Tag Archives: gambling

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Don’t forget the torches — light trumps darkness: learning about politics and life from some imaginative protestors

Gambling is a scourge on our society. It seems to me that it’s one of a handful of social issues — alongside alcohol, domestic violence, our treatment of our indigenous peoples, and refugees — that occupies a similar blind spot for us Aussies that is similar to guns in the U.S psyche.

We Aussies sometimes like to look down our noses at the stranglehold the N.R.A has on gun control law in America, so this week it’s been revealing to see just how deeply enmeshed the gambling industry is in Australian life as a big-money horse race took over a national icon (paid for by lotteries), the Sydney Opera House. The manager of this cultural precinct didn’t want it given over to this modern idol of our culture, and a radio host with pretty strong links to the racing industry slammed her, leading the charge in such a way that our political leaders fronted the media to justify (and support) an industry that destroys lives (but lines the public coffers, and the coffers of our political parties), first the Premier of New South Wales, then the Prime Minister. Here’s what Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to say:

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? These events generate massive economic opportunities for the state, for the city.”

It’s the economy. Stupid.

A federal government study on the deleterious impact of race betting on Australians found:

Among other things, survey data tell us that in 2015, nearly one million Australians regularly gambled on horse and dog racing. Most race bettors were men, and aged between 30 and 64. Their typical monthly expenditure on race betting amounted to $1,300 each over the year. Some 400,000 experienced one or more gambling-related problems.

Now. Like many Aussies — including the 290,000 who signed a petition against this advertising campaign that the New South Wales government refused to accept, I’m pretty disillusioned about Australian politics.

I feel helpless and on the sidelines while watching things like this unfold. Political action seems pointless.

I think there are plenty of dark times ahead for those of us who want a democracy built on making space at the table for one another, and pursuing civility and the ability to live well together. I despair about our treatment of refugees, and the unborn. I despair about much Christian advocacy in its misrepresentation of those we disagree with (so, for example, while I think it’s bad legislation, I don’t think the spirit of the new abortion laws in Queensland is to allow women to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason they want up until birth, and I don’t think the pro-life case is helped by painting the ‘other’ side this way).

I’m struck by how much responsibility and hope we give to politicians to solve our social issues, a phenomenon James Davison Hunter observed in his book To Change The World, and how much then we run to ideological camps where we can sling rocks at those opposed. He says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.”

This is the way our public conversations are framed — when there’s a problem we want others to solve it; specifically, the state. And we do our part by making lots of outraged noise on social media, and signing petitions (and there’s a place for this, of course). But what if this limits our imagination when it comes to other solutions?

Hunter says:

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws, and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit… it is only logical then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily, through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.”

Hunter also suggests this politicization frames our ‘common life’ so much that it gives birth to the sort of ideological posturing that has killed our ability to disagree well, or seek compromise. It also means there is no ‘public’ space or ‘commons’ that is not politicised (like the Opera House). He says:

“Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life, and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Perhaps the only thing worse than the collapse of the public space into the political, is the giving over of public space — the commons — to the market, especially when that’s a political decision made for apparent political gain (it’s the economy stupid). Another book I’ve been particularly challenged by this year, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction, makes the point that the sort of paying attention is much harder when our public spaces are now places where we are bombarded with messages from private enterprise. He says clear public space — the ‘commons’ is necessary for ethical life together — for listening to one another long enough to escape ideological posturing, or the darkness of the world around us.

“The idea of a commons is suitable in discussing attention because, first, the penetration of our consciousness by interested parties proceeds very often by the appropriation of attention in public spaces, and second, because we rightly owe to one another a certain level of attentiveness and ethical care.”

Crawford uses the example of the airport to make his point — and its a tale of two lounges, the private airline lounges and the public lounges around the gates. In the public space companies have paid to bombard you with advertising material — billboards, TV screens, businesses, while in the private space you’re offered the luxury of distraction free comfort. The wealthy have the luxury of not needing the ‘commons’ to avoid the privatised messaging they don’t want — they pay for something not-so-common (and it’s perhaps, the same with the Opera House, I wonder what the outcry would be like if these adverts were projected on the curtains of the Opera before or after a performance). Here’s Crawford setting the scene:

Or do we? Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge. Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge, and we may start to see these things in a political light. To engage in playful, inventive thinking, and possibly create wealth for oneself during those idle hours spent at an airport, requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon lounge (or at the bus stop) can be treated as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas hatched by the “creatives” in the business lounge.”

Ouch.

Crawford also talks about the mechanics of addiction, and the way the gambling industry (especially pokie machine makers) exists as a parasite with the express goal of having customers ‘play to extinction’… distracting us to oblivion with bright lights and pretty colours (and some other pretty nefarious techniques).

This outsourcing of decision making to our law makers means the stakes are impossibly high. If we think reducing gambling, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or pregnancy terminations, depends on our politicians we lack imagination, and we over-estimate the capacity of our leaders to escape their own political interests and deliver actual results. If we put all our eggs in that basket then to lose the political battle is to lose the war…

If we want to stand against darkness, the answer is bringing light. It’s to stop outsourcing problem-solving to government and to start acting as citizens, forming institutions and movements, to model a better way forward. This is perhaps particularly true for Christians given the way light and darkness work in our story.

And there’s no better picture of the power of light to trump darkness than the way protestors standing in the Opera House forecourt tonight disrupted the projection of the gambling ads onto the Opera House sails. With torches. With light. They didn’t quite have enough torch-power to overcome the industrial sized projectors throwing the ads up, but they tried, they were noticed, and if more of us imagined non-political solutions to social problems that involved harnessing people power we might see changes to how public life happens… it’s this evocative picture of light starting to overcome even the brightest darkness.

There’s much that we Christians could learn about how to participate in a public that seems increasingly dark. We might stop putting our effort into political solutions to the problems around us and start shining light in such a way that the darkness is obscured. We might trust that eventually, though it feels like we’re pushing up hill, enough light shone on something dark will buckle it and break it… no matter how deeply enmeshed a problem is… And maybe we’ll bring a renewed sense of imagination to the task of ‘politics’…

Instead of standing outside abortion clinics, protesting to change legislation as ‘political speech’ (or just getting in the face of the ‘other’) in what our legislators have created as exclusion zones, we might keep building communities that are inclusion zones for vulnerable parents-to-be. Instead of just looking for political solutions on domestic violence we could start refuges and services to make escaping that darkness more possible for women. Instead of playing the same partisan ideological game where we want to win the political fight at all costs, at all times, we might try to make room in public for the people we disagree with to be truly seen and heard. Instead of making political arguments seeking a win over the other, we might seek to win the other over to the light (you know, by making Christian politics about Jesus…).

Hunter and Crawford are describing some things that I’d love to see transform the way we approach politics in Australia. It would be amazing and transformative if we stopped peddling the narrative that politics will solve everything, or giving the keys to the ‘public’ to these leaders who then rely on private dollars to hold on to power. It’d be amazing if we all took up our torches to bring light into these unseen problems in our psyche — our cultural dependancy on gambling and alcohol, and the violence that seems so endemic behind closed doors (62 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence this year, seven women in the last six days… while zero people were killed by needles in strawberries).

The downside to all this optimism about people power, of course, is the images from history of angry mobs with torches hunting down those on the other side. Here’s where I reckon the optimism of plenty of political activism breaks down — the idea that we could, or would, do a better job than those in power if we took the power off them.

There are plenty of iconic torch-carrying-mob pictures we could consider from some of humanity’s darker moments, but perhaps none are more iconic than this one.

So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. — John 18:3-5

People power can be harnessed for some pretty dark stuff.

Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, approached in the night by a mob carrying torches trying to outshine his light… but even in this moment, the start of his darkest hours, Jesus is triumphing by refusing to play the political game the world expects. It’s like the words of Jesus that John recorded back near the start of his story were prescient.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” — John 3:19-21

This is the uniquely bright light we have to shine on the problems of this world — the light of the world, Jesus, has much to offer when it comes to addressing violence against women, alcohol addiction, gambling, and how we treat the unborn. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, isn’t just an alternative to worldly powers, but offers a rationale for rejecting the ‘politicisation of everything’ and the idea that human governments should be responsible for solving all the world’s problems. He’s the king who doesn’t sell us out for his own interests so that the ‘commons’ is turned against us, but who gives himself as a ransom to bring us from ‘the kingdom of darkness into light’. He invites us into the kingdom, he invites us to turn on the torches, knowing that even in those moments where it doesn’t seem we’re cutting through the darkness, or over-powering the bright lights of our cultural idols, his light is not overcome. He gives us a type of political action that isn’t pointless — the call to point people to God’s kingdom in our participation in the public sphere.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:14-16

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Channel 9’s awful gamble, broken lives, and betting on Jesus

I love Rugby League. I love the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles. Say what you will – but League is faster, more exhilarating, and more straightforward than the boot-strapped game of chess and stoppages that is Rugby Union.

I love league. I hate the gambling industry. It’s an awful, poisonous industry that wrecks lives – financially and spiritually. I want to make a distinction here between small stakes poker, a casual bet on the outcome of a grudge match between two friends, raffles, Melbourne Cup sweeps at lunch, and perhaps even gambling as a form of entertainment, free of greed (if that’s possible), and the industry that has set itself up on the back of our love for a punt that makes huge profits by destroying lives. I do some of those things from time to time, but mostly avoid them as a wisdom issue, rather than a moral issue. But the gambling industry thrives on creating addicts and sustaining their addictions. It takes money from people and offers nothing tangible in return. It’s a parasite.

I’m not suggesting the individuals who get lured in and caught up in the web of the gambling industry are devoid of responsibility in their decision to gamble – but if gambling stops them meeting their other responsibilities – like feeding their families, then the gambling industry, the sporting industry, and the viewing audience, have the responsibility to stop enabling that sort of destruction. Responsible gambling is an oxymoron. The nature of a gamble is that it involves risk. The nature of an industry that generates that sort of profits by taking other people’s money, and giving them nothing in return (except a cheap, momentary, thrill) is “irresponsible,” not “responsible.

What makes me saddest is that the gambling industry is all about greed – and greed is an example of the rejection of God that the Bible calls idolatry.

So now I have a dilemma. Because the game I love is in bed with this industry that I hate.

Tom Waterhouse is a bookmaker who has signed a multi-million dollar deal with the NRL and Channel 9 to be a broadcast partner of the National Rugby League. That’s $50 million, and $15 million, that Waterhouse’s company has ripped out of the pockets of Australians – a fraction of their profits, and presumably a fraction of the money they stand to make from the arrangement.

Somehow this deal earned him a seat at the table when it came to 9’s coverage – he became a commentator, and his contribution was helping gamblers understand the various implications of Friday night’s game between the Brisbane Broncos and the mighty Sea Eagles (who won, in a thrilling second half comeback).

I didn’t catch the Tom Waterhouse Show on Friday night because I was at the game. Live. With my daughter.

It was her first game of football – and I’m very much looking forward to indoctrinating teaching her about the game, and how to appreciate it (even if Robyn wants her to love that other code).

Sadly, I won’t be able to do that using Channel 9’s coverage. There’s a bigger question about whether or not I’ll be able to teach her about any professional sport if the continued enmeshment of sport and gambling goes unchecked, that’s a deeper issue that needs a resolution, but the “in your face” nature of the coverage is an immediate concern.

The gambling industry preys on broken people and guarantees ongoing failure. Jesus offers restoration to broken people and a secure future.

I’m not into censoring too much when it comes to parenting – I’m happy to sit down with my daughter – and her yet to be born sibling(s) – and talk about what we watch together. I’ll do that with all sorts of cultural texts, because I want my kids to learn about the world we live in, and to be able to critically engage with the arts.

That’s something I’m really looking forward to – I want my kids to be able to parse cultural texts for meaning, and I want them to be able to use culture to reach people with the gospel.

Sadly, thanks to Channel 9’s decision to get in bed with an industry that destroys lives without remorse, their coverage of the Rugby League will now be one of those things I keep away from my kids until they’re in their teens. And by then it might be too late. By then they’ll probably love Rugby Union or some other inferior product.

I can appreciate that some parents prefer to keep harmful ideas away from their children. But that’s not my style. Obviously there are certain things that I want to introduce them to at certain points of maturity – and I think the secular classification board does a pretty good job at picking what is appropriate for different ages, and we’ll probably err on the side of caution.

But that’s not really what’s behind my thinking.

I’m not shielding my kids from gambling – I hope they’ll be sensible enough to understand how to approach concepts like “responsibility” and “greed”… But I don’t think I can be a responsible participant in society if I teach my kids that it’s ok to benefit from exploiting others.

I don’t mind talking to my kids about gambling, money and greed from the moment they’re born – I don’t even mind the casual bet with a couple of mates about the outcome of football games – but I refuse to take part, as a viewer, in enabling the destruction of lives. And I don’t want to model any sort of support for this selling out of others for my own entertainment or financial gain to my kids. Turning 9’s coverage off is one of the ways I’m going to make a stand.

Gambling is poisonous. It trashes lives. It tears families apart. Plenty of people have pointed out that the head of 9’s commentary team is a recovering gambling addict, and the face of the NRL – one of the game’s most scintillating players, has just checked in to a facility to deal with his gambling addiction which has left his life, and his family’s life, in tatters.

This decision by Channel 9 to throw people under the bus for the sake of their crumbling bottom line is a horribly tangible example of how broken our world is. They’ve taken a great thing – sport – a gift from God. And trashed it. And used it to trash lives. For their own gain.

I love sport because it teaches us good things about life. Individual sport teaches us about pursuing goals, working hard, and the value of discipline. Team sport teaches us about teamwork, selflessness, the value of a common cause, and camaraderie.

There’s a reason Paul uses sporting language to describe life following Jesus.

Here’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 9…

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Sport is good – Paul says physical exercise is of some value – but what really counts in life is your spiritual health (1 Timothy 4:8). The real tragedy of Channel 9’s awful decision to enable problem gambling is that they’re taking something good, and not only not keeping it in perspective with eternal, spiritual matters – but they’re using it to destroy lives both physically (as families fall into poverty) and spiritually, as people get trapped in a cycle of greed that leaves them rejecting the God who made us, and sport – to serve the pursuit of money through a system that is rigged against them, and only works if people lose more than they win.

Greed is a horrible thing – not just because it involves trashing other people for your own gain, and ultimately trashing yourself in the relentless pursuit of more, but because it involves putting the pursuit of wealth in the place God should occupy. Paul calls this idolatry (in Ephesians 5:5).

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Jesus puts it a little more clearly – using slightly less theologically loaded language in Matthew chapter 6.

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

He says this off the back of saying that storing up wealth now – pursuing wealth – is stupid because it’s not going to last. And that’s the real stupidity at the heart of gambling – it’s about taking huge risks for long odds on short term rewards. Even if you win now – the one certainty is that when you die, your winnings aren’t going with you.

Gambling is hopeless. It comes out of brokenness and leads to more brokenness.

Without Jesus, not gambling is a good idea for your personal finances – but it ultimately leaves us less poor,  still broken, and still losing at the end, when we die.

Jesus gives hope. And his life offers a real solution to brokenness. And a safe investment.

From Matthew 6 again…

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I love this Colin Buchanan song about the real hope Jesus offers (on Spotify) (or YouTube).

“I bet all I have on Jesus
I will throw myself on him
The one who died a real death for real sin
I bet all I have on Jesus
Throughout eternity
I will marvel at the real hope my Saviour won for me”

I hate the gambling industry. I hate that it preys on the weak and vulnerable with almost Darwinian antipathy leaving the weak weaker, and the poor poorer, and I hate that its insidious poison can turn functional and successful people into train wrecks who wreak havoc on the lives of those who love them. So there’s no way I’ll be able to watch Channel 9 destroy lives each week.

Here’s an ad from GetUp exposing some of the rhetoric the pro-gambling types use to justify the destruction of lives for financial gain after the NRL sided with the pokie industry when the Australian Government wanted to do something to make gambling more difficult.

Until Channel 9 extracts itself from this situation where its participating in the destruction of Australian families, undermining everything that’s great about sport, I’ll be listening on the radio or signing up for Foxtel. It’d be nice if the NRL stood up too and separated itself from the poison that threatens so many of those involved in the game – and the people who watch it and look up to its stars – rather than buying into the same greed that fuels that brokenness and perpetuating the problem.

Knowing when to fold them…

This story of an addictive personality manifesting itself in the form of degenerate gambling and the lure of the poker table is quite incredible. It has the hallmarks of gonzo style essay writing where the writer is the story, and a few insights into the mind of the gambler, and society more broadly. Check it out.

As a literary society, we have long since gotten over our modesties. The literature of addiction, once the exclusive territory of imbalanced, suicidal poets, has now come to dominate the market. We no longer recognize self-indulgence as self-indulgence. The term itself has fallen out of use, relegated mostly to protests from bitter Amazon.com reviewers and the curmudgeons of the weekly book reviews. Stylish women in New York write chatty columns about how much of their paycheck they spent on the latest “must have” designer handbag. The bestseller shelves are flooded with the memoirs of 30-year-old alcoholics. Sex addicts write 200-page books, complete with sex-cougar dust jacket photos.

Pain in poker comes in many forms. There is the loss you feel about living off of the dregs of a societal illness. There is the gambler’s moment of clarity when you realize you have become just like the old, sad men that you ridiculed in your younger, luckier days. There is the tedium of sitting at a filthy felt table for hours, sometimes days, feigning a studied intensity. There is the anxiety over explaining to a loved one exactly how you lost $30,000 in the course of a weekend. There is searing unease that comes from watching that same loved one twist uncomfortably whenever you give them a gift bought with the spoils of gambling. But none of poker’s daily pains are deadly or instructive, really. What’s more, all of guilt’s iterations can be cleansed by one monster score. Hit a set of 6s on a J-6-2 rainbow flop against the Donkey at the table, the one who is wearing a fake Versace rayon shirt whose outrageous patterning is the only thing taking attention away from his Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses and the poor, doting, usually underage girlfriend who sits behind his right shoulder, awash in the illusion that her boyfriend is Paul Newman from The Hustler—well, win $5,000 off a guy like that and you stop worrying about ethics and your misspent youth.

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I’ll bet…

The mighty Manly Warringah Sea Eagles are on a roll. I was so confident they’d beat the Panthers that I placed a bet with a friend of mine who happens to support them. Is this wrong? If I was sure the Sea Eagles were going to win isn’t that tantamount to stealing? If I was uncertain – is that poor stewardship of my money? Is gambling in and of itself wrong – or is it the associated greed? I don’t want the $5 that Pat is going to have to cough up because his team are unable to function effectively as a unit – I wasn’t motivated by greed. I just like to win. A game is infinitely more enjoyable if there’s actually something weighing on the outcome – by enjoyable I mean exciting – there’s more adrenalin involved if you actually might win or lose something depending on the outcome. But am I going to hell because of this bet? (well no, I’m not going to hell… at this point that was a little bit of rabbitical hyperbole… not that I’m claiming to be a Rabbi, or a rabbit…) Is gambling sinful? Should we be condoning or facilitating any form of greed. The Catholics have been running Bingo competitions as fundraisers for years so they obviously don’t have a problem with it. Neither does the Australian Chief Executive of Woolworths who is a professing Christian.

In that story above (by above I mean contained in the link above…) he made some pretty carefully considered statements about the decision his company has made to invest in a series of gaming establishments.

“I don’t think that’s a moral judgment, I think what is a moral judgment is that one needs to be careful and concerned about the environment in which they sell in the market facilities of that nature.”

While personally I don’t have a problem with gambling if you can remove the element of greed from the equation – if it’s budgeted entertainment with no addiction involved then go for it… who am I to say that using a pokie machine is any less fun than playing an arcade game. My problem is making a distinction like Mr Woolworths (not his real name) has made here. It reminds me of a scene from the Godfather where the Mafia Dons (head honchos) are gathered round a table discussing a move into the narcotics industry – one of them says ”

“I don’t want it near schools — I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people — the colored. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls… “

Somehow the logic in both those quotes seems strikingly similar to me – as long as we’re careful where we put the bad stuff people can go and do the bad stuff if they choose to. Gambling addiction is, without question, a destructive thing. Like the Whitlams I wish I could blow up the pokies… but then I’d lose out on cheap pub steaks designed to attract gamblers. So in conclusion I haven’t exactly figured out my position on gambling yet… but I thought that article was interesting… particularly the quote below, and the fact that Mr Woolworths said he’d be happy to sell bullets at supermarkets if it was legal and there was demand for them. Again, not a moral decision apparently. But where do we draw the line for Christians involved in business? Is it wrong to work at Maccas if they cause obesity? Is it wrong to be a lawyer? I think Mr Woolworths actually has it right in this case…

“I believe that I’ll be accountable one day for my life and so to that extent I’ll be accountable for my integrity,” he said.