Mr. Blow is off today. In “A 21st Century Islam” Mr. Cohen says a religion that is also a political movement must accept contestation and ridicule. Mr. Nocera has a question: “Has Apple Peaked?” He says the nasty glitch in the iPhone 5 suggests that the law of big companies even applies to the most valuable one in America. In “The Polar Express” Ms. Collins says there’s so much work for Congress to get done and so little time before going home to run for re-election. Everything’s exciting, people! Here’s Mr. Cohen:
The Muslim world cannot have it both ways. It cannot place Islam at the center of political life — and in extreme cases political violence — while at the same time declaring that the religion is off-limits to contestation and ridicule.
Islam is one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Of them it is the youngest by several centuries and, perhaps for that reason, the most fervid and turbulent. It is also, in diverse forms, a political movement, reference and inspiration.
Politics is a rough-and-tumble game. If the emergent Islamic parties of nations in transition — like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia — are to honor the terms of democratic governance they will have to concede that they have no monopoly on truth, that the prescriptions of Islam are malleable and debatable, and that significant currents in their societies have different convictions and even faiths.
The past couple of weeks have been discouraging. Nobody expects a U.S. standard of freedom of speech to be adopted — or even fully understood — in these societies; they will set their own political and cultural frameworks inspired by a still fervent desire to escape from despotism, whether secular or theocratic, and by the central place of faith.
But the failure in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to control violent mobs of Salafis enraged by mockery in America and Europe of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad suggests an unacceptable ambivalence: The rule of law here on earth must override divine indignation.
The world has tried Islamic republics. It found them oxymoronic. As Iran illustrates, they don’t work: Republican institutions, shaped by the wishes of men and women, fall victim to the Islamic superstructure, supposedly shaped by God.
The great challenge of the Arab Spring is to prove that, as in Turkey, parties of Islamic inspiration can embrace a modern pluralism and so usher their societies from a culture of grievance and victimhood to one of creativity and agency.
Just how deep the grievances remain in the Arab world — over loss of power, economic stagnation, colonial intrusion, Western wars and Israel — has been clear in the latest eruption. Change will be slow.
But it is coming: These societies will not return to tyranny. The West has an overwhelming strategic interest in supporting transitions that offer the youth of the Arab world opportunity: Egypt now dwarfs Afghanistan in its importance to fighting Islamic extremism.
But the West will not do so by compromising its own values. The porn-grade American movie that started the unrest was pitiful. The murderous violence that followed from Cairo to Benghazi was criminal. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, then had a strong editorial case for mocking the religious fundamentalism that produced the killing; it chose to do so through caricatures of Muhammad.
Gérard Biard, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, put the case well: “We’re a newspaper that respects French law. Now, if there’s a law that is different in Kabul or Riyadh, we’re not going to bother ourselves with respecting it.” Alluding to all the violence, Biard asked: “Are we supposed to not do that news?”
He is right. There are too many hypocrisies in Islam — deploring attacks on it while often casting scorn on Judaism and Christianity, claiming the mantle of peace while inspiring violence — for it to expect to be spared the cartoonist’s arrows.
The video insulting Muhammad reflected the visceral Islamophobia of its authors. Charlie Hebdo was driven by a different agenda: the refusal to be cowed by a spate of atavistic Islamist religious violence.
Still, I defend the right of the video’s authors even if I loathe what they produced. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio decision, overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who had menaced political officials with violence, saying that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force.” As Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian, “Obviously, if the state cannot suppress speech even where it explicitly advocates violence, then it cannot suppress a video on the ground that it implicitly incites violence.”
The rich maelstrom of ideas in the United States is inextricably tied to this fundamental freedom. It cannot be compromised.
As for the new leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the great mass of moderate Muslims, they might recall the words of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri protesting the stolen Iranian election of 2009 — an example of God’s supposed will imposed over the will of the people:
“A characteristic of a strong and legitimate government — Islamic or not — is that it is capable of respecting all opinions, whether they support it or oppose it. This is necessary for any political system, in order to embrace all social classes and encourage them to participate in the affairs of their nation, and not dismiss and repulse them.”
Montazeri fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini because his Iranian theocracy was incapable of “respecting all opinions.” Decades on, in this Arab awakening, that challenge remains for political Islam.
Next up is Mr. Nocera:
As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products. The last time Apple released a truly substandard product — MobileMe, in 2008 — Jobs gathered the team into an auditorium, berated them mercilessly and then got rid of the team leader in front of everybody, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. The three devices that made Apple the most valuable company in America — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all genuine innovations that forced every other technology company to play catch-up.
No doubt, the iPhone 5, which went on sale on Friday, will be another hit. Apple’s halo remains powerful. But there is nothing about it that is especially innovative. Plus, of course, it has that nasty glitch. In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.
And maybe that’s all it is — a mistake, soon to be fixed. But it is just as likely to turn out to be the canary in the coal mine. Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.
Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn’t there anymore. It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man’s brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. While he was alive, that was a strength; now it’s a weakness. Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.
But there is also a less obvious — yet possibly more important — reason that Apple’s best days may soon be behind it. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.
Fifteen years later, Apple has a hugely profitable business model to defend — and a lot to lose. Companies change when that happens. “The business model becomes a gilded cage, and management won’t do anything to challenge it, while doing everything they can to protect it,” says Larry Keeley, an innovation strategist at Doblin, a consulting firm.
It happens in every industry, but it is especially easy to see in technology because things move so quickly. It was less than 15 years ago that Microsoft appeared to be invincible. But once its Windows operating system and Office applications became giant moneymakers, Microsoft’s entire strategy became geared toward protecting its two cash cows. It ruthlessly used its Windows platform to promote its own products at the expense of rivals. (The Microsoft antitrust trial took dead aim at that behavior.) Although Microsoft still makes billions, its new products are mainly “me-too” versions of innovations made by other companies.
Now it is Apple’s turn to be king of the hill — and, not surprisingly, it has begun to behave in a very similar fashion. You can see it in the patent litigation against Samsung, a costly and counterproductive exercise that has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with protecting its turf.
And you can see it in the decision to replace Google’s map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new, instead of milking the old. Just ask BlackBerry, which once reigned supreme in the smartphone market but is now roadkill for Apple and Samsung.
Even before Jobs died, Apple was becoming a company whose main goal was to defend its business model. Yes, he would never have allowed his minions to ship such an embarrassing application. But despite his genius, it is unlikely he could have kept Apple from eventually lapsing into the ordinary. It is the nature of capitalism that big companies become defensive, while newer rivals emerge with better, smarter ideas.
“Oh my god,” read one Twitter message I saw. “Apple maps is the worst ever. It is like using MapQuest on a BlackBerry.”
MapQuest and BlackBerry.
Whatever… Here’s Ms. Collins:
This is the season of Extreme Politics. Everything’s exciting. Mitt Romney paid taxes! Joe Biden just bought a 36-pound pumpkin! Paul Ryan is campaigning with his mom again!
Oh, and Congress is ready to go home to run for re-election. I know you were wondering.
“I haven’t had anybody in West Virginia tell me we should hurry home to campaign,” protested Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
This might be because Manchin is approximately 40 points ahead in the polls. He could probably spend the next month in a fallout shelter without anybody noticing. Nevertheless, he is so fearful of alienating conservatives that he refuses to say who has his support for president. There are only about five undecided voters left in this country and one of them is a senator from West Virginia.
The good news is that our lawmakers spent their last pre-election days in Washington working to pass a bill that would keep the government running for the next six months. This is sometimes referred to as a “continuing resolution,” and sometimes as “kicking the can down the road.” Personally, I am pretty relieved to see evidence that this group has the capacity to kick a can.
Let’s look at what else they were up to. This is important, partly because the last things you take up before going back to the voters shows something about your true priorities. Also partly because it will give me a chance to mention legislation involving 41 polar bear carcasses in Canadian freezers.
The Senate had a big agenda for its finale. Kicking the budget can down the road! Passing a resolution on Iran designed to demonstrate total support for whatever it is Israel thinks is a good idea! The Sportsmen’s Act!
O.K., the last one was sort of unexpected. It’s a bunch of hunting-and-fishing proposals, ranging from conservation to “allowing states to issue electronic duck stamps.” Also, allowing “polar bear trophies to be imported from a sport hunt in Canada.” A long while ago, some Americans legally hunted down said bears, happily envisioning the day when they could display a snarling head on the study wall, or perhaps stuff the entire carcass and stick it in the front hallway where it could perpetually rear on its hind legs, frightening away census-takers.
But then the United States prohibited the importation of dead polar bears, and there have been 41 bear carcasses stuck in Canadian freezers ever since.
Free the frozen polar bears! Well, not before November, since the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, dug in his heels, claiming the whole hunting bill was only coming up to help its main sponsor, Jon Tester of Montana, in a tight race. McConnell, who publicly set his own top policy priority as making sure Barack Obama didn’t get re-elected, hates naked partisanship.
The House, meanwhile, declined to take up two major bipartisan bills from the Senate. One was the farm bill, which Speaker John Boehner admitted he just couldn’t get his right wing to vote for despite pleas from endangered rural Republicans.
The other was aimed at reviving the teetering U.S. Postal Service, which is about to default again. “I hear from our Republican colleagues they didn’t want to force their folks to make difficult votes,” said Tom Carper, a lead Senate sponsor.
Really, there’s no excuse on this one. By the time a difficult issue has been turned into a bipartisan Senate bill, it’s no longer all that difficult. People, if you see a member of the House majority campaigning in your neighborhood, demand to know why the Postal Service didn’t get fixed.
Although on the plus side, the House did agree that the space astronauts should be allowed to keep some flight souvenirs.
One thing virtually nobody in the Senate considered a pre-election priority was spending hours and hours arguing about a proposal from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to eliminate foreign aid to Libya, Pakistan and Egypt. However, in the grand tradition of the upper chamber, Paul had the power to hold up the crucial kicking-the-can bill hostage by threatening a filibuster if he didn’t get his way.
“He can keep us here for a week and a half if we don’t let him bring it up,” grumbled Senator Charles Schumer.
Rand Paul does this sort of thing all the time. Who among us can forget when he stalled the renewal of federal flood insurance under the theory that the Senate first needed to vote on whether life started at conception?
The majority leader, Harry Reid, pointed out repeatedly that he has had to struggle with 382 filibusters during his six years at the helm. “That’s 381 more filibusters than Lyndon Johnson faced,” he complained. Obviously, Robert Caro is never going to write a series of grand biographies about the life of Harry Reid.
It’s a wonder anything ever gets done. Although, actually, it generally doesn’t.
Well, Gail, we don’t actually KNOW that Mittens paid taxes. We know that he told us he did. Why won’t he prove it by releasing his returns?