Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games: An allegory for our time

I just finished reading The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins. Although classified as science fiction and directed especially to young adults, this novel has become highly acclaimed by a wide readership. The addictive nature of this book is due to not only to the style of the author -- although there ares some evident weaknesses -- nor even to her memorably complex and fascinating heroine but especially to the allegorical nature of this work. It is an allegory for our time, a novel that has become the story for the Great Recession.

I am not in the habit of reviewing books in this blog. This post is thus not a review but rather a brief analysis of a literary phenomenon. However, I will refrain from providing the entire plot, which is ingenious, except to cite a few important details. Collins has written a work that resonates with many people and not only young adults at many different levels, and has thus achieved an almost unprecedented success.

There are numerous themes that can be discerned in this book. Whether the author introduced all of them intentionally is disputable, but I would like to mention several to illustrate what makes The Hunger Games an appropriate allegory for our age. This novel is a stark vision of class conflict in which the poverty-stricken heroine struggles to survive in a cruel social order ruled by a wealthy and amoral elite.

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games was first published on September 14, 2008 (which happened to be the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy). It is the first novel in The Hunger Games trilogy; it was followed by Catching Fire, published on September 1, 2009, and Mockingjay, published on August 24, 2010.
The Hunger Games had an initial print in hardcover of 200,000. It was also released as a paperback, an audiobook and an e-book. Amazon has announced that Collins had become the best-selling Kindle author of all time. It has been translated into 26 different languages. It has also been well-received by many critics.

A film adaptation was co-written and co-produced by Collins herself. It was directed by Gary Ross and released worldwide on March 23, 2012. The film, which stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth, grossed more than $155 million during its first weekend. Sequels to this film based on the rest of the trilogy are already in the works. The first sequel is scheduled for release on November 22, 2013. A mention of the film on the BBC first alerted me to this phenomenon and made me read the book.

The heroine of the story, Katniss, who is the female tribute from District 12
The Hunger Games is written in the voice of sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem. The countries of North America have been decimated by a series of ecological disasters and wars, and now the Capitol, located in what was once the Rockies, holds absolute power (think of the 1%) over the 12 districts that remain after they rebelled against the capital city. The 13th was obliterated. These districts are all impoverished -- the middle class has disappeared -- and most people eke out an existence where they rarely have enough to eat (think of the third world, or two-thirds world, as I prefer to call them).
The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 from each of the 12 districts are selected by lottery -- they are called tributes -- to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive since it is a "fight to the death." These games are not only intended to deter further rebellion but, as the ultimate reality show, they provide spectacular entertainment every year. Far from being a fair fight, the odds of winning the games are stacked against the poor, who are more likely to be selected, and must face well-fed and well-trained opponents from the richer districts. Spoiler: Katniss and Peeta, the other tribute from District 12, are the joint victors of the games that year, something that never happened before and generates much of the drama for the other parts of the trilogy.

Collins says that she was inspired to write The Hunger Games while watching television. On one channel she observed people competing on a reality show and on another she saw footage of the invasion of Iraq. The combination of these two provided the idea for the book. She explains that she has woven together the Roman gladiatorial games with the Greek myth of Theseus. But other themes are also apparent. Even if the author may not have intended them, post-modernism encourages us to discover and discuss these themes.

The games, for example, are a surrogate for war. This is how sport too functions in part in modern societies. The games provide a catharsis, which was the function of the Roman circuses. The name for the country, Panem, by the way, is derived from the Latin phrase Panem et Circenses (Bread and Circuses) and refers to the famous Roman method of keeping the masses pacified.

Collins apparently puts a great deal of thought into choosing the names of both the people and places in her books. Anything to do with the ruling elite clearly has a Roman influence, while the poor have nature-linked, earthy origins. In Panem the “haves” who live in the Capitol thus have Roman-type names, while the "have-nots" who live in the impoverished districts make do with plain names. (Katniss is named after a plant, while the name of Peeta, who is chosen as the male tribute to compete alongside Katniss, and comes from a family of bakers, suggests pita bread. They live in District 12, which the coal-producing part of Appalachia and has a population of only 8,000. Other districts also have small populations.)

The story is set in an apocalyptic future that bears an uncanny resemblance to the present. A wealthy nation recruits its warriors from the ranks of the impoverished young, dresses them up in uniforms, and packs them off to wage war against the impoverished young of other nations. The children of the rich, however, do not have to fight. Wealth is distributed inequitably: the 1% gorge themselves and enjoy unimaginable luxuries, while the 99% are becoming poorer by the day, yet have to pay a disproportionate share of the taxes.

The tributes from the 12 districts in the film

Meanwhile at home, the media rush to televise the conflict. This is war as entertainment, pointing cameras in eager pursuit of bigger audiences and swollen coffers. Individual soldiers are then sought out for their human interest value and, when the bloody circus turns tragic, the callow victims are heralded as fallen heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of peace.

The teenagers who have read the book and will flock to see the film may not aware of the various themes that are interwoven in this story, but many adults will be troubled by the parallels with our own age. The book (and the film) are an allegory that is intended for our world today. Collins may not have consciously intended everything that some readers will discover in this powerful trilogy, but she was certainly aware that she was writing more than a love story for young adults. If that were the case, the book would already be gathering dust in bookstores.

Allegories, like parables, use metaphors to make their point. Parables generally make a single, unambiguous point, but allegories often have multiple non-contradictory interpretations, and may also have implications that are ambiguous or hard to interpret. The Hunger Games is an allegory that can be read a many levels with a multiplicity of interpretations, and some details are indeed ambiguous and hard to interpret.

A poster for the film

By being simultaneously retro and futuristic, this novel holds a mirror up to the present world and in it we see an ugly reality that we do not necessarily want to face. Yet face it we must.

It is ironic that Collins, who does not refer to religion in this book, has written a work that functions much as the Bible does. The Bible too is a mirror in which we can see ourselves, in this case as God sees us. That picture too is not always pretty. Yet neither The Hunger Games nor the Bible end on a note of despair. On the contrary, there is a strong note of hope in both that inspires people. 

I am not equating The Hunger Games with the Bible. Yet part of the appeal of both is the stark reality they portray as well as the hope they exude. In the novel the heroine is a strong figure who can inspire teenagers and older people as well. While there is a deep, pervading bleakness that inspires this book, hope wins in the end. It is too easy today to wallow in despair when we look at our world, but then we overlook the good that is also present. Good will always triumph over evil.

The popularity of this work is therefore understandable, not only for teenagers but also for their parents and the older generation who have been captivated by the story. While far from being the perfect novel, The Hunger Games is nevertheless an allegory for our age that has attracted many people to both the book and the film. I would like to thank the author for this remarkable creation.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Global warming: Will my grandchildren have to pay for it?

Will my grandchildren have to pay the price for global warming? Unfortunately, yes! They haven't asked me about global warming yet because they are still too young to understand. But this is what I would have to tell them: Sorry, Gracie, Christopher, and James, but global warming is real and someday you will have to pay for it. Eventually they will understand, but will they then blame all the generations before them, me included?

My grandchildren, who live in the Boston area, range in age from eight to three, thus they cannot be held responsible for global warming. That blame must be shared by many previous generations. Unfortunately, many people still disclaim any responsibility, since they attribute it to natural forces alone. There may be global warming, they admit. but humans have little to do with it. These people are clearly in denial and refuse to accept any liability. Yet their children and grandchildren will also have to pay the price, just as mine will. Someone always has to pay.

Let me be clear: global warming is not just an environmental problem it is also a human rights issue. It is in fact the greatest threat to children today, and not only to them but to all future generations. Now already the lives of  13 million people -- the majority of whom are children -- are threatened by the current drought in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Gambia is located just under where 0.7m is marked on this map

Currently I am living in the Gambia, which is part of the Sahel and is experiencing this drought as well. The crops have been disastrous and many people will need aid. The drought is much worse in countries further inland, as can be seen from the map.

Not all children in the Sahel will die, but many will suffer the effects of malnutrition, which can last a lifetime. For more on the situation in West Africa, see http://www.unicef.org.uk/Latest/News/West-Africa-update/.

President Obama, in his first address to the UN, acknowledged that we "risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe" if we fail to respond today. I just hope that we too are not too late in our response. The enormity of the crisis is becoming more apparent by the day.

Children will unquestionably suffer the most, and yet they are the least culpable for the damage caused by global warming. I call it global warming, because climate change is too neutral a term. There has always been climate change as a result of natural forces, but global warming is easier to understand and thus makes it easier to lay the blame where it belongs: with us. Of course, natural forces are also at work, but who can doubt any more that stupendous changes are taking place in the world that we share?

Toronto, which is my home base, has experienced the most unusual winter ever: hardly any snow fell during this period. Just before the end of winter the city experienced a heat wave that broke record after record. Many Canadians basked in this warmth, but other parts of the world were not as fortunate. I mentioned already the drought in the Sahel. Floods, however, have been experienced in parts of Asia and Australia. 

Another effect has been the rise of the sea level through the melting of ice at the poles. In Antarctica ice shelves have started collapsing in recent years, consistent with the rapid warming trend there since 1945. If the polar ice cap continues melting at current rates, the  Arctic may be ice-free much sooner than we think. 

These facts are well known, even if not everyone is willing to acknowledge responsibility for the changes. But children will have to bear the brunt of them. Let me mention just a few that will effect future generations:
  • Severe heat waves will become  more frequent, limiting the amount of time that children can play outside for fear of heat-related illnesses. 
  • As sea levels rise, people will be forced to move farther inland as major cities like New York, Miami, and London get flooded. Some low-lying countries may disappear underwater.
  • Droughts will hit areas that previously never had to worry about water shortages, and people may have to relocate to have access to it. With less water available overall, combined with more people needing it, water wars are inevitable.
  • Hurricanes will affect people if they live along the coast, and tornadoes will become more frequent further inland. These natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity.
  • Eventually disaster relief will become harder to find as aid organizations are put under increasing strain. And, as always, children and the elderly will be the most vulnerable and in the greatest need of assistance.
The underlying issue is intergenerational justice. The idea of ensuring justice between those generations who are responsible for the effects of global warming and those who will have to pay the heaviest price for it has is only beginning to be discussed at the national or international levels.

Please note that I purposely did not use "intergenerational justice" in my title, since I want this post to make it  personal so that it can have a greater impact. But intergenerational justice is something that all of us should be concerned about. Our generation and previous ones are responsible, and thus we must ensure that justice is done to those that follow us.

Intergenerational justice means that today’s youth and future generations must have the same opportunities to meet their own needs as the generation governing today. But this is not the case when we burden them with debts because we are unwilling to pay the price. We want to enjoy our SUV's and our steaks now, and we don't worry about the consequences.

The concept of intergenerational justice is not new, of course, having been used for decades in the contexts of economics, social policy and natural resource stewardship. But our responsibility to future generations has taken on new significance in the face of increasing evidence of global warming.

Unfortunately, the idea of intergenerational responsibility is not reflected thus far in policies or debate at the international, national or local level. Instead, the focus remains on the immediate costs of emissions reduction and of other climate-related harms, compared with the immediate benefits of a carbon-intensive economic growth model. Then we no longer see the forest for the trees.

There is much we can and must do to stop global warming; this is a step to intergenerational justice

Framing the debate this way not only ignores the rights of future generations but it also misses the future benefits of an early transition to a low-carbon economy, greater energy security, improved air quality and greater health and wellbeing.

A child-rights approach to global warming would not only take the concerns of intergenerational justice into account but also radically transform the policies and commitments of those in power. Those who are parents and grandparents have a responsibility to work with governments and civil society to shape such a response to climate change. In fact, all of us have this responsibility; we owe it to the world's children.

We know with certainty that global warming is real. It is caused largely by human activity and, with each passing day, it looms ever larger as a major threat to the existence of our human and natural environment. We also know with certainty that if left unabated, the consequences of climate change will be felt primarily by today’s children and the generations that follow them, especially if they are poor or otherwise without the capacity to protect themselves.

James Hansen

James Hansen, one the US's leading climate scientists and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies recently spoke to the French National Assembly, invoking the concept of intergenerational justice.

He concluded his address by saying,"It is my job, as a father and grandfather concerned about young people, future generations, and the other species that share our planet, to point out that the path the world is on, if we stay on it, guarantees that we will push the climate system beyond tipping points. This is a moral issue, a matter of intergenerational injustice. Because of the inertia and slow response of the climate system, our generation burns most of the fossil fuels and reaps the benefits while future generations bear the costs. We, the older generations and our governments, cannot pretend that we do not understand this situation -- we must accept responsibility" (emphasis mine).

I do feel responsible, but I am only one individual. I am very concerned for my grandchildren, however. I do not want them to have to pay for my sins and those of my generation, as well as those that went before me. But I know that my grandchildren will have to pay. Thus I must try to do what I can to minimize the cost. I plead with all who read this blog to do the same and ensure in whatever way we can that justice is done for all the children of the world. This is the only world we have, and we must share it equitably.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Are US Republicans waging a war on women?

"Are U.S. Republicans waging a war on women?" is the headline of a recent article in the Toronto Star. The article begins by quoting Rush Limbaugh's tirade against Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, who had just testified before a congressional panel to oppose a federal health-care exemption that would allow employers with religious beliefs to opt out of covering the cost of contraception.

“What does that make her?” the shock jock fumed into his radio mike. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.” And then the kicker, “if we are going to pay for your contraceptives — and thus pay for you to have sex — we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Limbaugh's comment is offensive not only to women but to any decent-minded person. Accusing Fluke of being a slut and a prostitute is bad enough, but to talk about her making a sex video that he and others could watch makes one wonder about Limbaugh's morality. The guy is sick.

Limbaugh backed off from his tirade with a vague apology as advertisers immediately cancelled their contracts. But not before a political tornado that had been brewing for several years in the US spiraled out of control.

Sandra Fluke

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, which advocates for women’s equality. says, “This is absolutely a war against women.” She is talking about the Republican-led campaign to undermine women’s reproductive rights across the states as well as federal jurisdictions. Using religious rights, fiscal restraint and an ongoing US culture war as weapons, it has targeted abortion, contraception, even rape laws.

One does not have to agree with everything the National Organization for Women stands to recognize the truth of the statement that there is a war against women.

This war has alienated more moderate members of the Republican party, and caused internal anguish at a “coup” carried out by extremists on the conservative far right, who have pulled Republicans into a pit they will need to climb out of before the November presidential election.

In my last post I wrote about the anti-intellectualism that the Republicans, personified in their current crop of presidential candidates, display. That issue may spell doom for the GOP in November. The war on women may well be straw that breaks the camel's back.

To an increasing number of ordinary American women, the Blunt Amendment -- sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri -- was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle. President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation had planned to eliminate exemptions for religious institutions that opposed contraception. Instead, he decided they could opt out, but insurance companies would pay. Blunt aimed to close that loophole, while widening the space for employers to avoid coverage on moral grounds.

But its defeat was only one setback in the steady march of state and federal legislation across the decades-old territory of women’s reproductive rights -- and two similar bills are pending in Congress. No wonder many activists in the US insist that the Republican party no longer represents the majority of its members any more. Instead, it has been taken over by a small, but powerful and vocal, faction.

As the Star article points out, pronouncements by dogmatically devout Catholic presidential candidate Rick Santorum have only punched more holes in a strategy that seems doomed to sink. He has campaigned for the criminalization of abortion and blamed it for overloading the social security budget. He has also opposed contraception, dissed prenatal testing and proclaimed sex a purely procreative function.

David Frum (who is a Canadian by birth), a moderate Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, says the early surge of support for Santorum, Limbaugh’s over-the-top outburst against Sandra Fluke, and a Democratic effort to make Republicans “look like the aggressors in a war against women have created a trap the party will find it hard to wriggle out of."

Frum insists that Obama is to blame for making the religious exemption for contraception a high-profile political issue when he could have left the volatile issue alone. This is what I already wrote in a previous post on this issue. Obama did not deal with it as wisely as he should have.

Frum sees the GOP as the chief casualty: “I don’t think anyone on the Republican side at the beginning intended this to be a campaign or project. They are horrified and upset. Even if they win and protect the historic status quo and write it into law, they would still lose the media debate.”

"For Republicans, being ‘pro-life’ on abortion is a bit of a litmus test,” says John Green, a political scientist at Ohio’s University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics. “It’s hard to get a nomination if you don’t pass the test.”

At state level, he points out, efforts to push through laws restricting abortion have been unrelenting. In 2011, a record 92 new abortion restrictions passed in 24 states, breaking the previous record of 34. Other states barred the use of public funds to train medical staff in abortion procedures. North Carolina, Texas and Utah use the proceeds from selling “Choose Life” licence plates to fund “alternatives” to abortion. Five states require women to undergo ultrasound scans prior to abortion, and give them an opportunity to view the  fetus. Planned Parenthood, a major health-care provider for poor women, has been hit hard with funding restrictions. In addition, some states have moved to restrict sex and HIV/AIDs education in schools and promote counselling of abstinence.

What is driving this war on women? “It’s become a major ideology of the Republican Party,” says Jon O’Brien, president of Washington-based Catholics for Choice, an international advocacy group of Catholics who believe women should follow their conscience in reproductive matters. “People with (more liberal) records are being driven out.”

Polls seem to agree. They show the percentage of Republicans who describe themselves as “moderate” has plummeted in the last decade from 31 per cent to 23 per cent. But while evangelical Christians had a grip on the conservative agenda in George W. Bush’s day, the Catholic bishops are now taking the helm, according to O’Brien. “The Republicans are playing to them because they think if they can galvanize just enough Catholic voters, they will control the way the presidency goes.”
But O'Brien adds, “when you look at what Catholic voters want, it’s clear. It’s health care, education and putting food on the table. Abortion is way down the list, and the idea that politicians are debating birth control is simply extraordinary.”

The war over reproductive rights may never be over. But the Republican primaries will soon be, and with them the contest to win over the most conservative voters. But great, perhaps irreparable, damage will have been done to the Republican party. The war on women may eliminate them from the political scene for many years to come as a party that respects the rights of women. Instead they will be seen as representing a fringe group that spouts an incoherent ideology. Rush Limbaugh will be their spokesman.

Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics have hitched their wagon to a party that does not represent the majority in the US. The GOP has been taken over the Tea Party and other ideologues who are threatening to destroy it.

Statistics show that the Republicans seem to be splashing upstream without a paddle, to mix my metaphors. At least 90 per cent of American women use birth control in their reproductive years, according to a survey by the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health. And about three in 10 terminate a pregnancy by the age of 45. How will these women vote if the Republicans continue with their war on women?

If the GOP does win the presidency in November, feel free to criticize me all you want. It is dangerous to be a prophet, especially in politics. But if the Republicans do win in spite of (or even because of) their war on women, the victory will turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. And the same will be true if they win in spite of (or even because of) their anti-intellectualism. God help the United States then.

I am writing this not as a dispassionate observer of the American scene. My interest is profound both as a Christian and as neighbor. Yet I cannot stand by while some Americans wage a war on women. I admit that I too am opposed to abortion, but this is not the way to do it. Stop the war on women!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Does one have to pretend to be stupid to become president of the United States?

"There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor,"
Rick Santorum said recently during a gathering organised by Americans for Prosperity, a political action group. "That's why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image."

This anti-intellectualism comes from the lips of one of the leading Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States. But it is pure hypocrisy. Santorum has three diplomas (including a JD degree) and is not from the working class. His parents were well educated medical professionals who raised their family in the suburbs. In fact, he has never had a working-class job; before he entered politics, he was a lobbyist.

To judge by Santorum's comments, as well as those his fellow candidates, it would seem that one has to be stupid in order to become president of the United States, or at least put on a good act.

This rally was paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying firm funded by the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who have built a vast network of propagandists over the past 30 years whose aim is to convince Americans that corporate interests are their interests -- small government, low taxes, deregulation. They are also exceedingly hostile toward organised labor.

Anti-intellectualism has a long history in the US, mostly on the right. American anti-intellectualism can be traced to the early Colonial era. In the 19th century, the ideal American was regarded as a self-made man whose knowledge derived from life-experience, and not an intellectual man whose knowledge derived from books, formal education, and academic study.

George W Bush was a master of the populist style of anti-intellectualism. Though his real base was the ruling class, he built a coalition using the folksy rhetoric of the common man. But Bush's anti-intellectualism was genuine -- the president mistrusted ideas and expertise, despite being educated at Yale; Santorum's is not.

Santorum has a lot of company in the hypocrisy department. Mitt Romney is another leading candidate for the Republicans who has been accused of anti-intellectualism. He also has three diplomas, including a joint MBA/JD degree from Harvard  and is reputedly worth a quarter of a billion dollars. He has several homes, and thus is hardly an ordinary Joe.

Romney has gotten pretty good at playing dumb as he demonstrated in the debates thus far. He is slippery, but he manages to get away with it. Yet his answers to questions are an insult to the intelligence of viewers. Either that or he seems to think that the American people are stupid. He and his fellow candidates are all playing the anti-intellectual card.

The instant resurrection of Republican anti-intellectualism is remarkable, especially on the heels of a crushing electoral humiliation contributed by the aggressively ignorant Sarah Palin. However, anti-intellectualism has long been in the GOP arsenal, going back to the name-calling of the original egghead, Adlai Stevenson II. An ideal voter must be ill informed, it seems. The leaders of the GOP not only think voters are stupid; they are doing everything possible to keep them that way.

Let us not forget Newt Gingrich, Ph.D., who makes an even more unlikely anti-intellectual. His ego is so huge that he cannot play that role. Even though Gingrich has led a consistent and aggressive attack on scholars and intellectuals, as he did with his attack in the 1990's on the federal agency in charge of medical effectiveness research and the elimination of Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, and more recently when he announced his intention to eliminate the Congressional Budget Office, he is no enemy of ideas. Instead, he is a “true believer” in the far right-wing ideology, which makes him even more dangerous.

What makes Gingrich attractive to the far right is not his hostility to ideas, but his utter adherence to them and the perception that he would follow them no matter the cost or the countervailing evidence. The far right seems to recognize only one capital offense -- flip-flopping, that is changing your mind in the face of new information. In this regard, Newt is pristine. He is a true believer and willing to simply ignore or stifle any information that is contrary to his confident ideology.

The far-right forces that dominate Republican politics do not seem to accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. This is especially true of Gingrich, who fancies himself as his own scholar and intellectual authority. Indeed, the disgraced former House Speaker has a bad habit of destroying important institutions that provide credible scholarship, but which interfere with his larger agenda. Also, he does not know when to quit, which explains his sudden rise but makes him so thoroughly dangerous.

The contemporary conservative media have fed this anti-intellectualism. News Corporation is one of the most powerful media companies in the world, and it expresses its conservative views through many venues, with Fox News probably being its largest outlet in the United States. And since television is still the most powerful medium, Fox News is crucial to perpetuating the conservative voice. 

Fox News is the main news source for many conservatives. Fox News is noted for the rampant anti-intellectualism of many of its personalities. Since the US is currently in the midst of a contentious and toxic political campaign, and as November draws coser, it is in the best interest of conservatives to cease the pervasive anti-intellectualism that seems to dominate the Right today, and which has taken over a large part of the Republican party.

The GOP should stop exploiting Christianity. Many conservatives use religion, especially Christianity, to pander to people, sometimes the wrong people. Fundamentalism and blind faith are dangerous no matter what religion one subscribes to, but to misuse religion in order to curry votes is inexcusable.

Unfortunately, many Christians allow themselves to be misused. Nearly every denomination that I know in North America has large segments that endorse anti-intellectualism, whether unwittingly or otherwise. The Mormon Church of Mitt Romney has been publicly berated for its anti-intellectualism.

Many of these church people and nearly all right-wing politicians are now in a marriage made in hell. Bush misused them for his own political ends. This time Santorum and Romney are doing the same. 

When will these church people get out of this abusive relationship? They have become codependents, thus probably not any time soon.

And when will these politicians wake up to the fact that one does not have to pretend to be stupid to become president of the United States. Obama has proved it. QED.

Unfortunately, many Republicans still refuse to believe that he is the legitimate president, which is a prime example of anti-intellectualism.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why do 7000 children have to die of malnutrition every day?

Hunger is the world’s No. 1 health risk. Here are a few sobering facts about hunger: It kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. One in seven people in the world will go to bed hungry tonight. There are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union (quoted from the World Food Program).

Some more disturbing facts: Under-nutrition contributes to five million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries (Source: Under five deaths by cause, UNICEF, 2006); One out of four children --roughly 146 million -- in developing countries is underweight (Source: The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2007); More than 70 percent of the world’s underweight children (aged five or less) live in just 10 countries, with more than 50 per cent located in South Asia alone (Source: Progress for Children: A Report Card on Nutrition, UNICEF, 2006); 10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths (Source: The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2007).

Many children die because of the quality, rather than the quantity, of the food they eat; malnutrition leaves them dangerously weakened and unable to ward off a host of ailments. Where children do not die of hunger, the effects on their health can be fatal. Deficiencies in the first two years of life are often irreversible. Thus food aid should be a top priority in international efforts to tackle the consequences of poverty -- not only in a time where an officially declared famine makes headlines.

Maybe this fact will drive the issue home; it did for me: Every day more than 7,000 children from all over the world will die for lack of nutritious food. There are many other cause of death of children as well, of course; most of which will appear on death certificates rather than malnutrition. Yet malnutrition is preventable.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines malnutrition as "the cellular imbalance between supply of nutrients and energy and the body's demand for them to ensure growth, maintenance, and specific functions." Women and young children are the most adversely affected groups; one quarter to one half of women of child-bearing age in Africa and south Asia are underweight, which contributes to the number of low birth weight infants born annually.

Malnutrition is globally the most important risk factor for illness and death, contributing to more than half of deaths in children worldwide; child malnutrition was associated with 54% of deaths in children in developing countries in 2001. According to UNICEF, 70% of children's deaths in developing countries result from one the following five causes or a combination thereof: acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, measles, malaria, and malnutrition. Malnutrition is an underlying cause of 53% of all deaths in children younger than 5 years of age in these countries.

All of us regularly see images on TV or ads in journals that show such children and ask us to help support them. Sometimes we even see pitiful pictures of children and adults struggling with severe malnutrition, but then we may choose to ignore them. It hurts to see children suffer; thus we tune out these painful images.

I do not have to watch TV to see such suffering, however. I only have to walk down almost any unpaved street in the Gambia, where I am teaching for a semester, to see the effects of poverty. Although the children may not always appear to be malnourished, many are underweight. I can witness how their parents try to eke out a living. 

In the middle of the tourist area where I live, many families still have barely enough to survive on. It is not surprising that some women resort to prostitution. Fortunately, there is no famine here, unlike neighboring Mali that is in the midst of a major famine. It is estimated that more than 13 million people in Western Africa will face starvation in the coming months. Nevertheless, it is tragic that poverty and relative affluence exist side by side in one of the wealthiest areas in the Gambia.

Even in a good year, the poorest families in much of the developing world cannot grow all the food that they need to survive. But now with food prices rising, a significant proportion of them cannot even afford to buy enough to make up the shortfall. The rising price of food, which is merely an irritant for many in well-to-do countries, becomes a tragedy for nearly every one in poorer nations.

There the lack of food leaves children especially with a weakened immune system and thus vulnerable to many diseases and, potentially, death. Malnutrition lurks in the long shadow of poverty, and as the essentials of life become more expensive, children are the foremost victims.

Even those that survive long bouts of malnutrition will suffer its consequences for the rest of their lives. Some children become physically and mentally stunted, unable to keep up at school. Others are condemned to a lifetime of ill-health and associated poverty. The cost of malnutrition is clear; if it does not take children's lives, it robs them of many opportunities in life. This tragic waste of human potential is felt most keenly in the developing world, in the very countries whose future depends on a young, healthy and dynamic population.

But two-thirds of children's deaths are preventable. According to the WHO, malnutrition and the lack of safe water and sanitation contribute to half of all these deaths. Research and experience show that most of the children who die each year could be saved by low-tech, evidence-based, cost-effective measures such as vaccines, antibiotics, micronutrient supplementation, insecticide-treated bed nets, improved family care and breastfeeding practices, and oral rehydration therapy.

In addition to providing vaccines and antibiotics to children, education should also be provided to mothers about how they can make simple changes to living conditions such as improving hygiene in order to increase the health of their children. Mothers who are educated will also have increased confidence in their ability to take care of their children, therefore providing a healthier relationship and environment for them.
Many of these solutions are clear, proven and cheap. Making sure that babies are breastfed properly and ensuring that children's foods are fortified with basic vitamins and minerals can have an instant and dramatic impact on their health. Targeting the poorest with special help and ensuring they have access to health-care has equally dramatic positive results.

The news is not all bad. The world has made dramatic progress in reducing children's deaths, cutting the number that die by more than a third since 1990 by investing in vaccines and health workers. This investment has saved millions of lives by preventing and treating deadly diseases. Now is therefore the time for the next breakthrough: tackling the scourge of chronic malnutrition.

None of this will happen on its own, according to experts in nutritional assistance. Without the political will to stamp out chronic malnutrition, such knowledge will not benefit those who need it most: the children. Once again the worlds poorest and weakest members will be left behind.

We know what people can do if the momentum is there. Experts note that the four million children a year whose lives have already been saved by international efforts to stamp out child mortality are living, breathing testaments to what can be achieved if the issue is confronted head-on.

But to date, experts agree, malnutrition has not yet had the same benefit of high-profile campaigning and investment as the other major drivers of child mortality, like HIV/AIDS, lack of access to vaccines and malaria. We cannot allow this imbalance to continue. The time for action has come.

Experts agree that we can stop malnutrition in its tracks. We know what works, and we know how to deliver it. What is lacking, however, is the political will to tackle this silent crisis. If world leaders make a commitment to stamp out hunger in 2012, forcing the issue onto the political agenda, the battle would be half-way won. Previous efforts to stop children dying show that every giant leap begins with a small step. We need to take that small step now.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The persecution of Christians

Many people today would probably look askance at a headline that read: "The War on Christians." Yet that was the headline that Newsweek used for the cover on its February 12, 2012 edition. The Economist had used a similar headline in an article on December 31, 201, entitled, "Christians and lions" that had as subtitle, "The world’s most widely followed faith is gathering persecutors. Even non-Christians should worry about that."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of the Newsweek article, is as blunt as the headline. Enough with all this talk "about Muslims as victims of abuse," she charges, because really it's the other way around: "A wholly different kind of war is underway--an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm."

But to suggest that a genocide is underway is a serious charge. Moreover, she alleges that it is widespread: "In recent years, the violent oppression of Christian minorities has become the norm in Muslim-majority nations stretching from West Africa and the Middle East to South Asia and Oceania."

To make matters worse, she claims that the media have been cowed into silence, due to "the influence of lobbying groups such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation--a kind of United Nations of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia--and the Council on American-Islamic Relations." 

She explains: "Over the past decade, these and similar groups have been remarkably successful in persuading leading public figures and journalists in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement called 'Islamophobia'--a term that is meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia."

Genocide is a very serious charge, however. And it is truly shocking to see this charge made in a national magazine. She pleads that we, the readers, must "please get our priorities straight .... Instead of falling for overblown tales of Western Islamophobia, let’s take a real stand against the Christophobia infecting the Muslim world." If a genocide is in progress, she fails to provide any evidence, but in the process she manages to smear the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a major American Islamic advocacy group.

Yet, as the article in The Economist indicates, Christians are being persecuted in increasing numbers today.
Christianity is growing almost as fast as humanity itself, but its 2.2 billion adherents cannot count on safety in numbers. The article notes that is partly because the locus of the world’s largest religion is shifting to hotter (in several senses) parts of the world. 

According to a report published by the Pew Forum in December, the Christian share of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has soared over the past century, from 9% to 63%. Meanwhile, the think-tank says, the Christian proportion of Europeans and people in the Americas has dropped, respectively, from 95% to 76% and from 96% to 86%. Philip Jenkins has described this phenomenon in great detail in his 2002 book The New Christendom.

Moving from the jaded north to the dynamic south does not portend an easy future, as the article shows. In Nigeria scores of Christians have died in Islamist bomb attacks. I would add most recently in Jos, where a suicide bomber drove a car into a church building as the service was about to begin.

Car packed with explosives in Jos

The article mentions that in Iran and Pakistan Christians are on death row, for “apostasy”--quitting Islam--or for blasphemy, and that dozens of churches in Indonesia have been attacked or shut. It also notes that two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war Christian population have fled the country, while in Egypt and Syria, where secular despots gave Christianity a shield of sorts, political upheaval and Muslim zealots threaten Christian groups. 

But the article explains, not all Christianity’s woes are due to Muslims. The faith faces harassment in formally communist China and Vietnam, as well as in India, where Hindu nationalists want to penalize Christians for making converts. In the Holy Land local churches are caught between Israeli encroachment on their property and Islamist bids to monopolise Palestinian life. Many have noted already that Christians have been leaving the region in droves, and thus the followers of Jesus may yet become a rarity in his homeland.

Crowd with bodies of victims of yet another killing near Jos

Yet this article refuses to call the persecution of Christians a crusade, much less genocide, as Hirsi Ali does. Of course, the word "crusade" has terrible associations for Muslims, and thus it would never be used by them or even of them. Muslims do use the word "jihad," but this word refers in the first place to the internal struggle that every believer must practice, and only by extension to the war against infidels, as some Muslim extremists prefer. 

A spokesman for the Islamic militant group Boko Haram revealed on Sunday that they are planning a “war,” according to the report, on Christians in the next few weeks, but he probably said "jihad." The group, he explained, “will launch a number of attacks, coordinated and part of the plan to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country.” The spokesman added that the government “cannot be prepared for what is to come.” Without providing specific details, he noted, “we will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.”

Persecution has existed since the beginnings of the Christian church. the early Christians were persecuted for their faith, at the hands of both the Jews and the Romans. This continued from the 1st century until the early 4th, when the religion was legalized.

Later, in the Islamic period, anti-Christian pogroms occurred. Under sharia, non-Muslims are obligated to pay special taxes, which contributed a significant proportion of income for the Islamic state and persuaded many Christians to convert to Islam. Christians subject to Islamic rule were allowed to practice their religion with some notable limitations. As People of the Book they were awarded dhimmi status, which, although inferior to the status of Muslims, was more favorable than the plight of adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths.

Christian men were not allowed to marry Muslim women, but Muslim men in contrast were allowed to marry Christian women. Christians under Islamic rule had the right to convert to Islam or any other religion, while an apostate to Islam faced severe penalties that could even include the death penalty.

Yet this form of persecution was minor as compared to what Christians had to endure at the hands of other Christian groups during the medieval and Reformation periods when millions in total died for their faith.

There have been many other instances of the persecution of Christians later in China, Japan and India, but none of them are of immediate concern, since my focus is the contemporary period. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that today some of these countries have very large populations, yet at the same time place great restrictions on the exercise of some religions.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, Christians are the most persecuted group in the contemporary world. This is true if one carefully examines what has happened to Christians in the last few decades in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen. In most of these countries Muslims constitute the majority, although other religions are also at fault. (A map of some of these countries can be found at http://www.releaseinternational.org/pages/find-out-more/persecution-map.php.)

One statistic that I find especially troubling is this: in the 16th century, Christians formed half the population of Iraq, while in 1987, the last Iraqi census counted only 1.4 million Christians. While Christians represent less than 5% of the Iraqi population, they make up 40% of the refugees now living in nearby countries.

That there is widespread persecution of Christians today is undeniable. Yet Hirsi Ali is not justified in terming  this a genocide. Christians are persecuted all over the world because of their faith. The statistics reveal a pattern of persecution of Christians that encircles the globe. In spite of being part of the largest faith or maybe because of it, Christians are persecuted as perhaps never before. 

Correlation between Christian growth and persecution

Political correctness prevents some Christians from mentioning this persecution, but there are many Christian groups that are not afraid to speak out loudly and clearly about the experience of their fellow believers in many countries all over the world. Yet many people today will still look askance at a headline such as "The War on Christians." 

It is regrettable, therefore, that Hirsi Ali was correct in calling the persecution of Christians "war," but she is wrong about terming it "genocide." This former Muslim has done all Christians who suffered for their faith a great disservice by exaggerating the role of a handful of Muslim extremists such as Boko Haram.

Every religion can adduce evidence of the persecution of their faith. It is only too easy for them to claim that no one has suffered the way they have suffered. That is not my intention today; I simply want to be honest in introducing this problem. There is "Islamophobia" today, but there is also "Christophobia." Both need to be addressed by people of good will. Islam and Christianity (together with other faiths) can and must learn to live together in our world today. Religious persecution must stop. Our world is too small for anything else than for people of every faith to learn to coexist.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stop religious persecution, especially of children

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada recently published a report dealing with the religious persecution of children (see: http://files.efc-canada.net/si/Marriage%20and%20Family/The_Overlooked_Demographic_-_A_Report_on_the_Impact_of_Religious_Persecution_on_Children.pdf). It is a shocking report. Although religious persecution affects people of all ages, it impacts children in a special way. But this topic has not received adequate consideration by churches, governments, or others in the international community. This report tries to correct this situation by describing the problem clearly and then making several suggestions on what governments can do to rectify it.

The report focuses on the persecution of Christian children, but the same issues apply for all children who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Such persecution typically occurs when a religion is in a minority situation in a particular country.

When people suffer for their faith, children share many of the same experiences. Yet they are especially vulnerable, and their ordeals are often unacknowledged. Amnesty International notes that children “suffer in silence, their stories never told, their torments never called into account.” That must change.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that 70 percent of the world’s seven billion people live in countries where religious freedom is highly restricted. Children 18 and under, who constitute more than 2.2 billion of the world’s population, are over represented in these regions, since nations with high restrictions on religious freedom generally contain high populations of children.

I want to highlight parts of this report because of the the wide scope of this problem in the world today, and even more because children often suffer unnecessarily for what others have done. Children are the intended targets of religious persecution, sometimes because of their own faith, but more often because of their parents’ faith, or because they live in communities that are identified with a particular faith. The persecution of children can take many forms, including imprisonment, torture, murder, and kidnappings.

In North Korea, the government regularly imprisons religious believers, regardless of age .It has been documented that North Korean authorities have incarcerated the children and even grandchildren of
anyone caught praying. 

In Uzbekistan, the government severely restricts religious activity and has criminalized unregistered religious groups. Those who practice their faith without the official approval of the government, including children, are frequently imprisoned. according to reliable reports torture is used to force adults and children to renounce their beliefs.

The kidnapping of children has been reported in some Muslim-dominated states or regions. Girls have been taken away from their parents, forced to convert to Islam and then forcibly married to Muslim men who are, most often, significantly older than them.

In some countries children have been persecuted in their schools and social circles. They have been singled out by teachers, bullied by neighbours, and rejected or tormented by their peers. Children are often not attacked because of their own faith, but for the faith of their parents, church or community. In some cases, persecutors have harmed children in an effort to pressure their parents to renounce their faith.

The report notes that the impact of religious persecution on a child’s psychological health is a significant concern in considering the impact of religious persecution on children. Children who experience extremely distressing events can suffer psychological trauma. Especially traumatic is the disappearance of a parent.

It is important to recognize that in many cases of religious persecution, children witness and experience horrific events whose meanings cannot be interpreted at the time because of the child’s limited cognitive framework. Children cannot be expected to have developed the necessary coping mechanisms to deal with such tragedies, regardless of background. Moreover, not all child victims of persecution have a support network to turn to in their suffering; sometimes that network dies before their eyes in that traumatic event.

Government restrictions on religion compared to social hostility by non-governmental actors

Our response must be one that takes responsibility for the protection of children. In our civil society, that also means engaging with government to seek such protections within our borders and beyond. In order to protect the mental health of children, the international community must seek to eliminate religious persecution altogether.

The report explains that the international community has agreed that the protection of children’s rights is a concern that must be addressed collectively. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was established in 1989 to be a major international safeguard of children’s rights and has been ratified by nearly all states. Its formation represents the need to recognize that “children are citizens today,” and not just investments in the future.

Moreover, the international community agrees that in meeting the needs of children, we are meeting the
needs of society at large. This was conveyed by young people at the General Assembly of the United Nations at the Special Session on Children in May 2002 when they said, “We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for us is a world fit for everyone."

A world fit for children is one that upholds freedom of religion. The Convention contains a number of articles pertinent to situations where children suffer religious persecution. This includes Article 3, which states:
"In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."

Religious persecution is never in the best interests of the child and the Convention should serve as impetus for the international community to address situations in which religious persecution occurs. Article 14 requires state parties to “respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

While acknowledging that children are meant to be guided by their parents in their beliefs, this article highlights that children have as much right to choose what to think and believe, as well as to practice their beliefs without undue interference by others. In other words, they should be free to practice their faith and, if they so desire, to convert.

In some countries conversion is a problem for many minorities

Where religious persecution of minority groups occurs, Article 30 is particularly helpful: "In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practice his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language."

In addition, the Convention addresses the protection of children after they have already suffered persecution. Article 39 on the rehabilitation of child victims states: "Children who have been neglected, abused or exploited should receive special help to physically and psychologically recover and reintegrate into society. Particular attention should be paid to restoring the health, self respect and dignity of the child."

With this direction, the report suggests that governments should seek to provide adequate care for children who have experienced neglect, abuse or exploitation because of religious persecution. Governments should also give careful consideration to child victims of persecution who are seeking asylum within their borders, prioritizing the restoration and protection of their well-being.

The religious freedom of various countries compared 

The report concludes that the protection of children’s rights requires the active cooperation of states and international bodies in enforcing these laws. A lack of cooperation in this area remains an obstacle to effective protection of children’s rights. Violations of the Convention continue to go unaddressed in many countries. At the same time, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child remains a central mechanism in the international pursuit to safeguard the rights of children worldwide.

While this report focuses especially on the persecution of Christian children, I have widened the problem to include all children who are persecuted because of their faith or that of their parents or communities. The UN has properly recognized the wide scope of this problem and has sought to address it. 

Religious persecution must stop, especially the persecution of children because they are the most vulnerable members of any society. In the words of the young people themselves, “We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for us is a world fit for everyone."

Such a world is one where religious freedom is possible for everyone, young or old, male or female, and no matter what their faith is. That is not yet the case, unfortunately, but we must strive for it in whatever we can. Children should never be persecuted because of their faith, and they must always have the freedom to chose their faith freely. For their sake, therefore, we must put a stop to all forms religious persecution, but that is not always easy to do, especially when various conceptions of religious freedom collide. Yet try we must.

Religious freedom is not always easy to pin down; sometimes it is called religious persecution