The Pasty Little Putz, Keller, Friedman and Bruni

MoDo is off today, so I guess that’s why we get Keller today instead of Monday…  The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us “What the Church Needs Now.”  He says renewal from below depends on moral credibility at the top.  Mr. Keller, in “Smart Drones,” says coming soon: weapons that have minds of their own.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “It’s Lose-Lose vs. Win-Win-Win-Win-Win,” says a carbon tax would be a better budget solution than the foolish sequester.  In “Beyond the Bedroom” Mr. Bruni says the Catholic Church is more persuasive on economic justice than on sexual morality. The new pope should put his focus there.  Here’s the Putz:

The man who was transformed last week from Jorge Mario Bergoglio into the first Pope Francis faces a long list of challenges, each seemingly more daunting than the last. There’s the immediate need to reform a Vatican bureaucracy whose dysfunction helped sabotage his predecessor’s reign. There’s the larger challenge of lifting the shadow of the sex abuse crisis from the Western church. And then comes the task of making Catholic Christianity seem vital and appealing in cultures where the new pope’s church is widely regarded as archaic, irrelevant, or malign.

But in a sense all of these challenges have one solution, or at least one place where any solution has to start. Francis’s reign will be a success if it begins to restore the moral credibility of the church’s hierarchy and clergy, and it will be a failure if it does not.

Catholics believe that their church is designed to survive the lapses of its leaders. The Mass is the Mass even if the priest is a sinner. Bishops do not need to be holy to preserve the teachings of the faith. The litany of the saints includes countless figures — from Joan of Arc to the newly canonized Mary MacKillop, an Australian nun involved in the reporting of child abuse by a priest — who suffered injustices from church authorities in their lifetimes.

But it’s one thing for Catholics in a Catholic culture, possessed of shared premises and shared moral ideals, to accept a certain amount of “do as I say, not as I do” from their pastors and preachers.

It’s quite another to ask a culture that doesn’t accept Catholic moral ideals to respect an institution whose leaders can’t seem to live out the virtues that they urge on others.

In that culture — our culture — priestly sex abuse and corruption in the Vatican aren’t just seen as evidence that all men are sinners. They’re seen as evidence that the church has no authority to judge what is and isn’t sin, that the renunciation Catholicism preaches mostly warps and rarely fulfills, and that the world’s approach to sex (and money, and ambition) is the only sane approach there is.

Such worldliness should not be confused with atheism. Our age is still religious; it’s just made its peace with human appetites and all the varied ways they intertwine. From the sermons of Joel Osteen to the epiphanies of “Eat, Pray, Love,” our spiritual oracles still urge us to seek the supernatural, the numinous, the divine. They just dismiss the idea that the divine could possibly want anything for us except for what we already want for ourselves.

Religion without renunciation has obvious appeal. But its cultural consequences are not all self-evidently positive. Absent ideals of chastity, people are less likely to form families. Absent ideals of solidarity, more people live and age and die alone. The social landscape that we take for granted is one that many earlier generations would have regarded as dystopian: sex and reproduction have both been ruthlessly commodified, adult freedoms are enjoyed at the expense of children’s interests, fewer children grow up with both a mother and a father, and fewer and fewer children are even born at all.

So there are shadows on our liberated society, doubts that creep in around the edges, moments when scolds and moralists and even popes almost seem to have a point. Which helps explain, perhaps, the strange, self-contradictory defensiveness that greets the Catholic Church’s persistent refusal to simply bless every new development and call it progress. (Nobody cares what the pope thinks — and I demand that he think exactly as I do!)

It explains, too, why the appropriate moral outrage with which the secular press has covered scandals in the church has often included a subtext of vindication and relief. (They stand in judgment on the rest of us, but their own “ideals” just lead to repression and perversion. They claim to be above materialism, but they’re obviously in it for the same things as everyone else …)

If Catholicism has a future in the Western world as something more than a foil, an Other and a symbol of the Benighted Past We Have Safely Left Behind, it needs its leaders to set an example that proves these voices wrong. Before anything else, that requires a generation of priests and bishops who hold themselves to a higher standard — higher than their immediate predecessors, and higher than the world.

It also requires more from the new pope than an evocative name and a humble posture. Catholicism needs someone like Pius V, the 16th-century pontiff at whose tomb Francis prayed on the day after his elevation — a disciplinarian whose housecleaning helped further the Counter-Reformation. The Vatican needs purgation at the top, to enable real renewal from below. And the church as a whole needs to offer and embody proof — in Rome, the local parish and everywhere in between — that the alternative Catholicism preaches can actually be lived.

And now cometh Mr. Keller and the dystopian future:

If you find the use of remotely piloted warrior drones troubling, imagine that the decision to kill a suspected enemy is not made by an operator in a distant control room, but by the machine itself. Imagine that an aerial robot studies the landscape below, recognizes hostile activity, calculates that there is minimal risk of collateral damage, and then, with no human in the loop, pulls the trigger.

Welcome to the future of warfare. While Americans are debating the president’s power to order assassination by drone, powerful momentum — scientific, military and commercial — is propelling us toward the day when we cede the same lethal authority to software.

Next month, several human rights and arms control organizations are meeting in London to introduce a campaign to ban killer robots before they leap from the drawing boards. Proponents of a ban include many of the same people who succeeded in building a civilized-world consensus against the use of crippling and indiscriminate land mines. This time they are taking on what may be the trickiest problem arms control has ever faced.

The arguments against developing fully autonomous weapons, as they are called, range from moral (“they are evil”) to technical (“they will never be that smart”) to visceral (“they are creepy”).

“This is something people seem to feel at a very gut level is wrong,” says Stephen Goose, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, which has assumed a leading role in challenging the dehumanizing of warfare. “The ugh factor comes through really strong.”

Some robotics experts doubt that a computer will ever be able to reliably distinguish between an enemy and an innocent, let alone judge whether a load of explosives is the right, or proportional, response. What if the potential target is already wounded, or trying to surrender? And even if artificial intelligence achieves or surpasses a human level of competence, the critics point out, it will never be able to summon compassion.

Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield and chairman of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, tells the story of an American patrol in Iraq that came upon a group of insurgents, leveled their rifles, then realized the men were carrying a coffin off to a funeral. Killing mourners could turn a whole village against the United States. The Americans lowered their weapons. Could a robot ever make that kind of situational judgment?

Then there is the matter of accountability. If a robot bombs a school, who gets the blame: the soldier who sent the machine into the field? His commander? The manufacturer? The inventor?

At senior levels of the military there are misgivings about weapons with minds of their own. Last November the Defense Department issued what amounts to a 10-year moratorium on developing them while it discusses the ethical implications and possible safeguards. It’s a squishy directive, likely to be cast aside in a minute if we learn that China has sold autonomous weapons to Iran, but it is reassuring that the military is not roaring down this road without giving it some serious thought.

Compared with earlier heroic efforts to outlaw land mines and curb nuclear proliferation, the campaign against licensed-to-kill robots faces some altogether new obstacles.

For one thing, it’s not at all clear where to draw the line. While the Terminator scenario of cyborg soldiers is decades in the future, if not a complete fantasy, the militaries of the world are already moving along a spectrum of autonomy, increasing, bit by bit, the authority of machines in combat.

The military already lets machines make critical decisions when things are moving too fast for deliberate human intervention. The United States has long had Aegis-class warships with automated antimissile defenses that can identify, track and shoot down incoming threats in seconds. And the role of machinery is expanding toward the point where that final human decision to kill will be largely predetermined by machine-generated intelligence.

“Is it the finger on the trigger that’s the problem?” asks Peter W. Singer, a specialist in the future of war at the Brookings Institution. “Or is it the part that tells me ‘that’s a bad guy’?”

Israel is the first country to make and deploy (and sell, to China, India, South Korea and others) a weapon that can attack pre-emptively without a human in charge. The hovering drone called the Harpy is programmed to recognize and automatically divebomb any radar signal that is not in its database of “friendlies.” No reported misfires so far, but suppose an adversary installs its antiaircraft radar on the roof of a hospital?

Professor Sharkey points to the Harpy as a weapon that has already crossed a worrisome threshold and probably can’t be called back. Other systems are close, like the Navy’s X-47B, a pilotless, semi-independent, carrier-based combat plane that is in the testing stage. For now, it is unarmed but it is built with two weapons bays. We are already ankle-deep in the future.

For military commanders the appeal of autonomous weapons is almost irresistible and not quite like any previous technological advance. Robots are cheaper than piloted systems, or even drones, which require scores of technicians backing up the remote pilot. These systems do not put troops at risk of death, injury or mental trauma. They don’t get tired or frightened. A weapon that is not tethered to commands from home base can continue to fight after an enemy jams your communications, which is increasingly likely in the age of electromagnetic pulse and cyberattacks.

And no military strategist wants to cede an advantage to a potential adversary. More than 70 countries currently have drones, and some of them are hard at work on the technology to let those drones off their virtual leashes.

“Even if you had a ban, how would you enforce it?” asks Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist and director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech. “It’s just software.”

The military — and the merchants of war — are not the only ones invested in this technology. Robotics is a hyperactive scientific frontier that runs from the most sophisticated artificial intelligence labs down to middle-school computer science programs. Worldwide, organized robotics competitions engage a quarter of a million school kids. (My 10-year-old daughter is one of them.) And the science of building killer robots is not so easily separated from the science of making self-driving cars or computers that excel at “Jeopardy.”

Professor Arkin argues that automation can also make war more humane. Robots may lack compassion, but they also lack the emotions that lead to calamitous mistakes, atrocities and genocides: vengefulness, panic, tribal animosity.

“My friends who served in Vietnam told me that they fired — when they were in a free-fire zone — at anything that moved,” he said. “I think we can design intelligent, lethal, autonomous systems that can potentially do better than that.”

Arkin argues that autonomous weapons need to be constrained, but not by abruptly curtailing research. He advocates a moratorium on deployment and a full-blown discussion of ways to keep humans in charge.

Peter Singer of Brookings is also wary of a weapons ban: “I’m supportive of the intent, to draw attention to the slippery slope we’re going down. But we have a history that doesn’t make me all that optimistic.”

Like Singer, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for an enforceable ban on death-dealing robots, but I’d love to be proved wrong. If war is made to seem impersonal and safe, about as morally consequential as a video game, I worry that autonomous weapons deplete our humanity. As unsettling as the idea of robots’ becoming more like humans is the prospect that, in the process, we become more like robots.

And next up is The Moustache of Wisdom who seems to have forgotten that the Republicans will refuse to consider any new taxes:

One of my favorite quotes about the state of U.S. politics was offered a couple years ago by Gerald Seib, a Wall Street Journal columnist, when he observed that “America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so. A political system that expects failure doesn’t try very hard to produce anything else.” That’s us today — our entire political system is guilty of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for ourselves.

I raise this now because it strikes me as crazy that one of the obvious solutions to our budget, energy and environmental problems — the one that would be the least painful and have the best long-term impact (a carbon tax) — is off the table. Meanwhile, the solution that is as dumb as the day is long — a budget sequester that slashes spending indiscriminately — is on the table.

Shrinking the tax deduction for charity is on the table. Shrinking Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for the poor are on the table. But a carbon tax that could close the deficit and clean the air, weaken petro-dictators, strengthen the dollar, drive clean-tech innovation and still leave some money to lower corporate and income taxes is off the table. So the solutions that are lose-lose and divisive are on the table, while the solution that is win-win-win-win-win — and has both liberal and conservative supporters — is off the table.

Writing in this newspaper in support of a carbon tax back in 2007, N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist, who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and to Mitt Romney, argued that “the idea of using taxes to fix problems, rather than merely raise government revenue, has a long history. The British economist Arthur Pigou advocated such corrective taxes to deal with pollution in the early 20th century. In his honor, economics textbooks now call them ‘Pigovian taxes.’ Using a Pigovian tax to address global warming is also an old idea. It was proposed as far back as 1992 by Martin S. Feldstein on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. … Those vying for elected office, however, are reluctant to sign on to this agenda. Their political consultants are no fans of taxes, Pigovian or otherwise. Republican consultants advise using the word ‘tax’ only if followed immediately by the word ‘cut.’ Democratic consultants recommend the word ‘tax’ be followed by ‘on the rich.’ ”

Yes, to win passage of any carbon tax, Republicans would insist that it be revenue neutral — to be offset entirely by cuts in corporate taxes and taxes on personal income. But maybe they could be persuaded otherwise. In an ideal world, you would have 45 percent go to pay down the deficit so that we don’t have to cut entitlements as much — appealing to liberals and greens — and have 45 percent go to reducing corporate and income taxes — to encourage work and investment and appeal to conservatives. The remaining 10 percent could be rebated to low-income households for whom such a tax would be a burden.

According to the Center for Climate and Electricity Policy at the nonpartisan Resources for the Future, a tax of $25 per ton of carbon-dioxide emitted — through the combustion of fossil fuels used in electricity production, commercial and residential heating and transportation — “would raise approximately $125 billion annually.” This $125 billion “could allow federal personal income tax reductions of about 15 percent or corporate income tax reductions of about 70 percent, if all carbon tax revenues were used to replace current tax revenues. Alternatively, the federal deficit could be reduced by approximately $1.25 trillion over 10 years” — roughly what we are trying to do through the foolish sequester. Such a tax would add about 21 cents per gallon of gasoline and about 1.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity. It could be phased in gradually as the economy improves.

Experts believe that the mere signal of a carbon tax would get companies to become more energy efficient. And that’s the point. As part of any grand bargain — which will have to include spending cuts and tax increases — introducing a carbon tax into the mix makes all kinds of options easier and smarter.

Alas, right now both sides are trying to inflict maximum pain on the other, rather than framing the debate as: “Here’s the world we’re living in; here’s what we need to thrive; and, if we cut and tax here, we can invest in these 21st-century growth engines over here.” Our goal is not to balance the budget. It’s to make America great.

So how come the best ideas are off the table? (Blessedly, Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat of California, is now working to get some kind of carbon tax on the table.) Several reasons, argues Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest and author of a smart new e-book, “Broken: American Political Dysfunction and What to Do About It.”

First, because our democracy today is perverted more than ever by deep-pocketed lobbies and oligopolies. So, “in order to get and stay elected today, you have to raise huge sums of money from corporations, wealthy individuals and dues-laden unions,” Garfinkle notes, and all that money leads to “twisted decision-making at the high-politics level” and “regulatory capture” at the bureaucratic-administrative level. The fossil fuel, auto and power companies have bought a lot of politicians to block a carbon tax.

The only way around them, argues Garfinkle, would be for leaders to galvanize the public, but that requires building “governing coalitions” in the center rather than “political coalitions” that can get you elected but little else after that. Obama is belatedly trying to do that; the Republican Party hasn’t even tried. “This is what real leaders do,” said Garfinkle. “They change the conversation.” They don’t just read the polls; they shape the polls.

But we can’t put this all on lobbyists. It’s also our generation. “We’re the most self-indulgent generation in American history,” argues Garfinkle, always demanding more services than we’re ready to pay for. “Too many of us want to be unbound by broader social obligations, but the network of those obligations creates the moral ballast that makes good governance possible.”

As Nathan Gardels and Nicolas Berggruen note in their insightful book, “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East,” we prefer a “Diet Coke culture — sweetness without calories, consumption without savings and safety nets without taxes.” No wonder anything hard or smart is off the table. We pushed it there.

And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

It was too much to hope that after the white smoke rose and the TV anchors began nervously filling time and the cameras lingered for what seemed an eternity on that balcony over St. Peter’s Square, the man who stepped onto it would be someone open to revisiting the most archaic, obsolete matters of Roman Catholic doctrine. The group electing him was assembled by the last two popes, both conservatives. Its choice was bound to be more carbon copy than new page.

But it’s not too much to hope that the man who did appear there — and who has lived a willfully humble material existence until now, and took the name of the poor’s patron saint — will change the church’s emphasis. That’s the great opportunity before Pope Francis, whose biography and style make him an ideal candidate to point the church toward a new conversation and a better focus for its spiritual energies. To have it dwell less in the bedroom, more in the soup kitchen.

It’s time for the church to stop talking so much about sex. It’s the perfect time, in fact.

It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary.

The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate. Just weeks before the conclave, the most senior Catholic prelate in Britain, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, resigned his post, forgoing a trip to Rome and a vote on the next pope, because he’d been accused of, and admitted to, sexual misconduct. His case suggested the potential loneliness of a Catholic clergyman’s circumstances, and those circumstances, in the eyes of many Catholics, cast priests as odd, flawed messengers and counselors on the subject of a person’s intimate life.

The new pope’s own story includes a bold lesson on Catholics’ estrangement from, and defiance of, church edicts in this regard. More than 90 percent of Argentines identify themselves as Catholic, and in 2010, as the country’s politicians debated the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, Pope Francis — who was then a cardinal, and arguably the most prominent church official in the country — lobbied vociferously, even venomously, against that proposed law. He called it nothing less than a “plan of the devil.” It nonetheless passed, with some observers speculating that the stridency of his opposition worked in its favor. Argentina is now one of 11 countries that have legalized gay marriage. Two of the others, Spain and Portugal, also have populations that are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, at least nominally.

The child sexual abuse crisis, of course, has factored mightily into the church’s eroded credibility on sexual morality. And the media’s sustained examination of that crisis has made it difficult for church leaders to redirect attention toward the church’s concern for economic justice, its ministry to the needy and the extraordinary work that many of the church’s servants perform on those fronts.

But new cases and new revelations are ebbing or certain to ebb. Fewer cardinals and bishops now indulge the kind of denial that protected molesters and abetted cover-ups. And there’s not a watchful parent anywhere who would unquestioningly let a son or daughter go off with Father Bruce for long periods of time. Years ago, such permission aggravated the problem: priests — men of God — were trusted in situations where no other adult with an unusually intense interest in children would be. That epoch is over, that innocence lost.

POPE Francis comes along at an opportune juncture. There’s a growing consciousness and worry about inequities of wealth in a world in which the estimated 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, with an income of $1.25 a day or less, outnumber the roughly 1.2 billion Catholics.

That desperation is fertile territory for the church, whose voice is most persuasive and essential on the landscapes of hunger, homelessness, sickness, war. To many Catholics, active and lapsed, the beauty of the faith and the essence of Jesus Christ reside in a big-hearted compassion that has been eclipsed and often contradicted by church leaders’ excursions into the culture wars.

Pope Francis could pull back on those excursions. He’d be wise to, and he’s well positioned to. In Argentina he was known in part for his rejection of material wealth and his concern for those without it. He opted for a simple apartment over a baronial residence. Did his own cooking. Rode the bus. Advised supporters not to travel all the way to Rome for the ceremony in which he became a cardinal.

The money necessary for the trip, he told them, was better donated to a good cause.

And during his first 48 hours as pope, he clung to that sort of humility, riding with other cardinals in a minivan rather than alone in a papal chariot. The vigor with which fellow cardinals and Vatican spokesmen heralded this suggested their eagerness for a new image for the church and their understanding that the pivot from Benedict XVI to Francis — from furs to frugality — might provide it.

It’s a gilded enclave that Francis is entering, one of grand rooms, majestic artwork, regal costumes. From my time on the papal plane a decade ago, I remember sumptuous meals wheeled up to the first-class section where Vatican officials sat. They ate well.

And that has turned off many Catholics: the perception that these officials are coddled, arrogant and out of touch. Francis could challenge that and, in doing so, have a real impact.

I know more than a few Catholics who, despite no other involvement in the church, make it a point to have their children christened. I always figured them to be superstitious. They’re hedging their bets.

But there’s more to it. On the far side of all the church scandals and all its misspent energy, these Catholics still see a fundamental set of values, a compass, that they don’t want to lose touch with or give up on. The church’s stubborn attachment to certain negotiable traditions and unenlightened positions has distanced them, but they’re not entirely gone. It’ll be interesting to see how, and if, Francis tries to bring them back.


2 Responses to “The Pasty Little Putz, Keller, Friedman and Bruni”

  1. gdavidbrown Says:

    Thank you very much for your work and your blog! One thing, perhaps? If you could sneak in an appositive for nicknames like “The Pasty Little Putz”? Took me a bit to find out you were referring to Ross Douthat.

    Thanks again, greg

    • mgpaquin Says:

      Sorry for the confusion, Greg! When the Times first took The Putz on I swore that I would never type his name, and since I’ve got a bit of the Irish in me I know how to hold on to a grudge… All the rest of them I’ll call by name in the post title but not him.

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