Quote(s) of the Day X

November 9, 2016 will be remembered as a momentous occasion. But amidst the celebrations, the despair, the recriminations and the furious punditry over what’s happened and what’s going to happen, I thought it’d also be worthwhile to consider the wisdom of the past.

There is so much tolerance and superiority to petty considerations; such a contempt for all those fine principles we laid down in founding our commonwealth, as when we said that only a very exceptional nature could turn out a good man, if he had not played as a child among things of beauty and given himself only to creditable pursuits. A democracy tramples all such notions under foot; with a magnificent indifference to the sort of life a man has led before he enters politics, it will promote to honour anyone who merely calls himself the people’s friend.

In a democratic country you will be told that liberty is its noblest possession, which makes it the only fit place for a free spirit to live in. … Perhaps the insatiable desire for this good to the neglect of everything else may transform a democracy and lead to a demand for despotism. A democratic state may fall under the influences of unprincipled leaders, ready to minister to its thirst for liberty with too deep draughts of this heady wine; then, if its rulers are not complaisant enough to give it unstinted freedom, they will be arraigned as accursed oligarchs and punished. Law-abiding citizens will be insulted as non-entities who hug their chains; and all praise and honour will be bestowed, both publicly and in private, on rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers

— Plato, The Republic

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

George Washington, Farewell Address 



Story of an Unknown Soldier

Today is ANZAC Day in Australia. Services are being held throughout the day and around the world, commemorating not just the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign but every Australian who served and died, in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

For most of us (at least among my immediate circle of family and friends) it is just another public holiday, a day when we can chill out and not have to go to work. I’d be willing to bet we don’t really think about ‘ANZAC Day’ at all. But we should. Let’s talk about war for a moment.

War is folly — all those millions of lives, lost in struggles borne out of the dark side of human nature: fear, greed and pride.

War is glory — the gleaming weapons, the selfless heroes, the tumultuous battles, the bittersweet victories.

War is history — an epic relic of the past, thrown into even sharper relief by the modern ‘wars’ we distantly experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two truly grand wars began 99 and 74 years ago, respectively. With each passing year, the rank of survivors diminishes. The last combat veteran of World War I died on 5 May 2011. Our connection to the past weakens and the mythology grows. It is ironic that even as society today trumpets the ANZAC values of mateship, courage and sacrifice (or, for those of my generation, as we absent-mindedly assent to them), we’ve never been further from living out these values than today. Individualism. Self-gratification. FOMO. Happiness. Find yourself. Be yourself. Indulge yourself.

This is me. This is us.

Let’s wind the clock back 99 years. You are a soldier on the Gallipoli peninsula. No, you are a boy, barely out of school. You’re not sure what you signed up for, but you had a sense that it was really important. The Empire is at war and your King needs you! The first blush of facial hair sprouts on your downy cheeks, now caked in dried mud. You are not strong but you can run really fast. It is a real boon as you ferry communications across the warren of trenches, head hunched over to avoid being sighted by the snipers. But this time it’s different. Your company has orders to take the Turkish outpost at the top of the hill. The faintest traces of sunrise peek out from the horizon. It’s almost time to move.

Your thoughts drift through the dense fog of fatigue, settling once more on your sweetheart back in Australia. You were together six months when the call came. You have not heard from her in just as long, and you wonder if the letters hastily scribbled on crumpled diary pages have made their way home. The gnawing feeling at the pit of your stomach from the prolonged separation is being replaced now by a breathless anticipation, rising in your chest. You look to your left and to your right. Brothers in arms, grim and on edge. The bugle sounds.

Summoning up all of your will you pull yourself up over the trench wall. Your mind screams at you to stop. A hand squeezes your shoulder and you turn to see the sergeant flashing you a wan smile. You know that he is also petrified, but you are grateful for the gesture. Momentarily calmed, you follow in his footsteps, defying the heaviness of your limbs and bayonet. Distant sounds of machine gun fire ring in the air, but they are drowned out by a cacophony of internal noises — the rasping of your breath, the pounding of your heart and the ringing of your ears. All around, you see your comrades falling, as if met by some invisible force.

You quicken your pace. You won’t let the team down. You won’t let the King down. You will not give up. Something hits you in the chest and your breath whooshes out. Another impact, this time accompanied by a burning sensation. Your legs give out but the momentum carries you forward. You crash to the ground, cursing your own clumsiness. The mud is cold. You try to push yourself up, but an overwhelming exhaustion descends upon you. The mud is inviting. You close your eyes and let your mind drift away to another place, far away from this foreign soil, your resting place.

This is the story of an unknown soldier. He died, so that we can know the true value of peace. Think about that this ANZAC Day, and think about this:

What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to live for?

The London Games

The 2008 Beijing Games was China’s triumphant coming of age. Four years and £9.5 billion later, the 2012 Olympics has arrived with less fanfare but carrying just as much importance for the host nation. Remarkably, this is London’s third Olympic Games. In its first outing in 1908, the Games was merely a fledgling movement involving 22 nations. The second time around was a subdued affair, held in 1948 as nations were rising out of the ashes of World War II. In 2012, with Great Britain a shadow of its former glory and tied to a continent in financial turmoil, this is a chance for the British to show that they are still a formidable force on the world stage.

The Opening Ceremony, titled the ‘Isles of Wonder’, was a joyous celebration of the best of Britannia. There was no chance that the Londoners would be able to emulate the glorious spectacle of Beijing. How could they? Instead, artistic director Danny Boyle showcased something quintessentially British in its understatement, humour and eccentricity. There was reference to the Industrial Revolution, of course. There was a head-scratching song-and-dance number dedicated to the National Health Service. Literary villains including Lord Voldemort and Cruella DeVille loomed threateningly over the performers, before they were rescued by a flying squadron of Mary Poppins. The Queen made her film debut accompanied by James Bond (and was later photobombed by an enterprising Aussie in the stadium), but it was Rowan Atkinson who stole the show with a hilarious cameo during the live orchestral rendition of ‘Chariots of Fire’. A musical medley — featuring songs from old timers The Who, Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Queen, to today’s Adele, Coldplay and Muse — reminded us of the great impact of the British on popular culture.

The Games have come a long way from the athletic competitions held in Olympia between the city-states of Ancient Greece. Its origins are lost to time, although one myth holds that the demi-god Hercules had established it in honour of his father Zeus. The earliest recorded Games in 776BC featured one event, the stadion, which was a short foot race. More events were added over the years, including chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, pentathlon and pankration — brutal, free-for-all combat. The Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the Games in 394AD in a crackdown on pagan practices.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that serious efforts were undertaken to revive the Olympic Games. The Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1890, and in 1896 the first modern Olympics was held, fittingly, in Athens. Since then, the Olympics have changed enormously, in line with the social, political and economic developments of the nations themselves. In the last 100 years we have seen amateur athletes replaced by professionals; the diversification of the Games to all nations and to people of all colours; the increased participation of women (this Olympics is the first in which every country has a female representative); and the rise of commercialisation. The quadrennial, international format now has four mainstays: the Summer Games, Winter Games, Youth Games and Paralympics.

To me, the Olympic Games are equal parts colourfulness, achievement and inspiration.

Weird and wonderful facts abound. Ever heard the story of Spyridon Louis, a Greek who competed in the marathon at the 1896 Athens Games? The race wound through the countryside and the runner made a cheeky stop at an inn to have a glass of cognac. He went on to win the race. Intriguingly, the tug-of-war — where two teams pull against a length of rope — was featured in five Olympics from 1900 to 1920. For sheer wackiness, mention must be made of the intrepid Jamaican bobsledders who made their debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics and inspired the cult-classic, Cool Runnings.

Of course, what we love to see are athletes doing their best, for history to be made and records to be broken. Michael Phelps has now become the most decorated Olympian of all time at the 2012 London Games. Usain Bolt lit up the Bird’s Nest four years ago and has electrified the world again in London, where he became the first man to defend the 100m crown. One of the most remarkable athletes has to be Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. As a 14-year old at the 1976 Montreal Games, Nadia made history by becoming the first gymnast to earn a perfect ten in Olympic competition. Watch old footage of her performing — and be amazed.

The Olympics has also given us unforgettable, inspirational stories. Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely in Tennessee and contracted polio at age four. Her left leg was twisted and as a child she wore leg braces and shoes. Nevertheless, her determination saw her join the high school track and field team, eventually winning gold in the 100m and 200m at the 1960 Rome Games. Another indelible image of the Olympic spirit was that of British runner Derek Redmond. Derek tore his hamstring during the 400m race at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Hobbling in agony, his father ran to his side and the pair completed the lap with 65,000 spectators giving a standing ovation.

Ultimately, the Olympic Games have always been more than physical accomplishments. It is a stage upon which drama is played out, where triumph and disaster loom, and where acts of courage and sportsmanship transcend the medals they tally. Oh, and lots of hankypanky too.

From Another Time

Russia has held a deep fascination for me ever since I studied it in high school. There is something so beautifully tragic about the country. It’s impossible not to be moved by the story of Tsar Nicholas II, the devoted father yet woefully incompetent leader who presided over the fall of the imperial line. To be caught up in the grand ideals of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks who completely overturned society through their bloody and singleminded ideological crusade. To be appalled by the quiet, ruthless ambition of Stalin and the immense scale of human suffering during his reign and in World War II. This is a country that has seen and endured so much.

I was extremely delighted to stumble across a gorgeous collection of colour photos of Russia in the early 1900’s (thank you, Facebook!). This was in the calm before the storm of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The photographer, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, could only take black and white photos, but was able to create colour by combining the images taken with red, green and blue filters. Ah, the magic of light and colour. The results are stunning. Please go check it out and be transported to another place, another time.

Meanwhile, in Sydney…

The year is 1785. After more than three centuries of cultural, political and technological advancement in continental Europe during the Renaissance, England is leading the way in becoming the first industrial economy in the world. It’s been 10 years since the patenting of the steam engine and 9 years since Adam Smith’s magnum opus, the Wealth of Nations, the forefather of modern free market economics.

The Renaissance was a transformative era. Thanks, Medici family!

I like trains... and the industrial revolution.

Major political developments are also underway. It’s only been two years since the conclusion of the American War of Independence and it will be another three years before the ratification of the historic and influential United States Constitution. It would only be another four years before radical social and political upheaval engulf France, heralding the First Republic and the rise of Napoleon I.

I was going to make a quip about the Tea Party but I'm not witty enough.

1785 — Louis XVI decrees that all handkerchiefs must be square. No surprise at all about his fate.

The world is an exciting and dynamic place. Meanwhile, in Sydney…

As much as I love living in this beautiful city, man was I glad to get out last year and inject myself with real culture and history.