Saturday, March 08, 2003

The Answer is NO
To the person who sent me the e-mail requesting that I put up more information on the torture scene I described in one of my posts:

Go to hell. The answer is no.

In the first place, about 15 years ago I spent six weeks of my life reading--and ultimately, trying to avoid reading-- that stuff almost daily. I remember that scene the same way you have a flashback after major trauma. I tried to recreate it as best I could. But if you think that I would want to go back there and give you chapter and verse you have another thing coming. I've had my peep into the abyss and it scared me spitless. Doing it twice would be to tempt the Erinye.

In the second place, anyone who pursues these things with no purpose other than to "collect stories" is a sick puppy. To "have no political or moral views on the matter" is to have abdicated your role as a human being. I think you scare me more than the torturer. I've banned your IP address, so don't bother trying again.

Friday, March 07, 2003

Water, Again
I work in an environment when sooner or later everyone drops an interesting bit of information that sets off ripples. That's how I discovered the whole Aguas Argentinas mess that I blogged about a few days ago. While it's definitely an example of the reckless capitalism (thank you for the phrase, Randy, it's perfect!) that afflicts Latin America, it turns out to be just a little more than that.

A series of articles by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, with the overall title of The Water Barons, exposes what anyone would consider conflict of interest in international organizations such as The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Not only do these organizations use their financial clout to force privatization on third world countries in desperate need of money, but often join forces with the water companies to influence public discussion and, in some instances, to force countries to open their utilities to free market forces. In some cases, such as Aguas Argentinas, they have even taken a financial stake in the project.

Well, it would be conflict of interest if these gentlemen didn't write the rules to suit themselves.

For example, the World Water Commission of the World Water Council (established in 1996 by the World Bank and the United Nations), is run by a former CEO of a water company, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and two World Bank directors. The role of the World Water Commission is to promote privatization of water utilities around the world.

Another example: the former president of the Suez water company was special counselor to the director of the International Monetary Fund during his tenure as CEO. After he retired, he became the chair of the International Panel for New Investments in Water, an initiative of the water companies. Also in the panel is the chairwoman of the steering committee of Global Water Partnership, a former Canadian deputy health minister who is also the chairwoman of the Suez Water Resources Advisory Committee. The International Panel's role is to focus on increasing the rate of return on water projects, and the related difficulty of implementing the full cost recovery pricing of water.

Basically, these groups promote water as a marketable commodity. The results can be disastrous. In South Africa, heavy lobbying by the water companies backed by the World Bank persuaded local councils to privatize their waterworks starting in 1998. Urged by the World Bank, they began to cut service to those who could not pay. These people had no choice to to find water in polluted lakes and streams. By 2002, cholera had killed 300 people and infected 250,000. A government scientist investigating the outbreak attributed it to the lack of potable water created by the cut offs.

The rationale of the World Bank and similar organizations seems to be that privatization will bring in management efficiency and private capital to developing countries by bypassing corrupt bureucracies and political corruption. Unfortunately, this worthwhile goal is often forgotten in practice: in Indonesia, the World Bank looked the other way while two foreign private water companies entered into partnerships with a business crony and a son of Suharto to gain control of the city's waterworks. A similar story can be told of the Aguas Argentinas situation, with several government officials under indictment.

Meanwhile, in most cases, the cost of water delivery continues to rise, and the poor bear the brunt. A new report from the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security says that there is little doubt that the headlong rush towards private markets has failed to address some of the most important issues and concerns about water. In particular, water has vital social, cultural, and ecological roles to play that cannot be protected by purely market forces. In addition, certain management goals and social values require direct and strong government support and protection. Some of the consequences of privatization may be irreversible; hence they deserve special scrutiny and control.

Next up: How to do privatization right--and how we are getting it wrong.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Beautiful Things
I carry rage around too much--about what we do to each other in the name of God, of profit, of country. After a while, the only sane thing to do is to let it all go, let it drain out. I'm left then with a craving for spiritual food. For me, that is best found in the silences of nature, in the beauty of the timeless and everchanging Creation.

If I can, I go somewhere where it can be just me and the camera. If I can't, I go looking for it in books and the web. Many photographers now put their work on the web, and sometimes I spend hours looking through their eyes.

My favorite is Jim Brandenburg.

Brandenburg is often called "the wolf guy" for his books on North American wolves, but he has photographed everything from African flamingoes to arctic foxes. He is a long-time contributor to National Geographic, and has won enough awards to require extra supports on his book shelves. He is an unsentimental observer, a skilled woodsman, a visionary naturalist, and one hell of a photographer.

My introduction to Brandenburg came through a friend who gave me is book, Chased by the Light as a Christmas present. It's an amazing 90-day journey in which Brandenburg took one single photo per day, all in a short distance's travel from his home. For a man used to burning five hundred or so rolls for a single article, it's an amazing test of discipline and artistic vision.

My friend chose the book because the photo Brandenburg took on October 7th, my birthday, was of a grove of paper birches, and I have a particular love for that tree. It's an almost surreal view of thin black-and-white trunks against a milky sky, while the colors of autumn litter the ground and cling to the almost-naked branches. Sometimes I stare at it for hours, drawing in strength from the pliable beauty of those trunks.

One of my dreams is to someday apprentice with Jim Brandenburg. Hell, I'll make him dinner and bring him coffee for a month of Sundays just to learn from him. He inspired me to take my camera and myself seriously, to reach for my own vision. And when, drained by the business of everyday life, I look for spiritual nourishment, his work reminds me that beauty is still all around us, eveywhere.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

There's No God Here
The woman was naked. She had been raped and beaten repeatedly and her body was a mass of bruises. Now she was being strapped into a metal bed. Electrodes were introduced into her vagina and anus.

"Dear God, dear God, dear God" she repeated again and again.

Her torturer reached out, grabbed a torn breast, and twisted and squeezed until she screamed, a high wail of anguish.

"There's no God here."

Sometimes in the 1990s I was unfortunate enough to be assigned to help a professor researching torture by Latin-american right wing squads. After a while, I made it a policy to try to copy documents without reading them. That particular paragraph came, I think, from a Colombian survivors' report, but I can't swear to it. What I can tell you is that it has stuck in my mind for more than twelve years and I still wake up screaming from time to time.

There's No God Here.

After the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed many bloggers have expressed their disinterest in the methods of his interrogation. Some, in fact, seem downright delighted that he would be tortured. We need to know what he's planning. He killed thousands of us. He deserves it.

There's No God Here.

The human gene pool sometimes throws out monsters. There are psychiatric terms for them, but their common denominator is the inability to sympathize with others. At the deepest darkest end are those who feel delight in others' pain; these are damaged humans, and we must understand that even as we remove them from society.

But when a healthy human finds it expedient to categorize others as "lesser than I" he has stepped across a line that ultimately leads to the destruction of the soul. I am not being mawkishly pacifist. I would have no difficulty in killing to defend myself, my loved ones, or my country. But there is a difference between killing someone and savaging his spirit, and we cross that line at our own peril. In Christian terms, when we destroy a human spirit, we are destroying God's image, and that is an iredeemable act. What does it matter that we gain our revenge if we lose our souls?

It isn't any good to claim that the other is evil. Accepting the necessity that there is evil in the world and that we cannot always fight it is the bitterest part of the human condition. And our most heroic moments come when we rise against it and lay down our lives to stop it. But ultimately, the question is whether we are willing to do evil ourselves. Once we accept that, we have taken upon ourselves the traits of those that we fight. And what is then the difference then between them and us?

There Is No God Here.

If Americans are to be believed, America is a nation with a special dispensation from God. The shining city upon a hill, an example to all of what is best in mankind. We cannot make that claim and at the same time discard our principles whenever it suits us. If our guiding principle is to be that the ends justify the means, we must admit that we are as all other nations, an occurrence of history and chance. It is not a dishonorable thing to be, but is it what we want to become?

Sunday, March 02, 2003

The Rapture and Conservative Politics
The other day I decided to do a little GOOGLEing on the subject of end times and rapture. Well, I must have clicked on the wrong little icon or something because I've been getting the most interesting sort of e-mails. When printed they run to three or four pages, tastefully done in black (very large font/regular print), hot pink (large font), and royal blue (medium large font), informing me that I can follow a simple plan to salvation by receiving the Lord Jesus. At the end there are two websites, which the e-mail says are for reference only and not involved in sending the e-mail.

So I clicked on The Rapture Report.

Amazingly, it is done in the same font and style as the e-mail. But that wasn't the interesting thing. What fascinated me was the list of signs that the world was coming to an end:

1. People love Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings books and movies. The false Christian tares are getting easy to spot in these last days. These people profess to be Christian but they deny the Lord by their acceptance of the occult. Tares love Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books and movies. Tares just don't care that the occult is an abomination to God! All those who reject and hate the Lord are embracing and accepting the occult with all its spellcasting, witchcraft, and wizardry. This is a major sign of the great apostasy of the last days.

2. People join ecumenical movements. We see massive ecumenicism where all kinds of different religions try to unite in some kind of doctrineless unity. The target is to get closer to Roman Catholicism. Events like Promise Keepers, Alpha Course, ecumenical marches, and ecumenical prayer meetings all foster a doctrineless type of unity. One day, after the rapture, this false unity will reach its climax with a world-wide super church under the antichrist. Soon all the religions of the world will unite into a world-wide apostate church. We can see signs of that happening today!

3. People listen to rock and roll. The rock and roller who claims to be a Christian is just a liar and a false Christian tare. These deceived people condemn all those who stand against their demonic music. The CCM rocker laughs and mocks as he listens to the warnings of people who he considers to be: legalist, Pharisee, narrow-minded etc. He shakes his head at the sad spiritual state of such an individual not knowing that he is the real one with the extreme spiritual problems. This is spiritual blindness in the highest degree! These tares, like the occult lovers, are in the arms of Satan.

One of the links on the left side leads to an extensive list of "Cults and Deceptions and False Teachers": everything from Roman Catholicism to something called The Laughing/Vineyard/Toronto Blessing Deception, which in one of the links under it, is likened to Kundalini yoga (if you are so inclined, take it up; my rational mind blew up at around this point).

The overwhelming feeling of the site is one of fear. These poor folk live in terror of God. Although the e-mail tells me that God will not send anyone to hell...they go there by CHOICE, He does not seem to be a forgiving, tolerant father; more like the kind of father who tells you that the whipping hurts him more than it does you, as you try to staunch the blood. Theirs is the love of the abused child for their tormentor. My beliefs and theirs could not be further apart.

I would not be bothered by this--my feeling about religion is the same as my feeling about sex: As long as they don't do it in the streets and scare the horses--except that these people have mobilized politically. Their primary target is American policy in the Middle East. Christian conservatives overwhelmingly support Israel. Not because they give two flips about Jews in the individual: you see, they need Israelis to serve as shock troops in their Armageddon. According to end times theology, the expulsion of the Palestinians and the establishment of an Israeli state with an unified Jerusalem as its capital will signal the Second Coming of Christ.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am a strong supporter of Israel. My father is a great admirer of the settlers of the Israeli nation, and people like Golda Meier, Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, are considered heroes around my house. I also happen to believe that the best way to ensure a strong and safe Israeli nation is to craft a peace settlement that gives everyone a stake in stability in the region. The Christian conservatives' views can best be summed up by Pat Robertson:

Arguing that American policy in the Middle East must be based on the Bible, Robertson dismissed the Islamic religious interests.
"This is God’s territory," he said, "and it was a place of holy significance long before anyone ever heard of Muhammad or any of their incredible claims."

This quote is taken from an article in Church and State of November 2002. It reports on the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" gathering in October. Look at the guest list. Although the President did not appear in person, he was definitely the invisible guest of honor. Among those present in the flesh were Senator James Inhofe, Sen. Sam Brownback, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senator Orrin Hatch, U.S. Reps. Lindsey Graham, Ernest Istook, Roy Blunt, Robert Goodlatte, Robert Aderholt, Dave Weldon, Walter Jones, and Jo Ann Davis, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.

Doesn't it bother anyone in the Republican party that these people's idea of foreign relations is to set the Middle East on fire until only Israel is left standing? Are these politicians willing believers or cynical power grabbers? And if they are believers, is the born-again President of the United States and his Republican majority in Congress conducting the American Middle East foreign policy out of end times beliefs? If they are merely opportunistic, how far will they go in catering to the religious conservatives in order to keep their votes?

As for me, I think I'll miss the rapture. I'm a Rolling Stones fan.

UPDATE Damn. I really, really wanted to be told I'm paranoid on this one, but...well, read it here.