Mr. Kristof is off today. The Pasty Little Putz is sure he knows all about “The Way We Fear Now.” He says we are confronting villains who lack political motivations, who are nihilists, who “just want to watch the world burn.” MoDo, in “Paterno Sacked Off His Pedestal,” says “Faust” comes to Beaver Stadium: A saint in cleats sells his soul to the devil. In “The Launching Pad” The Moustache of Wisdom says making America into the place everyone wants to go to create their start-up, their social movement — that is what the presidential campaign should really be about. The Moustache is so wise there’s even a web site where people ask him questions. Mr. Keller, in “Head For the Cliff,” says President Obama has real leverage before the fiscal cliff. Does he dare to use it? Mr. Bruni is looking ahead to the Olympics. In “Women’s Time to Shine” he says in London, men have no monopoly on guts and glory. Girl power gets its sweaty, sinewy due. Here’s the Putz:
The villains in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are distinctive, even by the standards of summer-movie bad guys, in that they seek nothing but destruction. Money does not sway them, political power does not interest them, and any ideological posturing — Bane, the villain in “The Dark Knight Rises,” poses for a time as a left-wing revolutionary — is a flag of convenience, a mask to be worn and then discarded. Some of these villains are lunatic moralists, for whom Armageddon is the purifying punishment that modern civilization deserves. Some of them are lunatic nihilists, men who (as Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, says of the Joker) “just want to watch the world burn.” Either way, they cannot be bargained with or reasoned with, and all they want from us is death.
Now Nolan’s fictional villains and a very real one will be forever intertwined, after James Holmes massacred moviegoers at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Mass murderers usually seek the spotlight, and by exploiting a cultural phenomenon that trades on our fears of precisely the kind of evil that he represents, Holmes fastened on a horrifyingly resonant way of solidifying his own notoriety.
In the process, his crime has probably also solidified the Batman movies’ status as a cultural touchstone for our era of anxiety. Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer (a literal mad scientist, most likely), from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan’s take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.
Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil — as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself — the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction’s sake. Calling Osama bin Laden’s terrorism “Islamist” or Timothy McVeigh’s terrorism “right wing” is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political — and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham’s destruction throughout Nolan’s Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.
Those older enemies — Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China — represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic. However brutal and depraved their systems, they embodied alternative models of how a political order might be structured, rather than a rejection of political order itself.
By vanquishing or outlasting them, we won a great victory for civilization. But we ushered in an era in which evil seems to take on a more elusive, almost elemental form. Instead of goose-stepping Nazis, it’s technology-hating recluses or furious young men with machine guns. Instead of supervillains seeking money or world domination, it’s the Joker with his head leaning out of a police car, howling as a city falls apart.
Nolan’s films are not the great art that some of their admirers imagine them to be, but they are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear. Their hero fights, not for truth, justice and the American Way, but for a more basic form of civilizational order: He knows his society — his Gotham, our America — is decadent and corrupt in many ways, but he also knows that the alternatives are almost infinitely worse.
The great allure of the superhero, of course, is that he has the tools necessary not only to fight the more elemental forms of evil, but also to pre-empt them: to sweep down, cape flying, whenever ordinary law enforcement fails to anticipate or reckon with a threat. Indeed, for all the famous grittiness and violence in the Batman movies, very few innocents perish on screen.
In real life, matters are tragically different. Yes, sometimes vigilantism saves the day; sometimes people working on the outskirts of the law can protect those of us who live within it; sometimes the law itself can prevent evil men from gaining the tools to wreak destruction.
But often, the most important defense of civilization takes place only after tragedy has struck, and innocents have perished. And the real heroes are neither police nor politicians nor an imaginary batsuited billionaire, but the people — whether in Columbine or Lower Manhattan or now Aurora, Colo. — who carry one another through the valley of the shadow of death, and by their conduct ensure that the Jokers and James Holmeses of the world win only temporary victories.
Next up is MoDo:
Is it right to pull down Joe Paterno’s statue, as though he were Saddam Hussein?
Since the scorching Freeh report came out, plenty of people have weighed in on the best thing to do with that triumphant seven-foot statue of the late coach, symbolizing nearly half a century of pride in Penn State football.
Should it be torn down? Melted down? Moved away from Beaver Stadium? Turned to look the other way, as Paterno did? Left as a reminder that coaches and athletes can be tin idols?
Even the sculptor, Angelo Di Maria, got into the fray, counseling patience. “Put a cover on it,” he said, and “let’s see how everyone feels in six months” or a year.
After a plane flew over the campus several days last week trailing a banner that said, “Take the statue down or we will,” some students set up camp to guard the monument from vandals. Others moved on, changing the name of their game-day tent city outside Beaver Stadium from Paternoville to Nittanyville.
Don Van Natta Jr., a senior writer for ESPN, wrote on Friday that the university’s trustees, worried that the N.C.A.A. might give the death penalty to the Penn State football program for its “loss of institutional control,” banning it for a year or more, had a “spirited” conference call on Thursday night, debating what to do with the statue.
“People want to kick Joe’s bones,” one board member complained to Van Natta. “It’s outrageous.” But trustees said that Penn State’s new president, Rodney Erickson, would soon decide.
If I were the Decider, I’d leave it up. But I’d put up another darkly alluring statue behind Paterno, whispering in his ear: Mephistopheles.
Jerry Sandusky is a sexual sociopath. When you looked into his eyes during his trial, as young men who had been raped by him as trusting boys cried and cringed on the stand, there was no emotion there, no shame.
Paterno is the tragic figure in the case, the man who went to church and taught his players “success with honor,” but succumbed to supporting depravity. His name was derived from the Latin word for father, and JoePa was the beloved paterfamilias of Happy Valley. So how did he crack his moral compass?
It’s the story of “Faust,” a morality play that unspools daily in politics, banking, sports and the Catholic Church. It has taken many artistic forms, from puppet theater to the Marlowe and Goethe plays to opera to a buoyant musical that was also a sports morality tale, “Damn Yankees,” about a middle-age real estate agent who sells his soul to be a slugger named “Shoeless Joe” Hardy for the Washington Senators.
Like Dr. Faust, Paterno was a learned man, an opera lover versed in the classics. A graduate of Brown University, JoePa was known for quoting Virgil and Shakespeare in his Brooklyn accent, and loved the Robert Browning line, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Certainly, he was grasping with both hands in January 2011. As Jo Becker reported in The Times, Paterno began negotiating to amend his contract and get a sweeter deal with luxury perks like use of the university’s private jet, even as prosecutors plumbed the depths of Sandusky’s pathological behavior.
In an interview in 1987, Thomas Ferraro of United Press International asked Paterno about his holier-than-thou image. A few skeptics said JoePa was an egotistical zealot who would do anything to win, Ferraro wrote, but most people idolized him as “the saint in black cleats of the often seamy world of college sports.”
Paterno replied: “It scares the heck out of me. Because I know I’m not that clean. Nobody is that clean.”
And it turned out he wasn’t. Louis Freeh, the former F.B.I. director who conducted the school’s investigation, found that despite the denials of Paterno and his family, the coach knew about a 1998 allegation that Sandusky had abused a child in the Penn State showers.
Since Paterno was the most powerful man on campus, he was being disingenuous when he said he did his duty by reporting Sandusky to top officials after Mike McQueary told him in 2001 that he had seen the slab of an assistant coach molesting a slight boy in the shower.
But Freeh learned the sulfurous truth: that it was Paterno who persuaded Graham Spanier, who was the university president, Gary Schultz, a vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, not to report Sandusky to state authorities. Eager to protect the brand and their cash cow, they decided to rationalize. Euphemistically, they said they wanted to do the “humane” thing; so they warned Sandusky to stop bringing children onto campus. As far as the noble coach was concerned, Sandusky could simply switch the venue of his child rapes.
Paterno, Freeh said, made “the worst mistake of his life,” committing the deadly sin of pride. After all those decades acting the part of a modest, moral man, he put his own reputation above the welfare of children. The saint in black cleats sold his soul, and Satan leads the dance.
Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:
I can remember bad presidential campaigns in good times and good campaigns in bad times, but it is hard to recall a worse campaign in a worse time. Mitt Romney’s campaign has been about nothing, and President Obama’s has been about Romney. I’m sure Obama’s attacks on Romney’s career at Bain Capital have hurt Romney, but they also seem to have hurt Obama — diverting him from offering a big optimistic message that says: here is the world we’re living in; here’s why my past policies were relevant; here’s where we’re going next; and here’s why it will work. The president is punching so below his weight. It’s like watching Tiger Woods playing Putt-Putt or Babe Ruth bunting. Obama is better than this.
In his interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News last Sunday, President Obama acknowledged that one of the biggest mistakes of his first term “was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. … That’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
I’d agree. Looking back, it always felt to me that Obama’s nomination was a hugely important radical act — the culmination of the civil rights movement. But his election happened because a majority of Americans thought he was the best man to do something else: revive, renew and rebuild America for the 21st century. Yet he never consistently explained himself in those terms.
His policies — like health care, saving the auto industry, raising mileage standards and “Race to the Top” in education — were discrete initiatives in the right direction, but each was fought separately, often in Congressional cloakrooms, and never synthesized into a whole that voters could fully appreciate or be inspired to get out of their chairs to support. His campaign today is the same.
Is there an integrated set of policies, and a narrative, that could animate, inspire and tie together an Obama second term? I think there is. (I first explored this theme in a recent book I co-authored with Michael Mandelbaum.) And it’s this: America should be for the 21st-century world what Cape Canaveral was for America in the 1960s. Cape Canaveral was the launching pad for our one national moon shot. It was a hugely inspiring project that drove scientific research, innovation, education and manufacturing. But we’re not going to have a national moon shot again.
Instead, Obama should aspire to make America the launching pad where everyone everywhere should want to come to launch their own moon shot, their own start-up, their own social movement. We can’t stimulate or tax-cut our way to growth. We have to invent our way there. The majority of new jobs every year are created by start-ups. The days when Ford or G.E. came to town with 10,000 jobs are over. Their factories are much more automated today, and their products are made in global supply chains. Instead, we need 2,000 people in every town each starting something that employs five people.
We need everyone starting something! Therefore, we should aspire to be the world’s best launching pad because our work force is so productive; our markets the freest and most trusted; our infrastructure and Internet bandwidth the most advanced; our openness to foreign talent second to none; our funding for basic research the most generous; our rule of law, patent protection and investment-friendly tax code the envy of the world; our education system unrivaled; our currency and interest rates the most stable; our environment the most pristine; our health care system the most efficient; and our energy supplies the most secure, clean and cost-effective.
No, we are not all those things today — but building America into this launching pad for more start-ups is precisely what an Obama second term should be about, so more Americans can thrive in a world we invented. If we can make America the best place to dream something, design something, start something, collaborate with others on something and manufacture something — in an age in which every link in that chain can now be done in so many more places — our workers and innovators will do just fine.
But a narrative is not just a business plan. It has to be infused with values, and, in our case, the most obvious is “sustainability,” which doesn’t simply mean “green” or “no growth.” It means behaving responsibly in the market and with Mother Nature so we can have growth that lasts. What “freedom” was for our parents’ generation, “sustainability” has to be for ours. If we do not bring sustainable values to our banking systems and ecosystems, we are going to end up more “unfree” than if the communists had won the cold war — because without sustainable practices, repeated crises in the market and Mother Nature will impose more limitations on our way life than anything the Soviets ever could have.
Weave it together and you have a narrative worthy of America in the 21st century, one that ties together the new world in which we’re living with our traditional strengths and a set of policies for enhancing them. Others will have different ideas. Bring ’em on! Campaigns are a time for arguments — but arguments about the right things.
And now we’ll be treated to Mr. Keller:
Washington is so immobilized by partisan rancor that those of us who crave a little common sense find it hard to ward off despair. Whether you blame Republican cynicism, Democratic fecklessness or presidential disengagement, it is now a given that Washington has become a sludge pit of dysfunction.
Exhibit A, of course, is the hapless quest for a grand budget bargain. Talk to any credible economist, wire any serious politician to a polygraph, and you will hear at least 80 percent agreement on what is to be done: investment to goose the lackluster recovery and rebuild our infrastructure, entitlement reforms and spending discipline to lower the debt, and a tax code that lets the government pay its way without stifling business, punishing the middle class or rewarding sleight of hand. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission assembled a grand bargain that does most of this.
Of course, in this Washington, in this election year, there is no chance of accomplishing anything constructive, right? So crisis be damned, let’s scream about Romney’s outsourcing and whether Obama hates capitalism.
But President Obama has a bold option at hand, should he choose to use it. And some of his fellow Democrats are starting to warm to the idea. It has been called the nuclear option and likened to falling off a cliff. It is widely regarded as a possible catastrophe. In fact, it may be our best hope.
In January, two fiscal time bombs planted by Congress are due to explode. On Jan. 1, all the Bush tax cuts expire, constituting a $400-billion-plus tax hike in 2013. The next day — unless Congress agrees on a major deficit-reduction plan — a fiscal discipline known as sequestration will slash about $100 billion a year from federal spending, divided between defense and nondefense.
Blanket repeal of the tax cuts and across-the-board spending reductions are both pretty bad ideas. Taken together they are a kind of grotesque, automated austerity program. Lawmakers of both parties are desperately seeking ways to evade some of the consequences. Republicans are more focused on sparing the defense budget, and Democrats are pressing to preserve the middle-class tax cuts.
For months now, Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton chief of staff and a co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles commission, has been quietly proposing that Obama treat the January Armageddon as an opportunity. The president should head straight for the cliff and let Congress know he’s prepared to take us over the edge unless they build a bridge.
In other words: President Obama should declare now that unless Congressional leaders come up with a serious bargain on fiscal reform, something very like Simpson-Bowles, he will allow all of the Bush tax breaks to lapse and all of the draconian cuts to take effect.
Assuming no deal is consummated in the poisonous pre-election climate, he should insist on a lame-duck session after Election Day. He should invite Congressional leaders to Camp David, put Simpson-Bowles on the table, and negotiate — not a lot, since the plan already includes considerable compromise, but enough to show good will. If no deal emerges, all the Democrats have to do is take a page from the Republican playbook: dig in their heels and do nothing.
The best case (Bowles is optimistic, I’m a little less so) is that the lame-duck session passes a bipartisan plan that actually helps the country out of its enduring recession. Worst case, the president and his party seize the moral high ground and shape the economic debate around a plan that would be both wise and popular. When the tax breaks expire and the robo-cuts go into effect, the next Congress and president, whichever party prevails, will be forced to face the subject with real urgency. Lawmakers will be under siege from legions of constituents, and the markets, demanding an end to stalemate.
Moreover, as Jonathan Weisman pointed out in The Times the other day, after Armageddon the issues on the table would no longer be the perilous business of raising taxes and cutting spending, but the opposite: cutting taxes (at least some of them) and restoring spending (at least some of it).
Republicans will howl that this is blackmail, a priceless complaint from the party that periodically threatens to let America default on its debt.
But does Obama have it in him? This is the kind of tactic Lyndon Johnson would have employed with relish. You can imagine Bill Clinton pulling it off. President Obama, whether out of diffidence or inexperience, has not shown a comparable audacity or mastery of political leverage.
Well, here’s his chance to show us what we can expect if he’s re-elected: fruitful leadership, or another four years of gridlock.
Bear in mind this dude was the Managing Editor of the newspaper of record… Last but not least Mr. Bruni:
Her squeaky voice, elfin mien and the inevitable “Saturday Night Live” caricature of both ended up stealing some attention from what she’d pulled off, but make no mistake: Kerri Strug was heroic.
Remember those Olympics? Atlanta in 1996? With the United States women’s gymnastics team closing in on a hard-fought gold medal, Strug was told that she needed to vault one last time, even though the legacy of the vault she’d just bungled was a limp and serious pain in her left leg.
So she did. Sprinted toward the apparatus, repeatedly pounding and digging that leg into the gym floor. Shot like a missile through the air, somehow blotting out the certain misery that awaited her plummet back to earth. Nailed a steady, near-perfect landing, by shifting the load of it onto the one good leg. And held off her howl of agony until she’d pantomimed the ecstasy — puffed chest, ear-to-ear smile — that the judges prefer and expect to see.
It remains one of the most unforgettable moments in recent Olympics history. And it belonged not to some lavishly muscled gladiator or long-limbed merman but to an 18-year-old woman who stood just 4-foot-9, weighed under 90 pounds and must have established a world record for grit per volume.
There’s much to savor in the quadrennial spectacle of the Olympics, which will begin in London next weekend, but perhaps nothing more exhilarating than the way it showcases and celebrates the athleticism of women almost as much as it does the athleticism of men.
That’s hardly the norm in this world. Or this country.
Four decades after the passage of Title IX and a stated national determination to create, in publicly financed educational institutions, as many athletic opportunities for women as for men, high schools and colleges indeed do a better job of investing in, and promoting, women’s sports.
But in the realm of professional athletics and the sorts of televised competitions that turn the best athletes into mini-industries, women still lag far behind.
In tennis arenas, sure, Serena Williams can elicit the kind of fascination that Roger Federer does, just as Steffi Graf achieved a renown comparable to that of her future husband, Andre Agassi.
But women’s professional golf has nowhere near the following of men’s. And of the Big Four pro sports for men — football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball — only basketball has an analogous women’s league, which doesn’t have an analogous commercial heft.
Then come the Olympics, a sporting event as raptly watched as any other, with the ability to bestow fame and lucre on the victors, and much of this disparity collapses. Girl power gets its sweaty, sinewy due.
Newsweek recently anchored its Olympics preview package with a long profile not of one of the competition’s expected male standouts but of one of its expected female ones: Hope Solo, the goalie for the American women’s formidable soccer team. Solo also appeared on the magazine’s cover. Although the latest stab at a women’s professional soccer league in the United States failed two months ago, women’s soccer will be front and center at the Olympics. And London could turn Solo and her teammate Abby Wambach into sponsor-coveted superstars.
Women’s volleyball is as closely watched as men’s. Ditto for women’s track and field. Has there been a male runner from the past few decades who enjoyed any more name recognition than Florence Griffith Joyner? She could be conjured in two syllables. Just say Flo-Jo.
By a few measurements and in a few instances the Olympics turns the usual gender imbalance on its head. This year, for the first time, the American contingent of athletes comprises more women (269) than men (261).
While we field a men’s gymnastics team every four years, the women routinely eclipse it. They tend to stack up better against other countries’ squads, and glory trumps gender in the allocation of Olympics airtime.
Our women gymnasts are again in the hunt for a team gold this year, and they’re a fierce crew. I watched their qualifying trials, during which a few of the aspirants who didn’t make the team took ghastly, brutal falls from the uneven parallel bars. In response, they brushed themselves off and resumed whirling, each dizzying spin a new invitation to injury. And we debate whether women are tough enough for combat?
At the Olympics we liberate them from the straitjackets of convention and conformity that we too often ask them to wear. We acknowledge that female glory takes many forms.
The London Games will feature the debut of women’s boxing; the United States has a boxer representing us in each of the three weight categories.
We have a female weight lifter, Holley Mangold, who is 350 pounds, all of it pure character. To read about her is to fall in love with her self-effacement, her self-acceptance, her wit. “I get a lot of Creepy McCreepersons interested in me because I’m so big it’s not normal, it’s like a fetish,” she told Elizabeth Weil, who wrote a profile of her recently for The New York Times Magazine. “And I don’t like to sit outside. Not because I don’t like to be outside, but usually there are plastic chairs. Once you break a couple plastic chairs, you’re afraid of them all.”
I wish we had Dara Torres, 45, who missed qualifying for the swimming team by only .09 seconds. But her medal-winning appearances in five previous Games — starting in 1984, when she was 17, and ending in 2008, when she was 41 and a mother — gave her an Olympics longevity unmatched by any swimmer of any gender.
And we can root instead for Missy Franklin, 17, who set an American women’s swimming record by qualifying for seven events. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will have to make room in the poolside spotlight for her.
That’s important not because of any vague, reflexive political correctness but because saluting women’s athletic achievements encourages their athletic pursuits, which can impart invaluable life lessons: about teamwork, tenacity, sacrifice, conviction. Women deserve the same access to those as men. Women also deserve credit.
In one of the many interviews Kerri Strug gave after her Olympics, she lamented the widely stated worry that she and other female gymnasts were unduly imperiling themselves. “If it’s a boy, it’s fine, he’s tough,” she said. “When it’s a gymnast, we’re being abused and ruining our bodies.”
Her point was that she was calling her own shots, taking her own risks and tapping a strength not to be underestimated. In London, we’ll be seeing, and cheering, a whole lot of that.