The Pope, the Pill and the Population Explosion

The poor have but a few things in life. But at least they have Pope Francis.

He gives them hope, encouragement and, now and then, a turn of phrase that draws good-natured laughter. When he visited the Philippines earlier this month, he met a Filipino woman who had risked her life to bring forth seven children, all by caesarian section. She got a papal scolding.

Just because God gave you the right to bear children, he said, that doesn’t means you should go for broke in exercising that right. “Some people think,” he said, “that—excuse my expression here—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Parenthood is about being responsible.”

In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get children, who can argue against that? But I’ve read somewhere that rabbit farmers in Germany are incensed by the Pope’s remarks. “What does he have against rabbits?” they ask. “Rabbits don’t breed like rabbits. Only people do that.”

Actually the Pope has resurrected an ancient notion that Catholic families must be big families—because they resort only to the rhythm method of contraception, which doesn’t work. It’s not called “Vatican roulette” for nothing.

In the same vein, here’s another papal story, one told to me by a Chicago-based journalist: when Pope John Paul II visited the US in 1979, he dropped in on a hospital to comfort the sick. He came upon a man lying in a hospital bed, with his wife attending to him, and a bunch of frisky young children, obviously their progenies, swarming around them. The pope began to praise them for keeping faith with catholic family values.

“I’m sorry, Holy Father,” the man interrupted him, “but we’re not Catholics. We’re just sexy Protestants.”

That story should remind us that population growth is not just a matter of government policy, nor is it just about the teachings of a religion. It’s also about sex. To be exact, sex as recreation.

There’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence to show that when a poor family saves enough money to buy a television set, the production of babies in the family radically slows down. That’s especially true when a tearjerker of a telenovela is on prime time, after dinner.

On the other hand, poor families that have no visible means of entertaining themselves in the restiveness of tropical evenings, well, they just keep on producing children. Procreation is their only recreation.

Apart from that, some families see a large brood as the solution to rather than the cause of an economic problem. This is often the case of small farmers in rural societies, where it’s not unusual for a peasant family to have as many as ten children.

The more children a man has, the more help is available to him as he tills his small farm. Try convincing the man that he’s got it wrong and he’ll laugh in your face.

The payback comes when the ten children grow up and they have children of their own. The farm can no longer feed all the mouths in the much-extended family. Some of the children will have to go out into the world, very likely to some city. Having done nothing but farm all their lives, they aren’t fit for jobs that pay decent wages. Some resort to petty crime. They all become part of a huge social problem.

The Pope is right when he says people should exercise their right to reproduce with a sense of responsibility. But to do that, they need to be equipped with more than the Vatican roulette.

Partly because he says the cutest things, many women all over the world love the Pope. But they take the pill.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

A Stronger Global InterMedia Dialogue

The power of slogans is awesome. “I am Charlie Hebdo” is one powerful slogan that will be around a long time.

As a condemnation of terror and violence, and as an upholding of the freedom of expression, it’s robust. As a tribute to the courage of the cartoonists and editors who died exercising that freedom in spite of threats to their lives, it’s fitting. As an affirmation of our common humanity with all the victims of the Paris killings—journalists, police officers and Jews—it tugs at the heartstrings.

But slogans don’t solve problems. And I won’t join in the chanting of it, as that could be mistaken for approval of the magazine’s slanderous message.

In the exercise of freedom of expression, content matters. So does social context. If you depict the Prophet of Islam as having exaggerated Middle Eastern facial features at a time when Muslims in Europe are being marginalized by a spread of nativist sentiments, you are spawning social conflict.

I still say no to censorship. No to prior restraints. But once a publication has exercised freedom of expression, it must be answerable for any harm that its message has inflicted on any individual or society. And if there are valid grievances against that message, the state must provide avenues for redress.

Hence, wise libel laws are needed. And the state must regulate with wisdom. Where do you get that wisdom? Not from a slogan.

Driven by a slogan rather than by pragmatism, interior ministers of the European Union have called on Internet providers to strike out content that incite hatred and terror. The French government has arrested dozens of people for hate speech on the web, including a popular anti-Semitic comedian. The British government wants Internet companies to let intelligence operatives eavesdrop on the conversation of service users.

Unfortunately, as a New York Times editorial has noted, policy-makers don’t know a damn thing about how the Internet works, so their half-baked measures will end up mangling civil liberties without protecting the citizenry.

To get the wisdom to craft effective measures for safeguarding freedom of expression while preventing its abuse, you’ve to go for dialogue. A dialogue that involves policy-makers, media practitioners (especially Internet service providers) and religious leaders who represent communities often adversely affected by media content.

There once was a useful forum on media content and on how to avoid the kind of tumult caused by the so-called “Muhammad cartoons crisis of 2006.” This was the Global InterMedia Dialogue (GIMD) organized by the governments of Indonesia and Norway in response to that crisis.

Held alternately in Bali and Oslo between 2006 and 2008, it brought together, at one time, some 130 highly reputed media practitioners from 67 countries to engage in cross-cultural dialogue to promote freedom of expression, mutual understanding and diversity.

Strangely to me, the two governments merely facilitated the exchange of views among the media practitioners without engaging in the dialogue themselves.

In the aftermath of the Paris killings, it’s urgent that something like the GIMD should be organized again. But this time, policy-makers and religious leaders should take part as strongly as the media practitioners in the actual dialogue. The media practitioners involved in the dialogue should include Internet service providers.

The aim should be to craft practical measures that will promote freedom of expression while protecting the citizenry from the impact of hate messages in all media. The agreed measures should be acceptable to all concerned.

It would greatly help if governments stopped thinking of hate speech in mass media as solely a security problem. It’s also a problem of social justice, of how to serve both civil liberties and the human rights of religious communities.

It’s a problem you can’t solve on a wing and a slogan.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Paris Killings: Who Are the Real Heroes of Press Freedom?

In the wake of the terrorist assault last week on the offices of the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” in which 12 persons were killed, many people all over the world were moved to say, in an outpouring of anger at the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, “I am Charlie.”

Apart from two police officers, who were slain as they responded to the attack, the victims were cartoonists and editors marked for death by Muslim extremists because of their slanderous depiction of the Prophet of Islam in past issues of the magazine.

Before the bloody week was over, the youngest of the terrorists had surrendered to the police. Three terrorists had been killed in two simultaneous shootouts with the police, after they had gunned down a policewoman and at least four more civilians.

What can you make of all that gore?

Speaking right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, US President Barack Obama called it “an attack on journalists.. (and) underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom—of speech and of the press. But… a universal belief in the freedom of expression is something that can’t be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few.”

French President Francois Hollande also described the Charlie Hebdo killings as “an attack on freedom.”

Vienna-based Dr. Anis Bajrektarevic, professor in international law and global politics, saw the attack as a demonstration of Islamofascism. “That these individuals are allegedly of Arab-Muslim origin does not make them less fascists, less European, nor does it (absolve) Europe… of responsibility.” He lamented that Europe had not listened to voices calling for moderation and dialogue.

A group of French imams, joined by the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, condemned the attack and called for “responsible media to provide information that is respectful of religions, their followers and their practices, thus fostering a culture of encounter.” They also expressed compassion for the victims and their families.

That’s the way to go. Like the imams and the cardinals I condemn the slaughter of civilians and peace officers and feel compassion for all the victims and their families.

But I can’t say, “I am Charlie Hebdo.” That would be a travesty of the work of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the journalists beheaded last year by the Islamic State. Sotloff, Foley and the many journalists all over the world who lost their lives speaking truth to power—those are the real heroes of freedom of expression.

Can’t Charlie Hebdo be justified as satire? I know what satire is. It’s the socially valuable art of exposing the pompous to ridicule. My own favorite object of satire is Kim Jong-un, the North Korean strongman. But I’ll never portray him in pornographic terms. That would garble the social message.

Charlie Hebdo depicting Catholic nuns masturbating, the Pope wearing a condom and the Prophet of Islam in unspeakable poses isn’t satire. It’s malicious slander that should be legally actionable in any democratic society.

I’m not for censorship. I’m against prior restraints. A magazine should be free to publish anything it wishes. But once it publishes malicious slander, there should be laws that would teach it to respect the rights and sensibilities of others.

Without wise laws on slander, we play into the hands of terrorists. There’s nothing they love more than the kind of grievance that magazines like Charlie Hebdo generously provides them. It gives them an excuse to wreak violence on those they hate.

The violence triggers a backlash: the state and the majority population crack down on the Muslim community—multiplying the grievance a thousand times and deepening the sense of alienation among Muslims.

That, in turn, swells the ranks of new recruits for the Islamic State. Without wise laws on slander, that’s how the cookie of communal peace crumbles.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Afghanistan: No End to War and to Asylum-seeking

Days ago the United States and the NATO officially brought down the curtains on the 13 year old war in Afghanistan. Officially. Actually, nothing’s over till the fat lady sings. And there’s no script that says when she’ll sing in Afghanistan.

But there were speeches in muted rites of closure. US Gen. John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UN-authorized coalition to help Afghanistan, said: “We have lifted the people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future… You have made Afghanistan stronger and our countries safer.”

Great speech. But he knows too well that the Taliban is alive and killing. Always on the lookout for targets of opportunity, it can inflict massive carnage. It can still host operatives of foreign terrorist organizations.

And if the new government in Kabul commits the mistakes that the erstwhile Maliki government made in Iraq, the Taliban can, with the help of powerful allies, sweep across the country a la ISIS and knock at the gates of the capital.

To be sure, hardly anybody wins this kind of war any more. It’s too asymmetrical for the stronger side to score an absolute victory. All the other side needs to do is survive and threaten.

Even if you wipe out the Taliban, you don’t necessarily erase the possibility of a future incarnation. Or ensure against the rise of new players who will more fiercely take up the battle.

The US invaded Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden. US Navy Seals killed him in May 2012—in Pakistan. But Al Qaida didn’t die with him. It metastasized, grew new tentacles, and multiplied.

On the positive side, the US and the new Afghan government may have learned the hard lessons of Iraq. Thus the Kabul government promptly signed security deals with the US and NATO, so that the drawdown of their troops won’t create a vacuum. The 12,500 military advisers and trainors who stay to train and support the Afghan army can make a difference if and when the Taliban attempts a blitz.

If the Afghan national army becomes an effective fighting force that’s inoculated against the infections of politics, nepotism and corruption, it should hold its ground and take over the brunt of fighting the Taliban from the scattered, poorly supplied police force.

But much depends on the performance of the new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani: will it deliver good governance? Will it improve on the lackluster performance of its predecessor administration?

Or will it be like the quondam Maliki government in Iraq: ethnically divisive, politically inept, reputedly corrupt and obviously incompetent? In that case no amount of foreign military advice and aid will prevent the Afghan national army from collapsing at the feet of a charging Taliban.

If the new Afghan administration makes good, Indonesia should be cheering. For more than three decades now, embattled Afghanistan has been the world’s biggest producer of asylum seekers. While most of them find their way to Pakistan and Iran, still a great many aim for Australia and make use of Indonesia as country of transit.

This creates social problems for both Indonesia and Australia, and sometimes wounds their bilateral relations.

Last November, Indonesia’s minister for law and human rights, Yasonna Laoly, lamented that by cutting its intake of refugees, Australia had burdened Indonesia with the problem of looking after thousands of asylum seekers—many of them Afghans.

Meanwhile the war in Afghanistan hasn’t ended. It has only evolved. The Afghans haven’t been lifted “from the darkness of despair.” Especially if the new government doesn’t do well, asylum seekers will keep pouring out of the country—into a new life elsewhere or into another darkness.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio