Amazing Space

(NASA Photo: M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In honour of the δ-Aurigid meteor shower, here is a filk song celebrating the grandeur of space and science. To be sung to the tune of Amazing Grace*
(*With acknowledgement to Reverend John Newton and William Walker)

Amazing space! How deep the call
Of time and stellar worth
That formed my atoms after all,
And sprinkled them on Earth.

T’was gravity that drew me here
And swirled me in the dust,
Amidst my pain and dirt and fear
I evolved as I must.

Despite the storms of space and star
Of meteor and mould;
The Earth has been my home and hearth
My shelter in the cold.

Through many danger, toils and strife
I have evolved and grown;
Along with all Earth’s other life
I’ll never be alone.

The Earth has cared and nurtured me,
And supplied all my needs;
I must learn that my portion be
Shared as my conscience leads.

In all of space and all of time,
Bright shining as our sun,
The human race can grow sublime,
Space beckoning us on.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

From Holocaust to Humanist

Halina and Geoff (left), holding aloft the Humanist banner at a Marriage Equality Rally, Melbourne, 24 Nov 2012. Photo (c) 2012 by Michael Barnett.

Halina Wagowska is a Holocaust survivor and a Humanist. She is also the author of an autobiography, The Testimony, published in 2012. Halina has been a human rights activist for decades and I feel privileged to call her a friend. She agreed to be interviewed for this blog, utilising postal correspondence during the days of COVID-19 lock-down.

1. How did you survive the Holocaust?

In the labour camp, my parents insisted that I eat part of their meagre food ration because I was growing fast. That enhanced my chances of survival and diminished theirs.

Prolonged incarceration combined with danger and the unpredictability of each next moment, required adjustments and survival mechanisms. Mine was to regress to a primitive state where all my tiny wits were focused entirely on the precise moment, interpreting sounds, silences and movements, all in terms of approaching danger. Rather like a small creature in the undergrowth of a jungle full of predators. I was too young to see the ‘big picture’ or to reflect, which would have kept me off guard. I believe that gave me an advantage over those whose high intellect did not allow for such regression.

2. What are your most powerful memories of the Holocaust?

The death of my mother in my arms in Stutthof. Loading bodies brought from the gas chambers into crematoria ovens in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Being beaten, kicked, and spat upon.

3. How do you think the Holocaust shaped you, and our world?

Prolonged deprivation (5 years 9 months) of any aesthetic experiences makes me appreciate and cherish art, music, books, theatre, and the beauty of nature, as great enrichments of life.

It shaped my values and attitudes, and it narrowed my focus onto issues, problems and behaviours that inflict pain and harm, eg. child abuse, racism, homophobia, bullying, social injustice, inequality of opportunity.

The world said, ‘Never again’ and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was a major civilising step.

4. What, if anything, do you think we have learnt from the Holocaust?

Possibly that prejudices can have gruesome consequences.

5. In your book, you state that, “Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” (p. 195). Is this why you wrote your book?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I identify with persecuted minorities: people of colour, indigenous people, LGBT people, the Untouchables (Dalits). Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.

I wrote the book to meet an obligation. In the camps, we kept saying that if we survive, we shall have to testify until we die. Friends insisted that as all my previous testifying is in the archives of research bodies, there should be a public record. Hence this book.

Halina reads from her autobiography in ‘The Testimony Book Trailer'(Hardie Grant Books/YouTube).

6. Although your book is a testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also a testimony to the positivity and determination in your subsequent life. Is this a reflection of your slogan: “Don’t remain a victim”? (p. 197)

I recall my mother (p. 59) towards the end of the war, worrying about whether I will be normal if I survive. After the war, the notion of being normal transformed itself into not remaining a victim. In the book, I try to show that with determination, it is possible to lead a normal life after a catastrophe.

7. You once told me that Marie Curie was an early hero for you. How did she influence your life?

Poland was short of famous people and was very proud of Maria Skłodowska Curie. As a child, I fantasised that if I studied hard, I too might devise or discover something of great value to humankind.

8. Why/when did you become a Humanist?

I was born in Poland to parents who were agnostic and of Jewish origin. The all-powerful Polish Catholic church pervaded all aspects of personal life, institutions and social structures. It preached a very harsh, divisive and punitive religion. Hence my passion for secularism. Years later, my training in science reinforced my preference for evidence-based facts.

My values and attitudes had many aspects of Humanism without me qualifying them as such. I joined the Humanist Society of Victoria when I became aware of its existence.

9. What do you think Humanism has got to offer the world, particularly in light of humanity’s capacity for great good and evil?

Humanism offers a vision of a better, fairer world. I am not sure how we can abolish evil.

Humanism meets my needs and passions for secularism, rational, ethical approach to problems, for the protection of human rights and dignity, for democracy, for social justice and equity and for social action through group lobbying.

What I find attractive in Humanism is its fostering of altruism, of goodness for its own sake, and the taking of total responsibility for one’s actions.

10. You have been a human rights activist for many years. Why? What do you feel are your greatest achievements?

I need to be useful. Lobbying and working to improve the lives of others seems worthwhile. With other members of HSV, I looked after homeless students; provided books for bushfire victims; helped to ‘adopt’ a village of Untouchables in India to help them up from their imposed quagmire. I am in a group to raise funds for bursaries for Aboriginal students.

11. What are the greatest human rights challenges of our time? How do we solve these problems?

The climate emergency, if left unattended, will make life hazardous for the next generation, and cause the extinction of many species. We need to heed scientific advice on climate, and we need to foster democratic governance, social justice and equality. Beware also the growing economic divide between rich and poor.

12. What message would you like to give to future generations?

Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.

13. Is there anything else you would like to add?

In this one life we have, let us work to make this a better world.

= = =

(The answers for Questions 8 & 9 include excerpted material which Halina previously presented to the ‘Australian Humanist’ magazine, No. 90, 2008.)

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

Climate Change

NASA photo.

The Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ photo, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968, captured a view that inspired the astronauts to read from the Biblical ‘Genesis’ myth. More significantly, the photograph has been credited with being a ‘driving force for the environmental movement’ because it offered humanity our first real-life view of Earth as a pale blue dot in the vast cosmos.

Yet the environmental movement probably got its first real boost in popular culture some six years earlier, via a ‘religious humanist’ lens. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote a seminal book that helped change how society sees the world around us:

Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.

Rachel Carson was raised within Christianity but her view was that humans were a part of nature rather than some divinely mandated overlord:

… Carson, who was baptized in the Presbyterian Church, was not religious. One tenet of Christianity in particular struck her as false: the idea that nature existed to serve man.

‘Silent Spring’ was a humanist book because it explored the relationship between humans and the environment. It was a groundbreaking exposé that introduced and popularised dissent against traditional attitudes which condoned environmental exploitation. Carson’s views were informed by science and possibly at least partly inspired by other unorthodox viewpoints: at a time when homophobia was rampant, she developed a long-term intimate relationship with another woman.

On Earth Day we remember Rachel Carson, environmental trailblazer and best-selling lesbian author

Another populariser of environmental dissidence is humanist Margaret Atwood, whose books often interweave environmental and religious themes. Her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and its recent spin-off television series, warn us about the impact of religious extremism upon the environment and human rights, particularly women’s rights. Such rights are not incidental to the environmental movement – from ecofeminists to activists, women are among those most directly affected by climate change.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

A new generation is stepping up, led by a teenage girl who stopped the world in September 2019. Greta Thunberg launched an environmental movement that closed down cities and had people of all ages – especially school children – out in the streets. In Australia, one student leader challenged our Prime Minister with the notion that thoughts and prayers were not enough. The younger generation is challenging the old by calling for actions not words; older people need to review their lifestyles and their attitudes, recalling lyrics from a famous song from their childhood: The Times They Are a-Changin’. Tinkering with recyclables or planting a few trees is insufficient; we need not only a sea change but a whole tsunami of change to implement everything from societal and economic restructure to climate justice.

Planet Earth is a sealed biosystem that we share with other living creatures. We have a responsibility to protect their interests as much as our own.

Amidst debates on how humans should interact with our environment, the fact is that our varied terrains and ecosystems have high intrinsic values of their own. Human beings can and must recognise our place in nature and solve the problems that we have created. We need to acknowledge the problem and act upon it, and implement a culture change. To save the world, we must change ourselves. Let’s make it so.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn

The Personal & The Political

Commemorating World Gratitude Day (21 September):
Personal Encounters With People Who Made A Difference.

Two Australian activists – one an outspoken celebrity and the other a quiet achiever – both used their opportunities to change the world for the better. Their impact lives on.

Don’s Party.

Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

In the twelfth century – according to tradition – King Canute unsuccessfully tried to stop the tides. In 1976, an Australian politician apparently succeeded.

The legendary story of King Canute was one of piety, asserting that worldly authorities, even kings, could not compete with the power of God. The more modern Australian version – a real life event at Glenelg beach – conveyed a converse form of piety: our ability to outgrow religious superstition by exercising secular thinking.

There are those who may recall when the destruction of Adelaide was predicted by a house-painter who, inspired by governmental reforms to decriminalise homosexuality, declared that around noon on 19 January 1976, South Australia would see divine wrath in the form of an earthquake and tsunami.

On the day, the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, waved theatrically at an assembled crowd and, beyond them, at the crashing waves. The deadline passed without incident, and the world continued as before. There was no tidal wave, no tsunami. News reports suggest that the house-painter moved to an undisclosed location in the Eastern states, where his house may have been later destroyed in a local flood – a nice urban myth at least, indicating the good-natured, karmic mockery with which many Australians remember his presumption.

Over forty years later, it is hard to imagine any Australian politician today who would have the courage to confront a religious decree, no matter how irrational its content. But back in the 1970s, Don Dunstan was a rebel whose sexuality and open marriages were a rejection of traditional religious sex-negative dogma.

Such was typical of the life of Donald Allan Dunstan (21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999), born into the Christian faith but later embracing secular libertarian humanism because he could ‘no longer maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the stranger things in Christian theology’ (Dino Hodge, Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, Wakefield Press, 2014, p. 221). Dunstan was a ‘renaissance man’ who led the push to abolish the White Australia Policy among his impressive list of other reforms. He was married twice to women, and his last long-term partner was a man.

My own personal connection to Don Dunstan was indirect and impersonal – yet profound. In December 1986, after leaving South Australian government and while working as Director of Tourism in Victoria, he attended the Sydney launch of an Australian gay history book. Another presence at the launch was a gay rights activist dressed as a nun and known as ‘Monsignor Porca Madonna’. The ensuing public outrage led to his resignation from his Victorian job, but not before my family intersected with the great man.

At that time, Dunstan was also involved with a charity in which a relative of mine was also involved. I recall how this relative proudly boasted how he had confronted Dunstan at a meeting and angrily berated him for promoting homosexuality. In hindsight, I can only presume that homophobia had been a vestigial remnant of this relative’s traditional religious upbringing. Still, I recall feeling some consolation in knowing that someone as prominent as Don Dunstan was willing to uphold gay rights during an era when the AIDS epidemic was creating great homophobic stigma, trauma and death.

Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag design, rendered by Guanaco et al, CCO 1.0

My story is one among many thousands of lives that were touched in long-term and positive ways by the reforms that Don Dunstan helped to achieve. Even that once-homophobic relative of mine, who in more recent years spoke in favour of same-sex marriage, was ultimately helped towards this personal enlightenment by the homosexual law reforms that Dunstan had initiated.

Dunstan’s King Canute beach satire of 1976, mocking religious suspension of disbelief, was only a small side note in his larger, epochal political career in which his desire to transform the ‘city of churches’ into the ‘Athens of the south’ was symbolic of his remarkable transformation of Australia. He is sometimes remembered as ‘the man who decriminalised homosexuality’ in South Australia – a claim that acknowledges his lead within his progressive government to undertake many reforms, addressing capital punishment, Aboriginal land rights, anti-discrimination, censorship, child protection, consumer protection, environment protection, heritage protection, social welfare, and urban planning.

Overseeing such a list of progressive reform was not a bad effort for one LGBT humanist.

Olive’s Corner

On 7 March 1995, the Acting Prime Minister Brian Howe gave a eulogy for Senator Olive Zakharov (19 March 1929 – 6 March  1995). He expounded her favourite quote from Hamlet, but he added her amendment to Shakespeare:

“This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night follows day.
Thou cannot then be false to any man…
… and to this, Olive added `woman’.”

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

In Senator Zakharov’s obituary in The Age (8 March 1995, p. 16), Karen Middleton notes that the addition of ‘woman’ to the quote was reflective of Olive Zakharov’s commitment to women’s rights. The idea of amending something as sacrosanct as Shakespeare, of rewriting the rules, or of reforming society for the sake of egalitarianism, was typical of the Senator. She is noted by the Australian Senate as being a grassroots campaigner for human rights, working on a variety of issues including nuclear disarmament, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.

Olive Zakharov and I shared the same northern suburban regional background, and we even worked (albeit at different times) at the same local school. We were both shared a passion for social justice. But in her case, she was able to use her political opportunities to help improve the nation and the lives of its people, as an expression of her pragmatism to work for common humanity instead of preaching a philosophical viewpoint. Australian Humanist of the Year for 1986, she is acknowledged in their tribute as having worked as an LGBT advocate – a somewhat uncommon activist role for a heterosexual woman in the 1980s. Her list of aligned organisations includes many that reflect her diverse interests in human rights, social justice, and the arts: everything from the Victorian AIDS Council to Amnesty International and the Australian Film Institute.

On 12 February 1995, I met her at the Midsumma Carnival, an LGBT festival held in the gardens opposite the Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Among the many groups she visited that day, she came to the community tent for the AIDS Quilt. I recall her genuinely warm smile and her interest in discussing LGBT activism. She thanked us for our volunteer work and left the festival – to be struck down by a car in St Kilda Road, passing away in hospital on 6 March.

A memorial named Olive’s Corner has been dedicated to her memory in Port Melbourne. It acknowledges her passion to help disempowered people. I like to think that the greater memorial is the lives of the people who continue to benefit from her passionate efforts to improve the world.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn