Letters | Ukraine, Reconciliation, AI, Lyme Disease

 

MORAL AGENTS

I count myself as an admirer of Andrew Bacevich, but I find little merit in his suggestion that the West and Russia could ever have made Ukraine safely and permanently neutral in the way that they made Austria neutral after World War II (“A Mournful Legacy,” March). Russia would never have honored any such commitment. Ukraine would have known as much and been prepared for just such a revanchist invasion as we now see underway. The former Soviet domains that joined NATO so eagerly did so, first, because they feared that what is now happening to Ukraine might at any time happen to them and, second, because they remembered all too well the unending brutality of Russian Communist oppression. Ukraine may be to Russia what Mexico is to the United States, although Canada is a much nearer analogy. But Ukraine is as plausibly Europe’s backyard as it is Russia’s front yard, and Europe, too, has nuclear weapons and a sphere of influence. And it is of practical as well as moral consequence that in this great game of what Bacevich calls, pointedly, moral realism, the countries being traded back and forth will always do their utmost to be players—moral agents—rather than mere passive tokens on the game board. George Kennan deserves full credit for prescience, but his was a realism achieved, on the whole, by prescinding from morality. If somehow Ukraine survives this Russian invasion as an independent nation and if it then sues for admission to NATO, what kind of moralism would deny its request?

Jack Miles
Santa Ana, Calif.

 

WHAT KIND OF ‘LEADERSHIP’?

Andrew Bacevich correctly connects the Pentagon’s and White House’s current Ukraine war eagerness to the “brilliant” planners who took the United States to war in Vietnam sixty years ago. But he doesn’t touch the main motivation: U.S. leaders believe that “containing” Russia is crucial to preserving world military domination. They have this strategic “fantasy” about global preeminence in the face of “rising powers” who are “revanchist” and “revisionist” and inevitably will challenge U.S. power. Bacevich does not mention this motivation, nor the hundreds of billions of dollars that go to the weapons industry every year. It is the myth of U.S. “global leadership” that must be examined closely and refuted.

John Cabral
Chicago, Ill.

 

REPENT AND BELIEVE

John Rodden’s article “How the Irish Changed Penance” (February) is an interesting but incomplete portrayal of a more complex story. He emphasizes the abundance of mercy shown in the possibility of repeated absolutions, but he leaves out the concomitant development of “tariff penance,” the practice of codifying in books called “penitentials” the exact amount of “penance” that each sin required before divine forgiveness. This ultimately led to the practice of paying others to do at least part of your penance for you so that absolution could come more quickly. This image of God as celestial bookkeeper hardly fits with an abundance of divine mercy.

He also ends the story too early. Starting in the late ’80s and continuing into the 2000s, there was a movement in this country entitled Re-membering Church. Connected with the National Forum on the Catechumenate, it strove to turn the process of helping people who had “fallen away” to explore returning to the Church through a process similar to RCIA, one that was communal, multi-dimensional, and with a liturgical component. Since the Order of Penitents seems to be as old as the Order of Catechumens, this movement was drawing upon our oldest roots without being bound simply to repeat the approach of antiquity. It also moved beyond the paradigm of confessor as judge and counselor to one in which the whole community was involved in the process of reconciliation, often mutual reconciliation. But like so many good things, this attempt passed away during the rise of Catholic “traditionalism.”

Repentance is a core part of the Christian experience: after all, our founder’s first message was “Repent and believe!” But labeling the sacrament that celebrates the return of the sinner as Penance makes us focus on the way and not the goal; labeling it Reconciliation names the goal instead.

Michael H. Marchal
Cincinnati, Ohio

 

DEFINITELY ARTIFICIAL

While I support any effort to hold our hubris-laden tech industry accountable and ask ethical questions of it, I noticed a couple of factual inaccuracies in John Slattery’s review of Kate Crawford’s book, Atlas of AI (“Neither Artificial Nor Intelligent,” February). First, he references “nickel and now-empty lithium mines that are as non-renewable as coal.” Lithium is recyclable. Most of it is used to make batteries, and plans to recycle it are quickly moving forward. Coal is burned. There is no sense in which it is true to say those two resources are equally non-renewable. 

Second, he quotes, uncritically, Crawford’s claim that AI is “neither artificial nor intelligent.” Whether it’s intelligent is beyond my ability to say, but it’s certainly artificial. Slattery quotes Crawford: “Artificial Intelligence is both embodied and material, made from natural resources.” All artifacts ever made are made from some natural resource. By that definition no object known to humanity is artificial. AI certainly did not arise from a naturally occurring organic substance in its natural state, but from heavily manipulated artifacts. 

Matthew DeGoede
Seatac, Wash.

 

THE EXPERIMENTAL SPIRIT

Susan McWilliams Barndt provides a beautifully written and spot-on assessment of the devastating journey a person with chronic Lyme disease can experience (“The Evidence of Bugs Unseen,” February). Douthat is a hero for speaking so openly about what he has been through and calling out the “arbiters of truth” for their lack of being able to look outside the box. Twenty years ago, our daughter, then sixteen years old, was told to get a psychiatric evaluation for her myriad symptoms, and I was discouraged to hear that Douthat was told the same thing. The dismissal of his symptoms by a healthcare professional made him rightfully wonder if it all could be in his head. Just think what that diagnosis would do to a sixteen-year-old girl with chronic Lyme disease, whose description of symptoms were totally dismissed by a respected healthcare institution. For years she lost trust in herself and what she knew to be real. 

Our daughter has tried Rife treatments, Chinese medicine, naturopathic treatment, and more, and we continue to do what we can to support her journey to be pain-free. We have had no help from Western medicine and are grateful for those whom we have met who practice outside the closed-minded box of that institution. We too found out that we needed to “embrace the experimental spirit that chronic sickness seems to obviously require.”

Julie Clark
Portland, Oreg.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 
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