MoDo and Mr. Bruni are off today. The Pasty Little Putz has a rather bad case of flop sweat. In “The Pope and the Right” he says Pope Francis’s latest headline-making exhortation has conservative Catholics on the defensive. Ain’t that the truth! Of course, Putzy talks about conservative Catholics as “they” instead of the MUCH more accurate “we.” In the comments section “gemli” from Boston puts it this way: “I agree that the pope is infallible when he speaks about things that don’t really exist, but it’s interesting to watch Douthat play this game of religious Twister when Francis’s comments cut a little too close to the conservative bone. Douthat is looking for the kind of wiggle room that he’s always denied to the secular liberals who have been fighting for social and economic justice against the forces of fundamentalism.” The Moustache of Wisdom considers “The Other Arab Spring” and informs us that the radical revolutions made headlines. But the radical evolutions are continuing to play out in Gulf monarchies. Mr. Kristof suggests some “Gifts That Reflect the Spirit of the Season.” Looking for a gift? He suggests you try a year of reading classes for an Afghan woman, or a savings account for a struggling American kid. Here’s The Putz:
“Now it’s your turn to be part of the loyal opposition,” a fellow Catholic journalist said to me earlier this year, as Pope Francis’s agenda was beginning to take shape.
The friend was a political liberal and lifelong Democrat, accustomed to being on the wrong side of his church’s teaching on issues like abortion, bioethics and same-sex marriage.
Now, he cheerfully suggested, right-leaning Catholics like me would get a taste of the same experience, from a pope who seemed intent on skirting the culture war and stressing the church’s mission to the poor instead.
After Francis’s latest headline-making exhortation, which roves across the entire life of the church but includes a sharp critique of consumer capitalism and financial laissez-faire, politically conservative Catholics have reached for several explanations for why my friend is wrong, and why they aren’t the new “cafeteria Catholics.”
First, they have pointed out that there’s nothing truly novel here, apart from a lazy media narrative that pits Good Pope Francis against his bad reactionary predecessors. (Many of the new pope’s comments track with what Benedict XVI said in his own economic encyclical, and with past papal criticisms of commercial capitalism’s discontents.)
Second, they have sought to depoliticize the pope’s comments, recasting them as a general brief against avarice and consumerism rather than a call for specific government interventions.
And finally, they have insisted on the difference between church teaching on faith and morals, and papal pronouncements on economic issues, noting that there’s nothing that obliges Catholics to believe the pontiff is infallible on questions of public policy.
All three responses have their merits, but they still seem insufficient to the Francis era’s challenge to Catholics on the limited-government, free-market right.
It’s true that there is far more continuity between Francis and Benedict than media accounts suggest. But the new pope clearly intends to foreground the church’s social teaching in new ways, and probably seeks roughly the press coverage he’s getting.
It’s also true that Francis’s framework is pastoral rather than political. But his plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.
Finally, it’s true that there is no Catholic position on, say, the correct marginal tax rate, and that Catholics are not obliged to heed the pope when he suggests that global inequality is increasing when the statistical evidence suggests otherwise.
But the church’s social teaching is no less an official teaching for allowing room for disagreement on its policy implications. And for Catholics who pride themselves on fidelity to Rome, the burden is on them — on us — to explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.
That explanation rests, I think, on three ideas. First, that when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.
Second, that Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity — that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.
Third, that on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.
This Catholic case for limited government, however, is not a case for the Ayn Randian temptation inherent to a capitalism-friendly politics. There is no Catholic warrant for valorizing entrepreneurs at the expense of ordinary workers, or for dismissing all regulation as unnecessary and all redistribution as immoral.
And this is where Francis’s vision should matter to American Catholics who usually cast ballots for Republican politicians. The pope’s words shouldn’t inspire them to convert en masse to liberalism, or to worry that the throne of Peter has been seized by a Marxist anti-pope. But they should encourage a much greater integration of Catholic and conservative ideas than we’ve seen since “compassionate conservatism” collapsed, and inspire Catholics to ask more — often much more — of the Republican Party, on a range of policy issues.
Here my journalist friend’s “loyal opposition” line oversimplified the options for Catholic political engagement. His Catholic liberalism didn’t go into eclipse because it failed to let the Vatican dictate every jot and tittle of its social agenda. Rather, it lost influence because it failed to articulate any kind of clear Catholic difference, within the bigger liberal tent, on issues like abortion, sex and marriage.
Now the challenge for conservative Catholics is to do somewhat better in our turn, and to spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration — meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.
Yeah, right. Those Opus Dei types will do that when pigs fly. Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Dubai:
And so it turns out that there were actually two Arab awakenings.
There are the radical revolutions you’ve read about in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, none of which yet have built stable, inclusive democracies. But then there are the radical evolutions that you’ve not read about, playing out in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf monarchies. The evolutions involve a subtle but real shift in relations between leaders and their people, and you can detect it from even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Gulf leaders still have no time for one-man, one-vote democracy. But, in the wake of the Arab Spring, they’re deeply concerned with their legitimacy, which they are discovering can no longer just be bought with more subsidies — or passed from father to son. So more and more leaders are inviting their people to judge them by how well they perform — how well they improve schools, create jobs and fix sewers — not just resist Israel or Iran or impose Islam.
And, thanks in large part to the Internet, more people are doing just that. The role of the Internet was overrated in Egypt and Tunisia. But it is underrated in the Gulf, where, in these more closed societies, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are providing vast uncontrolled spaces for men and women to talk to each other — and back at their leaders. “I don’t read any local newspapers anymore,” a young Saudi techie told me. “I get all my news from Twitter.” So much for government-controlled newspapers.
Saudi Arabia alone produces almost half of all tweets in the Arab world and is among the most Twitter- and YouTube-active nations in the world. By far, those Saudis with the most Twitter and YouTube followers tend to be Wahhabi fundamentalist preachers, but gaining on them are satirists, comedians and commentators, who poke fun at all aspects of Saudi society, including — usually indirectly — the religious establishment, which is no longer off limits.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who in Gulf Arab terms is a real progressive, remains widely popular, but his government bureaucracy is seen as unresponsive and too often corrupt. That’s why Saudi Twitter users have recently created these Arabic hashtags: “#If I met the King, I would tell him”; “#From the people to the King: education is at risk” and “#What Would You Like to Say to the Minister of Health?” (after repeated hospital mishaps).
There were torrential rainstorms when I was in Saudi Arabia 10 days ago and the Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq, published a cartoon with three men answering this question: Why did all the streets of Riyadh flood? The government official answers: “The streets didn’t flood. That’s just a vicious rumor.” The sheikh answers: “It’s all because of the sins of the girls at Princess Nora University.” The citizen says: “It’s because of corruption” — but then the cartoon shows an arm labeled “censorship” coming from off the page to snip off this comment. That is in a Saudi paper!
In the United Arab Emirates, a government official was recently embarrassed when he was captured on a cellphone video, after a traffic accident, beating the other driver, an Asian worker, with the rope from his headdress. The video went viral across the Gulf.
People are losing their fear — not to revolt, but to demand clean accountable governance. Last week, a Saudi friend shared with me a video that went viral there on What’sApp that was posted by a poor man whose roof leaked during the rainstorms, even into his baby’s bassinet. He can be seen stalking around his rain-soaked house, saying: “I am Saudi. This is how I live. … Where is the minister of housing? Where are the billions the king has given for housing? … Where are my rights? … I feel like being in my home and being in the street are the same.”
I heard many of these stories during group conversations with young Saudis and Emeratis, who I found to be as impressive, connected and high-aspiring to reform their countries as any of their revolutionary cohorts in Egypt. But they want evolution not revolution. They’ve seen the footage from Cairo and Damascus. You can feel their energy — from the grass-roots movement to let women drive to the young Saudi who whispers that he’s so fed up with the puritanical Islam that dominates his country he’s become an atheist, and he is not alone. Saudi atheists? Who knew?
Talk about reform — in Dubai, the government has set a strategy for 2021, and each of the 46 ministries and regulatory agencies has three-year Key Performance Indicators, or K.P.I.’s, they have to fulfill to get there, ranging from improving the success of Dubai 15-year-olds in global science, math and reading exams to making it even easier to start a new business. All 3,600 K.P.I.’s are loaded on an iPad dashboard that the ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, follows each week. Maryam al-Hammadi, 48, the director of government performance, strikes fear in the heart of every minister in Dubai because each month she ranks them by who is making the most progress toward achieving their K.P.I.’s, and Sheikh Mohammed gets the list. You don’t want to be at the bottom. Hammadi showed me the dashboard and explained that Sheikh Mohammed is demanding that “every government agency perform as well as the private sector in customer satisfaction and service.” The public will get an annual report.
Again, this is not about democracy. It’s about leaders feeling the need to earn their legitimacy. But when one leader does it, others feel the pressure to copy. And that leads to more transparency and more accountability. And that, and more Twitter, leads to who knows what.
Tell me again how all this change works, Tommy. Can a woman drive a car in Saudi Arabia yet? Here’s Mr. Kristof:
This holiday season, instead of giving your mother that instructional video on twerking that you think she is pining for, what about giving her something that will really make her dance? Like, say, a savings account for a struggling American kid? Or a literacy class for an Afghan woman?
It’s time for my annual guide to holiday giving, and, as always, I’m focusing on creative programs here in the United States and abroad that you may not have heard of. By all means, buy one year of schooling for a girl in Ethiopia through the International Rescue Committee (gifts.rescue.org) or a flock of geese for a family through Heifer International (heifer.org), or donate to some other well-established charity. But here are some other ideas, too:
Let’s start with helping prevent unwanted pregnancies here at home. When kids have kids, it’s often a disaster for both the mom, who drops out of school, and for the child, who starts life with a huge disadvantage. That’s a way that poverty self-replicates — and that’s the cycle that the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program tries to interrupt.
Carrera is a school curriculum devised by a New York City education expert, Dr. Michael Carrera, who recognized that it’s not enough to hand out condoms. One also needs to give kids in high-poverty neighborhoods a stake in a better future, a reason to think that they can succeed.
So the curriculum includes comprehensive sex education but also financial literacy, job preparation and summer internships, S.A.T. coaching, and much more. The program has now spread to more than 20 states, and follow-up studies suggest that it reduces pregnancy rates by half. For $50, you can fund a student’s college savings account, part of the financial literacy element (information is at childrensaidsociety.org).
Half a world away, the United States is pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and the next few years may be a tough time for Afghan women and girls. So consider the Afghan Institute of Learning, founded by an extraordinary Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi.
Yacoobi has been running empowerment and training programs for Afghan women and girls since the 1990s, when it was illegal, and there’s nothing more threatening to Taliban values than a girl with a book. It’s also a bargain: $65 pays for a year of literacy classes for a woman or girl. More information is available at AfghanInstituteofLearning.org.
You can buy a hand-embroidered scarf, made by widows in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for $50, and other gifts for under $30, at GlobalGoodsPartners.org. It has many other gift possibilities made by people all over the world.
If you share my belief that education is the best escalator out of poverty, you might look at a terrific scholarship program I just visited in Haiti called HELP, for Haitian Education and Leadership Program.
HELP searches across Haiti for the most outstanding high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds — only those with an A average can apply — and sends them to college, while also providing counseling, English and computer tutoring and stipends. HELP students are expected to give back, and, to make the program more sustainable, they pledge to contribute 15 percent of their earnings for their first nine years of employment. Information is at UHelp.net.
A final suggestion is Reach Out and Read, a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage moms and dads to read to their children. During checkups, the doctors hand out free books and leaflets promoting bedtime stories — and, in effect, “prescribe” reading to the child.
It’s a simple intervention but has far-reaching effects. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation, find that families in the program are more likely to describe reading as a child’s favorite activity, and reading aloud is more likely to be part of family life. Because books are donated by publishers like Scholastic, $50 covers a child’s costs for five years. Information is at ReachOutandRead.org.
I’m delighted to issue an invitation for applicants for my 2014 win-a-trip contest. As in previous years, I’ll choose a university student in the United States to accompany me on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner will also write for a blog and make videos for The New York Times.
In past years, I’ve taken student winners to report on malnutrition in Timbuktu and to have dinner with a warlord in Congo. Together, we’ve covered leprosy, maternal mortality, river blindness, malnutrition, breast-feeding and the Darfur genocide. I’m looking for an outstanding student who can make such issues resonate among other students.
Information on how to apply is on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground. Thanks to the Center for Global Development in Washington for helping me screen applications. If you know university students who might be great reporting companions, please nudge them to apply.