June 23, 2006

Intolerance Across the Ages

I watched the new HBO movie Queen Elizabeth I this weekend, and like Elizabeth, the 1998 theatrical film, it didn't shrink from showing people being tortured, or executed in ways that definitely qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. Once again, I was struck by the brutality and the religious intolerance prevalent in 16th century England. In the movie, Elizabeth herself is portrayed as open-minded, tolerant and compassionate, and extremely reluctant to resort to torture or killing, but willing to do so when necessary to quell rebellion. I thought about how 500 years later, this kind of religious bigotry and horrifying tribal violence is still going on in Africa and the Middle East, where people really believe they have a right to kill each other for their religion or ethnicity, and where women are mere possessions, not human beings. I wonder to what degree the filmmakers made a conscious choice to emphasize the parallels with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the violence in Darfur. Perhaps this is their subtle hint to Tony Blair and George Bush–those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

The whole media circus surrounding Angelina Jolie is insane, but for once, I think celebrity obsession may actually do something more than enrich an already obscenely wealthy person. Jolie is intelligent and well spoken, and her genuine knowledge of and interest in the plight of those less fortunate not only serves to draw attention to refugees, but also perhaps to shame us into action. If a movie star can empathize with the poor and miserable, then why can’t we, too? I believe that the key to stopping this continuing horror is in giving Africans the knowledge and resources to create their own jobs, grow their own food, and run their own governments, and in persuading educated Africans to stay and work in their home countries. Free or cheap grain from the U.S. only means that African farmers cannot make a living by selling their own grain, so it discourages independence and further destabilizes poor countries. All of the money and Peace Corps volunteers in the world will not be enough if we do not show Africans the methods and rewards of becoming self sufficient.

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