Could Pope Francis Save Volkswagen?


I’m no historian, but when I was in school there are two facts I learned about the 1960 presidential election that always stayed with me:

  1. John F. Kennedy won the election largely on the strength of his performance in the televised debate. Although people who listened to the debate on the radio thought his opponent, Richard Nixon, got the better of him, TV watchers were hypnotized by Kennedy’s steady, handsome gaze and repulsed by Nixon’s nervous, sweaty, shifty, beady, slightly creepy, overcaffeinated, underrested, shockingly visible difficulty hiding an unslakeable thirst for power and lust to punish his enemies, and, uh… what was I talking about again?
  2. Oh yeah: Despite his youth, vigor, good looks, war record, and clearly articulated vision for the country, there was one thing about Kennedy that made people uneasy: he was Catholic. Critics worried that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican, rather than from the Constitution, that the Pope would have his own Batphone in the Oval Office, which he would use to order Kennedy to… what? I don’t know what kind of treason people thought Kennedy might commit in the service of the pontiff, but it was a big deal at the time.

What a difference a half century makes. Judging by Pope Francis’ rapturous reception in the U.S. over the last couple of days, we aren’t just okay with the pope having an influence in Washington; we’re holding a televised competition to see who can get down on their bellies and lick his boots the cleanest.

When Francis’ plane landed, President Obama was at the bottom of the stairs when Francis got off the plane with flowers and candy.


Obama then whisked him to the White House, where a truly resplendent throng suffered through his sensible, progressive, truly unwatchable speech on climate change. (He thinks we should do something about it, I think. I could only get through a minute or two. Truly painful. You can watch it below, but don’t.)

Then he went to Congress and made another, broader speech, where he was again more liberal than previous popes on poverty but still, you know, the head of the Catholic church, and thus still pretty conservative on contraception and abortion and “traditional marriage”:

In the end, both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise.

As a result, Democrats cheered and led standing ovations more often in a somewhat more dignified version of a presidential State of the Union address. Afterward, liberal groups wrapped themselves in the glow of Francis’ speech and claimed momentum for their initiatives, while Republicans largely focused on the majesty of the event and played down policy implications.



Where our leaders once whispered bogeyman warnings of Catholic influence over our leaders, they now huddle in their red-or-blue Spin Rooms trying to claim the pope as their own. Democrats are positively beaming that their agenda lines up with what the pope is saying, and the Republicans are quick to point out that he’s still with them on the anti-lady stuff.

They were right, in 1960, to be wary of a big organized religion slithering onto the levers of power. Particularly one that turned out to be as profoundly fucked up, as decades of books and articles and films about the various abuse scandals and practices have revealed to us, to the point that it’s a cliche, as the Catholic church. “I was an altar boy” has been a laugh line that means “I was raped” for so long that it’s not funny anymore — not because it’s offensive, but because it’s old hat.


They were right, but they also failed miserably. The Vice President, the Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader, and 30% of Congress are Catholic. It’s great right now that we have a relatively cool pope, but let’s keep our wits about us.

I don’t know much about the Catholic church. I’m lucky enough to have been raised by parents who weren’t religious, so I am a vacuum where religion is concerned. It is not in me. I don’t have good feelings about it, I don’t have bad feeling about it. I’m sure the church does good things and I assume that is what keeps people loyal to it, and that they stick with it with only the best intentions. I don’t judge anyone who’s a part of it. But from what I gather, even the church would admit that there have been some problems with their organization, including but definitely not limited to rampant, institutionalized kid-fucking.

You’d think that would be enough to keep a little distance. The scar tissue still has some scab on it. But after a lifetime of popes who couldn’t stand up and wave without shaking or falling over, Francis appears as young and vigorous as a Jan-Michael Vincent by comparison. He stammers out a couple of platitudes about things that have long been face-slappingly obvious to everyone who didn’t stand to lose a fortune by acting on them, and suddenly we’re — literally, like literally literally — rolling out the red carpet for him. I dunno guys, this seems a little sudden!

It’s nothing personal. I don’t have anything against Pope Francis. He seems terrific, and he’s clearly the best pope of my lifetime. But popes — all popes — live in a bejeweled, gold-plated building that makes Trump Tower look like a desert gas station. And Francis won’t always be the pope. There will be more popes, and who knows how they will feel about global warming, gay marriage, or poverty? The pope before Francis WAS AN EX-NAZI. This is an organization that makes mistakes, is what I’m saying. Their people wear weird robes. They announce their elections via smoke signal. Maybe we could keep a little more of a dignified distance from this outfit?

Volkswagen found itself in some trouble this week when it was revealed that the automaker had rigged its cars to sense when they were being smog-tested, and adjust their carbon output to pass the test.

Since 2009, Volkswagen had been installing elaborate software in 482,000 “clean diesel” vehicles sold in the US, so that the cars’ pollution controls only worked when being tested for emissions. The rest of the time, the vehicles could freely spew hazardous, smog-forming compounds.

Suffice to say, regulators were livid once they caught on. Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Volkswagen had very flagrantly violated the Clean Air Act. Not only did the EPA order the German firm to fix the affected vehicles — which include diesel TDI versions of the Golf, Jetta, Beetle, and Passat — but the agency could end up levying fines as high as $18 billion. The Department of Justice is also contemplating criminal charges.

Regulators didn’t notice this ruse for years. The problem was only uncovered by an independent group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, which wanted to investigate why there was such a discrepancy between laboratory tests and real-road performance for several of VW’s diesel cars in Europe. So they worked with researchers at West Virginia University, who stuck a probe up the exhaust pipe of VW’s clean diesel cars and drove them from San Diego to Seattle.

What the researchers found was shocking. On the road, VW’s Jetta was emitting 15 to 35 times as much nitrogen oxide as the allowable limit. The VW Passat was emitting 5 to 20 times as much. These cars were emitting much more pollution than they had in the labs.

This, clearly, is bad. And it’s clearly not the act of a rogue executive. This is something that a lot of people in the organization were involved in, with knowledge of the situation going from the bottom to the very top and still allowed to continue. Volkswagen’s stock is plummeting, and the resale value of their vehicles is zero. They have fired their CEO, but experts are doubtful that any replacement can repair the damage to public trust in their brand.

Francis is a great new CEO, I like the direction he’s taking the company, but let’s not forget it used to do business with the Nazis.

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