Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
They Said It:
There was the more reason for this regulation among them, because they are the only people of those parts who allow not polygamy or divorce, except in case of adultery or insufferable perverseness. In these cases the senate dissolveth the marriage, and granteth the injured leave to marry again; but the guilty are made infamous and never allowed the privilege of a second marriage. No one is suffered to put away his wife against her inclination, on account of any misfortune which may have befallen her person. They esteem it the height of cruelty and treachery to abandon either of the married pair, when they most need the tenderness of their partner; especially in the case of old age, which bringeth many diseases with it, and is itself a disease. But it often happens, that, when a married pair do not agree, they separate by mutual consent, and find others with whom they hope to live more happily. Yet this is not done without leave from the senate, which never alloweth a divorce without a strict inquiry, by the senators and their wives, into the grounds on which it is desired. Even when they are satisfied as to the reasons of it, the matter proceedeth but slowly, for they are persuaded that a too ready permission of new marriages, would greatly impair the kind intercourse of the married.
St. Thomas More, Utopia, Book II, 1516.
ST. THOMAS NO-MORE AND THE FUTURE OF THE WEST.
You may have noticed over the past couple of weeks that there is a rather significant and contentious debate raging among the elders of the Catholic Church. The liberals are battling the conservatives, the forces of progress are fighting the forces of reaction. Or at least that’s the way it’s being presented in the media. The good guys are battling the bad guys, the defenders of mercy are pitted against the defenders of doctrine and stubbornness. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
In truth, dividing the various Church factions into such categories is patently ridiculous, if for no other reason than the fact that these men are debating and articulating religious, rather than political positions. Applying political terms to moral and religious questions is always hazardous, particularly in matters related to the Catholic Church. The media, for example, may like to think of Pope Francis as a progressive or a liberal, despite the fact that actual “progressives” would be horrified on his positions on any number of matters, not the least of which being the very existence of God. Nevertheless, the liberal vs. conservative meme does allow for a convenient shorthand, which we will adopt, albeit hesitantly, for the purposes of ease of discussion.
In brief, this past weekend, October 19th, marked the end of a two week Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to matters of “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” This synod will be followed up next October by an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will further address the same topics. There are differences between ordinary and extraordinary synods, the most important being the pressing, time-sensitive nature of the discussions. But for our purposes today, those differences are entirely irrelevant. What matters are the discussions that took place in Vatican City and the impact that they will have on the Church going forward and, by extension, on Western Civilization.
As you may have read, the two most contentious issues discussed at the synod involved the Church’s stance on homosexuality and gay men and women, and the Church’s position on divorce and the tolerability of reception of the sacraments after divorce and remarriage. And as you might have guessed, the two basic factions in the debate pitted those who sought to liberalize the Church’s views on both topics and those who sought to maintain some semblance of historical constancy.
The media will tell you that the “conservatives” won, in that they managed to avoid endorsing any changes to the Church’s stance on either subject. This is a dubious position, of course, for a variety of reasons, the most important being that Pope Francis himself appears to favor making changes to the Church’s teachings and has placed powerful allies in powerful positions and has removed powerful opponents from equally powerful positions. All of which means that nothing has been settled and that these same questions will be addressed again – probably over and over, perhaps until either the forces of change achieve their ends or Francis is no longer Pope. In any case, the conservatives have “won” nothing and the past two weeks is probably best seen as the beginning of the discussion.
Now, the media will also tell you that the question of how to treat gay men and women is, by far, the most important question to be resolved by the Pope and the bishops over the next year. Indeed, the American media in particular managed to get worked up to the point of frenzy over the course of the synod, in expectation of changes to Catholic teaching. This same media was bitterly disappointed when those changes were seemingly rebuffed. In any case, to follow the news coverage of this matter is to believe that the Church’s stance with respect to homosexuality is the only thing that matters, the only issue that can possibly matter, the single issue that will determine whether the Church remains an anachronism or is finally “modernized” and accepts the realities of the twenty-first century.
Color us skeptical.
In our opinion, this focus on the questions related to homosexuality is misplaced for three reasons, which will we address only briefly before moving on to that which we think is the more critical question facing the Church.
First, the media is focused on gay “rights” issues because the media is always focused on gay rights issues. That’s the media’s cause du jour. From the Supreme Court to the Vatican to the Lincoln Nebraska Public Schools, gay rights are the ruling class’s present obsession. And so be it. Still, it does suggest that the members of the media are not exactly detached observers here. They see what they want to see.
Second, the proposed change in the Catholic stance with respect to homosexuality is largely one of practice, not belief. The Church has always demanded that the faithful be merciful and accepting of all men and women. Since all men and women are children of Adam, so are all men and women sinners. Mercy is the paramount virtue in dealing with our fellow man, and that includes everyone. The Catholic Church has also long been far more tolerant and accepting of gay men and women – sexual diversity, as some might put it – than many religions. The fact that this is not the Church’s reputation in today’s culture is due in part to the media’s ignorance and in part to the fact that some leaders of the Church have been less than ideal in their performance of their duties and their embrace of the Church’s values. To repeat ourselves, all men are children of Adam and therefore all men sometimes fail, and that includes everyone, even priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes.
Third, and perhaps most important, there is little doubt, in our minds at least, that the cultural changes over the last half century have, at the very least, made it clear that there is nothing sinful, aberrant, or voluntary about homosexuality. The notion that being gay is a “choice” is antiquated and ill-informed to say the very least. And the gradual acceptance of open homosexuality has made it possible for the culture to put a human and perfectly conventional face to the term “gay.” To put it in religious terms, God created men and women in his own image, ALL men and women.
As you may or may not recall, we at the Political Forum are somewhat indifferent supporters of gay marriage. It’s not an issue we believe needs to be at the forefront of the cultural agenda. But it’s also not an issue that we think can be long denied, at least civilly. The most powerful argument against gay marriage – the notion that it would undermine traditional marriage – is itself undermined by the damage that has been done to traditional marriage by straight men and women. No-fault divorce, among other things, has long made a mockery of the institution, and there is likely nothing that gay men and women can do to the civil institution that straight men and women haven’t already done. That ship has, in short, long since sailed.
And that brings us to the other issue under discussion at the synod and, in our opinion, the far more consequential issue facing both the Church and, by extension, Western Civilization, namely the question of the Church’s treatment of divorcees. As we said, society long ago made its peace with the notion that marriage – formerly the foundational structure of said society – is rather unimportant. And over the decades, we have seen the consequences, from a surge in out-of-wedlock births to greater violence among boys to a persistent and largely unbreakable cycle of poverty among the unwed, and especially their children. Marriage, which was once understood to be a critical institution requiring not merely love but patience, dedication, and hard work, has become a mere convenience to some and an inconvenience to others, to the detriment of society as a whole, but to the middle and working classes in particular.
In the face of this cultural abandonment of marriage, religious institutions have stood as a bulwark. And the Catholic Church in particular has stood as a defender of marriage as both a sacramental undertaking and the most fundamental and important of human organizational structures. It should not go unremarked that the defense of marriage is, in many ways, the very defining feature of the Catholic Church. It is, after all, the reason that the Church of England even exists. Unlike the protestants, the Jews, and especially the Anglicans, the Catholics have long insisted that a marriage blessed by God is unbreakable and that divorce and remarriage constitute the sin of adultery. If marriage itself is not defined by the Catholic Church, then certainly the Church is defined by the institution of marriage. As Maggie Gallagher put it in a piece for National Review last week:
This is high drama with the highest of stakes, calling into question whether or not the pope himself believes what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years, based on the words of Jesus Christ: a sacramental marriage between baptized Christians cannot be dissolved by any power on earth. And through this public debate, the most anti-clerical of all recent popes is permitting others to call into question (using his own name) the settled Church teaching not only on two sacraments, the Eucharist and Marriage, but ultimately on papal authority. The pope cannot teach that divorce is impossible and possible at the same time. If divorced and remarried Catholics (who are committing either adultery or polygamy depending on your point of view in the Catholic tradition) can in good conscience take the Eucharist, then either Pope Francis is wrong, or the popes before him were all wrong. Either way the idea that we can look with confidence to the Holy Father to guide our lives is exploded.
For the Church to alter its position on the sacrament of marriage now, in a bow to popular culture, would have several important ramifications, in addition to those noted by Gallagher.
For starters, such an accommodation on the part of the Church would render the entire English Reformation perfectly irrelevant. Sorry about the confusion, Henry, old boy, but it was all a big mistake. The beheading of Anne Boleyn? Our mistake. The Dissolution of the Monasteries? Our bad. The whole nasty business? Call it an “oops” on our part.
Along these same lines, were the Church to change its position on divorce now, belatedly, it would render immaterial and irrelevant the sacrifices of the likes that St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, and countless others made specifically on THE CHURCH’S behalf. More and Fisher weren’t executed because they were actually treasonous, as Henry charged, but because they refused to take the oath of supremacy of the crown, which means that they stood up for the supremacy of the Church, specifically with respect to the question of marriage, and paid for it with their lives. For the Church to call a do-over now would be do a grave injustice to those like More and Fisher who died to protect its authority.
In a grand stroke of karmic irony, if the Church does indeed make this accommodation on divorce, then it will not only debase the sacrifice of Thomas More, it will also be taking a stroll down the primrose path to More’s Utopia. Utopia, of course, was More’s seminal work of political philosophy disguised as fiction. The world itself is, in Greek, noplace. Hythlodaeus, the last name of the character in More’s book who describes the island of Utopia means “dispenser of nonsense.” More’s Utopia was, by definition, a pipe dream, a place that could not exist, a fantasy-world.
In this Utopia, it is worth noting, many of the fantasies of Church reformers are indulged. Priests are allowed to marry. Women are allowed to be priests. And most notably for our purposes today, marriage is dissolvable. Divorce and separation, while not especially easy, are nonetheless permissible, for a variety of reasons.
The point of More’s Utopia is somewhat debatable. No one knows for certain whether it was a strict parody or something of wistful dream. In either case, however, the existence of the Utopia is understood to be nonsensical. No such island could exist, and no such society could long survive.
Finally, and with this notion of the impossibility of Utopia in mind, an accommodation on the part of the Church would, quite possibly threaten the spiritual well-being of the civilization to which said Church in part gave birth. We know this sounds hyperbolic and melodramatic. And in a way, it is. Western Civilization is hardly going to collapse if remarried Catholics start taking communion. At the same time, there is, in fact, something more substantive and more civilizational at stake here.
Just under two months ago, you may recall, in a piece titled “Nihilism and Islamism,” we commented on the crisis of Western confidence, noting among other things the rise of nihilism in the West and the simultaneous desire in many Westerners to abandon Western values, such as they are, for something more substantive, even if that substance is somewhat perverse. We put it this way:
The problem of the Western jihadist is likewise the problem of Western civilization. Western morality and even much of Western religion has devolved, over the last century or more, into little more than the complicit rationalization of contemporary values. The great moral tradition of the West has largely been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, situational ethic, a moral system that values nothing so much as non-judgmentalism and which offers very little, if anything, by way of spiritual transcendence.
Confronted by this spiritual nothingness, many people, and many young men in particular, choose to forsake their decadent culture for something more traditional, something that offers a real and fixed belief system. All too often, those who are best at marketing and promoting the solidity of their beliefs also happen to have rather perverted and sadistic beliefs as well. All of which is to say that young men who are encouraged to believe in nothing often find themselves drawn instead to something. And that something is far too often a primitive and violent misinterpretation of reality.
It should, we think, almost go without saying that if the Catholic Church, of all institutions, succumbs to the typical Western urge to abandon long-held, presumably universal truths in favor of contemporary convenience, then the problem of Western nihilism will be exacerbated exponentially. Worse still, it may well be exacerbated irreversibly. The Catholic Church, for all its problems – which have been legion over the last few decades – remains one of the few remaining bulwarks in the West against the abandonment of universal truth and the acceptance of general moral emptiness.
The broader point of our Nihilism piece was that the West cannot hope to survive, much less to thrive, if it does not recall and embrace those values that made it the most dominant and most important civilization in the history of mankind; the civilization that consciously and intentionally embraced the inherent and intrinsic value of all men and women, even those from outside the dominant “in-group.” This, more than anything, is Western civilization’s unique and irreplaceable gift to mankind. And if the values that produced this gift are abandoned, then it is only a matter of time before the gift itself is at serious risk.
The final irony here is that the Church’s other accommodation, namely the acceptance and welcoming of gay men and women, is something that would not and will not be possible in the absence of this greatest gift of Western morality, the embrace of the Godliness of all men and women. This notion provided the impetus for universal human rights. It necessitated and facilitated the destruction of the institution of slavery. It formed the foundation for legal equality between the sexes and among the various races. And it – and it alone – will provide for the full acceptance of loving relationships that have heretofore in human history been considered perverse. Only the Judeo-Christian ethic makes that acceptance possible. That some factions within the archetypical Christian institution would consider abandoning foundational principles while simultaneously advocating for utilization of these same principles suggests that there is some serious and perilous cognitive dissonance extant in the Church today. Such dissonance is probably not unique, though it is potentially calamitous at this particular juncture in history.
GLOBAL RESOURCE WARS, REDUX.
When one looks at the global markets and then heeds the words of the energy experts, it seems pretty clear that the bear market in oil has three principal causes. The first and most obvious of these is the world economic slowdown. We don’t need to tell you, particularly after last week’s market volatility, that the global economic forecast for next year is pretty terrible. Two weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund cut its global growth forecast for 2015. And then last week, Germany, the only economic non-basket-case in the Eurozone, cut its own forecasts for next year. European prices are falling; central bankers are cutting rates, hoping to stimulate growth; German exports are tanking; and unemployment is, once again, inching upward, topping 11% not just in Italy, Spain, and France, but Germany as well. Even the Brits are struggling mightily.
All things considered, then, the price of crude is, as always, simply falling in light of the expected need for energy next year in a slowing world economy.
At the same time, global supply is increasing, with the American shale boom playing an unanticipated and unsettling role in global markets. The United States is now, for the first time in almost a quarter century, the world’s largest producer of petroleum products. Obviously, the much heralded and much anticipated shale gas boom has made the United States a player in energy again, as the country is currently importing less foreign oil than it has since the start of Ronal Reagan’s second term. The emergence of the United States as an energy player has not only staggered markets by increasing global supply dramatically, but has added to global production volatility, as market players wonder how long the American boom can continue and, more to the point, how long it can remain profitable, given shale’s relatively high cost of extraction.
What we have here, then, is your basic Econ 101 scenario for falling prices: low demand and high supply. What’s to know?
As it turns out, however, the one thing that no one quite seems to understand about this bear market is the Saudis’ role in it. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been the backstop against collapsing oil prices. As the world’s largest producer of crude oil and as the titular head of the world’s largest oil cartel, i.e. OPEC, the Saudis have customarily met falling prices with strong leadership and aggressive calls for cuts in production, intended, naturally, to address the supply side of the supply-and-demand equation and thus to stanch the bleeding. This time around, however, the Saudis have not played to type and have, rather, kept production levels high. Moreover, they have argued that there is no reason for any of the OPEC nations even to consider slowing production, at least not for the rest of this year. Needless to say, this has caused some consternation within the mighty oil cartel. As the Telegraph of London reported recently:
A sudden slump in the price of crude has exposed deep divisions within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) ahead of its final scheduled meeting of the year next month to decide on how much oil to pump. Some members, led by Iran, have called for immediate action to stem the drop in oil prices, while the Arab sheikhdoms of the Gulf have so far argued that it could be another three months before it becomes clear whether the group should cut production for the first time since December 2008.
Next month’s meeting promises to be the most tense held since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2010, with the Shi’ite Muslim faction of Iran and Iraq already appearing to line up against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has placed his cards on the table early by calling for Opec to urgently cut output to stem the sharp recent decline in prices, which threatens the Islamic Republic’s fragile economy after years of restrictive sanctions.
However, the Gulf’s Arab states are all sitting on huge cash piles that are held overseas through sovereign wealth funds and foreign currency assets that can be drawn upon to help them weather any short-term drop in oil export revenues.
OK, so the Saudis and the other Gulf sheikdoms have considerable stores of cash and therefore don’t need to panic at the collapse of the price of oil. Fair enough. But that’s never stopped them before. The fact that they have cash doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t like more of it or that they are especially comfortable with the notion of losing income they could otherwise earn if prices remain high. So what gives? What reason do the Gulf sheiks, led by the House of Saud, have for refusing even to consider cuts? What could possibly make them change their historical tendency to sit on output when demand begins to wane?
Most of the analysts who have tried to answer this question have settled on the notion that the Saudis are responding to the price crunch by trying to increase market share. While other countries with higher extraction costs struggle to keep production profitable, the Saudis will not only remain in the black, but will cut side deals providing even further discounts to some potential long-term, high-volume customers, like China. The Saudi profit-margin may not be as high today as it has been, in other words, but it will be considerably higher in the future, when prices rise and friendships and market share are solidified. Writing at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead described the Saudi strategy as follows:
The Saudi strategy isn’t unlike a game of chicken. The Saudi breakeven price hovers around $93 per barrel, and while it can afford to operate in the red to gain market share for now, it may not be able to do so in the long term. Banking on American shale production cuts may be a bigger gamble than the Saudis expect, too: it will take some time for the market to shift and fracking to draw down, even if prices continue to plunge.
This makes a certain amount of sense, we suppose. The Saudis are smart enough to respond to new competitors by resorting to new tactics. And it only makes sense that they would look to capture market share.
But is that really all there is to it? It seems to us that that’s a pretty high risk strategy considering market forces alone. Add in the war of words among the OPEC nations and the potential conflict that this could foster between and among countries that are already on poor terms, and it appears to be an exceptionally dangerous game to play, especially when the rewards aren’t guaranteed and could probably be attained without this risky strategy. So what else is there?
Well, if you ask us, the key to understanding the Saudi actions can be seen, in part, in the first line of the second paragraph quoted above from the Telegraph, i.e. “Some members, led by Iran, have called for immediate action to stem the drop in oil prices…” [emphasis added]
Several months ago, you may recall, we chastised the American political and intelligence communities for their lack of imagination, their inability to think about national security policy in unconventional ways and thus to discover unconventional solutions to vexing problems. Specifically, we chided them for not having the creative spirit found in the Reagan administration. In a variety of National Security Directives – which we have quoted over the years and which we will spare you quoting again today – Reagan et al. determined to put an end to Soviet adventurism by reducing their economic leverage. All of which is to say that the Americans intentionally, and with the help of the Saudis, targeted the energy sector to cripple the Soviet economy, which could not withstand increased supply and concomitant reduced costs.
Less than a decade later, of course, the Soviet Union crumbled.
Today, we suspect that we are seeing something similar. When you look at those nations that are most upset by falling prices and therefore least likely to be able to withstand them, the two names that are always at the top of the list are Iran and Russia. It is no coincidence, we would argue, that these two nations are also the instigators of most of the trouble in the Middle East today. Syria? Russian and Iranian backed. Hamas? Russian and Iranian backed. Hezbollah? Russian and Iranian backed. The Iranian nuclear weapons program? Russian funded and supplied. Everywhere you turn in the Middle East today, the Russians and the Iranians are causing trouble and they’re causing trouble specifically for the Saudis.
Interestingly, we’re not the only ones who have noticed that the Saudis stand to gain a great deal geopolitically from the bear market in oil, while the Russians and the Iranians stand to lose just as much. Both the Russian newspaper Pravda, and the American version of that rag, The New York Times, have seen the advantages this market creates for the Saudis. Thomas Friedman, usually the least insightful of the columnists for the latter paper made the following argument last week:
Is it just my imagination or is there a global oil war underway pitting the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side against Russia and Iran on the other? One can’t say for sure whether the American-Saudi oil alliance is deliberate or a coincidence of interests, but, if it is explicit, then clearly we’re trying to do to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exactly what the Americans and Saudis did to the last leaders of the Soviet Union: Pump them to death – bankrupt them by bringing down the price of oil to levels below what both Moscow and Tehran need to finance their budgets . . . .
The Russians have noticed. How could they not? They’ve seen this play before. The Russian newspaper Pravda published an article on April 3 with the headline, “Obama Wants Saudi Arabia to Destroy Russian Economy.” It said: “There is a precedent [for] such joint action that caused the collapse of the USSR. In 1985, the Kingdom dramatically increased oil production from 2 million to 10 million barrels per day, dropping the price from $32 to $10 per barrel. [The] USSR began selling some batches at an even lower price, about $6 per barrel. Saudi Arabia [did not lose] anything, because when prices fell by 3.5 times [Saudi] production increased fivefold. The planned economy of the Soviet Union was not able to cope with falling export revenues, and this was one of the reasons for the collapse of the USSR.”
Indeed, the late Yegor Gaidar, who between 1991 and 1994 was Russia’s acting prime minister, observed in a Nov. 13, 2006, speech that: “The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to Sept. 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices. . . . During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed. . . . The Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.”
Neither Moscow nor Tehran will collapse tomorrow. . . . But have no doubt, this price falloff serves US and Saudi strategic interests and it harms Russia and Iran. Oil export revenues account for about 60 per cent of Iran’s government revenues and more than half of Russia’s.
As a general rule, we hate to give credit to Friedman for any insight. And in our defense, his column did appear the same day that we hinted at the phenomenon in a tweet/blog post (http://thepoliticalforum.com/rift-at-opec-means-what-exactly/). Nevertheless, he is right, or at least mostly right. We say “mostly” because we don’t agree with him about the conscious and active participation of the Americans. If the Obama administration were truly interested in leveraging energy resources against the Russians, then there would be talk of approving the Keystone pipeline and further expanding American energy resource production. As you well know, markets tend to move on chatter as much as anything, and up to now, all of the chatter from Obama administration sources has been about restraining carbon-intensive energy production, rather than setting it free. The American energy boom that aids the Saudis agenda here has taken place in spite of the Obama administration, not because of it.
More to the point, we suspect that the Obama administration is unhappy about the effect that the bear market may have on Iran. Obama has spent the entirety of his presidency trying to reach some sort of imaginary détente with the Mad Mullahs, and it’s hard to imagine him doing anything to spoil those plans now. Indeed, Friedman’s own paper reported over the weekend that when it comes to a treaty with Iran, “the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.” Obama digs Iran, in short, and is incredibly unlikely to do anything that might upset the objects of his affection.
All of which suggests that the Saudi policy is the Saudis’ alone. The Saudi Arabians are tanking the oil market, while the Americans are mere bystanders, victims of their own inability and unwillingness to act. And this, we think, is the model for future foreign policy behavior.
We have argued in these pages countless times over the last couple of years that the Obama administration has made it clear to erstwhile American allies that they are now on their own, that they can’t rely on good ol’ Uncle Sam to bail them out of every scrape they get into. And the Saudis, for one, have finally decided to take Obama at his word. It is worth noting in this context, we think, that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the fourth largest military budget in the world – bigger than France, bigger than Great Britain, bigger than everyone save the United States, China, and Russia. In short then, the Saudis can probably take care of themselves. And in the age of Obama, they have come to the realization that they will all but certainly have to do so.
We don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing, particularly given that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were hatched by a Saudi group started by a Saudi national funded with Saudi money and undertaken by Saudi citizens. But we do know that this is the new reality.
As you watch the oil market sink, in short, consider Saudi priorities. Consider what the Saudis want, what they need, and how they might go about achieving it. And then think what they will do with their oil output in response. The Saudis are levering their advantages, we think. And in so doing, they are repeating history and doing to the world’s bad actors that which the United States is no longer willing to do.