The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

Oh, fergawdsake.  In “A Little Bit Indian” The Pasty Little Putz tries to ‘splain to us why Elizabeth Warren’s embarrassment is a scandal for academia.  Of course he has nothing at all to say about Marco Rubio and his little re-invention problems.  Of course, IOKIYAR.  In “Here Comes Nobody” MoDo says suffocating debate and resisting modernity, the Catholic Church shrinks its appeal.  Rather like the Republicans, not that I’m so sure that they should welcome the comparison.  The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Do You Want The Good News First?” and says a visit to the innovation hubs of Seattle and Silicon Valley stirred both excitement and dread. Here’s why.  Mr. Kristof also has a question:  “Are You Safe on That Sofa?”  He says flame retardants illuminate everything that’s wrong with our money-driven politics.  Mr. Bruni, in “Of Bile and Billionaires,” says a tycoon’s ditched plan is a scary vision of meanness run amok in politics today.  It’s interesting that the Times is playing rather fast and loose with its comments today.  They’re closed on The Putz and MoDo after some comments for each, unavailable for Mr. Kristof, and available for The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  I wonder what it is that they don’t want to hear?  Here’s The Putz:

“I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that — a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times [and] remarked that he — her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do. … Being Native American has been part of my story, I guess, since the day I was born.”

— Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, trying to explain why she identified herself as a “minority” law professor in the 1980s and 1990s.

IT happens in a lot of American families. My maternal great-grandfather was born on a Maine island in the 1880s, in the days when Penobscot Indians still rode birch-bark canoes from their inland reservation to the coast for their annual clambake. I always had the definite idea that he had Indian blood himself — maybe Penobscot, maybe Abenaki, maybe another New England tribe. In the photographs I have of him, he certainly looks the part, with a profile suited for an Indian Head penny.

My great-grandfather left an autobiography behind, though (that’s how I know about the canoes and the clambake), and I went back to it recently and couldn’t find even a hint of an Indian connection: just a typical old New England genealogy, mostly English families with some Irish woven in. This would have been immensely disappointing to my 10-year-old self, since I can remember telling friends in American history class, with an air of authority, that I was almost certainly one sixteenth Native American, or at the very least one thirty-second.

It seems that Elizabeth Warren may turn out to be similarly disappointed, after the New England Genealogical Society acknowledged last week that there’s no firm evidence of her great-great-grandmother being Cherokee.

That supposed ancestral tie was what inspired the professor-turned-Senate candidate to identify as an ethnic minority in law school directories early in her career. More important, it was what inspired The Harvard Crimson to refer to Warren as Harvard Law School’s “one tenured minority woman” and The Fordham Law Review to cite her as Harvard Law’s “first woman of color” during the mid-1990s debates over faculty diversity.

Now that same claim — and her clumsy, “my grandfather had high cheekbones” attempts to defend it — has become perhaps the biggest obstacle in her quest to reclaim Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat for liberalism.

The whole story has a tragicomic, Nathaniel Hawthorne meets “Curb Your Enthusiasm” feel. It’s easy to imagine Warren originally checking a box more on a whim than out of any deep determination to self-identify as Cherokee. (She didn’t use the minority-applicant program when applying to Rutgers, where she attended law school, and she identified as “white” during an early teaching job at the University of Texas.) Then it’s easy to imagine her embarrassment when the diversity wars of the 1990s made that whimsical choice something from which she couldn’t dissociate herself without intense public awkwardness. Those wars faded, she no longer listed herself as a Native American, she thought the whole thing was behind her … until she went into politics, where no secret stays buried.

The appropriate response to such a tale is probably sympathy rather than scorn. What does deserve scorn, though, is the academic culture in which an extremely distant connection to a Cherokee ancestor ends up being touted by a law school as proof of its commitment to diversity.

A diverse faculty and campus can be a laudable goal. But the point is to build academic communities that actually contain a wide variety of experiences and perspectives, not to wax self-congratulatory because you’ve met a set of ethnic quotas. The story of Elizabeth Warren, “woman of color,” represents a reductio ad absurdum of the latter tendency, which has been all too prevalent in elite universities — giving us affirmative-action programs that benefit West Indian immigrants more than the descendants of slaves, and faculties that include a wider range of skin tones than of political and religious views.

The irony is that Warren herself probably did make Harvard more diverse, since she grew up the daughter of a janitor in Oklahoma — not a typical background, to put it mildly, for Ivy League students and faculty today. But under the academy’s cramped definitions, it was her grandfather’s Cherokee cheekbones, not her blue-collar roots, that led to her citation as a supposed trailblazer.

That isn’t a serious approach to academic diversity, and in an emerging majority-minority America (already visible in the latest Census birth statistics) where almost everyone will be 1/8 something-or-other, it will be an increasingly untenable one as well.

For many colleges and universities, then, this contretemps represents a timely gift: a chance to think anew about these issues, before the pursuit of a cosmetic diversity leaves them looking as ridiculous as poor Elizabeth Warren does today.

Here’s MoDo:

I always liked that the name of my religion was also an adjective meaning all-embracing.

I was a Catholic and I wanted to be catholic, someone engaged in a wide variety of things. As James Joyce wrote in “Finnegans Wake:” “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’ ”

So it makes me sad to see the Catholic Church grow so uncatholic, intent on loyalty testing, mind control and heresy hunting. Rather than all-embracing, the church hierarchy has become all-constricting.

It was tough to top the bizarre inquisition of self-sacrificing American nuns pushed by the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law. Law, the former head of the Boston archdiocese, fled to a plush refuge in Rome in 2002 after it came out that he protected priests who molested thousands of children.

But the craziness continued when an American priest, renowned for his TV commentary from Rome on popes and personal morality, admitted last week that he had fathered a child with a mistress.

The Rev. Thomas Williams belongs to the Legionaires of Christ, the order founded by the notorious Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pal of Pope John Paul II who died peppered with accusations that he sexually abused seminarians and fathered several children and abused some of them.

The latest kooky kerfuffle was sparked by the invitation to Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, to speak at a graduation ceremony at Georgetown University on Friday. The silver-haired former Kansas governor is a practicing Catholic with a husband and son who graduated from Georgetown. But because she fought to get a federal mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptives and morning-after pills, including at Catholic schools and hospitals, Sebelius is on the hit list of a conservative Catholic group in Virginia, the Cardinal Newman Society, which militates to bar speakers at Catholic schools who support gay rights or abortion rights.

The Society for Truth and Justice, a fringe Christian anti-abortion group, compared Sebelius to Himmler, and protesters showed up on campus to yell at her for being, as one screamed, “a murderer.”

“Remember, Georgetown has no neo-Nazi clubs or skinhead clubs on campus, nor should they,” Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, said on Fox News. “But they have two — two! — pro-abortion clubs at Georgetown University. Now they’re bringing in Kathleen Sebelius. They wouldn’t bring in an anti-Semite, nor should they. They wouldn’t bring in a racist, nor should they. But they’re bringing in a pro-abortion champion, and they shouldn’t.”

Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl called the invitation “shocking” and upbraided the Georgetown president, John DeGioia. But DeGioia, who so elegantly defended the Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke against Rush Limbaugh’s nasty epithets, stood fast against dogmatic censorship.

Speaking to the graduates, Sebelius evoked J.F.K.’s speech asserting that religious bodies should not seek to impose their will through politics. She said that contentious debate is a strength of this country, adding that in some other places, “a leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect. There’s no debate, no criticism, no second-guessing.”

Just like the Vatican.

Twenty-eight years ago, weighing a run for president, Mario Cuomo gave a speech at Notre Dame in which he deftly tried to explain how officials could remain good Catholics while going against church dictums in shaping public policy.

“The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman,” he said.

I called Cuomo to see if, as his son Andrew weighs running for president, he felt the church had grown less tolerant.

“If the church were my religion, I would have given it up a long time ago,” he said. “All the mad and crazy popes we’ve had through history, decapitating the husbands of women they’d taken. All the terrible things the church has done. Christ is my religion, the church is not.

“If they make the mistake of saying that a politician has to put the church before the Constitution on abortion or other issues, there will be no senators or presidents or any other Catholics in government. The church would be wiser to take the path laid out for us by Kennedy than the path laid out for us by Santorum.”

Absolute intolerance is always a sign of uncertainty and panic. Why do you have to hunt down everyone unless you’re weak? The church doesn’t seem to care if its members’ beliefs are based on faith or fear, conviction or coercion. But what is the quality of a belief that exists simply because it’s enforced?

“To be narrowing the discussion and instilling fear in people seems to be exactly the opposite of what’s called for these days,” says the noted religion writer Kenneth Briggs. “All this foot-stomping just diminishes the church’s credibility even more.”

This is America. We don’t hunt heresies here. We welcome them.

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve spent the last week traveling to two of America’s greatest innovation hubs — Silicon Valley and Seattle — and the trip left me feeling a combination of exhilaration and dread. The excitement comes from not only seeing the stunning amount of innovation emerging from the ground up, but from seeing the new tools coming on stream that are, as Amazon.com’s founder, Jeff Bezos, put it to me, “eliminating all the gatekeepers” — making it easier and cheaper than ever to publish your own book, start your own company and chase your own dream. Never have individuals been more empowered, and we’re still just at the start of this trend.

“I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” said Bezos. Thanks to cloud computing for the masses, anyone anywhere can for a tiny hourly fee now rent the most powerful computing and storage facilities on Amazon’s “cloud” to test any algorithm or start any company or publish any book. Start-ups can even send all their inventory to Amazon, and it will do all the fulfillment and delivery — and even gift wrap your invention before shipping it to your customers.

This is leading to an explosion of new firms and voices. “Sixteen of the top 100 best sellers on Kindle today were self-published,” said Bezos. That means no agent, no publisher, no paper — just an author, who gets most of the royalties, and Amazon and the reader. It is why, Bezos adds, the job of the company leader now is changing fast: “You have to think of yourself not as a designer but as a gardener” — seeding, nurturing, inspiring, cultivating the ideas coming from below, and then making sure people execute them.

The leading companies driving this trend — Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, LinkedIn, Zynga and Twitter — are all headquartered and listed in America. Facebook, which didn’t exist nine years ago, just went public at a valuation of nearly $105 billion — two weeks after buying a company for $1 billion, Instagram, which didn’t exist 18 months ago. So why any dread?

It’s because we’re leaving an era of some 50 years’ duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we’re entering an era — no one knows for how long — in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take things away from people. And if we don’t make this transition in a really smart way — by saying, “Here are the things that made us great, that spawned all these dynamic companies” — and make sure that we’re preserving as much of that as we can, this trend will not spread as it should. Maybe we could grow as a country without a plan. But we dare not cut without a plan. We can really do damage. I can lose weight quickly if I cut off both arms, but it will surely reduce my job prospects.

What we must preserve is that magic combination of cutting-edge higher education, government-funded research and immigration of high-I.Q. risk-takers. They are, in combination, America’s golden goose, laying all these eggs in Seattle and Silicon Valley. China has it easy right now. It just needs to do the jobs that we have already invented, just more cheaply. America has to invent the new jobs — and that requires preserving the goose.

Microsoft still does more than 80 percent of its research work in America. But that is becoming harder and harder to sustain when deadlock on Capitol Hill prevents it from acquiring sufficient visas for the knowledge workers it needs that America’s universities are not producing enough of. The number of filled jobs at Microsoft went up this year from 40,000 to 40,500 at its campus outside Seattle, yet its list of unfilled jobs went from 4,000 to almost 5,000. Eventually, it will have no choice but to shift more research to other countries.

It is terrifying to see how budget-cutting in California is slowly reducing what was once one of the crown jewels of American education — the University of California system — to a shadow of its old self. And I fear the cutting is just beginning. As one community leader in Seattle remarked to me, governments basically do three things: “Medicate, educate and incarcerate.” And various federal and state mandates outlaw cuts in medicating and incarcerating, so much of the money is coming out of educating. Unfortunately, even to self-publish, you still need to know how to write. The same is happening to research. A new report just found that federal investment in biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health has decreased almost every year since 2003.

When we shrink investments in higher education and research, “we shoot ourselves in both feet,” remarked K.R. Sridhar, founder of Bloom Energy, the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company. “Our people become less skilled, so you are shooting yourself in one foot. And the smartest people from around the world have less reason to come here for the quality education, so you are shooting yourself in the other foot.”

The Labor Department reported two weeks ago that even with our high national unemployment rate, employers advertised 3.74 million job openings in March. That is, in part, about a skills mismatch. In an effort to overcome that, and help fill in the financing gap for higher education in Washington State, Boeing and Microsoft recently supported a plan whereby the state, which was cutting funding to state universities but also not letting them raise tuition, would allow the colleges to gradually raise rates and the two big companies would each kick in $25 million for scholarships for students wanting to study science and technology or health care to ensure that they have the workers they need.

This is not a call to ignore the hard budget choices we have to make. It’s a call to make sure that we give education, immigration and research their proper place in the discussion.

“Empowering the individual and underinvesting in the collective is our great macro danger as a society,” said the pollster Craig Charney. Indeed, it is. Investment in our collective institutions and opportunities is the only way to mitigate the staggering income inequalities that can arise from a world where Facebook employees can become billionaires overnight, while the universities that produce them are asked to slash billions overnight. As I’ve said, nations that don’t invest in the future tend not to do well there.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

If you want a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics, this is it.

Chances are that if you’re sitting on a couch right now, it contains flame retardants. This will probably do no good if your house catches fire — although it may release toxic smoke. There is growing concern that the chemicals are hazardous, with evidence mounting of links to cancer, fetal impairment and reproductive problems.

For years, I’ve written about this type of chemical, endocrine disruptors, but The Chicago Tribune has just published a devastating investigative series called “Playing With Fire” that breaks vast new ground. It is superb journalism.

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.

The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.

An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”

But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.

Citizens for Fire Safety paid a prominent Seattle physician, Dr. David Heimbach, who testified in some states in favor of flame retardants. Dr. Heimbach, the former president of the American Burn Association, told lawmakers stories of children who had burned to death on cushioning that lacked flame retardants.

According to The Tribune, Dr. Heimbach made these stories up. Dr. Heimbach told me that the stories were real, with details changed to protect the survivors’ privacy. He said he testified for flame retardants because he believed in them, not because of money he received.

The problem with flame retardants is that they migrate into dust that is ingested, particularly by children playing on the floor. R. Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, told me that while there have been many studies on animals, there is still uncertainty about the impact of flame retardants on humans. But he said that some retardants were very similar to banned PCBs, which have been linked to everything from lower I.Q. to diabetes, and that it was reasonable to expect certain flame retardants to have similar consequences.

“Despite all that we have learned about PCBs, we are making the same mistakes with flame retardants,” he said.

Linda Birnbaum, the top toxicologist at the National Institutes of Health, put it to me this way: “If flame retardants really provided fire safety, there would be reason for them in certain circumstances, like on an airplane. But there’s growing evidence that they don’t provide safety and may increase harm.”

Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told me, “For pregnant women, they can alter brain development in the fetus.” Her research decades ago led to the removal of a flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children’s pajamas. But chlorinated Tris is still used in couches and nursing pillows (without any warning labels).

The European Union has banned one common flame retardant, Deca BDE, and has generally been more willing to regulate endocrine disruptors than the United States. Why the difference?

“The money is jingling,” notes Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat of New Jersey. Lautenberg has introduced legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act, that would tighten controls — but it has gotten nowhere.

It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.

This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.

A correction: My column on Thursday misstated the hometown of Paulina Puskala. It is Marquette, Mich.

Last but not least, we have Mr. Bruni:

Now we know what, in today’s warped political economy, $10 million buys you: a hit job spectacular not only in its cynicism but also in its idiocy.

As Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg reported last week in The Times, a politically agitated billionaire (these days, there don’t seem to be any other kind) was considering forking over that much for an advertising campaign that would have dusted off the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and tried to fashion him anew into a noose for Barack Obama.

But while such a campaign would have been eaten up by many established Obama opponents already bloated with hostility toward him, it would have nauseated most swing voters, who are poised to decide the presidential contest of 2012. Beyond which, these voters have had three and a half years of Obama’s actual presidency, as opposed to his bright promises and others’ dark prophecies, to decide whether he’s a closet black radical, as the advertising campaign would have insinuated, or a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln,” which is how it would have described his self-presentation in 2008.

A moment’s pause and a measure of sorely needed levity are in order, to contemplate what a metrosexual Abe Lincoln might look like. Tidier beard, for sure. Better manscaping all in all. Maybe some mole removal. Lose the top hat. Less Potomac, more Provincetown.

But back to business: these Wright ads, now shelved forevermore, would more likely have buoyed than torpedoed the president, because swing voters — who swung for Obama once already — don’t want to be told that they were duped in 2008. They still have some emotional investment in his narrative, and in many cases maintain affection and respect for the man himself. That’s why his re-election prospects and approval ratings aren’t as bad as they might be, given our prolonged economic doldrums and the unpopularity of health care reform.

And he’s a cooler, more charismatic cat than Mitt Romney, whose wisest supporters know that a contest stressing jobs is better for their candidate than a contest stressing personality and emotions.

Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who contemplated a wrongful use of Wright, apparently didn’t get that memo. Perhaps he was distracted by the baseball team his family owns, the Chicago Cubs, or his bison, herds of which he keeps in Wyoming. Rich people collect the darnedest things.

In any case he went rogue, like a missile or a Palin, and in doing so illustrated two disturbing, corrosive dynamics in our political culture right now.

The first is the seemingly metastasizing ranks of magnates with itchy millions and the desire to single-handedly bankroll certain candidates or initiatives. They’re exemplified by Sheldon Adelson, who saw no better use for his wealth than stringing out Newt & Callista’s Execrable Adventure long past the point of box-office viability.

And they’re emboldened, perhaps, by a freewheeling climate around campaign spending right now. In the wake of Citizens United, super PACs could turn out to be the new Gulfstream jets. No tycoon is complete without one.

It’s fascinating how things have evolved and spun out of control. In the quaint old days of Lee Atwater and his disciples, a candidate’s team nudged outside players to do dirty work that it didn’t want its own fingerprints on. The Ricketts saga raises the specter of outside players actually volunteering for even dirtier work that a candidate’s team has no desire for and can’t wrestle control of. The Swift Boat has a motor and mind of its own.

And what nasty waves it makes. That’s the second issue here. A memo prepared for Ricketts expressed frustration that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president.” Note the word choice in that thought and the goal telegraphed by it. Voters aren’t to be persuaded that Obama lacks the proper skills and plan. They’re to be pumped full of unalloyed disdain for him.

THAT’S how too many campaigns and legislative battles are waged these days: with bile instead of reason, catcalls in place of conversation, and the basest of instincts.

Your opponent isn’t just ill informed. He or she is an idiot.

Your opponent isn’t just wrongheaded. He or she is evil incarnate.

Under Mitt Romney’s leadership, Bain Capital didn’t just close a Kansas City steel mill. “Like a vampire,” it “sucked the life” from the enterprise and those involved in it, according to a former worker whom the Obama campaign chose to showcase in a TV ad it ran on Wednesday night.

There’s a take-no-prisoners approach that does take prisoners: all of us, incarcerated in a system whose crippling partisanship is fueled in part by the hyperbolic language, bellicose tactics and Manichaean tone of candidates and their handlers.

And while there was slander aplenty in our politics past, it wasn’t amplified quite as loudly or spread quite as ferociously as it is by the fight club of today’s hyped-up news outlets, many of which run on the adrenaline of insults and recruit partisan voices to beckon partisan audiences. Turning to Fox News or the Daily Caller, unshakable conservatives can marinate in their contempt for liberals. Turning to MSNBC or the Daily Kos, unshakable liberals can repay the favor.

And the swing voters are turned off. Many of them recoil from meanness run amok and cynicism on steroids, which is why Ricketts’s redeployment of Wright would have been such folly. They want someone to make them feel calmer and more confident, not anxious and gross.

Worth noting: Rob Portman, the Ohio senator mentioned frequently these days as a front-runner for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, won his 2010 race, in a state whose other senator is a Democrat, by 18 points. Yes, it was an excellent year for Republicans, but not quite that excellent for all of them.

He didn’t do it with runaway charisma (though a financial advantage certainly helped). He did it in his steady, subdued manner. In fact the rap on him as a potential running mate for Romney is that he’s too boring.

Maybe so. But there are clearly voters out there who are interested in turning down the heat on our political discourse. Flamethrowers like Ricketts are the last thing they want. And the last thing we need.

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One Response to “The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni”

  1. Reginald van Gleason III Says:

    I’ve come to realize that the voices of Friedman and Brooks are made available to let us know what’s not going to happen. Someone at the Times says what’s on Tom’s mind. Oh that fool she utters. Put that to publication for a laugh. Let him crow.

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