GREAT new “From Where I Stand” column by Joan Chittister:

Have you heard this one?

Jokes go around the globe on Internet these days faster than Superman and his speeding bullet. I get the impression that the Internet is one long, soundless, isolated snicker. In my mind’s eye, I can see people sitting alone at computer screens, reading the latest joke, head thrown back, mouth open, laughing to themselves — silently: a kind of perverse variation on Munch’s “Scream.” I got one of those last week, for instance, that I can’t help remembering from time to time throughout the day. Especially when I read the news.

The joke is about a politician who dies unexpectedly and finds himself at the gates of heaven trying to get inside. But St. Peter is puzzled. “I’m not sure this is really where you want to be,” he says. “I think you better spend a day in hell, then spend a day up here. After that we’ll decide where you belong.” With that Peter puts the politician on a down elevator.

When the politician reaches the netherworld below, he’s astounded to find running fountains, manicured lawns, palm trees, cocktail parties and a championship golf course. A very gracious and smiling fellow, Satan himself is serving the drinks and taking orders for gourmet meals. When the time is up, the politician is genuinely disappointed to leave.

Up in heaven again, the politician discovers that all the people float on clouds singing alleluias and playing harps. It’s restful and peaceful but kind of dull.

“Look,” the politician says to Peter. “I can’t believe I’d ever say this, but I really think I’d be a lot of more satisfied in hell.”

“Done,” says St. Peter, and puts him back on the elevator.

This time, when the door opens, the politician finds himself in a barren wasteland, his friends dressed in rags and gathering garbage, the devil in horns and poking people with his trident.

“What is going on?” the politician cries. “Where are the drinks, the golf course, the tuxedos, the shrimp appetizers, the banquet orders?”

“Ah,” the devil says. “That was yesterday. Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.”

The laugh is silent because it’s hard to admit that we all get fooled this way too often. Now, in the cruelest possible way, it’s going on again.

About five years ago, I did some lecturing in Africa and the groups who engaged me went out of their way to show me something of their countries. They took me to visit game preserves, of course, but also clinics run by nun-nurses, schools, townships, tribal folklore displays, and down-at-the-heels cities.

But most of all, I remember the signs on telephone poles that reminded the population that one in every four people they met coming down the street had AIDS. I remember being taken to a small village of about 15 grass huts where every family had at least one person who was emaciated, listless and dried out from the sun, someone with AIDS.

Most of all, I remember strips of convent properties that went on for miles, building after building, compound after compound, all of them AIDS orphanages and all of them filled to capacity. Some of them kept hundreds of children behind huge metal fences. The children all came from families where both parents had died from AIDS, and most of them were infected as well.

And that’s where the joke comes in. George Bush promised to provide matching funds of $1 billion to African nations that are working to reduce the incidence of AIDS.

Of the $1 billion promised, only $200 million has been released. Silent laugh. So much for campaign promises.

What’s more, Bush refuses to contribute to the International Global Fund created for that purpose and instead started his own program in order to support only programs that refuse to teach about condom use as part of their sex education programs. Another silent laugh. Bush’s concern for women goes by the wayside here. Women married to infected men are, as a result, simply doomed to becoming infected themselves or to giving birth to infected children.

The Bush plan also refuses to distribute generic drugs — long proven to be just as effective in the treatment of HIV/AIDS as name brand therapies — for fear of backlash from U.S. drug companies that produce the more costly remedies. Laugh another silent laugh with all the drug companies about how clever U.S. aid is in creating markets for U.S. products rather than providing the real aid that the target nations want.

Finally, as I said last week (Don’t be fooled: It’s simpler than they tell us ), Bush has yet to call for debt reduction for these nations so that they can release more of their own funds for medical aid to their own people. Laugh with all the bankers now, too.

If Bush released the money for drug therapy that he promised he would when he was campaigning, 400,000 people would now be in treatment. Instead, the AIDS epidemic is devastating Africa one person at a time. The implications of that will affect every other part of the world.

Africa’s women are dying from behavior they never engaged in. Its HIV/AIDS-infected children are being warehoused. The world is now the breeding ground of an epidemic that every major international body calls the world’s greatest security risk.

And all the while, there’s a clock running on Times Square that is counting the $177 million dollars a day that we’re spending on saving the world from the weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqis did not have, fighting the new terrorists that we ourselves created this time, and creating an outrageously expensive, long-term military beachhead in a region of the world that resents us more every day.

At the end of the day, the Internet joke may really be on us. We buy campaign promises and we vote. Then we fail to monitor those promises, we make little or no association between one issue and another. Then we wonder why the world goes barren before our very eyes and what we thought was heaven turns into another kind of hell.

Keep laughing. But silently. It may not be as funny as we thought.

From where I stand, it’s time to get out all the campaign promises of the last election and ask whether we got heaven or hell this time.


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