Monday, January 7, 2008

Check Ye Spirits at the Door, No. 2

Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice
Christopher Hitchens

If Richard Dawkins is to be chided for not being gentler with the faithful, Christopher Hitchens is another matter. I stumbled upon a number of clips of him on YouTube talking on television about the death of Jerry Falwell, and he has a mouth like a cannon. He comes across as slightly socially ill-at-ease, almost as though he has some form of affrontery tourette's, an almost comical incapacity for treading lightly on a subject about which people widely feel a certain delicacy.

This seems a positive talent when one is dealing with deception, though, and even moreso when the object of his vitriol has historically been shielded from scrutiny and even lionized. His talents seem tailor-made to excoriate the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers and Oral Robertses of the world, though he is well up to the pursuit of less obvious targets. Though he is not the first to write an exposé of Mother Theresa, the number of glowing and uncritical--adoring, even--assessments of her far outnumber those which have resulted from a more level gaze. It's not news to find that people tend to cherry-pick facts or even fabricate information from whole cloth when it relates to a subject to which there is a strong emotional attachment. I guess I can grasp conceptually (though with a gurgle of bile in my throat) the Catholic enthusiasm for her--in the same way that I can grasp the need of the African-American community for O.J. to be declared innocent. But it's remarkable that so many non-Catholic and irreligious folks have drunk the Mother Theresa kool-aid as well. People know what the media tell them, and it's anyone's guess why the supposedly objective media (or worse, the LIBERAL media) have failed to call a spade a spade with this subject matter.

Unlike Jerry Falwell, whom he unequivocally labels a fraud and a charlatan (and whose death he openly celebrates), Mother Theresa is not accused by Hitchens of lying or running a scam. Rather, he accuses her of cruelty and opportunism and of being a remarkably unsavory person (mostly because of her ardent adherence to a doctrine which he shows to be fundamentally cruel and unsavory). It seems that the public has developed a mistaken sense of the woman and her mission, and she was quite happy not to dispossess them of their impressions. She has never hidden what she was about.

His point is that Mother Theresa's goal has never been to alleviate earthly suffering, or to help the poor and sick except in a very specific religious sense, and this is not the impression the world has of her. The popular images of her washing the feet of the indigent in Calcutta's slums are really nothing to do with her motivation or her goals--indeed, the important thing is to be SEEN washing feet. She spends an awful lot of time drumming up support--monetary support--for the Catholic Church by way of the politicized efforts of an empire that she runs like a dictator. The point of her efforts is specifically religious, specifically Catholic, and is often pursued in a way that makes her, and the church's, blindness to suffering and to courses of remedy that are readily available seem quite criminal.

What? Mother Theresa oblivious to suffering? That just sounds completely incorrect.

But that's his point: she has developed a hugely lucrative empire under the guise of providing assistance to the needy and indigent, when her real goal is a retooling of society in a very specific and draconian Catholic way. Her mission is to save people... religiously (i.e. to "save" their "souls"). In what strikes me as a supreme example of non-sequitur rationality, she finds evidence everywhere of the evils of contraception and abortion, and cites these things like a crazy obsession in the most disconnected circumstances. But the only sensible way to connect these issues to the squalor of Calcutta is the exact and polar opposite from her angle: family planning resources not based on mythology and readily available to the swollen, impoverished masses would do far more to diminish Third World suffering than Mother Theresa's efforts to purify the sinful thru some draconian mythological rite. The "care" she provides for the ill and dying is perfunctory by choice. Her charities receive millions in donations, but the money is hoarded for the church and not forwarded to the needy except thru her sadistic prism.

Actual medical treatment, even painkillers for the critically ill, are often denied (he talks about the homeless and ill of Calcutta hoping and praying that they're not brought to her facility, as they know full well they will suffer at her hands and have virtually no chance for curative treatment); the rationale is that suffering brings us closer to Christ. THAT is the desired end. When she shows people around her Kalighat Home for the Dying, she says with a wave of the hand, "this is what we're doing to stop abortion and contraception," as though contraception had CAUSED a person's TB. As though all that suffering had ANY fucking connection with abortion and contraception. That's just clinically psychotic. But the church wants to hold her up as a model for society (like the supposedly celibate, unmarried man whose domain is to give us relationship advice)! Again, the converse of her convictions is almost certainly correct: TB thrives in dense and impoverished populations; control of that population thru education and birth control would do much to alleviate the conditions which TB uses to propagate, and its treatment requires diligence and careful medical treatment, which in turn requires a functioning educational system.

Hitchens notes that when Mother Theresa herself needs medical care, she is flown to the best clinics in the First World. Interesting that she doesn't just take a cot in her institution.

The Keating Business

I wanted to put in a few quotes, but the book reads so beautifully in context and I hate to chop it up (unlike, say, Sam Harris, who writes with perfect p.r. nuggets). One episode he talks about, though, is irresistible (and I'd quote the whole thing, but it's just a bit too long). It deals with Mother Theresa's connection to Republican scumbag and family values militant Charles Keating. What a nun like her would have to do with such a moral bankrupt as Keating is question enough. The answer, of course, is money. He had plenty of it, and he was happy to give some to her--$1.2 million worth, plus use of his private jet and other perks--to grease his public image and maybe to salve his rotten soul.

Well, when the shit hit the fan in the 1989 savings and loan scandal and he was convicted of defrauding over 20,ooo mostly elderly investors of more than $285,000,000 of their savings, Mother Theresa wrote a letter to Judge Lance Ito asking for clemency in sentencing (quite apart from the obvious question of whether she didn't have much more pressing issues to attend to, I immediately wondered why it was only proper in her mind for the terminally ill to suffer as a means of purifying and getting closer to the Jesus figure, while she felt Keating deserved a walk for grievously harming thousands). In the letter she claims to know nothing of politics or judicial matters, but to be acting only out of a desire to do Jesus' work and help the needy. The letter is a brilliant act from someone who has seen far more than she implies, the blinking and unsophisticated school girl asking the Big Judge Man to look into his heart, you know, like Jesus would. "Jesus has told us 'Whatever you do to the least of my brethern [sic]... YOU DID IT TO ME.'"

The letter was devastatingly answered by the Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles and co-prosecutor, Mr. Paul Turley. I just can't NOT quote his reply.

Dear Mother Theresa:

I am a Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles county and one of the persons who worked on the prosecution of your benefactor, Charles H. Keating, Jr. I read your letter to Judge Ito, written on behalf of Mr. Keating, which includes your admission that you know nothing about Mr. Keating's business or the criminal charges presented to Judge Ito. I am writing to you to provide a brief explanation of the crimes of which Mr. Keating has been convicted to give you an understanding of the source of the money that Mr. Keating gave to you, and to suggest that you perform the moral and ethical act of returning the money to its rightful owners.

Mr. Keating was convicted of defrauding 17 individuals of more than $900,000. These 17 persons were representative of 17,000 individuals from whom Mr. Keating stole $252,000,000. Mr. Keatings's specific acts of fraud were that he was the source of a series of fraudulent representations made to persons who bought bonds from his company and he also was the repository of crucial information which he chose to withhold from bond purchasers, thereby luring his victims into believing they were making a safe, low-risk investment. In truth and in fact, their money was being used to fund Mr. Keating's exorbitant and extravagant lifestyle.

The victims of Mr. Keating's fraud come from a wide spectrum of society. Some were wealthy and well-educated. Most were people of modest means and unfamiliar with high finance. One was, indeed, a poor carpenter who did not speak English and had his life savings stolen by Mr. Keating's fraud.

The biblical slogan of your organization is 'As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren. You did it to Me'. The 'least' of the brethren are among those whom Mr. Keating fleeced without flinching. As you well know, divine forgiveness is available to all, but forgiveness must be preceded by admission of sin. Not only has Mr. Keating failed to admit his sins and his crimes, he persists in self-righteously blaming others for his own misdeeds.

You urge Judge Ito to look into his heart--as he sentences Charles Keating--and do what Jesus would do. I submit the same challenge to you. Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money that he been stolen; what Jesus would do if he were being exploited by a thief to ease his conscience?

I submit that Jesus would promptly and unhesistatingly return the stolen property to its rightful owners. You should do the same. You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the 'indulgence' he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!

If you contact me I will put you in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession.

Of course, at the time of Hitchens' book, some three years after the date of this letter, Mother Theresa had made no reply. I would quickly have put money on this outcome.

Why is it not surprising to see the Catholic church working feverishly at her sainthood? Not that I care about the church or whom they choose to elevate. But lots of people do, and here's another example of their pushing over on people an ugly situation which they go to great lengths to portray in a wholly different light.

I recommend this book for any who are inclined, and I'd like to make it required reading for Catholics.

There's a nice Hitchens interview here.

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