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Earl Doherty

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The Elephant in the Room
July 8, 2005)

     Bob Geldoff and his Live 8 bands have been performing on the doorstep of the G8 conference in Scotland, urging the world's richest nations to take pity on Africa and do more to alleviate its profound and growing poverty. The media have been covering the event and have bombarded us with commentary on the African crisis. In all of this expressed opinion on radio, television, newspapers and magazines which I have seen, heard or read, one aspect of the crisis has remained unaddressed, one monumental elephant ignored. On this particular subject, a vast silence reigns.
     First, let's see what the media are saying. My own city's daily newspaper was probably representative, with a series of articles and Op-Ed pieces on Wednesday, July 6. In a reprint of an article from the London Times, the British treasury minister was quoted: "It makes you angry because there's nothing in science or technology or medicine that should prevent us from tackling poverty. It's a lack of political will." So what are the impediments? What exactly is that lack of will?
     The same article itemized some of the more obvious problems: "But the failure of African leaders to set out explicitly how they plan to make their governments accountable, combat corruption, halt conflict and respect human rights will be cause for concern, especially for the U.S." Another article, by John Williamson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, referring to Graham Hancock's 1991 book Lords of Poverty which exposed "the many failures of the multi-billion-dollar government aid business," puts it bluntly: "[G]overnment aid programs more often than not worsen the conditions of those they are meant to help." Itemizing the vast increase in foreign aid between 1950 and today, Williamson observes: "If foreign aid works, shouldn't the poor be doing better today than before the dollars started flowing? Instead, Africa remains an economic basket case while millions of people have escaped the poverty trap elsewhere....Africa lacks the basic conditions to better the lives of its citizens, and more money will not change that....Handing billions more to corrupt governments will drive up Mercedes-Benz sales, but do nothing to help the poor." The latter may be a veiled reference to the situation in impoverished and AIDS-ravaged Swaziland whose king bestowed a luxury car on each of his 10 wives and two fiancées.
     There is no question that corruption and poor governance have contributed to the failure of foreign aid to much of Africa, but this problem should be largely solvable by holding African leaders accountable and linking aid to the elimination of corruption, civil war and human rights abuses. Who, except for some of those African leaders themselves, would argue with such a strategy? But to what degree would this solve the entrenched poverty? There would still be left an even bigger contributing problem to tackle, and here the will, along with a willingness even to acknowledge it, is profoundly lacking, with ultimate responsibility lying at doorsteps outside Africa itself.
     In the same issue of my newspaper, a pair of front-page articles were written by a journalist and his photographer who had just been to Nigeria. They called it "A scene of utter despair." They visited "the filth, despair and chaos of a Lagos slum," though they pointed out that Lagos as a whole is "a slum with scattered islands of functional city life within it." The principal economic activity of the hosts of Lagos poor is the scouring of the city dump, a vast area ankle-deep in a filthy brown slop with huge piles of rotting waste. Amid "a smell that would knock you over," thousands try to earn a living by plundering the dump for recyclable and saleable debris; many live on the site itself. There are women and men, young and old, mothers with children tied on their backs. Many even of the city's well-educated have been reduced to this.
     The entire city of Lagos is deteriorating rapidly. Power outages happen daily, roads are terrible, street lighting at night no longer functions. One article states: "Lagos wasn't always like this. There used to be order. Buses came on time. There were stop lights, the power worked, the university graduates had their pick of jobs. Instead are few. There seems to be no middle class. There are a few people driving around in Jaguars and, it seems to me, the majority are hustling at anything they can, just to survive
whether it's selling corn, picking garbage, or hawking their wares by the roadside....As each day passes here, I see another 10 people living in a single room, using a hole in the ground as a bathroom and having to share even that with neighbours...."
     The companion article looks at the larger picture. "Estimates of the city's population range from nine or 10 million up to 15 million or more, but this is really guesswork. The only certainty is that the city has exploded over the last several decades and continues to swell at a terrifying rate
and that almost all this growth consists of shacks, shanties and single-room apartments crowded with the extended families of unimaginably poor people....If Lagos were unique in Africa, it would be horrifying. But it is more than horrifying because it is far from unique.... [Elsewhere it was pointed out that 10% of the earth's population now lives in sub-Saharan Africa.]....People aren't being pulled into the cities with the promise of something better, but are instead being pushed from the countryside by the threat of something worse. Africa's swelling slums are reason only to despair, not hope....
     "Living in hell, the people of Lagos are perhaps not surprisingly looking for God. Everywhere there are banners, billboards and posters touting the latest evangelical crusade and church services look like rock concerts as 30,000 people sing and cheer and shout to the heavens. There is probably no higher concentration of passionate believers on the face of the earth. [Nigeria is roughly equal parts Christian and Moslem.]
     "So where is God? Good people by the millions cry out his name, but still they are afflicted. One might think that Lagos is proof that a benevolent God who bestows blessings on the faithful does not exist. The faithful of Lagos are not shaken, though. They are steadfast. 'I am covered in the blood of Jesus!' is the ecstatic cry of so many people who have nothing else to shout about."

     Now we can speak the word that dares not be spoken, either in the halls of government, at conferences like the G8 summit, in churches, in the media. It is: "overpopulation"
the great lumbering obscene elephant in the room of today's political correctness. Everyone pretends that it is not there. Or that it is a phantom, a conspiracy, a cover for nefarious intentions. Who could view the misery and disintegration of places like Lagos and dismiss such a beast, burying their heads in the sandor in the muck of the city's dump? We all know the answer to that, even if most seem afraid to voice it. While there are certain misguided brands of secular ideological activism which oppose population controls, the great and implacable enemy to those who would confront this elephant is religion, and specifically Christianity, mainly in its Catholic and evangelical expressions.
     Our journalist and photographer called Lagos "hell on earth." More and more places on earth are descending into this kind of hellishly overcrowded poverty and misery. Following in Africa's footsteps, India and other nations of south-east Asia have started down the same road; parts of Central and South America are not far behind. As population increases exponentially, many governments good and bad find themselves with little ability to cope with their jobless and impoverished masses; all the foreign aid in the world will not make a difference, and will simply encourage corruption by the elite in the face of an overwhelmingly hopeless situation. Nigeria alone, not a large country, now contains about 140 million people, a good portion of them destitute. It can be no coincidence that the change in Lagos from order to chaos over a generation or two which the above articles mention has coincided with a dramatic increase in population. Other parts of Africa are in the same state.
     What creates a mindset that not only fails to see such catastrophe but the factors responsible for it? I have no doubt that if the Pope himself were to visit the Lagos dump, he would offer his blessing to the faithful, encourage them to believe in Jesus, and return to Rome still steadfastly adamant in his refusal to countenance birth control and abortion. I have no doubt that the evangelicals who visit places like Nigeria preach their personal Savior with great fervor, offering the blood of Jesus without ever encouraging their converts to have fewer children, let alone giving them the means to achieve that. Several recent evangelical- and Catholic-driven U.S. administrations have curtailed or cut off foreign aid to governments and ground-level organizations which offer women family planning and birth control or include information on abortion as part of their counseling services; at the same time those administrations continue to give aid to corrupt governments who pass on few of these dollars to those who need them. By refusing to aid those who supply condoms
even as a measure against sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDSor who provide abortion services to women who want them, past and present U.S. policy has been actively contributing to the spread of misery, illness and death, as well as to the number of self-inflicted abortions, many of which end in disability or death for these women, orphaning their existing children. A recently published report described how many African rivers are increasingly carrying a new floating discharge out to sea: personally aborted fetuses.
     What makes possible such mind-numbing myopia, such fanatical insensitivity to suffering, to social, economic and environmental degeneration? There is one simple answer. The perceived word of God. Faith, by definition, shuts down the mind, and where the overriding will of God is concerned, shuts down human compassion as well. What gets substituted is a kind of ersatz compassion, in which aiding or giving charity to the unfortunate is an expression of one's own religious self-image or commitment to faith; it is anything but altruistic. It is directed toward the imagined soul of the recipient, not his earthly self, and anything which conflicts with that faith will not be allowed recognition or input. When Pope Paul VI and his circle of advisers decided in 1964
—a few years after science had developed the tool which could check the world's growing population explosionthat God wanted and would allow no artificial birth control, this became the driving force in Vatican politics which leveled all before it. No consequence of the unchecked fecundity of the human race was of any importance. If human suffering, the deterioration of nations, the destruction of the planet was the result, it mattered not. Soulsapparently as many as possibledestined for a heaven in the sky is all that does matter, and if they have to pass through a hell on earth to get there, so be it. Can those whose single-minded focus is on a life after death be expected to concern themselves with the life before death, to make rational and humane decisions about it? How does the Papacy's "respect for life" work in the slums of Lagos? If a destitute couple is forced to have as many more children as their natural sexual activity will produce, how does this impact upon the lives of those already born, already living in squalor, already struggling for survival? How much more sickness and death will be created in those crowded slums by the birth of more human beings, with stretched or non-existent resources for food, medicine, clean water, working sanitation facilities and other necessities of life? What stress, family breakdown and sheer human misery must be endured for the sake of "God's will"? Does God himself smile down on all this? Is he no more perceptive and compassionate than his representatives? Did he truly inspire his infallible vicar to forbid artificial birth control? Is abortion really the 'evil of evils' which Catholics and evangelicals make it out to be (except when it involves their own daughters)? If ever there was a clear example of the harm caused by religion's focus on the supernatural, its fixation on dogma and the so-called word of God, it lies before us today.
     Bob Geldoff and his Live 8 were appearing in the wrong venue. They should have been in St. Peter's Square, playing to shame the Catholic Church into ending its gaiacidal veto on the control of population. Though other cultures and religions have been equally blind and obstinate, such a move by the Papacy would do more to cure Africa's ills, and those of many other countries, than a tripling of foreign aid
—although by now it may be too late. We should all have been there in front of the Vatican, and long before this, together with a world media not afraid to speak common sense for the good of humanity and the planet we live on. In any other context, with any other government or agency that had managed its mandate so incompetently, with such cruel and devastating results, populaces would have risen up, revolution would be in the air. Not so with religion. This world truly needs salvation, but it is salvation from the purveyors of superstition and ignorance, who promise all but deliver nothing, who take away our rationality, our good judgment, our self-esteem, our joy of life. As we watch the earth descend into hell around us, we acquiesce with hardly a murmur. Wellexcept for a few of us.


     By way of an 'epilogue' one might ask what the ministers of religion are concerning themselves with these days in regard to our lives on earth. On the same front page of my newspaper, the headline read: "Church shuns MP for backing gay marriage." A federal Member of Parliament was ostracized by his parish priest for voting last week in favor of making marriage for gays and lesbians a matter of Canadian constitutional right. The good Reverend, backed by the regional Archbishop, refused any longer to give this MP communion, driving both himself and his family away from church attendance. Few issues on the North American scene have generated so much righteous and fanatical opposition over the last generation than extending equal human rights in all aspects of life to gays and lesbians. Despite a quarter-century of progressive thinking in medical and psychiatric research that same-sex attraction is a natural
if minorityexpression of human sexuality, neither 'sinful' nor a matter of choice, these dinosaurs, which includes a sizeable portion of the faithful, have completely shut their minds to such developments, devoting unlimited time and energy to derailing social progress and keeping gays and lesbians at the level of second class citizens, or worse. It has become the new racism, with all the bigotry and discrimination of the older forms. And on what basis? Again, the perceived word of God.
     There are no other grounds. No heterosexual marriage is threatened, devalued or rendered obsolete by the extension of the principle of human commitment, religious or secular, to gay and lesbian couples. No heterosexual married couple is any more likely to divorce, to mistreat their children, to abandon social commitments, to become psychopathic, to bring down the sky on all of us, by virtue of the extension of marriage rights to homosexuals. Rather, it is religious mania and indoctrination which has created division, discrimination and social strife, turning human beings against one another, in some cases leading to assault and murder. These are effects far more real and serious than anything the opponents of same-sex marriage, or of homosexuality in general, can claim for their bugaboo. Supposedly on the grounds of an obscure line in an ancient primitive book, they are willing to rend society in two. (The book of Leviticus has mostly to do with prescriptions for animal sacrifice to God, along with other directives and prohibitions which are so arcane and obsolete not even the most diehard fundamentalist devotes an iota of attention to advocating them
—despite their equal status as the supposed "word of God.") Actually, one wonders if this biblical chapter and verse are really just a mask for the instinct for bigotry and exclusivity which seems to infect much of the religious mindset.
     There is something surreal in the sight of entire hierarchies of various world Churches and evangelical Assemblies, dutifully followed in lemming-like ignorance by their congregations, mounting a rabid campaign against same-sex marriage as though it will spell the end of civilization as we know it. Come to think of it, maybe it will—and good riddance. Maybe in a couple of generations, a more rational society will look back and see it as simply one feature of a period in which the insanity of religious dogma and fanaticism took over the minds of so many of the world's people, to such destructive and inhuman effect.
     That is, if we survive that long.


Earl Doherty

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