Friday, June 3, 2011

Strauss-Kahn: a metaphor for the practices of the IMF

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The reader will think it a tragedy that the Director General of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn, would give wings to his vice, the obsessive pursuit of perverse sex, running naked after a black maid in suite 2806 of the Sofitel Hotel in New York, even holding her down and forcing her to have sex, with details that the Attorney General of New York described minutely and, for decency, I will not tell. For him it wasn't a tragedy, but one more victim among others he has created in this world. He dressed and went straight to the airport. The funny thing was that he forgot the cellphone in the suite and so he was able to be arrested by the police when he was inside the plane.

The tragedy has not been what happened to him but to the victim, who nobody cares to know. Her name is Nifissatou Diallo, from Guinea, an African, a Muslim, a widow and mother of a 15-year old daughter. The police found her hidden behind a closet, crying and vomiting, traumatized by the violence she had suffered at the hands of the guest of the suite, whose name she didn't even know.

Most of the French press, with cynicism and undisguised machismo, tried to hide the incident, even alleging that it was possibly a trap for the future socialist candidate for president of the Republic. The former minister of culture and education, Jacques Lang, from whom one might expect some esprit de finesse, said scornfully, "after all, nobody died." That a woman is psychologically destroyed by the brutality of Mr. Strauss-Kahn didn't matter much. For those people, she is just a woman, and an African. Could it be that in this backward mentality women count for nothing except merely as "an object for bed and table"?

To be fair, we must see the incident from the perspective of the victim. There we can get the dimension of her suffering and the humiliation of so many women in the world who are kidnapped, raped, and sold as sex slaves. Only a society that has lost all sense of dignity and has been brutalized by the dominance of a materialist conception of life, one that changes everything into an object and commodity, could make this practice possible.

Today, everything has become merchandise and an opportunity to profit, from the common property of humanity that has been privatized (goods such as water, soil, seeds) to trade in human organs, to the prostitution of children and women. If Marx were to see this situation, he would certainly be shocked, because for him, capital lives off the exploitation of the labor force but not off the sale of lives. However, as early as 1847, in The Poverty of Philosophy, he sensed that "[f]inally, there came a time when everything that men had considered as inalienable became an object of exchange, of traffic and could be alienated. This is the time when the very things which 'til then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought – virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything, in short, passed into commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality,...the time when brought to the market."

Strauss-Kahn is a metaphor for the current neoliberal system. He sucks the blood of countries in crisis such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and now Spain, as he once did of Brazil and the countries of Latin America and Asia. To save the banks and force them to settle the debts, they devastate the society, create unemployment, privatize public goods, reduce wages, delay retirement age, make people work more hours. Solely for the cause of capital. The developer of these global policies is, among others, the IMF, of which Strauss-Kahn was the main figure.

What he did to Nafissatou Diallo is a metaphor for what he was doing to the countries in financial difficulties. He deserves prison not just for the sexual violence against the maid, but much more for the economic rape of the people, which he developed from the IMF. Sorry.

Monday, May 30, 2011

I know a man...

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

A slender, elegant figure, always smoking his straw cigar, he was a pioneer. When the Italian settlers had no land to farm in the Sierra Gaúcha, they migrated in groups towards the interior of Santa Catarina, to the lands of Concórdia, known as the home of the most famous meat companies in the country, Sadia and Perdigão. There was nothing there except some mestizos, survivors of the Contestado War and the Kaingang indigenous groups. The pines ruled, sovereign, as far as the eye could see.

The Italian settlers came organized in convoys. They brought their teacher, their prayer leader and an immense desire to work and build a life from nothing. He had studied several years with the Jesuits in São Leopoldo, and had accumulated a broad humanistic knowledge. He knew Latin and Greek and read in foreign languages. He came to animate the life of that poor people. He was a school teacher and a highly respected figure of reference. He taught classes in the morning and afternoon. In the evening, he taught Portuguese to the settlers who spoke only Italian and German at home. Besides this, he opened a school for the most advanced, to train them as bookkeepers, to do the accounting for warehouses and sales in the region.

As the adults had particular difficulty in learning, he used a creative method. He became the representative of a distributor of radios and forced each family to have a radio at home, and so they learned "Brazilian" by listening to programs in Portuguese. He set up windmills and small dynamos where there was a waterfall so they could recharge their batteries. As a school teacher, he was a "Paulo Freire" before the term existed. He was able to put together a library of two thousand books. Each family would take a book home, read it, and on Sunday after the rosary in Latin, there was a circle where everyone spoke in Portuguese about what they had read and understood. We children laughed our heads off at the bad Portuguese they spoke. He taught not only the basics, but everything that a settler had to know: measuring land, how the roof of the barn should be, calculating interest, caring for the ciliary forest and treating land with steep slopes. He introduced us to the rudiments of philology, teaching us Latin and Greek words. As little ones, sitting by the fire because of the freezing cold, we had to recite the entire Greek alphabet -- alpha, beta, gamma, delta ... and later in school, it filled us with pride to show peers and teachers where words came from. He urged his eleven children to read a lot. I recited phrases of Hegel and Darwin from memory, without understanding them, to impress others.

He was a master in every sense of the word because he wasn't restricted to the four walls of the classroom. He went out with the students to contemplate nature, to explain the names of plants, the importance of water and fruit trees. In those parts of the interior, far from everything, he acted as a pharmacist. He saved dozens of lives using penicillin when they called him, often at night. He studied symptoms and how to treat diseases in technical books.

In those unknown depths of our father, there was a person distressed by political and metaphysical problems. He even created a small circle of friends who liked to discuss "serious matters", but most of all to listen to him. Without conversation partners, he read the classics of thought such as Espinoza, Hegel, Darwin, Ortega y Gasset. At night, he spent many hours glued to the radio listening to foreign programs and getting news on the Second World War.

He was critical of the Church of the priests, because they didn't respect the neighbors, all German Protestants, already doomed to the fires of Hell for not being Catholics. He sharply opposed those who discriminated against the "negriti" and the "spuzzetti" (those who smelled bad). He forced us, his children, to sit in school alongside them to learn to respect them and live with those who were different.

His piety was that of the interior. He transmitted to us a spiritual and ethical meaning of life: to be always honest, never cheat and unconditionally trust in divine Providence. So that his eleven children could study and go to university, he sold, in pieces, all the land he had or inherited. At last, he came to sell his home. His joy knew no bounds when we came home for vacation and he could debate for hours with us. And he won them all. He died young, at age 54, exhausted from so much work and service to all. He knew he would die. He dreamed about talking to Plato, arguing with St. Augustine, and being among the wise. At the same time and on the same day I left to study in Europe, his heart stopped beating. I only knew it once I was in Munich. My brothers and sisters wrote his life's motto on his tomb: "We heard it from his mouth, we learned it from his life: he who doesn't live to serve doesn't serve to live."

On May 25, 2011, he would have been one hundred years old. This school teacher, a wise man from the interior, was Mansueto Boff, my beloved and lamented father.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A new science: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The search for a wider good life and caring for the global situation of the Earth is deepening our ecological conscience more and more. Now it's important to analyze the carbon, toxins, and heavy chemical elements footprint, present in the industrial products we use daily. Out of this concern is born a real new science, known by the acronym LCA: Life Cycle Assessment. The impact on the biosphere, society and health at every stage of a product is monitored, beginning with its extraction, its production, distribution, consumption and disposal.

We will give an example: into the manufacture of a one kilo crystal glass go, unbelievably, 659 different ingredients in different stages up to the final product. Which ones are harmful? The Life Cycle Assessment seeks to identify them. It also applies to the so-called green or environmentally clean products. Most are green only at the end or clean only in their end use, such as ethanol. Realistically, we must admit that all industrial production always leaves a trail of toxins, however minimal. Nothing is totally green or clean. Only relatively eco-friendly. This has been detailed by Daniel Goleman in his recent book, Ecological Intelligence (Broadway Books 2009).

Ideally, each product, along with the reference about its nutrients, fats and vitamins, would indicate the negative impacts on health, society and the environment. This is being done in the United States by an institute, Good Guide, accessible from the cellphone, which provides a triple classification: green for relatively pure products, yellow if they contain harmful elements but not seriously so, and red, undesirable for their negative ecological footprint. Now the roles have been reversed: it is not the seller but the buyer who sets the criteria for the purchase or consumption of a given product.

The mode of production is changing and our brain has not yet had sufficient time to continue that transformation. The brain has a kind of internal radar that tells us when threats and dangers are brewing. The smells, colors, flavors and sounds warn us about products, if they are damaged or if they are healthy, if an animal is going to attack us or not.

But it happens that our brain doesn't register even subtle environmental changes, or detect chemical particles dispersed in the air that could poison us. We have already introduced 104,000 artificial chemicals through biotechnology and nanotechnology. With the use of Life Cycle Assessment we note, for example, how much these synthetic chemicals decrease the male sperm count to the point of generating infertility in millions of men.

We can't keep saying that ecological changes are only good if they don't affect costs and yields. This mentality is backwards and alienated, because it doesn't take into account the changes in consciousness. The mantra of the new companies is now: "the more sustainable the better, the healthier the better, the more eco-friendly the better. "

Ecological intelligence is being added to other types of intelligence; this inclusion is more necessary than ever.