The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

Oh, dear Lord…  The Pasty Little Putz thinks he has the solution to the nation’s ills.  In “More Babies, Please” he babbles that America has had a demographic advantage, but that is no longer a sure thing.  Apparently it’s “decadent” to be childless, so we’re all supposed to get out there and BREED.  (As an aside, Mr. Putzy is an outspoken rabid convert to Roman Catholicism, and we all know their position on contraception.  He and his wife married in 2007 and didn’t produce a child until 2011.  So I guess they were chaste for 4 years…)  MoDo is using her column to create a mash-up of one of her odes to film and her loathing of Hillary Clinton, Obama and Susan Rice.  She has a question in “Spellbound By Blondes, Hot and Icy:”  What would Alfred Hitchcock make of Carrie Mathison and Hillary Clinton?  She really needs to take 6 or 7 Valium.  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Syria.  In “Letter From Syria” he says a walk along the Orontes River reveals the crosscurrents of the civil war.  In “Dear President Clinton” Mr. Bruni says to make amends for DOMA, Bill Clinton should be a much bigger part of the country’s march toward same-sex marriage.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

In the eternally recurring debates about whether some rival great power will knock the United States off its global perch, there has always been one excellent reason to bet on a second American century: We have more babies than the competition.

It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birthrate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.

America’s demographic edge has a variety of sources: our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), our willingness to welcome immigrants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the native-born).

And it clearly is an edge. Today’s babies are tomorrow’s taxpayers and workers and entrepreneurs, and relatively youthful populations speed economic growth and keep spending commitments affordable. Thanks to our relative demographic dynamism, the America of 50 years hence may not only have more workers per retiree than countries like Japan and Germany, but also have more than emerging powers like China and Brazil.

If, that is, our dynamism persists. But that’s no longer a sure thing. American fertility plunged with the stock market in 2008, and it hasn’t recovered. Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birthrates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in recent memory, Americans are having fewer babies than the French or British.

The plunge might be temporary. American fertility plummeted during the Great Depression, and more recent downturns have produced modest dips as well. This time, the birthrate has fallen fastest among foreign-born Americans, and particularly among Hispanics, who saw huge amounts of wealth evaporate with the housing bust. Many people may simply be postponing childbearing until better times return, and a few years of swift growth could produce a miniature baby boom.

But deeper forces than the financial crisis may keep American fertility rates depressed. Foreign-born birthrates will probably gradually recover from their current nadir, but with fertility in decline across Mexico and Latin America, it isn’t clear that the United States can continue to rely heavily on immigrant birthrates to help drive population growth.

Among the native-born working class, meanwhile, there was a retreat from child rearing even before the Great Recession hit. For Americans without college degrees, economic instability and a shortage of marriageable men seem to be furthering two trends in tandem: more women are having children out of wedlock, and fewer are raising families at all.

Finally, there’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

More broadly, a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.

He’s just unbelievable…  Now hold onto your hats, because here’s MoDo’s rant:

Alfred Hitchcock was a bit of a sadist.

Certainly, the master of the dark side had “a murderous fascination with blondes,” as the British Film Institute once noted in a tribute.

And now comes Hollywood’s murderous fascination with Hitchcock’s murderous fascination.

HBO’s “The Girl” depicts the making of “The Birds” and “Marnie,” with Toby Jones playing Hitch and Sienna Miller playing Tippi Hedren, fighting off rapacious birds and rapacious director at the same time.

In theaters, “Hitchcock,” with Anthony Hopkins as the auteur and Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, depicts the making of “Psycho,” with Scarlett Johansson taking Janet Leigh’s place in the shower to be stabbed by that crazed mama’s boy Norman Bates. (The long-suffering Alma at one point erupts at her husband about his glittering fixation, snapping that she is “not one of the contract blondes you badger and torment with your oh-so specific direction.”)

Next spring, A&E will run “Bates Motel,” a prequel series to “Psycho,” featuring a young, creepy Norman, with Vera Farmiga as his (blond) mother.

Why the fresh fascination with the man with the famous profile? Perhaps the more Hollywood churns out rancid movies, the more it appreciates Hitch, who never got an Oscar. (“They take sadistic pleasure in denying me that one little moment,” Hopkins’s Hitchcock says.)

When he was asked about plot construction, the martini-dry director would echo the advice of the 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou: “Torture the women!” And the Brit would slyly observe: “Blondes make the best victims.”

Hitchcock’s fetish for “Nordic” women, as he called them, started in his 1927 silent film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” about a Jack-the-Ripper-style lunatic. He had his brunet lead actress don a blond wig, and he made all the serial killer’s victims blondes.

As Donald Spoto wrote in his book “Spellbound by Beauty,” Hitch preferred blondes because he saw them as “easier and more dramatic to photograph in monochrome, and he considered their ‘coolness’ and elegance appropriate contrasts to the kind of passion he wanted to reveal beneath the surface.”

Hitch’s blondes came in two shades: the ones, like Leigh in “Psycho” and Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” who were sexy and duplicitous victims doomed to die in spine-tingling ways, and those, like Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” and “Rear Window,” and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest,” who were sexy and sneaky survivors.

It’s illuminating to consider Hitchcock’s obsession with luminous blondes because Americans are obsessed with a pair of them at the moment.

One is Carrie Mathison, the bipolar C.I.A. agent on “Homeland,” played by Claire Danes. “Homeland” exerts the same hypnotic pull as “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos,” a violent, sexual netherworld with casual immorality but its own code of honor.

In the upcoming Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Jessica Chastain portrays a driven C.I.A. analyst named Maya. Like Carrie, Maya is a tough, attractive woman, haunted by 9/11 and determined to protect America from terrorists. Despite her gingery beauty, her sex is largely irrelevant. Maya is monomaniacally consumed with capturing Bin Laden, not hooking up with agents or sources.

Carrie, on the other hand, has braided her love life and work life so completely, it’s impossible to tell whether she’s working for love, or loving for work — or if it even matters, given how incandescently crazy and brilliant she is.

Carrie is not a Hitchcock blonde. Rather than icy, she’s red hot, prone to frequent meltdowns. She’s frantic that she’s not being heeded, and rightly so: her hunches are unerring. She can be duplicitous but lacks the cool veneer she needs to always fool her terrorist asset/love interest, Nicholas Brody. Her expressive face reflects every thought. She doesn’t care about fashion, and seems to have only one go-to black sequined top to wear when she wants to relieve stress by going to a jazz bar to pick up guys.

Maybe America’s other blond obsession, however, could qualify as a Hitchcock leading lady. Hillary Clinton is quick-witted and cool, and we never know exactly what she’s plotting as speculation froths about 2016.

While Republicans continue their full-cry pursuit of Susan Rice, the actual secretary of state has eluded blame, even though Benghazi is her responsibility. The assault happened on Hillary’s watch, at her consulate, with her ambassador. Given that we figured out a while ago that the Arab Spring could be perilous as well as promising, why hadn’t the State Department developed new norms for security in that part of the world? After 200 years of expecting host countries to protect our diplomats, Hillary et al. didn’t make the adjustment when countries were dissolving.

In the best tradition of “The Lady Vanishes,” Hillary sagely dodged the Sunday talk shows that September morning. She knew it would get messy, given that those killed included an ambassador who had written in his diary about being on a Qaeda hit list and two former Navy Seals who worked for the C.I.A.

Some have charged that G.O.P. senators are picking on Rice because she’s a black woman. But a black woman has already been secretary of state. It’s more likely that the Republicans lambasting Rice (some neocons much prefer her interventionism to John Kerry’s brand of diplomacy) see torpedoing her as an antidote to their recent routing, a chance to convey that they still have juice against a president who has the whip hand in fiscal cliff negotiations.

They regard Rice as the staffer she was before she ascended to the United Nations — too political, not big enough for the lofty post of secretary of state.

On Thursday, a day after meeting with Rice, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee told Chris Matthews that he liked her but “I’ve always sensed her to be more of a political operative.”

There are suspicions in political circles that negative press about Rice might also be coming from Clintonworld, where some still resent her. Rice was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration but defected to Obama’s 2008 campaign, accusing Hillary of getting “critical judgments” about Iraq and Iran wrong.

It took Hillary a month to defend Rice on Benghazi, and it took until Wednesday — more than two months after the attacks on Rice began — for Hillary to utter the tepid endorsement: “Susan Rice has done a great job as our ambassador to the United Nations.”

Washington mandarins marvel at the cool blonde of Foggy Bottom and wonder whether she’s enjoying watching Rice walk the plank. As one put it, comparing the smooth Hillary and the rough-elbowed Rice: “Hillary’s smart enough to know not to jump on board a damaged vessel. It’s a good contrast between a woman who knows how to navigate the power structure of Washington and someone who’s not quite there.”

A blonde who’s a canny survivor, cool under pressure. Hitchcock would approve.

Add a handful of Xanax to those Valium, MoDo, and wash them down with a double martini.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The scene is almost biblical. You step down through tall reeds, cross the Orontes River from Turkey in a small rowboat and are received by a local contingent of the Free Syrian Army, outside the Syrian town of Darkush. One of them shows you the picture on his cellphone of a Syrian girl who was just taken across the river to Turkey with what turned out to be fatal wounds from a Syrian Army helicopter attack on her village. The helicopters, the rebel soldiers say, dropped barrels with nails and explosives on her house. Meanwhile, over here in the mud are three fresh graves with bodies that just floated down the river. Some days it’s just an arm or leg that washes up. Although this is “liberated” territory, in the background you can hear the low drumbeat of shells slamming into some town over the hills. I ask the rebel local commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, how he thinks all of this will play out. His answer strikes me as very honest. “Without the help of Iran and Hezbollah, he would be gone by now,” he says of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But even after he goes, there will be a great sorting out. “It will take five or six years,” he adds, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah, and we want democracy.”

In my visit along the Turkey-Syria border, I am struck at how so many different people want so many different things for Syria. It is unnerving. A Christian businessman from Aleppo tells me that if a real election were held in Syria today, the besieged President Assad would still win “with 75 percent of the vote,” because most Syrians crave the order that he provided and are exhausted by war. But a few hours earlier at an impressively run Syrian refugee camp set up by Turkey outside the Turkish border town of Antakya, I interviewed young Syrian Sunni Muslim men who had fled from the Assad family’s largely Alawite stronghold of Latakiya, just down the coast. They spoke about the deep unfairness of the Syrian system and how Alawites were getting an unfair share of the pie. “When we first protested to demand reforms, the regime did not do anything,” said Yahya Afacesa, “and then we started to shout and demand freedom, and the regime attacked us. So there was no way to fight the regime peacefully.”

He and his colleagues insisted, though, that the problem in Syria was the Assad family, not the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot from which the Assads hail and which dominates the regime. These are secular young men, and they still took pride in Syria’s multisectarian identity and harmony, which, it should be remembered, has deep historical roots in this region. Indeed, before visiting them, I met with the Chamber of Commerce of Antakya. The chamber’s president proudly displays outside his office a poster of more than 20 different churches, mosques and even a synagogue still operating in his town, which is just a few miles from the Syrian border. I repeat: There are cultural roots for pluralism in this region that a new Syrian government could still fall back on — but there’s also the opposite.

A case in point: In Antakya I met two Turkish logistics experts. They spoke about the “Arab foreign legion” of Islamist fighters from as far away as Chechnya and Libya who have come through their town and crossed the Orontes to join the battle in Syria. They scoffed at the idea that Syria will emerge as a democracy from a war in which its main arms suppliers are the Islamic-oriented monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The main Saudi and Qatari desire is that Syria shift from being an Iranian-Shiite-dominated country to a Sunni-dominated one. Democracy per se is not their priority.

One of the two Turkish experts has another business in Qatar. To get permission to work and operate in Qatar, he explained, he needs a local Qatari to sponsor his work permit. “If you have a work permit and you want to leave the country, you need your sponsor to give you written permission,” he noted. “If your sponsor dies, his son inherits that right.” His Qatari sponsor’s son is very young. Yet, “if he says I cannot leave, I cannot leave. I do business [in Qatar] but I have no rights at all. … We joke that we are ‘modern slaves’ there. And this country is trying to bring democracy to Syria?”

These stories illuminate for me the enormous number of crosscurrents and mixed motives driving this revolution. Without a strong, galvanizing Syrian leader with a compelling unifying vision, backed by the international community, getting rid of Assad will not bring order to Syria. And disorder in Syria will not have the same consequences as disorder in other countries in the region.

Syria is the keystone of the Middle East. If and how it cracks apart could recast this entire region. The borders of Syria have been fixed ever since the British and French colonial powers carved up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. If Assad is toppled and you have state collapse here, Syria’s civil war could go regional and challenge all the old borders — as the Shiites of Lebanon seek to link up more with the Alawite/Shiites of Syria, the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey try to link up with each other and create an independent Kurdistan, and the Sunnis of Iraq, Jordan and Syria draw closer to oppose the Shiites of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

We could be entering a new age of Middle East border-drawing — the do-it-yourself version — where the borders of the Middle East get redrawn, not by colonial outsiders from the top down but by the Middle Easterners themselves, from the bottom up.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni’s letter to President Clinton:

What a year you’ve had, the kind that really burnishes a legend. At the Democratic National Convention, on the campaign trail, in speeches aplenty and during interviews galore, you spoke eloquently about what this country should value, and you spoke unequivocally about where it should head. Such a bounty of convictions, such a harvest of words, except for one that’s long overdue: Sorry.

Where’s your apology for signing the Defense of Marriage Act?

And why, amid all the battles you’ve joined, and with all the energy you’ve been able to muster, haven’t you made a more vigorous case for same-sex marriage, especially in light of your history on this issue?

You fret about your legacy, as any president would. For turning a blind eye to the butchery in Rwanda, you struggled through a mea culpa of sorts, and after Barack Obama seemed to lavish higher praise on Ronald Reagan than on you, you seethed.

Well, DOMA, which says that the federal government recognizes only marriages of a man and a woman, is one of the uglier blemishes on your record, an act of indisputable discrimination that codified unequal treatment of gay men and lesbians and, in doing so, validated the views of Americans who see us as lesser people. If our most committed, heartfelt relationships don’t measure up, then neither do we. If how we love is suspect, then so is who we are. No two ways to interpret that. No other conclusion to be drawn.

In 1996, with an overblown worry about your re-election and a desire not to seem too liberal, you put your name to that execrable decree. And you’ve never wholly owned up to that, never made adequate amends. It’s past time, and it’s almost time for Hillary, who is about to step down as secretary of state, to catch up with other cabinet members and President Obama and make her presumed support for same-sex marriage explicit, which she has never done.

Her role as the nation’s senior diplomat discourages her from wading into domestic political matters: that’s the tradition and etiquette. But the gag order will soon be lifted, and I could make the case that it’s irrelevant anyway; that marriage equality is a matter of human rights, not politics; and that she’s powerful and beloved enough to have said whatever she wanted, at least once Obama finally laid down his marker.

In any case she, like you, has been largely on the sidelines during this vital chapter in our country’s march toward greater social justice. What a shame, given that no two people have been larger in the Democratic Party over the last quarter-century and given the party’s deserved pride in its embrace of same-sex marriage now. The two of you should be a more integral part of that pride. You should be at the very epicenter of this. It’s strange and it’s sad that you’re not.

DOMA is a nasty bit of business, in practical as well as symbolic terms. It denies federal pension, health care and medical leave benefits — among many other protections and considerations — to same-sex couples who have been legally married in the growing number of states that permit it. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, those couples are singles and when one dies, the survivor has to pay estate taxes, for example, that heterosexual widows and widowers don’t.

This disparate treatment has rightly come under legal challenge, and many federal courts have now ruled that it violates the Constitution’s equal-protection clause. The Supreme Court late last week weighed which, if any, of these cases to take. An announcement is expected soon. With any luck, the nation’s highest court will dismantle DOMA, a decision that wouldn’t create marriage equality coast to coast but would change the tenor of debate in states considering the legalization of same-sex marriage.

After you signed DOMA — which, it must be said, a large majority of Democrats in Congress also supported — your defensiveness often trumped any suggestion of regret. As recently as 2008 you claimed that it’s a rewrite of history “to imply that somehow this was anti-gay.” You dodged the subject in your 2004 memoir, “My Life,” whose 957 pages didn’t include any mention of DOMA, as Frank Rich noted in New York magazine last February.

In 2009 you at last said that DOMA should be wiped off the books and you endorsed same-sex marriage, getting out ahead of many Democrats who still had elections to worry about and weren’t yet seeing, in polls, as much public support for same-sex marriage as they wanted to see. But your comments since then have been sparse and succinct: no more than a written statement in favor of the 2011 bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, your home since you left the White House, and a recorded phone message urging North Carolinians last spring not to adopt a ban on same-sex marriage in their state Constitution, which they did anyway.

At the convention in Charlotte three months ago, in remarks that sprawled over 48 minutes, you seemed to find room for just about everything but same-sex marriage. President Obama mentioned the issue in his speech. So did Michelle Obama in hers. But nothing from you, and no particular advocacy or fund-raising for the marriage-equality referendums that were on the ballot on Nov. 6 and were considered such a crucial moment for the cause. You presented a mum, behind-the-curve contrast to the next generation of Democratic standard-bearers like Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, and Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor, whose pleas for marriage equality underscore a new reality: no Democrat, not even Hillary, will be able to make a credible bid for the party’s presidential nomination without supporting it.

A leader can’t be expected to champion every big issue. He or she picks and chooses. But your shortage of words about same-sex marriage this year is noteworthy in the context of how expansively you talked about so many other topics, how omnipresent you were: the cover of Time, the cover of Esquire, CNBC, the Golf Channel.

It’s even more noteworthy because you have a wrong to right here. I say that in sorrow more than anger, and with gratitude for all you accomplished during your presidency, a successful one. You had a zest for politicking that the current president doesn’t, enormous powers of persuasion and an instinct for the center. Maybe DOMA was the center in 1996. It isn’t anymore.

On Hillary’s watch, the State Department has been more progressive in its treatment of L.G.B.T. employees than before, a development in sync with her proclamation in Geneva late last year that “gay rights are human rights” and that those rights are a priority in American diplomacy. She addressed many of those employees on Wednesday, at an event marking the 20th anniversary of an organization called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, and she implored her audience “to leave this celebration thinking about what more each and every one of you can do” to promote better, fairer treatment of gay people.

Well, she can do more. So can you, President Clinton.

I was sloppy at the start. What I and many others want most from you isn’t really an apology. It’s full membership — and, better yet, leadership — in a movement that’s headed inexorably in the right direction, with or without you.

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