Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mother Teresa and money

At some point I'm going to want to argue that Mother Teresa was a bad person. But I'm going to start more modestly. In this post, I'm just going to show how Mother Teresa's use of money invalidates the myth that she was some kinda paragon of moral virtue. I won't argue that this makes her an especially bad person. But I do think it makes her not-a-champion-of-the-sick-and-poor.

Fact: Mother Teresa controlled lots and lots of money.

How much? Well, it's hard to say for certain. Unless I've missed something, the finances of the Missionaries of Charity remain undisclosed and unaudited. But it was (and remains) a lot of money.

Says Susan Shields, former Missionary of Charity:
As a Missionary of Charity, I was assigned to record donations and write the thank-you letters. The money arrived at a frantic rate. The mail carrier often delivered the letters in sacks. We wrote receipts for checks of $50,000 and more on a regular basis. Sometimes a donor would call up and ask if we had received his check, expecting us to remember it readily because it was so large. How could we say that we could not recall it because we had received so many that were even larger?
Shields doesn't suggest how much that might add up to, but Hitchens has it that there were at least $50 million in the New York bank account of the Missionaries of Charity, and figures that, this being but a part of the organization's wealth, there must be several times more all told. So let's place the MoC's wealth in the 9-10 figure range.

Now, it would not be correct to say that all this money belonged to Teresa. I take it that she herself owned next to nothing. I'm just saying that she controlled this money. It didn't belong to her personally, but, if she'd really wanted, she could have used it, on behalf of her organization, to buy all sorts of medicines, pay all sorts of trained medical personnel, and maybe even keep her facilities stocked with clean new needles on a regular basis.

You may be able to guess what's coming up next.

Fact: Mother Teresa used only a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and the poor

Shields continues:
We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.


The donations rolled in and were deposited in the bank, but they had no effect on our ascetic lives and very little effect on the lives of the poor we were trying to help.
Well, who cares about the lives of the nuns: they got what they signed up for, right? That bit about the poor, though, that's a little worrisome.

Here are some examples of how the MoC failed to spend its money.

Shields gives one: in Haiti, "the sisters reused needles until they became blunt". Out of the MoC's bloated bank accounts, no money could be spared for new needles.

Likewise, in an article in the British Medical Journal (a review of Hitchens' book), Mary Loudon reports visiting the MoC's facilities and seeing "syringes run under cold water and reused, aspirin given to those with terminal cancer, and cold baths given to everyone". No money for oncological care beyond aspirin, no money for hot water, and, again, no money for new syringes, or even proper sterilization for old ones.

And in an article in the Lancet (9/17/94, Issue 8925), Robin Fox reports having visited the Home for the Dying in Kolkata, and describes the medical care there as "haphazard": no trained medical personnel are present unless some happen to drop by to volunteer their time, and the sisters themselves are not given any proper training in medical care. "How about simple algorithms that might help the sisters and volunteers distinguish the curable from the incurable? Again no." Out of the millions or billions, not enough for the salary of a single Kolkata doctor, or any other way of ensuring minimally consistent medical care.

That should do for now.

Ethical claim: If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will use more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor.

Or, equivalently:

Ethical claim: If you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, and you use no more than a tiny fraction of that money to improve the lives of the sick and poor, then you are not a champion of the sick and poor.

This post is already going to be too long, so I'm going to be dogmatic and just assume that that claim is right.

Conclusion: Mother Teresa was no champion of the sick and poor.

It's been a while since I studied logic, but I'm pretty sure that follows.

Now, again, this has not been an argument to the effect that Mother Teresa was evil. The world is full of people who have lots of money, and spend none of it, or next to none of it, improving the lives of the needy. I wouldn't say that means they're particularly evil, but it does mean that they're not particularly good. Similarly, I'm not (in this post) arguing that Mother Teresa was particularly evil, just that she wasn't particularly good, and that she certainly was not the epitome of moral virtue that her mythical image makes her out to be.

Now, in light of some common objections, I'd like to close with a few notes about that ethical claim above.

1. Note that the claim goes against more than self-indulgent greed. The claim is not "If you are a champion of the sick and poor, and you have lots and lots of money at your disposal, you will refrain from spending it on luxuries for yourself." It's quite irrelevant that Mother Teresa lived a life of poverty herself. It sure helped her image that she did, but her personal poverty did nothing to improve the lot of other poor people. It's quite irrelevant to the poor that the MoC's millions or billions sat rotting away in bank accounts, rather than providing Mother Teresa and her nuns with habits embroidered with gold threads (or whatever it is that a greedy nun would do with lots of money). Either way, the lives of the needy are not much improved. But improving the lives of the needy is what a champion of the needy would do with lots and lots of money.

2. The problem this makes for Mother Teresa is not just that she could have made better use of the MoC's money. When faced with criticisms of her use of money, Teresa's defenders often respond with something along the lines of: "Well, fine, so she could have used her money better or more efficiently. No one is saying that she was perfect, and certainly not a perfect administrator!" This response misses the point, which is this: The problem with Mother Teresa's use of money isn't just that it imperfectly embodied the ideal of using financial resources to improve the lives of the needy; rather, the problem with Mother Teresa's use of money is that it didn't embody that ideal. Mother Teresa manifested indifference to that ideal. That ideal just wasn't one of Mother Teresa's ideals. (On occasion she said as much in fairly explicit terms. More on which later.)

3. Also note that I'm not saying that being a good person is just a matter of how you spend your money. All I'm saying is that being a good person is in part a matter of how you spend your money. Of course, it is not only that. For example, how you spend your time also matters.

4. On a related note, one might object that a person can be virtuous in one way, not so virtuous in another. So one of Teresa's defenders might grant that Mother Teresa did not use her money in ways that benefited the poor, but still maintain that, say, she did use her time in ways that were genuinely helpful. Indeed, the myth of Mother Teresa leans heavily on an image of how she devoted her time to the poor. Washing lepers by hand doesn't involve much money, but the image of her doing that sure does warm the heart. Well, here are three points about this line of thought. First, she could have spent some of her time figuring out what to do with all that money, or at least telling someone else to do so. At any given point in time, she could have said, "Sister so-and-so, I want you to figure out how to use the millions or billions to help the poor," with plenty of time left over for washing lepers. Second, I think it's bad ethics to give her a pass on how she spent her money, no matter how she spent her time--especially since her money could have helped the needy so much more than her time. If she'd cared for the poor as her mythical image says she did, she would have made better use of that money. Third, I hope to show how Mother Teresa didn't spend her time in a particularly good way, either--so neither her money nor her time was put to good use. But that will have to wait.

Would it be juvenile to make a joke about "Hoover" and "sucking" here?

The Hoover Institute at Stanford is giving Rumsfeld a job. Naturally this is pissing people off. For example, the BBC article mentions this petition is for people who think that Rumsfeld's appointment conflicts with Stanford's ethical standards.

Alas, I think that petition might be wrong-headed. The ethical appeal is too easy to brush off. But why not make the appeal on other grounds--say, prudential ones? Because while there might be arguments about whether or not Rumsfeld is unethical, it is pretty much unquestionable that he is really really dumb. And surely it is against institutional self-interest to hire someone who's such a demonstrated nincompoop, whose nincompoopery is a matter of high-profile public record. "The Hoover Institute?" people will say, their voices tinged with suspicion and dread. "Isn't that the place that hires people whose claims and predictions are pretty much always wrong, with tragic consequences for all concerned?"

The Institute director responds to critics:
"I appointed him because he has three decades of experience, of incredible public service, especially in recent years as it relates to this question of ideology and terror,"
But doesn't that just make it even worse? Rumsfeld spent three decades trying to figure out how the world works, and failed spectacularly. Three decades ought to be more than enough time to learn how not to be such an utter nincompoop, but it hasn't seemed to help him at all. All this means is that his nincompoopery is probably beyond repair. Now, a normal person, you could maybe hope to educate, apply some on-the-job training. But Rumsfeld? Who knows if there's any way of getting him to say a true thing!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Three cheers for the tanking US economy!

Holy crap, one Canadian dollar gets you 99.8 cents American? I think the sub-prime mortgage racket just made me a few hundred dollars.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

No Impact Man

Saw it on BBC, and now I do believe I'm a fan of the blog. I can't honestly claim to aspire to duplicate all the details of his experiment. I fear the no toilet paper thing is far, far beyond my commitment to the environment. But I think I can manage a few baby-steps, like carrying a cloth around with me.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The myth of Mother Teresa

There are two aspects to the modern myth of Mother Teresa. (Wannabe philosophers learn never to pass up a good opportunity to throw the word "myth" around.) The first is that she was a paragon of moral virtue. The second is that she was a paragon of religious faith. (This much of the myth is generally accepted across religious lines, and accepted also by the non-religious. The religious generally also go on to connect the first bit to the second bit.)

The second bit of the myth was called into question with the recent news that her (formerly) private writings were full of expressions of a decades-long crisis of faith (e.g., from Time):
"[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ...
Mother Teresa's religious admirers have taken her sense of divine absence and transformed it into evidence of an even deeper presence. Mother Teresa's non-religious detractors have called this a bunch of hooey, and chalk it all up to Mother Teresa figuring out that God doesn't exist, and then living the rest of her life in denial.

Well, I'm not all that interested in the Mother's spiritual life, but here's another hypothesis. It's pure speculation on my part, but I think it's fun speculation, and it gets at the first aspect of the Teresa myth, which is the bit that I really care about.

Here it is. Maybe her sense of God's absence was real. Maybe God sent her some chilly vibes to try to wake her up from her hypocrisy.

I don't mean the hypocrisy she attributed to herself; I don't mean the hypocrisy of speaking as if she had a deep relationship with God while privately feeling she had nothing of the sort ("I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love.... If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"). I mean the hypocrisy of presenting herself to the world as a humble helper of the sick and the poor, when really she was anything but.

Well, OK, those are fighting words. I might be laying the rhetoric on a little thick here. But, see, I'm really bitter about this myth, and it's a real sore spot for me, because I used to be a completely unreflective subscriber to it.

And I'm frustrated that, in all the recent discussion of Teresa, I haven't noticed any discussion of the arguments (which I think are pretty clearly conclusive) against her reputation as the great humanitarian of Kolkata (Calcutta). Which, I guess, isn't too surprising. You might be suspicious of the myth if you're actually familiar with Kolkata. (It turns out there is absolutely no mention of her on the city's Wiki page. Is this absence evidence of her genuine irrelevance to the city, or evidence of an even deeper relevance?) Or maybe if you followed the work of Christopher Hitchens back before he lost his cool. Or if you happened across a couple of Teresa's other (more level-headed but much less publicized) critics. But, for the most part, the Teresa myth is bizarrely powerful.

Speaking of Hitchens, he's been the major western debunker of the Teresa myth. He's probably the major reason why I first started to question what grounds I really had for attributing such a superlative character to Mother Teresa (it was no genius on my part). But I could only find one article by him about the recent Teresa news, and it totally misses the juiciest bits of criticism he gave voice to back in the day. (Perhaps his recent status as iconic antitheist has caused him to lose sight of what someone who isn't crazily anti-religious might find genuinely offensive about the Teresa myth.)

OK, this post is getting long already, and I feel that a person who heaps verbal abuse on a nearly universally admired dead nun should probably justify himself carefully. So I'll do that in another post (or two or whatever).

In the meantime, I might as well throw up some links: one of Teresa's former nuns, a Kolkata-born critic, and some pre-nutjob Hitchens.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Warner Bros. are dead to me

I was watching Saturday morning cartoons today. Here is what I discovered: Loonatics Unleashed is awful.

It's some sort of spin-off of Looney Tunes, set in the future. Instead of comic cleverness, the main characters are armed with super powers. Instead of engaging in zany antics, they battle with bad guys.

None of them are very funny, but the quasi-Bugs speaks with a Brooklyn accent and uses some of the Bugs Bunny catch phrases, but then shoots lasers out of his eyes. He also has yellow ears.

Everyone is dressed in matching black spandex.

And this next bit, I'm going to have to use bold text for this next bit:

The quasi-Road Runner talks, and he and the quasi-Wile E. Coyote are friends.

Now that is one ugly pile of poo. A world in which road runners and coyotes are friends, and hunt down bad guys together? No rocket attacks or anvil drops or mile-long falls off of cliffs to the desert below? What's the point of that? What life lessons are kids supposed to get from this?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A rant, following a recent visit to the BBC News site

Why the hell is this Madeleine McCann shit in the news?

Please understand, I mean to use the word 'shit' in reference to the story, not the person. I bear no ill will against the kid herself, but I'm a bit peeved by the story.

I just want to know: how the hell is this news? News agencies around the world have been running stories about the McCanns since May. This is worth 5 months of news? Really? And not just news, but big news. BBC has a special "features and analysis" sidebar on Madeleine, like they do for, say, Zimbabwe or N. Korea. There are maps of where Madeleine disappeared, like the maps showing attacks around Baghdad.

The McCanns got to go to the Vatican. While there they stayed in an ambassadorial suite. They were invited there by the fricken Pope. So, OK, the McCanns are Catholic, but is the Pope meeting with every Catholic in the world who has a missing kid?

I used to get a flyer in the mail every week or two about some missing kid or another. It turns out there are a lot of them. None of those kids got 5 months worth of international news coverage. Of course, a lot of them were not very photogenic, probably came from fairly poor families, and were also frequently black or hispanic.

(Hm, would I not be so pissed off if Madeleine were a poor black kid? I dunno.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

New source of God news

Via SoMA, I found this site, which I think is either named "The Intiative on the Future of Journalism", "News21", or "Faces of Faith in America". Anyways, it's totally a site for news about religion and religiony topics.

I was originally turned off by the super slick interface, like that banner that telescopes all over the place when you roll over it with your mouse. But some of the stories are pretty cool. I learned new things, for example about the Holy Land Experience.

For those not in the know, the Holy Land Experience is a biblish theme park kinda thing. It's got all these exhibits about the bible and stuff, plus an actor in the role of Jesus who stars in musical numbers and gets mock-crucified on a motorized cross on a daily basis. (That's him on the homepage, next to the slogan that says, "Look into the eyes of the One who changed the course of history..." FYI, that's not actually him.)

The Holy Land Experience was recently bought out by everyone's favourite source of anti-Christian broadcasting, TBN. (TBN then started running promos for the theme park, which is how I first heard about the park.) And Faces of Faith, or whatever it's called, has the skinny on the takeover, first in this story which goes into a bit of detail about both TBN and HLE, and then this one about the resignation of the theme park's pre-TBN CEO. And in the comments section, it looks like some newly disgruntled HLE employees are weighing in with additional information. It looks like it's not all that fun having TBN as your boss, which is what you might expect from having a more or less thoroughly evil boss.

Friday, September 07, 2007


I recently broke the backrest off of my $25 Ikea office chair. I was all thinking I'd have to buy a new chair, but then I found a perfectly good replacement down by our dumpster. By the looks of it, I figure it'd cost at least $100 new. It's got a hole or two, and somehow half of it got covered in some sort of sticky substance. I'm not particularly keen to know what that is, or how it got on there. Anyways, a good find.

(As for my old chair, it got inherited by Dawn. Such is the order of things in our household.)