February 2021 and International Mother Language Day 21 February 2021

I recall a Sunday last year, when I received dozens of greetings from online LGBT+ refugees who had been rejected by their biological families, and yet these young adults greeted me from the other side of the world with what I presumed was a traditional African mark of respect towards an older person: “Hello father…” – and then I realised that it was Father’s Day and they were sending greetings to their new dad.

“G’day Mate” (Australian ‘strine’)
“Uraho” – “Muraho” (Kinyarwanda – Rwanda)
“Oli Otya” (Luganda – Uganda)
“Selam” (Tigrinya – Eritrea)
“Tadiyass” (Amharic – Ethiopia)
“Ma Nabad Baa” (Somali)
“Kudual” (Dinka – South Sudan)
“Mbote” (Lingala – Congo)
“Amosi” (Luo – Kenya)
“Hujambo” or “Habari Yako” (Kiswahili)
“Marhaba” (Arabic – Yemen)

As a single man, I never had children of my own – although as a school teacher for many years, I worked daily with many young people and built varied relationships with many (one of my earliest students, with whom I was recently reunited due to the miracle of social media, turned fifty-years-old last year). And it is through such opportunities in social media that I have come to learn of humanity’s latest incursion into new social territory – changing our understandings and responses to new forms of human relationships.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

A Whole New World…

Such is the power of World Day for Social Justice, which aims to highlight ‘poverty, exclusion, gender equality, unemployment, human rights and social protections’. Its theme for the 2021 is, ‘Social Justice in the Digital Economy‘. This seems to be an acknowledgement of a new normal that is emerging: digital life (though not just in financial economics, because there are other forms of investment in human, planetary and environmental infrastructure that are at least as important as pecuniary interests). It seems fitting that my own, much more humble reflections on social justice in 2021 should also focus on digital social media that have the power to change the world, in particular through giving us unique opportunities for access to people whose heroic work for social justice should inspire us all.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As a science and space enthusiast – as a futurist – I enjoy the exploring new ideas and new worlds and new technology – and I find it amazing that the virtual world holds the power to change our real-life world in ways that could not be anticipated. Social media is possibly the next epochal change for humanity – because it holds the potential to help us evolve into a better species.

Social media demonstrates that social evolution is a tangible force – unstoppable, immutable, inevitable – and reminiscent of that old song, For the Times, They Are A-Changin’, or in acknowledgement of the modern social blog that It Gets Better, we should either join in or get out of the way.

I will let some of my extended social media family speak for themselves.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Global Village, Global Family

Social media has introduced me to one young man who describes himself and his situation:

“A polite Ugandan who was born gay by nature and discriminated against due to the homophobic environment and rigid culture and religious norms starting within my family itself and my entire community. Even during school, I knew life would never be fair to people of our nature…

“Fortunately, I was received by the UNHCR and taken to a place that they thought I would be safe (Kakuma camp). This place has seemed more tough and dangerous even more than before, due to exposure to more tough times.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

Life in the camp is difficult. One refugee from Yemen reports:

“Everyone accuses the LGBTQ community in Kakuma camp that we are the cause of the Corona virus, hunger, thirst, disease and all the problems… They say we are LGBTQ people, so they want to get rid of the LGBT community in any way, even if we are killed.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

Meanwhile, a young woman tells me:

“We are attacked almost every day by the Turkana natives and fellow refugees who don’t like LGBTI community… Even the police discriminate [against] us. My first house given to me by UNHCR was burnt by homophobes. We are [also] discriminated [against] while receiving key services like medication and water. We are attacked and cut like animals. One day we went to seek protection from the UNHCR compound … and we were badly beaten and tear-gassed by the police, ordered by the UNHCR sub-Office.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

And so they endure machete attacks, typhoid and malaria, medical neglect, attacks upon property and person, and starvation rations from the UNHCR. Is the ‘solidarity and compassion’ of which UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi speaks?

As each day dawns in Kakuma, LGBT people count their blessings, as explained to me recently by one trans refugee when recounting the previous night’s attack of having a number of shelters pelted with stones:

“Here every day, night, stones come from every corner, and we all live in fear. Great thing no one got hurt yesterday, but they [were] attacked.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

“It is Better to Light A Candle Than to Curse the Darkness” – W L Watkinson.

Yet these young people give me hope for the world. They demonstrate the power of Martin Luther King’s declaration that ‘Darkness is only driven out with light, not more darkness.’

They are fine young adults who seek to make a difference in the darkest of settings, offering medical assistance and seeking to build shelters for the homeless and the endangered. One young man explains his idealism:

“I just wanted to say to you that I actually believe very strongly that the homophobia that is driven by some Christian people, and lots of churches and lots of people have faith in Africa. It is wrong. And the message that I understand of the Gospels is about love, and it’s it’s not about judging people. But you will find that through history – you know, there were times in the Bible when lepers were put outside the camp, they were untouchable. And in modern times, we know that lepers don’t carry disease, that you can’t pick up their disease from them. And it’s the same thing. And the different groups all throughout history, who have been ostracized, you know the word ostracized. It means to be not accepted to put out… they’re not part of us. And there’s been all kinds of different groups of people who’ve been treated like that. And it’s very, very sad that some Christian people today have such a cruel and oppressive attitude for another human being. But that’s why we’re trying to help you in some way. And let you know that there are Christian people, and people who don’t have a faith in God at all, but they have hearts that want to reach out and help. Just like you want to reach out and help the people around you.”

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

Although I do not share his specific faith, I do share his faith in humanity and a positive human future. I have become involved with Humanity In Need – Rainbow Refugees, an unincoporated non-profit group that seeks to assist these young people in building a better future for their people. Would you like to help build their world?

Another of my young friends reports:

Am working with a team Humanity In Need (HIN) to help support fellow queer refugees here in the camp with mobilisation, counselling and advice where necessary.

All this we have managed to reach with the support of our Australian friends who with there support we have managed to reach to help provide emergency medical assistance which is very necessary because the UNHCR medical centers are filled with homophobia.

As well as food availability to some LGBTIQ mates and we are planning to provide shelters to many homeless mates. All this is done to help create some safety before the UNHCR intervenes.

(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).

So far, through the miracle of modern social media, I know that they have saved lives from typhoid and malaria and homophobic attack, they have built (or rebuilt) shelters and provided hope for many people who otherwise might feel hopelessness. To me, their humanist precepts of kindness and decency and compassion cut across race or religion or resistance. I believe that this is possibly the most compelling form of immortality – through assisting the lives and betterment of our extended family, endeavouring to create a better future, and leaving a legacy of an improved world around us.

I publish this to coincide with World Day of Social Justice and International Mother Language Day because social media gives us new opportunities for social justice – and surely the commonest mother tongue we all share is the power of the human heart. Amidst their trauma, my young friends have (hopefully) experienced kindness to some degree, and I know that some of them seek to pay it forward by being kind to others. I invite you to join them: Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees

Stop Press: As this blog article is reaching publication stage, news has come in that UNHCR Kenya and related agencies are holding a meeting with LGBT refugees in Kakuma. It is hoped that protection, shelter, food, water, medicine, mosquito nets and resettlement will come out of this meeting.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Disclosure: Geoff Allshorn is President of Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees. Uncredited photos were supplied by LGBT+ refugees from Kakuma, and are published with the consent of those people.

Of Cabbages and Kings

“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god.”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)

Shakespeare’s monologue – or what these days we might call his ‘meme’ – from Hamlet, encapsulates for me the essence and message of what these days we would call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendance beyond the oppressive sexist and religious understandings of his day, Shakespeare’s words capture our place in nature as a ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what he defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ is today understood in the words of Carl Sagan and Neil De Grasse Tyson, as ‘stardust’. Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet I see his words as symbolising the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

King of the Animals?

Bill Bryson continues this praise of our glorious human grandeur:

“To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialised and peculiar that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 17).

Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

And yet, amidst all this scientific and humanist exploration of our species’ significance, we must consider more: that other life forms are equally praiseworthy.

Historically, some religions have preached that ‘Men (and women) are made … to rule and subdue the earth as God’s representatives.’ This form of human supremacy or speciesism has denied the reality that microbes and viruses are capable of bringing down our presumed superiority as easily as we are of constructing a narcissistic hubris through the proliferation of atomic weaponry or systemic world poverty.

Traditionally, humanity has considered itself to be somehow more highly evolved, or on a higher plane of worthiness, compared to other animals. Our tendency to judge our fellow life forms as comprising ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties‘ is a demonstration of how strange and dissociated we have been from our fellow sentients – a sign of our own arrogance and vanity, the same social distancing that enables us to so readily dismiss mass extinctions that are caused by our own anthropogenic climate change.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

And yet we are a part of the glorious cornucopia of life; we dance and sing as part of the carnival of the animals; our human languages and song add to the vast chorus of life that bespeaks our world – croaks and chirps and roars and hoots. The family resemblance between us and other living things is not only physical, but also a measure of biology and sentience. As a science fiction fan, I wonder if one day some truly alien beings will arrive from another planet and remark on what they see as the family resemblance between us and cabbages or starfish.

Marriage of Equals?

While it is understandable and even natural for humans to have an affinity for their own species – this is, after all, the lens through which we view our world, and can potentially be ‘a boon to survival‘ – our attitudes towards animals nevertheless need to expand and encompass new perspectives just as we seek to expand our understandings of our own condition. Humans are no more, and no less, evolved than any other species within our planetary biosphere, and indeed we are all interconnected on many levels. Richard Fortey emphasises one example:

“What is abundantly clear is that all life – from bacterium to elephant – shares common characteristics at the level of molecules. There is a common thread that runs through the whole of biological existence. Individual genes on the ribosomal RNA are common to all life, and these are complex structures… We all share a common ancestor.”(‘LIFE: An Unauthorised Biography‘, London: The Folio Society, 2008, p. 36).

Scientists are even uncovering how interactions between divergent life forms may ultimately enrich our understandings of our own. We not only live interdependently with our fellow life forms, but in various forms of symbiosis within which we rely upon each other for our mutual survival – another reason why anthropogenic climate change is suicidally stupid.

Image by Robert Balog from Pixabay

.

“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
– G W Bush.

.

.

Our place within the animal world encourages us to discover the awe and glory of other life forms. Humanism points towards sentientism because humans aren’t the only sentient beings. We can expand upon our self-identity as human individuals and as collective communities within our planetary biosphere:

“Humans are special. We have developed phenomenally oversized brains which grant us expanded purposes. We can learn about far more than just the things our survival depends upon, and in that learning we can see that all life is interwoven and that we depend upon all those around us, so we need to look after all life, not just our own. We can see beyond ourselves, and our family, and our tribe or clan, beyond our village or city, past state and national borders, even past species boundaries to realise we are all brothers and sisters — not just all humans, but all the other mammals, even all other vertebrates, all other animals, and even all life.” – Miriam English.

For all our special abilities and capacities, we have no more, and no fewer, rights than any other life form – it is our human arrogance that presumes superiority, and our Humanism that calls us to accept humility.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” – Henry Beston, 1928 (Wikiquotes)

Opening commentary taken from a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria, and recorded at Future Salon Melbourne 2013.

In honour of Darwin Day 2021.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

the meaning of life is fortran too

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

The Universal program ran
with cosmic swirls,
with violent explosions,
with timeless passings of time,
and coalescence into novas and galaxies.

The sub-programs ran
and evolved into stars
and planets
and life
and consciousness.

He awoke
……..and wondered,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And as he grew,
he became aware of computers
and programs
and languages
and mathematics.

He learned
……..and he loved.
He followed his own programming
and began to imagine
……..to define
…………….to create
and to see that it was good.

He wondered at his world,
at the others who shared his walk,
at their sameness –
and at their diversity.
He queried their humanity,
……..their sexualities,
…………….their courage
and their fears.

He studied their religions,
……..their philosophies,
their cults
and their conformities.
And they struggled to learn
……..and define
…………….and monopolise
their own programming.

His biology ran,
and he learned
and loved
and aged
and sickened
and headed towards termination of his program.

And as the lines of programming
began their loop,
to define and shape his last few lines,
he began to wonder:

They say we make god in our image –
but maybe it’s the other way around.
The Universal computer
runs and plans and programs
……..and experiments
…………….and terminates mistakes
and allows other sub-programs to run their full term.

His own life work
had been with computers,
to build
and invent
and evolve a new life form.

Ashes to ashes,
……..stardust to stardust,
…………….the divine evolution:
from Computer we came, and to computer we shall return.

Maybe Life itself does this.
It studies our responses,
our thoughts,
……..our needs and reactions,
…………….our heroes and villains,
and it judges the success of our programming.

He ended
……..and slept,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And the Universal program runs on
towards perfection
towards heaven
towards infinite.

Reprinted in honour of Clean Out Your Computer Day 2021.

© 2001 Geoff Allshorn