Thursday, December 28, 2006

GOD: Creator, Savior, Free Market Capitalist

So the other day, I'm sitting watchin VH1 Soul (everything BET should be, but isn't) and there's a video by Common--one of the finest emcees out today--where he's performing before a live crowd. Being part lyricist and part philosopher, Common often prologues his songs with a bit of witty words on politics, spirituality, activism, etc. This time would be no different. Sometime during the performance, he urged people to give thanks to God that both he and they are able to live in a place where food and goods are bountiful--rather than in some of the more impoverished regions of the globe. Those words got me to thinking. Are the trappings of the modern Western world due to some benevolence of God? Is God a Free Market Capitalist who sends plauges of odious debt on poor nations and smites them with unfair trade practices? Is this a God who performs miracles through legacies colonialism and exploitation that blesses the West and curses the rest? Or are we trying to use "faith" to avoid an ugly truth.

To paraphrase and summarize, Common began to recount the many ills affecting much of the world--from Katrina to the Iraq War to global poverty. He then asked the crowd to count their own blessings, and to give thanks to "God" that we (presumably "we" in the West) are able to partake in such bountiful amounts of food, a higher level of living, Puma kicks and Ipods. Because, afterall, we could be as bad off as so many other parts of the world. To this Common was greeted by a round of applause from the audience. Watching through the flat screen of my television, I was only left frowning with alot of disturbing thoughts.

This is not a slight on Common, whose music I've enjoyed since he was Common Sense. But it is part of a larger issue that's troubled me all throughout this holiday season, including our current move towards the Greco-Roman derived New Year, where many will be giving their thanks and blessings for their fortunate lot in life.

If the reason we in the West are able to enjoy our Blackberrys and deck ourselves in diamonds or designer apparel is because of God--then I'm assuming this God figure is a free market capitalist who works through neoliberal trade policies that favor rich nations, destroying the fragile economies of poor countries, making them dependent on those who would exploit them, including helping to sow the seeds of conflict that always follows poverty and disease, and endorse past events from slavery to colonialism that helped set up this system to begin with.

Common's words, while superficially nice, seem to exist in a world of disconnection. There's a false ideology that the rest of the world is poor, simply because that's the way things are, or--even more disturbing--because some God entity has seen fit to bless the West and curse the rest. But this ignores the reality that in fact we are all very connected.

Poor nations are kept poor today because rich nations have made it so. They've been able to do so because a legacy of colonialism has allowed them to retain economic power, writing the laws of trade unfairly to benefit themselves and keep everyone else mired in poverty or something close. Its no coincidence that the nations that make up the G8 come primarily from the old colonial powers. It's no coincidence that many nations like those in Africa are in debt to the very nations that once conquered and held them as colonies. Without slavery, much of the West--including the US--would not exist as a power today, or perhaps have existed at all. Without colonialism, the riches of Britain and France and Belgium would not have come about. The divide of rich and poor on this planet is written in a history of blood and conquest, and its legacy continues with us strongly today. It is far from happenstance.

The God that supposedly favors the West must also not mind environmental destruction, as the US drains a vastly disproportionate amount of the world's resources. Today, the average US citizen consumes well over *thirty* times what the average citizen in the Third World does. The developed nations of the world account for only 20% of the global population, but are responsible for pumping out over 75% of the world's pollution and waste. The richest 20% of the world consumes some 86% of all the goods and services used. In short, we in the West are literally devouring the planet, and as the rest of the world tries impossibly to follow in our footsteps, we are depleting forests and oceans to feed our capitalist-driven gluttony. Global warming is but one of the side-effects we'll be reaping as a result.

Basically put, this is a vastly unfair world. And its not by coincidence that it is so. No, I'm not talking about some conspiracy theory where a few men get together and have secret meetings to decide the fate of the 6 billion and growing members of the global community. Those are fictitious tales created to deflect us away from our own responsibility. The truth is much more mundane and much more damning.

The world is unfair because of a global economic system maintained by trade agreements that are passed as we tune into American Idol; it's maintained everytime we buy a pair of sneakers or some clothing that is being sewn together by the desperate in places like the Saipan or Bangladesh; it's maintained by our desire for flashy diamonds that send the poverty stricken into war in Sierra Leone, and even the coltan in our mobile phones that help drive mining/resource wars in the Congo that kill millions; it's maintained by a massive arms trade, of which the US is remarkably the number one death merchant. It's the real world that we'd rather not see, as we don our little white ONE bands and try to act as if we are the saviors of the world's poor, and not a key factor in their continued existence. The troubling reality is that in some way, we're all complicit--even if by varying degrees of responsibility.

Lest I seem to be standing too high on my soapbox, let me state that I don't set myself apart here. I'm as much a part of the system as all else. And like everyone in this consumerist driven society, I want nice things too--and would rather not think about what has to be done in order to acquire it. But at the least I try not to delude myself, into believing the world that exists to benefit some today, while keeping others poor, is the work of some God entity.

Unless of course in the end, this God people worship in the West really is a God of free markets, neoliberalism, sweat shops, poverty and hunger--with prophets with names like Creflo Dollar, inducing their flock with divine pyramid schemes and Horatio Alger parables of eventual wealth. And if that's the case, then maybe we should think on overthrowing that God and replacing Him/Her/It with a better one. Or perhaps, if this is the best a God can inspire, maybe we could do without such a being at all.


Friday, December 15, 2006

The Unfortunate Duping of Russell Simmons- Blood Diamonds

The recent problems in particular regions of Africa with conflict diamonds--that once fueled bloody civil wars in hotspots like Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo--has sparked a war of words between two unlikely figures: Director Ed Zwick of the recent film Blood Diamond and Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons.

After a "fact-finding" mission to South Africa and Botswana--Russell returned and declared to the world that the conflict diamond era was over. Conditions had improved immensely he said, and the sale of diamonds to fund wars in Africa had dropped to just 1% since the installed Kimberly Process established in 2003. Ed Zwick retorted that the Hip Hop mogul had been duped by the diamond industry, which funded his trip. And it has turned into a tit-for-tat bit of sniping since then. So, who's right and who's wrong? From the title of this post, I think you pretty much see where I stand. But here, let me tell you why...

Russell Simmons & Blood Diamonds

Interestingly enough, Russell Simmons trip was funded by a PR group attempting to reform the negative image of diamonds in Africa, which has affected sales of the gems worldwide. In the mother-of-all-coincidences, this fact-finding mission took place right around the release of Ed Zwick's Blood Diamonds, which prior to its release was being heralded as a film which would portray the diamond industry in a negative light and potentially harm sales during the holiday season.

Ed Zwick however was less than impressed with Russell's assertions. Smelling a rat, he publicly stated that in his opinion the Hip Hop mogul had been hoodwinked and bamboozled:

"If you want to know about conflict diamonds, you don't go to Botswana and South Africa. You go to Sierra Leone and Angola. Russell Simmons is being embarrassed."

Russell Simmons, though not an emcee, has not been known for his shyness in front of a microphone, and quickly shot back at not only Ed Zwick, but his film, claiming Blood Diamonds would damage Africa's "legitimate" diamond business:

"This is the arrogance of Warner Brothers pictures. They were selfish, self-centered, greedy and hurtful to the indigenous people of Africa... This messaging should have been changed after Nelson Mandela and other African Presidents asked Warner Brothers to change it. Period. I am going to continue to focus on the positive that can come out of this dialogue and work to help empower black Africa."

Okay. First let me state that I have no direct need to publicize the movie Blood Diamond. I have not seen the film, as of yet. And I have been skeptical about seeing it, simply because I'm innately suspicious when serious (and oft-neglected) current issues in parts of Africa are turned into semi-fictional action films with big-name stars, car chases, fiery explosions and Michael Bay type special effects. They tend to get the story wrong and portray complicated matters as one-dimensional with clear-cut "good guys and bad guys," starring a central well-meaning white hero or groups of white heroes (both real and imaginary), with the particular African populace relegated to theatrical props who endure untold sufferings. Tears of the Sun and Black Hawk Down top my flagrant offender list. I have not reached a conclusive verdict on where I stand on the semi-fictional tale of the monstrous Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland. I'm not saying Hollywood can't approach these matters of geo-politics correctly. After all, I was a big fan of the film Syriana, and its exposing of the underbelly of the oil-trade. But when it comes to Africa's varied issues, I tend to prefer Independent African Films over Hollywood blockblusters.

(Update: Still haven't seen the film Blood Diamond, but sources whom I trust have given reviews that have thus far supported my misgivings: Within the Context of No Context: A Review of Blood Diamond Unfortunate.)

Secondly, I have no personal bias towards Russell Simmons. Yes I certainly have my criticisms of his role in the modern corporatist exploitation of Hip Hop. But his place in the culture as an early driving force--from Kurtis Blow to Public Enemy--can't be denied. And he at times tries to bring the respect to Hip Hop that the genre is often denied, or denies itself.

All of that being I think in this issue of blood diamonds, I have to agree with director Ed Zwick. And Russell Simmons, as well meaning as he might be, is indeed being used, pimped in fact, by bigger fish. Here, let me tell you why.

First off, I think Russell Simmons key problem is that his innate good intentions (and he's had many positive activist stances in recent years) tend to run into his love of unbridled free-market capitalism and his immense ego. So Russell can often be found at the forefront of political issues that he may not exactly have a clear handle on.

Going to Botswana on a fact-finding mission funded by the diamond industry's PR group, isn't going to tell you anything about the larger issue of blood diamonds. And this centers on a key problem in Russell's analysis, one that many of us in the West suffer from. Listen closely everyone. Because this is going to come as a surprise.

Africa is a c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. No really, it is. Look on the map. Right there between the Americas and Eurasia. Its that big land mass. Can't miss it. Very unique shape.

What's more, there are different nation-states on this c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. And just like what is going on in say, Guatemala or Honduras in Central America is different from what is going on in the US or Canada, there is also a difference from say the Congo from Sierra Leone from Botswana--all different polities on this c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t. I think if you asked the average person in the US to name the governor of a nearby state, they'd have a hard time. Ask them to name the president of next door Canada or Mexico, and they'll need Google. Therefore, for Russell to think Botswana could give him insight into Sierra Leone--which is practically on the other vertical end of Africa--reveals many of the false assumptions we all start with regarding foreign politics.

Besides the differing history, peoples, languages, environment, cultures and vast distance that lie between Botswana and places like Sierra Leone, there's also another key bit of relevant information to ponder. Botswana is not in conflict, nor has it had any recent conflict fueled directly by diamonds. There is no history in Botswana similar to the tragedies of the murderous RUF in Sierra Leone, or the inter-state regional conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo that cost a staggering 4 million or more lives.

While Botswana's issues with diamonds and the legacy of multinational companies like DeBeers--an empire built on colonialism, theft, racism and oppression--is hardly "clean" in any sense of the word, it is at the same time diferent in many respects from the recent issues of conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone or even closer Angola.

It is tempting to collapse all of these different issues together--and they certainly do bear similarities, with DeBeers and other European countries engaged in these machinations in one way or the other--but Botswana is its own unique case. Despite a high HIV rate, and a standard of living still far beneath most of the world's better standards, it now boasts one of the fastest growing economies, is relatively stable, and has managed to reach some form of detente with the diamond industry--called by many a "Gem of a Deal." Through this arrangement, Botswana has recently been able to use its natural resources to develop its own infrastructure--including new buses, roads, schools, hospitals and more.

None of this isn't without its own controversy of course. There was an incident with land removals of the indigenous Khoi-San peoples that was murkily linked to the diamond industry, but the courts have since granted a reversal on this policy. So Botswana has made out relatively well in recent years. I say relatively, because that's about as best as you can put the situation of an ex-colony once in the midst of apartheid South Africa who must negotiate a better life for its citizenry between the vice grips of a diamond industry and neoliberalism who partially own (through historical theft) its resources. The world ain't fair. And cosmic karma must be on an extended holiday.

At any rate, this is why the diamond industry uses Botswana as a poster child for its Kimberly Process. And it's why they took the probably well-meaning, but unfortunately gullible and impressionable, Russell Simmons there to show off progress. They didn't take him to the shattered infrastructure of Angola or the amputees of Sierra Leone.

What Russell should know is that the Kimberly Process was only enacted by the diamond industry when worldwide outcry occurred over the issue of conflict diamonds, and sales began to slump. Before this companies like DeBeers and other diamond cartels had no problem wading in African blood to get what they wanted. In some instances, they've been accused of helping spur on the violence, even possibly to the point of directly or indirectly negotiating transfers of cash and arms for diamonds.

Russell should also know that the much touted Kimberly Process is still thought to be rife with problems. Illicit diamonds still flow through various parts of Africa and fuel mini-wars and aftershocks of now-ended larger wars, ever threatening to flare up again into greater conflicts, as peoples pushed beyond the margins of global society in desperation seek a way out of poverty. The letters from "African Presidents" to Warner Brothers that Russell was talking about, was most likely a letter by former South African president Nelson Mandela, asking Warner Brothers to remember to distinguish between relative successes like Botswana and the more numerous horrors elsewhere.

Russell's heart may indeed be in the right place. And his attempts to find a way for Africans in places like Botswana and South Africa to profit from the resources that a foreign minority has long exploited is just. But it's Russell's arrogance that in the end dooms him to duplicity. Though Russell wasn't there to speak out loudly about Sierra Leone's war, when men, women and children were losing lives and limbs, and the artists he backed were draping themselves in bloody "bling," he now feels confident enough to stride forward as an "expert" on the issue. (To be fair, neither was Hollywood) Yet he lacks an understanding of the gulf of difference between states like Botswana and Sierra Leone or the Congo, and thinks one snap-shot in one locale is the big picture. He's confused the spotlight of celebrity with the light of understanding. And can't see--or is unwilling to admit--that he's being played, and thus in his protestations, continues to play himself.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Africa & Evolution

As a former anthro major, proud primate, contemplative hominid and one who has had more than a passing interest in human evolutionary theory, it was a sad day last week as I read the recent news from Kenya. Pentecostal Christian fundamentalists were attempting to have some of the most important finds in hominid anthropology removed to the back of the country's museums? Why? None other than the dreaded "E" word--Evolution. It seems Creationism has come to the birthplace of modern mankind, and now threatens to rob the world of an important part its history.

From ABC

Some of anthropology's greatest scientific treasures rest in the National Museums of Kenya. But they may soon become all but invisible if Christian fundamentalists get their way.

The museum is home to the most complete skeleton found yet of Homo erectus, the 1.7 million-year-old "Turkana Boy" unearthed by famed paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey more than two decades ago near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya

The museum also holds bones from several specimens of the first hominid to walk upright, four million years ago. In short, the museum contains the most convincing historic record of the origins of Homo sapiens. That's us, we're talking about.

Now, leaders of Kenya's Pentecostal congregation want the fossils de-emphasized. They'd prefer the bones be relegated to a backroom in the museum where fewer visitors would observe them or learn about the evolutionary theory of man.

Bishop Bonifes Adoyo who heads the largest Pentecostal church in Kenya, the Christ is the Answer Ministries, is leading the campaign.

"The Christian community here is very uncomfortable that Leakey and his group want their theories presented as fact, " Adoyo told the Skeptical Inquirer. "Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes, and we have grave concerns that the museum wants to enhance the prominence of something presented as fact which is just one theory."

Ironically Kenya, and much of East and Southern Africa where many finds of early man have been found, have long looked upon evolution favorably. While most of the world may know the remains of the 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis as Lucy, in the Afar region of Ethiopia she goes by the Amharic name Dinknesh--meaning "you are wonderful." Far from the battles carried out in the West by the religious right against evolution, Dinknesh was accepted with pride as an ancestral treasure (direct or indirect: afaraensis place on the human evolutionary tree is "bushy") in Coptic Ethiopia--which has incidentally known Christianity since the 2nd century AD, when two charges of captured Syrian monks managed to convert the royal family of Axum. Throughout East Africa, a generation of African paleontologists--such as Dr. Berhane Asfaw of Ethiopia and Kamoya Kimeu of Kenya--have sprouted up over the decades, and have played key roles in many of the most recent finds.

In fact, a recent evolutionary find related to humans was discovered in none other than East Africa:

Study Detects Recent Instance of Human Evolution

So I suppose whether it's Africa or America, the attack against science that doesn't fit with cultural norms is ongoing. As evidenced by the quote from the Kenyan Bishop--"Our doctrine is not that we evolved from apes"--what detractors of evolution on the religious right usually have in common, no matter where they thrive, is that they don't have much of an understanding about evolution. So, seems about as good a time for a primer. I hope the good Bishop is paying attention.

Seven Quick Pointers on Evolution for We Big-Brained, Up-right Walking, Chimp-cousins to Heed So as We Don't Get Too Big for Our Britches:

1. Isn't Evolution just a theory?

Yes and No. Yes it is a theory. But not just. Biological evolution is both fact and theory. That it has happened, is happening and will happen is a fact. How it happens and works is theory. You know what else is a fact and a theory? Gravity. That it occurs is a fact. How it works, is still theory. The fact that Einstein's theory on gravity made advancements on Isaac Newton's didn't change the reality of gravity's existence. Need a second example, see electricity. That it exists is as obvious as the energy that powers the computer you're using. Yet we don't know exactly how electricity works. All we have are theories. So like evolution, both gravity and electricity are theory and fact. Yet I don't see anybody denying gravity's existence by walking off a cliff, or denying electricity's existence by sitting in the dark.

2. Didn`t Charles Darwin renounce evolution on his deathbed?

No. Chalk this story up to sub-urban religious right mythology. Even if it were true (which it's not), it wouldn't matter. A scientific premise is not based on a figurehead or prophet. It stands on its own merit. Evolution's most basic tenets existed before Darwin; it has evolved since him, and will continue to do so based on scientific evidence.

3. Evolution says humans came from apes. Yet animals like gorillas haven't evolved into people.

Not quite. Evolution does not say humans evolved from any modern apes. Rather evolution states that humans and other primates share a common ancestor. Modern apes are distant cousins to humans, not ancestors. We evolved one way. They went another. Chimpanzees and gorillas have evolved in ways that suit their ability to adapt. Evolution does not mean they will get big brains and ride horses and rule a world of "damned dirty apes!" That is Planet of the Apes science-fiction. Evolution does not equal "bigger brains" and "smarter." It's about adaptation. So no one expects shrimp to automatically one day become hyper-intelligent and make mp3 players--though be real cool if they did, because those gadgets would be very tiny. Regardless, that's not how evolution works.

4. Isn't Evolution for atheists?

Its for everyone. Many people of varied faiths, or non-faiths, accept evolution as the scientific explanation for Earth's biodiversity. In fact many religious leaders denounce Creationism and assert their acceptance of evolution and other aspects of science, such as geology and astronomy. Since 1987 the Episcopal Church has repeatedly and consistently acted to "affirm its belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner", rejected "the rigid dogmatism of the `Creationists` movement", and supported "scientists, educators, and theologians in the search for truth in this Creation that God has given and entrusted to us." Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences before its meetings on Cosmology and Cosmogony in October 1981, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the statement of Pope Pius XII that the universe was created "millions of years ago" (it's actually 14.5 billion, but sure beats the Creatioist notion of 6,000) directly contrary to Creationist views. The Pope declared, "The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise..." Christians of varied faiths, Jewish groups, Muslim scientists, Buddhists, and others have stated much the same. So whether one wants to believe Evolution began with a God, or gods, or nothing at all or pixie dust--feel free. Evolution does not provide any evidence for the existence of God, or against the existence of God. It's neutral.

5. Isn't Creationism an Alternative to Evolution?

Not a scientific one. According to Newsweek in 1987, 99.86% of trained scientists accept evolution and denounce Creationism. There's hardly a larger bit of consensus to be found in the normally contentious scientific community. And the 0.14% that give Creationism a chance don't all have the same views.

6. If Evolution is right about life and Physics/Geology is right about the age of the Earth and universe, does this mean Genesis is a lie?

One way to look at it. Another way, would be that it makes the Genesis account like all other accounts of Creation the world over - symbolic. To quote the New Catholic Bible, " is a naive and futile exercise to attempt to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science... The first eleven chapters of Genesis are much closer to mythical forms of writing..." The World Christian Encyclopedia contends that there are 19 major world religions that are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many thousands of smaller ones. Among these various faith groups, there are probably about 500 different creation stories. Each one of them is different-of which Genesis is but one. There is no such thing as "religious exceptionalism."

7. How can Evolution be true? Doesn't it have missing links?

Evolution does indeed have so-called "missing links." It also however has alot of very "found links." These are transitional fossils between species. Basilosaurus isis of the Ecoene epoch found in Egypt is a prime example. It's a fossil of a whale--with legs. It is a found link: a transitional form between itself and the legless seafaring whales we know today. There will always be "missing links." It would be a near impossible statistical feat to find the link for every single species that has ever existed for the past few billion years. But we have found so many that the pattern is obvious.

And that completes this week's Common Sense Moment. Join us next time for a brand new episode: 20 Problems with a Global Flood. Hijinks and hilarity ensue as Noah and his crew try to locate a pair of missing termites--on a wooden ship!