The cooler Cold War

The claim that “the Cold War is over” and that the West needs a “new paradigm” for relations with Russia has become an antiphon in some conservative political circles – not least conservative Christian circles. The call for serious and creative thinking about Russia is welcome and sensible. The claim that the Cold War is over is not, because Vladimir Putin never got that memo. Ignoring that reality means danger in devising any new paradigm.

Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy with a post-modern difference, for the veteran KGB man is far more clever and deft than the reptilian characters who preceded him (think Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko). Yes, he wants to reverse history’s verdict in 1989 (when the Soviet external empire liberated itself) and 1991 (when the USSR disintegrated). But he knows he can’t compete with the West as the old Bolsheviks tried to do when they promoted communism as a humane alternative to liberal democracy. And he knows that, in the digital age, information – including fake “information” – is power.

So while the Putin regime is not averse to brutality when it can get away with it (e.g., murdering domestic political opponents like Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov), its international tactics in this new, cooler Cold War are more discreet. Those tactics include polluting the global information space with disinformation through overt instruments like the television network, Russia Today, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kremlin propagandists. But the even more insidious (and far larger) Russian attack on the global information eco-system comes through various cyber-warfare tools. Thus the Putin regime deploys an army of internet trolls who, supplemented by bots, generate a vast amount of traffic on Facebook and Twitter, spreading lies and propaganda across the globe.

Very few people in the West grasp the reality, much less the magnitude, of this threat to what might be called “cognitive security:” the capacity of Western populations to see things as they are, including things going on in our own societies. In today’s social media world, virality and frequency – how much does your stuff get around and how often is it repeated – can easily get confused with veracity (i.e., truth), especially among millennials whose information-space is social media.

In this campaign, Putin & Co. have adapted a method they’ve long used for domestic political control – polluting the information environment – for an international audience. It’s not the same old same old, however, for the Russian strategic approach has changed. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet propaganda promoted the glories of the Russian Revolution and the emerging workers’ state – and did so with considerable success because of the gullibility (and worse) of Western intellectuals and journalists. Today’s Russian propaganda isn’t aimed at promoting Russia, though; its purpose is to undermine and demoralize us, destabilizing Western societies by throwing election results into question, creating suspicions about Western intelligence services, and generally mucking things up.

Further, Putin & Co. have abandoned ideological chastity, being rather wanton about the political company they keep. They’ve supported far-right groups in Europe (including France’s Marine Le Pen) as well as more traditional far-left allies. The ideas promoted by the political parties and movements the Russians support are entirely secondary to Russian calculations about how much disruption within and among Western states those parties and movements can cause.

Putin’s cynical pose as a defender of traditional Christian values and persecuted Christians in the Middle East is part and parcel of this new, cooler Cold War attack on the cognitive security of the West– and too many Christian conservatives have swallowed that noxious bait. Then there is the current Vatican Ostpolitik: Russian Orthodox Church leaders have been prominent actors in Putin’s war of propaganda and disinformation, yet the ecumenical efforts of the Holy See seem premised on the wish that these churchmen are not what they manifestly are – agents of Russian state power.

The exhaustion of Western political culture and the devolution of ground-level politics in the North Atlantic world into a shouting match between the forces of political correctness and the forces of a new “populism” make us singularly vulnerable to this cooler Cold War. That this vulnerability has emerged a mere twenty-five years after the communist crack-up is something else to ponder in this summer of our discontent.

Featured image by Bohumil Petrik | CNA

COMING UP: Awkward? Or wise?

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Asked to name books that gave me the greatest intellectual jolt in recent decades, I’d quickly cite two.

N.T Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) accepts every grand-slam bid from the guild of Scriptural deconstructionists and skeptics, calmly replies, “I’ll see you and raise you” – and then takes the game with a flourish, leaving the unbiased reader convinced of, well, the resurrection of the Son of God.

Then there is The Sources of Christian Ethics, by Servais Pinckaers, OP (Catholic University of America Press). If I could put one book into the hands of every (and I mean every) combatant in the post-Amoris Laetitia debate, Father Pinckaers’ masterpiece would be it. Why? Because so much of the controversy over Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation reflects the hard rules/soft rules argument about the Christian moral life that Pinckaers explodes. The moral life, he insists, is not first and foremost a matter of rules; it’s a matter of beatitude. The Sermon on the Mount is the Magna Carta of Christian ethics. Yes, there are rules, or moral norms, but the Church teaches them in order to lead stumbling humanity toward happiness by helping us grow in the virtues that make for human flourishing.

The recovery of this insight – that beatitude is the goal of the moral life and that the virtues are at the heart of Christian morality – is one of the great achievements of post-Vatican II Catholic theology. Too many churchmen seem unaware of it, though, and so they remain frozen in time, trapped in the hard rules/soft rules debate. Thus it’s been interesting in recent months to see renewed references to the moral theology of Father Bernhard Häring, C.SS.R. Häring, an anti-Nazi hero during World War II, had a significant influence on the immediate post-Vatican II period; yet, he too seemed strangely imprisoned in a pre-Vatican II mindset. He was something of a rules-centered ethicist before the Council; he remained something of a rules-centered ethicist after the Council. What changed was his approach to the rules: he was a rigorist before the Council and a laxist afterwards. But the rules-centered paradigm was the same.

Which is to say, Father Häring missed the Pinckaers Revolution. And judging from the commentary in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, so did a lot of others, not least among those who think of themselves as the party of Catholic progress.

This is very unfortunate. The Church can and must do a better job of explaining that, behind every “no” the Church says to this, that, or the other human failing or foible, there is a resounding “yes:” a “yes” to beatitude, a “yes” to human flourishing, a “yes” to noble living, a “yes” to a particular virtue. Grasp the “yes,” and each “no” begins to make sense as an invitation to live the virtues that make for a truly fulfilled life. The Pinckaers approach to the moral life gets us to “yes.” The rules-based approach – in its hard (rigorist) or soft (laxist) form – finds it hard to do that.

I might add that there isn’t a shred of empirical evidence to suggest that the lax-rules approach is pastorally successful in bringing the bored, alienated, indifferent, or confused back to a full and sustained practice of the faith, whereas there’s lot of evidence that the living parts of the Church are those that have embraced the Pinckaers approach – which had a decisive influence on John Paul II’s encyclical on the renewal of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. But that’s a tale for another time.

I was reminded of the Pinckaers/Häring divide when, a few months back, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster told a meeting in London that the Church would “persist” in being “awkward” when challenged by the many forms of the sexual revolution. But is that quite the right image? Is the Church being “awkward” (or “obstinate,” another term the cardinal used)?

The 21st-century Church that proclaims certain moral truths in the face of sharp cultural opposition isn’t being different for the sake of being different or mule-headed; and it isn’t being deliberately clumsy. The Church of the New Evangelization is saying, “Here’s what we think makes for the happiness you seek. Here are the virtues that make for that happiness, according to millennia of experience. Let’s talk about it.” That’s true pastoral accompaniment.