Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo has discovered his Inner Deadhead and has decided to tell us all about it.  In “The Power of the Particular” he gurgles that Bruce Springsteen’s appeal is a reminder of our deeply human need to experience and express meaning within the bounded framework of a place, a people and a history.  Of course, being a proper groupie, he and some friends decided to follow Springsteen all around Spain and France.  Maybe he made some new friends he can share his vast spaces for entertaining with…  Mr. Nocera says “Suspense Is Over in Madoff Case,” and that it’s clawback time for the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme as the big banks are allowed to walk away from the fraud.  In “Captain America?” Mr. Bruni says although at the helm of the ship of state, the president is just a passenger like the rest of us.  Silly Frank — everyone knows that Obama is personally to blame whenever anything goes wrong…  Here’s Bobo Teh Groupie:

They say you’ve never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you’ve seen one in Europe, so some friends and I threw financial sanity to the winds and went to follow him around Spain and France. In Madrid, for example, we were rewarded with a show that lasted 3 hours and 48 minutes, possibly the longest Springsteen concert on record and one of the best. But what really fascinated me were the crowds.

Springsteen crowds in the U.S. are hitting their AARP years, or deep into them. In Europe, the fans are much younger. The passion among the American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish. The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher. The Europeans produce an outpouring of noise and movement that sometimes overshadows what’s happening onstage.

Here were audiences in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula singing word for word about Highway 9 or Greasy Lake or some other exotic locale on the Jersey Shore. They held up signs requesting songs from the deepest and most distinctly American recesses of Springsteen’s repertoire.

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!”

Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.? How was it that so many people in such a faraway place can be so personally committed to the deindustrializing landscape from New Jersey to Nebraska, the world Springsteen sings about? How is it they can be so enraptured at the mere mention of the Meadowlands or the Stone Pony, an Asbury Park, N.J., nightclub?

My best theory is this: When we are children, we invent these detailed imaginary worlds that the child psychologists call “paracosms.” These landscapes, sometimes complete with imaginary beasts, heroes and laws, help us orient ourselves in reality. They are structured mental communities that help us understand the wider world.

We carry this need for paracosms into adulthood. It’s a paradox that the artists who have the widest global purchase are also the ones who have created the most local and distinctive story landscapes. Millions of people around the world are ferociously attached to Tupac Shakur’s version of Compton or J.K. Rowling’s version of a British boarding school or Downton Abbey’s or Brideshead Revisited’s version of an Edwardian estate.

Millions of people know the contours of these remote landscapes, their typical characters, story lines, corruptions and challenges. If you build a passionate and highly localized moral landscape, people will come.

Over the years, Springsteen built his own paracosm, with its own collection of tramps, factory closings, tortured Catholic overtones and moments of rapturous escape. This construction project took an act of commitment.

The most interesting moment of Springsteen’s career came after the success of “Born to Run.” It would have been natural to build on that album’s success, to repeat its lush, wall-of-sound style, to build outward from his New Jersey base and broaden his appeal. Instead, Springsteen went deeper into his roots and created “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which is more localized, more lonely and more spare.

That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted. Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition, and now you’ve got young adults filling stadiums, knowing every word to songs written 20 years before they were born, about places they’ll never see.

It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.

(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)

The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Monday morning, as the Supreme Court was issuing its big ruling on the Arizona immigration law — and prolonging the suspense on its Affordable Care Act decision — it also quietly decided to end the suspense for the victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. Without comment, the court declined to hear a case about which Madoff victims should be compensated and which should not.

Practically from the moment that Irving Picard became the Madoff trustee, he took the position that his job was to get money back for the “net losers” — that is, those who put more into the Madoff fraud than they took out. He planned to do so, in part, by “clawing back” money from the net winners, who took out more than they put in.

Not surprisingly, lawyers for the net winners sued. But, in the lower courts, Picard’s argument held sway, and the Supreme Court saw no reason to wade into the matter.

I have argued that Picard’s method is the fairest way to treat the Madoff victims. After all, the net winners’ gains came from the pockets of the net losers. That’s how a Ponzi scheme works. If you buy a stolen watch, and its real owner wants it back, don’t you have an obligation to return it?

Yet it is hard not to feel sympathy for the net winners. For many of them, their Madoff accounts represented their life savings. To discover that it was all an illusion was crushing. It seems doubly cruel that they should now have to give some of it back. They feel punished for someone else’s crime.

Still, in all the fighting between net winners and net losers, what tends to get overlooked is that the big boys — the “deep pockets” who could actually afford to compensate the Madoff victims — are being allowed to walk away from the fraud.

Early on, the trustee made an enormous effort to investigate the roles of HSBC, JPMorgan Chase and other financial institutions that were in one way or another linked to the Madoff fraud. (JPMorgan was Madoff’s banker, for instance.) It found various HSBC due diligence reports, to cite one example, that clearly showed bank executives declining to look too deeply into Madoff — even though internally they had acknowledged that his returns were too good to be true.

At one point, the trustee had up to $100 billion worth of lawsuits, most of them against some of the biggest financial firms in the world. But those cases are starting to be tossed out of court. Though the trustee is appealing, the odds of him gaining a reversal — and thus being able to claw back from Madoff’s enablers — are not high.

The crux of the problem is a longstanding legal doctrine called in pari delicto. What it essentially means is that “thieves can’t sue thieves,” says Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University who writes about white-collar crime for DealBook in The Times.

That’s all well and good, I suppose, except that in the view of the law, Irving Picard is a thief. Even though he is trying to get money back for victims, the fact that he is representing the Madoff estate in bankruptcy court means that, in the eyes of the law, he is standing in the shoes of a very bad man. So when he alleges that the big banks played a role in the fraud, he has no legal standing to do so, the courts have ruled. A thief can’t sue a thief.

Nor is Madoff the only time in pari dilecto has been trotted out in recent years. According to Frederick Feldkamp, a retired lawyer who has dug into its implications, it has become a common tactic to shield lawyers, accountants, banks and other enablers of fraud that winds up in bankruptcy court. “It’s being used everywhere,” he told me. Bankruptcy trustees can’t overcome the hurdle it poses, and thus are stuck with clawing back money from victims.

If Picard can’t sue the big banks for wrongdoing in the Madoff case, then who can? You might think the answer would be the Madoff victims themselves. When Colleen McMahon, a federal judge, threw out Picard’s lawsuit against JPMorgan last year, she suggested that, indeed, only the victims had the standing to sue.

Sure enough, a group of Madoff victims decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the bank. Guess what. It’s probably not going anywhere either — thanks to a law, passed in the mid-1990s, that drastically limits the ability to sue companies for securities fraud.

You can’t blame the judges for making these rulings. They are doing what the law plainly tells them to do. But it does make you wonder who the law is supposed to serve: huge institutions that can hide behind legal niceties, or victims of fraud.

Sadly, these days, the answer seems obvious.

Oh, please Mr. Nocera.  We live in the age of Citizens United.  Don’t be naive.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

The most powerful office on earth?

Tell that to Barack Obama as he waits this week to learn the fate of his landmark health care legislation, achieved through such fierce effort, meant to be a cornerstone of his legacy, and now utterly out of his hands.

Or as he watches the unfolding debt crisis in Europe, which could capsize the American economy between now and Election Day. He has minimal sway over how European leaders handle it. He has everything to lose if the job is botched.

Each month he braces for new Labor Department jobs numbers, knowing that his actions at this stage can’t influence them much before November and knowing, at the same time, that they could save or doom him.

On most fronts and in many ways, his presidency right now is an exercise in hoping and in holding his breath. He attained the most formidable station in the world only to experience a flimsy degree of control.

He’s hardly the first president to cross into this cruel limbo, where every hiccup in the domestic economy and spasm abroad is a potential death knell — or a mercy.

But how many presidents, at least in recent decades, have known something precisely like the Supreme Court’s possible erasure of the Affordable Care Act? How many have confronted a Congress this wholly paralyzed by partisan rancor and this steadfastly unyielding?

How many have done so after such an accelerated and charmed political prelude, during which they exerted such control over their own narratives?

While most politicians write their stories once they’ve laid some claim to the spotlight and are already operating in its skeptical glare, Obama did so years in advance, setting the stage long before he strode onto it. The first edition of “Dreams From My Father,” a framing device for the campaigns and speeches to come, was published in 1995. He wasn’t even an Illinois state senator yet.

It was an act of careful and considered self-definition, and with the publication of David Maraniss’s new biography of Obama earlier this month, we learned just how careful and considered. Obama tailored characters to suit his themes and invented a few details of his family’s past, saying that a step-grandfather was killed in combat against Dutch troops in Indonesia when he really, according to Maraniss, died in a fall from a chair as he hung drapes.

One of the most widely cited observations in Maraniss’s biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” is that he had a “determination to avoid life’s traps.” He refused to let circumstances box him in; craved room to maneuver; kept his options open. In college he floated between cultures and political and social groups, studiously avoiding commitment. In the Illinois State Senate, he stood out in part for the frequency with which he voted “present” rather than yea or nay. He wouldn’t be pinned or pigeonholed.

And now? He’s beholden to lawmakers’ whims, buffeted by global winds, as much a spectator as an agent of the most important developments around him, a leader of the free world who follows the news like the rest of us. Against Obama’s wishes and will, his attorney general is investigated and excoriated by a House panel. His jobs bill languishes. Egypt charts a once unexpected course, electing an Islamist president. The Syrian government pursues a bloody crackdown against its people, ignoring the Obama administration’s protests.

At times he looks dazed, and flails. To focus his economic message, he gave an unfocused 54-minute speech on the apparent theory that the more sentences in the mix, the greater the odds of a keeper.

Less than a week later, he stepped up to a lectern at the end of a conference of world leaders in Mexico and rambled some more, whatever particular point he intended to highlight getting lost in a wonky, windy tutorial on the European economy. He stammered. Sputtered. Slowed down to the point where he almost went into oratorical reverse.

Much has been made of his recent executive decision regarding young illegal immigrants as an act of sheer political calculation. It may well be. But I wonder if there wasn’t an emotional motivation as well — if he wasn’t trying to find one small patch of ground on which he could have his unchallenged say and way.

Because the hell of his situation is its amalgam of full responsibility for so much and impotence in the face of most of it. I suppose that’s long been one definition of the presidency, but it has seldom fit as well as now. In the twilight of his first term, Obama is learning how unscripted history ultimately is. A second term may hinge on the nifty trick, not yet mastered, of projecting more command than he actually wields.

 

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