Archive for the ‘Another pile of crap’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

August 1, 2014

Bobo is busy playing “Let’s All Blame Teh Poors.”  In “The Character Factory” he has the unmitigated gall to say that antipoverty programs will continue to be ineffective until they integrate a robust understanding of character.  “Gemli” from Boston ends an extended comment with this:  “So the poor should not lament the outrageous income inequality, or fight to raise the pitiful minimum wage, but rather should learn to improve their character, accept their lot, and be the best darn hopeless drudges they can be.”  And tug the forelock when Bobo sweeps past on the way to his limo…  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Knowledge Isn’t Power:”  Why does ignorance rule in policy debates?  Here’s Bobo:

Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.

Most Democratic antipoverty programs consist of transferring money, providing jobs or otherwise addressing the material deprivation of the poor. Most Republican antipoverty programs likewise consist of adjusting the economic incentives or regulatory barriers faced by the disadvantaged.

As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior.

It’s easy to understand why policy makers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim — spreading the calumny that the poor are that way because they don’t love their children enough, or don’t have good values. Furthermore, most sensible people wonder if government can do anything to alter character anyway.

The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.

Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood. Carol Dweck’s work has shown that people who have a growth mind-set — who believe their basic qualities can be developed through hard work — do better than people who believe their basic talents are fixed and innate. Angela Duckworth has shown how important grit and perseverance are to lifetime outcomes. College students who report that they finish whatever they begin have higher grades than their peers, even ones with higher SATs. Spelling bee contestants who scored significantly higher on grit scores were 41 percent more likely to advance to later rounds than less resilient competitors.

Summarizing the research in this area, Reeves estimates that measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down the income scale. Poorer children grow up with more stress and more disruption, and these disadvantages produce effects on the brain. Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were two-and-a-half times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile.

But these effects are reversible with the proper experiences.

People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help. The superficial “character education” programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either. Instead, sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb. Government-supported programs can contribute in all realms.

First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.

Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.

And maybe if people didn’t have to work 3 jobs to put food on the table and keep the lights on that might be easier, you poisonous turd.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

One of the best insults I’ve ever read came from Ezra Klein, who now is editor in chief of Vox.com. In 2007, he described Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, as “a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”

It’s a funny line, which applies to quite a few public figures. Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a prime current example. But maybe the joke’s on us. After all, such people often dominate policy discourse. And what policy makers don’t know, or worse, what they think they know that isn’t so, can definitely hurt you.

What inspired these gloomy thoughts? Well, I’ve been looking at surveys from the Initiative on Global Markets, based at the University of Chicago. For two years, the initiative has been regularly polling a panel of leading economists, representing a wide spectrum of schools and political leanings, on questions that range from the economics of college athletes to the effectiveness of trade sanctions. It usually turns out that there is much less professional controversy about an issue than the cacophony in the news media might have led you to expect.

This was certainly true of the most recent poll, which asked whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the Obama “stimulus” — reduced unemployment. All but one of those who responded said that it did, a vote of 36 to 1. A follow-up question on whether the stimulus was worth it produced a slightly weaker but still overwhelming 25 to 2 consensus.

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether the panel is right in this case (although it is). Let me ask, instead, whether you knew that the pro-stimulus consensus among experts was this strong, or whether you even knew that such a consensus existed.

I guess it depends on where you get your economic news and analysis. But you certainly didn’t hear about that consensus on, say, CNBC — where one host was so astonished to hear yours truly arguing for higher spending to boost the economy that he described me as a “unicorn,” someone he could hardly believe existed.

More important, over the past several years policy makers across the Western world have pretty much ignored the professional consensus on government spending and everything else, placing their faith instead in doctrines most economists firmly reject.

As it happens, the odd man out — literally — in that poll on stimulus was Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard. He has claimed that cuts in government spending are actually expansionary, but relatively few economists agree, pointing to work at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere that seems to refute his claims. Nonetheless, back when European leaders were making their decisive and disastrous turn toward austerity, they brushed off warnings that slashing spending in depressed economies would deepen their depression. Instead, they listened to economists telling them what they wanted to hear. It was, as Bloomberg Businessweek put it, “Alesina’s hour.”

Am I saying that the professional consensus is always right? No. But when politicians pick and choose which experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to believe, the odds are that they will choose badly. Moreover, experience shows that there is no accountability in such matters. Bear in mind that the American right is still taking its economic advice mainly from people who have spent many years wrongly predicting runaway inflation and a collapsing dollar.

All of which raises a troubling question: Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?

Economists used to assert confidently that nothing like the Great Depression could happen again. After all, we know far more than our great-grandfathers did about the causes of and cures for slumps, so how could we fail to do better? When crises struck, however, much of what we’ve learned over the past 80 years was simply tossed aside.

The only piece of our system that seemed to have learned anything from history was the Federal Reserve, and the Fed’s actions under Ben Bernanke, continuing under Janet Yellen, are arguably the only reason we haven’t had a full replay of the Depression. (More recently, the European Central Bank under Mario Draghi, another place where expertise still retains a toehold, has pulled Europe back from the brink to which austerity brought it.) Sure enough, there are moves afoot in Congress to take away the Fed’s freedom of action. Not a single member of the Chicago experts panel thinks this would be a good idea, but we’ve seen how much that matters.

And macroeconomics, of course, isn’t the only challenge we face. In fact, it should be easy compared with many other issues that need to be addressed with specialized knowledge, above all climate change. So you really have to wonder whether and how we’ll avoid disaster.

Brooks and Krugman

June 27, 2014

In “The Spiritual Recession” Bobo gurgles that we will dishonor American heritage if we remain indifferent to the triumphs and failures of the global democratic project.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston ends a longer comment with this:  “If there is a spiritual recession, it was brought about by the same forces of cynical fundamentalist greed that created the economic recession. Were it not for the people who occupied Wall Street, we might have forgotten what democracy looked like.”  In “The Incompetence Dogma” Prof. Krugman says but Obamacare wasn’t supposed to work! What were all those cries of impending disaster about?  Here’s Bobo:

For the past few centuries, the Western world has witnessed a contest of historic visions. On the one side was the dream of the beautiful collective. Human progress was a one-way march toward socialism. People would liberate themselves from religion, hierarchy and oppression. They would build a new kind of society where equality would be the rule, where rational planning would replace cruel competition.

On the other side was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.

These two historic visions had amazing appeal. Millions of people dedicated their lives to socialism or communism. The democratic gospel was just an idea, but it shaped American history. The founders believed that they were writing a Constitution for a nation that would herald a new order of the ages. Walt Whitman wrote an essay called “Democratic Vistas” defining the nation’s spiritual mission, while Lincoln celebrated the last, best hope of earth.

In the 1930s, the radical Leon Samson explained that Americans never went in big for socialism because they already had a creed, which made them happy, gave them work and made history meaningful. “Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism,” Samson wrote, “and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear. … The American does not want to listen to socialism because he thinks he already has it.”

The Cold War settled this contest of historic visions. Democracy won. You would think the gospel of democracy would be triumphant. But, as Mark Lilla writes in an essay called “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age” in The New Republic, the post-Cold War era hasn’t meant the triumph of one ideology; it destroyed the tendency to rely upon big historic visions of any sort. Lilla argues that we have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.

He’s a bit right about that. When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy could last. When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naïve. National interest matters most.

Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems — autocracy, mercantile despotism — and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.

Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs.

Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.

Meanwhile, the country grows strangely indifferent to democratic heroes. Decades ago, everyone knew about Sakharov. But how many raised a fuss over the systematic persecution of democratic activists and Christians across the Middle East?

The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic. It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.

Sure there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road.

Yeah, Bobo — let’s go cram “democracy” down another country’s throat.  It’s worked so very, very, very well in the past…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Have you been following the news about Obamacare? The Affordable Care Act has receded from the front page, but information about how it’s going keeps coming in — and almost all the news is good. Indeed, health reform has been on a roll ever since March, when it became clear that enrollment would surpass expectations despite the teething problems of the federal website.

What’s interesting about this success story is that it has been accompanied at every step by cries of impending disaster. At this point, by my reckoning, the enemies of health reform are 0 for 6. That is, they made at least six distinct predictions about how Obamacare would fail — every one of which turned out to be wrong.

“To err is human,” wrote Seneca. “To persist is diabolical.” Everyone makes incorrect predictions. But to be that consistently, grossly wrong takes special effort. So what’s this all about?

Many readers won’t be surprised by the answer: It’s about politics and ideology, not analysis. But while this observation isn’t particularly startling, it’s worth pointing out just how completely ideology has trumped evidence in the health policy debate.

And I’m not just talking about the politicians; I’m talking about the wonks. It’s remarkable how many supposed experts on health care made claims about Obamacare that were clearly unsupportable. For example, remember “rate shock”? Last fall, when we got our first information about insurance premiums, conservative health care analysts raced to claim that consumers were facing a huge increase in their expenses. It was obvious, even at the time, that these claims were misleading; we now know that the great majority of Americans buying insurance through the new exchanges are getting coverage quite cheaply.

Or remember claims that young people wouldn’t sign up, so that Obamacare would experience a “death spiral” of surging costs and shrinking enrollment? It’s not happening: a new survey by Gallup finds both that a lot of people have gained insurance through the program and that the age mix of the new enrollees looks pretty good.

What was especially odd about the incessant predictions of health-reform disaster was that we already knew, or should have known, that a program along the lines of the Affordable Care Act was likely to work. Obamacare was closely modeled on Romneycare, which has been working in Massachusetts since 2006, and it bears a strong family resemblance to successful systems abroad, for example in Switzerland. Why should the system have been unworkable for America?

But a firm conviction that the government can’t do anything useful — a dogmatic belief in public-sector incompetence — is now a central part of American conservatism, and the incompetence dogma has evidently made rational analysis of policy issues impossible.

It wasn’t always thus. If you go back two decades, to the last great fight over health reform, conservatives seem to have been relatively clearheaded about the policy prospects, albeit deeply cynical. For example, William Kristol’s famous 1993 memo urging Republicans to kill the Clinton health plan warned explicitly that Clintoncare, if implemented, might well be perceived as successful, which would, in turn, “strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.” So it was crucial to make sure that reform never happened. In effect, Mr. Kristol was telling insiders that tales of government incompetence are something you peddle to voters to get them to support tax cuts and deregulation, not something you necessarily believe yourself.

But that was before conservatives had fully retreated into their own intellectual universe. Fox News didn’t exist yet; policy analysts at right-wing think tanks had often begun their careers in relatively nonpolitical jobs. It was still possible to entertain the notion that reality wasn’t what you wanted it to be.

It’s different now. It’s hard to think of anyone on the American right who even considered the possibility that Obamacare might work, or at any rate who was willing to admit that possibility in public. Instead, even the supposed experts kept peddling improbable tales of looming disaster long after their chance of actually stopping health reform was past, and they peddled these tales not just to the rubes but to each other.

And let’s be clear: While it has been funny watching the right-wing cling to its delusions about health reform, it’s also scary. After all, these people retain considerable ability to engage in policy mischief, and one of these days they may regain the White House. And you really, really don’t want people who reject facts they don’t like in that position. I mean, they might do unthinkable things, like starting a war for no good reason. Oh, wait.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 17, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Bobo has a question in “The Structures of Growth:”  What do you need to do to get better at something after you have gone through the early stages of making a lot of progress really quickly?  Mr. Cohen howls that we should “Take Mosul Back.”  He says the blame game misses the point, and that Iraq and Syria were rotten to the core before America’s mistakes.  In the comments (which were closed early) “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “There is one constant about all of Roger Cohen’s articles proposing military action.  He never mentions that he has never worn a uniform, never been in a war, announces he’s enlisting or that his children are enlisting for this new, desparately needed, war.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “A New College Model:”  Has Arizona State found a new way to educate students? Starbucks employees may soon find out.  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us are trying to get better at something. And when we think about our future progress, we tend to imagine we will improve linearly. We’ll work hard at mastering some skill; we’ll steadily get better and better.

But, as the Canadian writer Scott H. Young points out in a recent blog post, progress in most domains is not linear. In some spheres, like learning a language or taking up running, improvement is logarithmic. You make a lot of progress when you first begin the activity, but, as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve.

Logarithmic activities require a certain sort of mind-set, Young writes. During the early high-growth phase, when everything is coming easily, you have to make sure you maintain your disciplined habits, or else you will fall backward. Then later, during the slow-growth phase, you have to break some of your habits. To move from good to great, you have to break out of certain routines that have become calcified and are now holding you back.

For example, when Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy. But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.

In other domains, growth is exponential. In these activities, you have to work for weeks or even years at mastering the fundamentals, and you barely see any return. But then, after you have put in your 10,000 hours of effort, suddenly you develop a natural ease and your progress multiplies quickly.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts. Ice hockey is an exponential activity (it takes years just to skate well enough).

Many people quit exponential activities in the early phases. You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory. But then when you are in the later fast-progress stage, you’ve got to be open-minded to turn your hard-earned skill into poetry. Vincent van Gogh had to spend years learning the basics of drawing, but then, when he’d achieved mastery, he had to let loose and create art.

I could think of some other growth structures. In some domains progress comes like a stairway. There’s a period of stagnation, followed by a step upward, followed by a period of stagnation, followed by another step. In other domains, progress comes like waves repetitively lapping the shore. You go over some material and the wave leaves a residue of knowledge; then you go over the same material again and the next wave leaves a bit more residue.

Yet other domains follow a valley-shaped curve. You have to go down initially before you can go up. The experience of immigrating to a new country can be like this; you have to start at the bottom as you learn a new society before you can make your way upward. Moral progress is like this, too. You have to go down and explore your own failures before you can conquer them. You have to taste humiliation before you can aspire toward excellence.

Thinking about growth structures reminds you that really successful people often have the ability to completely flip their mental dispositions. In many fields, it pays to be rigid and disciplined at first, but then flexible and playful as you get better. If you go into politics, you have to make the transition from campaigning, which is an instantly gratifying activity, to governing, which is an exponential activity, requiring experience, patience and hard-earned wisdom.

This way of thinking also makes it clear that skill acquisition is a deeply moral activity. You don’t only need knowledge about what to do; you have to train yourself to defeat your natural desires. In the fast-growth phase of a logarithmic activity, you have to fight the urge to self-celebrate and relax. In the later phase, when everyone is singing your praises, you have to fight self-satisfaction.

It does seem clear that our society celebrates fast-payoff instrumental activities, like sports and rock stardom, while undervaluing exponential activities, like being a statesman or craftsman. Kids increasingly flock to logarithmic sports, like soccer, over exponential sports, like baseball.

Finally, this focus on growth structures takes your eyes off yourself. The crucial thing is not what traits you intrinsically possess. The crucial questions are: What is the structure of your domain? Where are you now on the progress curve? How are you interacting with the structures of the field?

The crucial answers to those questions are not found in the mirror. They are found by seeing yourself from a distance as part of a landscape. That’s a more pleasing and healthier perspective in any case.

Next up is Mr. Cohen.  If he’s so desperate to take Mosul back maybe he can enlist in the Army or get the Prime Minister (Mr. Cohen lives in London) to launch an offensive…

Less than 60 miles from Mosul, where the Sunni Islamic fanatics who have overrun the city are slaughtering their enemies as if the Middle Ages never ended, a rather different scene in Iraq was recently described in a report from the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital:

“We saw Ferraris and Bentleys being driven by students at the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniyah, and at the only five-star hotel in Erbil, the car park was filled with new BMW’s and Range Rovers. The few international restaurants in Erbil cost approximately $90 per person for a meal with a beer. The city’s shopping centers carry international brands, all of which we noticed are priced at least 40 percent higher than the international standard; and shop managers claimed inventory flies off the shelves.”

In nascent Kurdistan, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose relations with the central government in Baghdad are a stop-go affair, things are different. Even the worst mess has its winners. The Kurds, almost a century after missing out on statehood at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, are the beneficiaries of Iraq’s mayhem. Even their relations with their Turkish nemesis have been commerce-smoothed into something approaching warmth.

Nobody should bet against an independent Kurdish state within the next decade. Syria and Iraq are in a state of implosion; Middle Eastern borders are up for grabs. Qaeda affiliates have already done their grabbing. They control wide swathes of Syria and Iraq 13 years (and trillions of dollars) after the United States went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the jihadi state within a state of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

This is not a terrific denouement to America’s post-9/11 wars. The blame game is in full swing. Aficionados of the counterfactual are having a field day. Iraq in its agony is the perfect locus for handicappers of the hypothetical. It’s an old game. If Napoleon had had B-52s at Waterloo, things might have worked out differently.

The left blames the disaster on President Bush and the American invasion of 2003 that shattered the Iraqi state and removed its murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. If this had not happened, there would be no fanatics from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Wrong, says the right. President Obama is to blame for abandoning Iraq in 2011 without leaving a residual counter-terrorism force. His feckless failure to back the Syrian opposition early in the uprising was a principal cause of Syria’s collapse into a lawless haven for Islamic fanatics. If Obama had been more resolute in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would not be on the rampage.

A plague on both their houses! It’s unseemly to fight Washington’s talk-show wars over the myriad dead of the Levant.

The facts are plain enough. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East, and infuriating America’s nominal ally, Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict has been escalating over the past decade.

There was no Al Qaeda in Saddam’s Iraq. The United States birthed it through the invasion. It then beat Al Qaeda down, before allowing its affiliates to regroup by leaving and doing nothing about Syria’s disintegration. American and Iranian interests in Iraq are now aligned in preserving the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, encouraging his (unlikely) outreach to the winning Kurds and the whiplashed Sunnis, and beating back the barbarians of ISIS. However, the political forces arrayed against cooperation with Iran in the Congress are powerful — and U.S. and Iranian interests part ways in Syria and over Israel. A logical approach in the Middle East is seldom a feasible approach.

Got it?

If not, do not worry. The blame game misses the point. Iraq and Syria, well before America’s hapless intervention and hapless paralysis, were rotten to the core, as ripe for dismemberment as the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sickened by the personality cults of brutal rulers, cracking at the internal lines of fracture colonial overseers chose to disregard. They were in a state of postponed decomposition. Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, minorities both, believed (and believe) they had some irreversible right to rule. They do not.

President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS. If the jihadis cement their hold, the blowback will be felt in Europe and the United States. Such action will not resolve Iraq’s problems, or the region’s. But the alternative is far worse. It would be a betrayal of the thousands of American lives lost since 2001 and of the millions in the Middle East who view the Middle Ages as over.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Monday, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, unveiled his company’s newest — and possibly most important — perquisite for its employees: a free college education. He announced this new program on a stage in The Times Center in Midtown Manhattan, alongside his partner in the new venture, Michael Crow of Arizona State University.

Starbucks has long been a trailblazer in offering company benefits; part-time employees get stock options and health insurance. Schultz has also been one of the few chief executives willing to speak out — and do something — about the need to get people back to work again. A few years ago, I wrote a column about a Starbucks program that turned donations from customers into small business loans.

What I hadn’t realized is the extent to which Arizona State is a trailblazer as well. Under Crow’s leadership, it is attempting nothing less than the reinvention of the university. If Crow’s model succeeds, it offers some real hope that higher education can become, as it once was, a place that views its mission as educating everybody, not just the world’s elite.

“In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education,” Crow said about five minutes after I met him on Monday afternoon. “And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability.” That statistic is what he is trying to change.

Although Crow grew up in a working-class family, he spent a good chunk of his career at one of the nation’s most elite schools: Columbia University. He was the executive vice provost there before becoming president of Arizona State 12 years ago. He told me what appealed to him about Arizona State was precisely that it offered the chance to create a completely different model.

“Traveling around the country, I could see that the U.S. was having a hard time modernizing, in a sense,” he said. “There was industrial decline, and underperforming K-12. There was a need for industrial redesign.” He found himself influenced by a handful of books, including “A University for the 21st Century” by James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan. In the book, Duderstadt argued that if universities were to remain relevant, they need to be reinvented.

Or, as Crow puts it, “How would you build a public university of greater public service that would be more adaptable to the rapidly changing society? Could you do it at scale? In a way that allowed everybody to have a chance?”

His first — and, in some ways, most radical — decision was that Arizona State was going to embrace what he calls “inclusion” instead of “exclusion.” The elite universities, egged on by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, proudly talk about what a small percentage of students they accept. Indeed, it is how the culture has come to define quality in a university.

Crow went in the opposite direction: Anybody with a B average in the high school courses Arizona State deemed necessary to prepare for a college education could get in. He was also insistent that the school remain affordable. For in-state students pursuing an undergraduate degree, the “list price” at Arizona State is about $5,000 per semester, although once grants and financial aid is factored in, the average cost is $3,800 per student.

As the student body began to change — today, 50 percent of the school’s 73,000 students are coming from the lower half of the income strata — the learning had to change as well. And so it did. Arizona State developed digital tools that aided individualized learning. Of the school’s 16,000 courses, 10,000 are “tech-mediated” in some way, said Crow.

Inevitably, this led to Arizona State instituting a catalog of online courses — and online degrees — which is what Starbucks is offering its employees. The great advantage of an online course is that the student can listen to the lectures or do the work on his or her own time. It is a way of reaching students who might otherwise not be able to go to school.

Crow insists that online courses at Arizona State have the same rigor as classroom courses. “They are taught by the same faculty that teaches in our classrooms,” says Christopher Callahan, the dean of the university’s journalism school.

Crow told me that just as Schultz had been looking for a university to partner with, he had been looking for a corporation. He thinks that Arizona State has the capability to ultimately teach 100,000 students online, and that the Starbucks partnership could add as many as 15,000 new students. When I asked him where the 100,000 number came from, he said, “That is an assessment of what share of the country’s need that we can handle.”

Grandiose? Perhaps. But higher education could certainly use a little more such thinking.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

June 15, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz, in “The End of Iraq,” babbles that the facts on the ground are shredding the official maps of Iraq and the region.  In the comments “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “That’s a mighty strange timeline from Douthat.  Sykes-Picot, 9/11, and a succession of maps, 2006-2013. Wasn’t there an invasion in 2003? Oh, wait, there was that oblique reference to “recklessness”, as if it were the moral equivalent of “neglect” by the current administration.  The proper lesson to be learned is that more neglect and less intervention and recklessness in the middle east on the part of the west would have been to the mutual benefit of both.  The “stability” train left the station the minute shock-and-awe was launched in Baghdad, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.”  MoDo is riding one of her favorite hobby horses.  In “When Will Hillary Let It Go?” she snarls that America is entranced with the frozen kingdoms of two polarizing queens.  The Moustache of Wisdom has seen fit to present “5 Principles for Iraq” in which he tells us there are many questions that need answering before the U.S. considers intervening.  Lest we forget exactly who and what Friedman really is, here’s a reminder.  Mr. Bruni, in “Naked Confessions of the College-Bound,” says the raw and relevatory admissions essay reflects the blinding competition to get into elite schools.  Here’s The Putz:

Every so often, in the post-9/11 era, an enterprising observer circulates a map of what the Middle East might look like, well, after: after America’s wars in the region, after the various revolutions and counterrevolutions, after the Arab Spring and the subsequent springtime for jihadists, after the Sunni-Shiite struggle for mastery. At some point, these cartographers suggest, the wave of post-9/11 conflict will necessarily redraw borders, reshape nation-states, and rub out some of the lines drawn by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in a secret Anglo-French treaty almost 100 years ago.

In 2006, it was Ralph Peters, the retired lieutenant colonel turned columnist, who sketched a map that subdivided Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and envisioned Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics emerging from a no-longer-united Iraq. Two years later, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg imagined similar partings-of-the-ways, with new microstates — an Alawite Republic, an Islamic Emirate of Gaza — taking shape and Afghanistan splitting up as well. Last year, it was Robin Wright’s turn in this newspaper, in a map that (keeping up with events) subdivided Libya as well.

Peters’s map, which ran in Armed Forces Journal, inspired conspiracy theories about how this was America’s real plan for remaking the Middle East. But the reality is entirely different: One reason these maps have remained strictly hypothetical, even amid regional turmoil, is that the United States has a powerful interest in preserving the Sykes-Picot status quo.

This is not because the existing borders are in any way ideal. Indeed, there’s a very good chance that a Middle East that was more politically segregated by ethnicity and faith might become a more stable and harmonious region in the long run.

Such segregation is an underappreciated part of Europe’s 20th-century transformation into a continent at peace. As Jerry Muller argued in Foreign Affairs in 2008, the brutal ethnic cleansing and forced migrations that accompanied and followed the two world wars ensured that “for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality,” which in turn sapped away some of the “ethnonational aspirations and aggression” that had contributed to imperialism, fascism and Hitler’s rise.

But this happened after the brutal ethnic cleansing that accompanied and followed two world wars. There’s no good reason to imagine that a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders could happen much more peacefully. Which is why American policy makers, quite sensibly, have preferred the problematic stability of current arrangements to the long-term promise of a Free Kurdistan or Baluchistan, a Greater Syria or Jordan, a Wahhabistan or Tripolitania.

This was true even of the most ambitious (and foolhardy) architects of the Iraq invasion, who intended to upset a dictator-dominated status quo … but not, they mostly thought, in a way that would redraw national boundaries. Instead, the emphasis was on Iraq’s potential for post-Saddam cohesion, its prospects as a multiethnic model for democratization and development. That emphasis endured through the darkest days of our occupation, when the voices calling for partition — including the current vice president, Joe Biden — were passed over and unity remained America’s strategic goal.

But now that strategy has almost failed. De facto, with the shocking advance of militants toward Baghdad, there are now three states in what we call Iraq: one Kurdish, one Shiite and one Sunni — with the last straddling the Iraq-Syria border and “governed” by jihadists.

This means that Iraq is now part of an arc, extending from Hezbollah’s fiefdom in Lebanon through war-torn Syria, in which official national borders are notional at best. And while full dissolution is not yet upon us, the facts on the ground in Iraq look more and more like Peters’s map than the country that so many Americans died to stabilize and secure.

What’s more, we pretty clearly lack both the will and the capacity to change them. It is possible, as The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins has argued, that a clearer Obama administration focus on Iraq, and a more effective attempt to negotiate a continued American presence three years ago, could have prevented this unraveling. (Little about this White House’s recent foreign policy record inspires much confidence in its efforts in Iraq.)

But now? Now our leverage relative to the more immediate players is at a modern low point, and the progress of regional war has a momentum that U.S. airstrikes are unlikely to arrest.

Our basic interests have not altered: better stability now, better the Sykes-Picot borders with all their flaws, than the very distant promise of a postconflict Middle Eastern map.

But two successive administrations have compromised those interests: one through recklessness, the other through neglect. Now the map is changing; now, as in early-20th-century Europe, the price of transformation is being paid in blood.

It’s like he’s studying to be Bloody Billy Kristol, whose chair he took over at the Times…  Here’s tiresome old MoDo:

No one wrote about blondes like Raymond Chandler.

“There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare,” he wrote in “The Long Goodbye.” “There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home.”

There’s the pale, anemic, languid blonde with the soft voice. “You can’t lay a finger on her,” Chandler notes, “because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading ‘The Waste Land’ or Dante in the original.” And when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith, he writes dryly, “she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.”

None of his descriptions, however, conjures the two regal blondes transfixing America at the moment: Hillary and Elsa.

Those close to them think that the queen of Hillaryland and the Snow Queen from Disney’s “Frozen” have special magical powers, but worry about whether they can control those powers, show their humanity and stir real warmth in the public heart.

Just as Elsa’s coronation suddenly became fraught, so has Hillary’s. Like Arendelle, America is frozen: The war still rages in Iraq, the Clintons still dominate the political scene and Hillary still obsesses about money, a narrative thread that has existed since she was thwarted in her desire to build a pool at the governor’s mansion in poor Arkansas and left the White House with a doggie bag full of sofas, rugs, lamps, TVs and china, some of which the Clintons later had to pay for or return. Even Chelsea was cashing in, getting a ridiculous, $600,000-a-year scion salary from NBC, far greater than that of many of the network’s correspondents.

As a Clinton White House aide once explained to me, “Hillary, though a Methodist, thinks of herself like an Episcopal bishop who deserves to live at the level of her wealthy parishioners, in return for devoting her life to God and good works.”

After feeling stifled at times and misunderstood, after suffering painful setbacks, the powerful and polarizing Elsa and Hillary proclaim from their lofty height that they’re going to “let it go” and go for it. (Although Elsa’s wolves are not as fierce as the Fox predators after Hillary.)

“I don’t care what they’re going to say,” Elsa sings at the climactic moment when she decides to let down her hair, ratchet up her star power and create her glittering ice palace. “Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”

Hillary had a similar cri de coeur in her interview with Diane Sawyer. When Sawyer asked her about the focus on her appearance that once kept her so “scripted, cautious, safe,” Hillary replied: “When you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly. I mean, it is just never-ending. And you get a little worried about, O.K., you know, people over on this side are loving what I am wearing, looking like, saying. People over on this side aren’t.

“You know, your natural tendency is how do you bring people together so that you can better communicate? I’m done with that. I mean, I’m just done.” She continued: “I am over it, over it. I think I have changed; not worried so much about what other people are thinking.” She vowed to now “say what I know, what I believe, and let the chips fall.”

It would make a great Idina Menzel anthem, but it’s not believable that Hillary Rodham Clinton will suddenly throw caution and calculation to the wind. Having market-tested the gender-neutral model in 2008, this time Hillary is presenting herself as a woman who has suffered the slings and arrows of sexism.

Her apology for being “wrong” about voting to authorize W. to invade Iraq took 11 years to spit out, and she told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday that she “could not have predicted” the success of Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents in seizing control of Iraqi cities. If some bold voices had fought going into a patently unnecessary war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 — a war, waged ignorantly for silly, macho reasons, that was never properly debated or planned in the White House — America would not be in a global crouch now, and Iraq would not be a killing field.

Hillary’s new memoir, like her last one, is a testament to caution and calculation. It doesn’t feel written so much as assembled by a “Hillary for President” algorithm. All this excitement is being ginned up, but nothing exciting is happening. There isn’t one surprising or scintillating or provocative word in the whole book. “Hard Choices” is inert, a big yawn.

In her “If they’d listened to me” mode, she is distancing herself from the president on Syria, Russia and the Bergdahl trade because she does not, as Republican strategist Matthew Dowd puts it, want to be defeated by Obama twice.

The opening of her book tour/presidential campaign has featured some stumbles, causing some commentators to wonder if she has grown rusty and tone-deaf, isolated in the ice palace she erected to keep out the loathed press.

No one doubts that Hillary is tough and knowledgeable. But the question of how scarred and defensive she is, given all the fights and rough times she has gone through, and how that affects her judgment now, is a legitimate one.

Has she given up the my-way-or-the-highway imperiousness that doomed her health care efforts? Has she toned down the defensiveness that exacerbated the Whitewater affair? Has she modified the ends-justify-the-means mind-set that allowed her to participate in the vivisection of young women she knew Bill had been involved with? Has she tempered the focus on political viability that led her to vote to allow W. to scamper into a vanity war? Has she learned not to surround herself with high-priced mercenaries like Mark Penn and Dick Morris?

In the last few days, two women interrogators have rattled Hillary’s ice palace gates with questions that were obvious and reasonable.

With Sawyer, Clinton said she hadn’t known enough to know the Benghazi outpost was unprotected, despite what Ambassador Chris Stevens had called “never-ending security threats.”

On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Clinton grew testy when Terry Gross pressed her on whether the decision to finally publicly embrace gay marriage was a personal evolution or a political “calculus” — now that it’s not as much of a political liability and now that the court has dismantled the dreadful Defense of Marriage Act, which her husband cravenly signed into law in 1996. Clinton said she couldn’t do it as secretary of state. But the vice president was not constrained from saying what was in his heart and pushing the president in the right direction.

What Elsa discovers at the end of “Frozen” is that her powers can actually be used for good, once her heart is filled with love. She escapes from her prison, leaves behind the negative things that held her back, and leads her kingdom to a happy and prosperous future.

Can Hillary?

In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “If it’s a choice between any Republican and Hillary, well, there’s really no choice. It won’t matter if Hillary is flawed, manufactured, calculating, tainted by big money and a reformed Bush enabler. But it’s a sad commentary on the Democratic party that the bench is so shallow that Hillary is the only option. There isn’t a passionate, untainted voice out there, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren. At least she seems to stand up for her beliefs, and for the middle class, without equivocating, or finessing the message.”  Amen.  Now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, eponymous creator of the Friedman Unit:”

The disintegration of Iraq and Syria is upending an order that has defined the Middle East for a century. It is a huge event, and we as a country need to think very carefully about how to respond. Having just returned from Iraq two weeks ago, my own thinking is guided by five principles, and the first is that, in Iraq today, my enemy’s enemy is my enemy. Other than the Kurds, we have no friends in this fight. Neither Sunni nor Shiite leaders spearheading the war in Iraq today share our values.

The Sunni jihadists, Baathists and tribal militiamen who have led the takeover of Mosul from the Iraqi government are not supporters of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq, the only Iraq we have any interest in abetting. And Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has proved himself not to be a friend of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq either. From Day 1, he has used his office to install Shiites in key security posts, drive out Sunni politicians and generals and direct money to Shiite communities. In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk. Besides being prime minister, he made himself acting minister of defense, minister of the interior and national security adviser, and his cronies also control the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry.

Maliki had a choice — to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way — and he chose sectarianism. We owe him nothing.

The second principle for me derives from the most important question we need to answer from the Arab Spring. Why is it that the two states doing the best are those that America has had the least to do with: Tunisia and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq?

Answer: Believe it or not, it’s not all about what we do and the choices we make. Arabs and Kurds have agency, too. And the reason that both Tunisia and Kurdistan have built islands of decency, still frail to be sure, is because the major contending political forces in each place eventually opted for the principle of “no victor, no vanquished.”

The two major rival parties in Kurdistan not only buried the hatchet between them but paved the way for democratic elections that recently brought a fast-rising opposition party, that ran on an anti-corruption platform, into government for the first time. And Tunisia, after much internal struggle and bloodshed, found a way to balance the aspirations of secularists and Islamists and agree on the most progressive Constitution in the history of the Arab world.

Hence my rule: The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them — when they take ownership of reconciliation. Please spare me another dose of: It is all about whom we train and arm. Sunnis and Shiites don’t need guns from us. They need the truth. It is the early 21st century, and too many of them are still fighting over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the 7th century. It has to stop — for them, and for their kids, to have any future.

Principle No. 3: Maybe Iran, and its wily Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, aren’t so smart after all. It was Iran that armed its Iraqi Shiite allies with the specially shaped bombs that killed and wounded many American soldiers. Iran wanted us out. It was Iran that pressured Maliki into not signing an agreement with the U.S. to give our troops legal cover to stay in Iraq. Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: “This Bud’s for you.” Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.

We still want to forge a nuclear deal that prevents Iran from developing a bomb, so we have to be careful about how much we aid Iran’s Sunni foes. But with Iran still under sanctions and its forces and Hezbollah’s now fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, well, let’s just say: advantage America.

Fourth: Leadership matters. While in Iraq, I visited Kirkuk, a city that has long been hotly contested between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. When I was there five years ago, it was a hellish war zone. This time I found new paved roads, parks and a flourishing economy and a Kurdish governor, Najimaldin Omar Karim, who was just re-elected in April in a fair election and won more seats thanks to votes from the minority Arabs and Turkmen.

“We focused on [improving] roads, terrible traffic, hospitals, dirty schools,” and increasing electricity from four hours a day to nearly 24 hours, said Dr. Karim, a neurosurgeon who had worked in America for 33 years before returning to Iraq in 2009. “People were tired of politics and maximalism. We [earned] the confidence and good feelings of Arabs and Turkmen toward a Kurdish governor. They feel like we don’t discriminate. This election was the first time Turkmen and Arabs voted for a Kurd.”

In the recent chaos, the Kurds have now taken full military control of Kirkuk, but I can tell you this: Had Maliki governed Iraq like Karim governed Kirkuk, we would not have this mess today. With the right leadership, people there can live together.

Finally, while none of the main actors in Iraq, other than Kurds, are fighting for our values, is anyone there even fighting for our interests: a minimally stable Iraq that doesn’t threaten us? And whom we can realistically help? The answers still aren’t clear to me, and, until they are, I’d be very wary about intervening.

“ScottW” from Chapel Hill, NC has a question for Tommy in the comments:  “Any thoughts of ever admitting you were wrong in cheerleading the U.S. to invade and destroy Iraq back in 2003?”  [crickets]  And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

The Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.

Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.

“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto, who later left Yale and founded Apply High, a firm that guides students through the admissions process.

And his point in bringing her story up during a recent interview? The same as mine in passing it along:

When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole, as I’ve observed before. And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that.

It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.

“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.

But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the Jerry Springer-ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.

Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic vomiting syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?

Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.

Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.

“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.

He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”

“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.

THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.

“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”

Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.

In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.

The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in New Haven lay beyond them.

Brooks and Krugman

June 13, 2014

Bobo has outdone himself.  In “The Big Burn” he raves that after neglect from the United States, the Sunni-Shiite conflict explodes in Iraq.  “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “David, I have my issues with the President, but I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on his decision to leave Iraq.  That said, should you or any of your brothers in the neocon movement feel so motivated, please know that we will respect your decision to enlist in the Iraqi military.”  Or even our military for that matter — they’re members of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders now.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Fix Isn’t In,” says the surprise primary defeat of Eric Cantor is the unraveling of an ideological movement.  Here’s Bobo:

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government. Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building. As Dexter Filkins, who covered the war for The Times, wrote in a blog post this week for The New Yorker, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.”

The Iraqi Army was performing more professionally. American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.

We’ll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence.

The administration didn’t begin negotiations on the treaty until a few months before American troops would have to start their withdrawal. The administration increased the demands. As Filkins writes, “The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of lack of engagement by the White House.”

American troops left in 2011. President Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.

This slide toward chaos was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which worsened at about the same time. Two nations, both sitting astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line, were growing consumed by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region looked on, hatreds rising.

The same voices that warned about the hasty Iraq withdrawal urged President Obama to strengthen the moderates in Syria. They were joined in this fight by a contingent in the State Department.

But little was done. The moderate opposition floundered. The death toll surged. The radical terror force ISIS, for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, enjoyed a safe haven from which to operate, organize and recruit.

President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world.

And now the fears of one really big war seem to be coming true. The ISIS serves as a de facto government in growing areas of Syria and Iraq. Extremist armies are routing the official Iraqi Army, even though they are outmanned by as many as 15 to 1. Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation.

Andrew White is a Christian aid worker in Iraq, working on reconciliation. On his blog, he reports that the nation “is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war.” ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaeda as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, he says, adding, “It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets.”

Meanwhile, autocrats around the region are preparing to manipulate a wider conflagration. The Pakistani Taliban is lighting up their corner of the world. Yemen and Libya are anarchic. Radical jihadis have the momentum as thousands of potential recruits must recognize.

We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse. The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed.

It is not too late to help Syrian moderates. In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government could empower regional governments, acknowledging the nation’s diversity. Maliki could re-professionalize the Army. The Constitution could impose term limits on prime ministers.

But these provisions would require a more forward-leaning American posture around the world, an awareness that sometimes a U.S.-created vacuum can be ruinous. The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.

Loathsome creature…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

How big a deal is the surprise primary defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader? Very. Movement conservatism, which dominated American politics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the election of Barack Obama — and which many pundits thought could make a comeback this year — is unraveling before our eyes.

I don’t mean that conservatism in general is dying. But what I and others mean by “movement conservatism,” a term I think I learned from the historian Rick Perlstein, is something more specific: an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.

By rejecting Mr. Cantor, the Republican base showed that it has gotten wise to the electoral bait and switch, and, by his fall, Mr. Cantor showed that the support network can no longer guarantee job security. For around three decades, the conservative fix was in; but no more.

To see what I mean by bait and switch, think about what happened in 2004. George W. Bush won re-election by posing as a champion of national security and traditional values — as I like to say, he ran as America’s defender against gay married terrorists — then turned immediately to his real priority: privatizing Social Security. It was the perfect illustration of the strategy famously described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” in which Republicans would mobilize voters with social issues, but invariably turn postelection to serving the interests of corporations and the 1 percent.

In return for this service, businesses and the wealthy provided both lavish financial support for right-minded (in both senses) politicians and a safety net — “wing-nut welfare” — for loyalists. In particular, there were always comfortable berths waiting for those who left office, voluntarily or otherwise. There were lobbying jobs; there were commentator spots at Fox News and elsewhere (two former Bush speechwriters are now Washington Post columnists); there were “research” positions (after losing his Senate seat, Rick Santorum became director of the “America’s Enemies” program at a think tank supported by the Koch brothers, among others).

The combination of a successful electoral strategy and the safety net made being a conservative loyalist a seemingly low-risk professional path. The cause was radical, but the people it recruited tended increasingly to be apparatchiks, motivated more by careerism than by conviction.

That’s certainly the impression Mr. Cantor conveyed. I’ve never heard him described as inspiring. His political rhetoric was nasty but low-energy, and often amazingly tone-deaf. You may recall, for example, that in 2012 he chose to celebrate Labor Day with a Twitter post honoring business owners. But he was evidently very good at playing the inside game.

It turns out, however, that this is no longer enough. We don’t know exactly why he lost his primary, but it seems clear that Republican base voters didn’t trust him to serve their priorities as opposed to those of corporate interests (and they were probably right). And the specific issue that loomed largest, immigration, also happens to be one on which the divergence between the base and the party elite is wide. It’s not just that the elite believes that it must find a way to reach Hispanics, whom the base loathes. There’s also an inherent conflict between the base’s nativism and the corporate desire for abundant, cheap labor.

And while Mr. Cantor won’t go hungry — he’ll surely find a comfortable niche on K Street — the humiliation of his fall is a warning that becoming a conservative apparatchik isn’t the safe career choice it once seemed.

So whither movement conservatism? Before the Virginia upset, there was a widespread media narrative to the effect that the Republican establishment was regaining control from the Tea Party, which was really a claim that good old-fashioned movement conservatism was on its way back. In reality, however, establishment figures who won primaries did so only by reinventing themselves as extremists. And Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that lip service to extremism isn’t enough; the base needs to believe that you really mean it.

In the long run — which probably begins in 2016 — this will be bad news for the G.O.P., because the party is moving right on social issues at a time when the country at large is moving left. (Think about how quickly the ground has shifted on gay marriage.) Meanwhile, however, what we’re looking at is a party that will be even more extreme, even less interested in participating in normal governance, than it has been since 2008. An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.

The wingnut welfare system isn’t going to go away any time soon…

Brooks and Krugman

May 16, 2014

Bobo thinks he has found the “Stairway to Wisdom.”  He babbles that to investigate social problems, nothing can replace the knowledge gained through relationships.  His topic is, God help us, teenage pregnancy.  In the comments “Howard” from Los Angeles had this to say:  “Ah, teenage pregnancy. It’s all about girls and their choices. Boys have nothing to do with it, or so you imply:  ‘Maybe a young woman just wanted to feel like an adult; maybe she had some desire for arduous love, maybe she was just absent-minded, or loved danger, or couldn’t resist her boyfriend, or saw no possible upside for her future anyway.’  If the academic friends you mention include some biologists, maybe they can help you understand the role of male sexuality in producing offspring.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — if men got pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.  Bobo also uses the phrase “those of us in the more affluent classes.”  How special…  In “Points of No Return” Prof. Krugman says false doctrines on climate science have become badges of identity for Republicans, and that’s more frightening than some of the environmental change underway.  Here’s Bobo:

Let’s say you wanted to understand a social problem in depth. Let’s say you wanted to move from a dry, statistical understanding of a problem to a rich, humane one. How would you do it? What steps would you take on your climb toward understanding?

Well, obviously, first you’d start with the data. Let’s say, for example, you were studying teenage pregnancy. You’d want to understand the basic facts and trends. You’d discover from a recent Brookings Institution report that annual teenage childbearing rates have declined by an astonishing 52 percent since 1991.

Next you’d want to get some grasp of the general causes for this phenomenon. At this stage, you would consult the academic research.

This research casts doubt on some possible explanations for the amazing decline. Teenage pregnancy rates are not falling because abortion is on the rise. As far as we can tell, abortion rates are falling, too. Better sexual education must have had some role, but that doesn’t explain the trend either. Teen pregnancy is declining just as much in states like Texas without comprehensive sex ed as it is in states like New Jersey with it.

On the other hand, improved contraception is working. Pregnancy rates fall as people move away from condoms toward IUDs. Sexual attitudes are changing, too. Teenagers are having their first sexual experiences later than they used to and they are less sexually active than previous generations.

This academic research offers a look at general tendencies within groups. The research helps you to make informed generalizations about how categories of people are behaving. If you use it correctly, you can even make snappy generalizations about classes of people that are fun and useful up to a point.

But this work is insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding. Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism. My academic colleagues sometimes disparage journalism, but, when done right, it offers a higher form of knowing than social science research.

By conducting sensitive interviews and by telling a specific story, the best journalism respects the infinite dignity of the individual, and the unique blend of thoughts and feelings that go into that real, breathing life.

A pregnancy, for example, isn’t just a piece of data in a set. It came about after a unique blend of longings and experiences. Maybe a young woman just wanted to feel like an adult; maybe she had some desire for arduous love, maybe she was just absent-minded, or loved danger, or couldn’t resist her boyfriend, or saw no possible upside for her future anyway. In each case the ingredients will be different. Only careful case-by-case storytelling can uncover and respect the delirious iconoclasm of how life is actually lived.

But even this isn’t the highest rung on the ladder of understanding. Statisticians, academics and journalists all adopt a dispassionate pose. Academics rely on formal methodology and jargon. Journalists observe from behind the wall of their notebooks.

The highest rung on the stairway to understanding is intimacy. Our master-teacher here is Augustine. As he aged, Augustine came to reject those who thought they could understand others from some detached objective stance.

He came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.

There is a tendency now, especially for those of us in the more affluent classes, to want to use education to make life more predictable, to seek control as the essential good, to emphasize data that masks the remorseless unpredictability of individual lives. But people engaged in direct contact with problems like teenage pregnancy are cured of those linear illusions. Those of us who work with data and for newspapers probably should be continually reminding ourselves to bow down before the knowledge of participation, to defer to the highest form of understanding, which is held by those who walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Recently two research teams, working independently and using different methods, reached an alarming conclusion: The West Antarctic ice sheet is doomed. The sheet’s slide into the ocean, and the resulting sharp rise in sea levels, will probably happen slowly. But it’s irreversible. Even if we took drastic action to limit global warming right now, this particular process of environmental change has reached a point of no return.

Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — much of whose state is now fated to sink beneath the waves — weighed in on climate change. Some readers may recall that in 2012 Mr. Rubio, asked how old he believed the earth to be, replied “I’m not a scientist, man.” This time, however, he confidently declared the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change false, although in a later interview he was unable to cite any sources for his skepticism.

So why would the senator make such a statement? The answer is that like that ice sheet, his party’s intellectual evolution (or maybe more accurately, its devolution) has reached a point of no return, in which allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of doctrines — how support for a false dogma can become politically mandatory, and how overwhelming contrary evidence only makes such dogmas stronger and more extreme. For the most part, I’ve been focusing on economic issues, but the same story applies with even greater force to climate.

To see how it works, consider a topic I know well: the recent history of inflation scares.

More than five years have passed since many conservatives started warning that the Federal Reserve, by taking action to contain the financial crisis and boost the economy, was setting the stage for runaway inflation. And, to be fair, that wasn’t a crazy position to take in 2009; I could have told you it was wrong (and, in fact, I did), but you could see where it was coming from.

Over time, however, as the promised inflation kept failing to arrive, there should have come a point when the inflationistas conceded their error and moved on.

In fact, however, few did. Instead, they mostly doubled down on their predictions of doom, and some moved on to conspiracy theorizing, claiming that high inflation was already happening, but was being concealed by government officials.

Why the bad behavior? Nobody likes admitting to mistakes, and all of us — even those of us who try not to — sometimes engage in motivated reasoning, selectively citing facts to support our preconceptions.

But hard as it is to admit one’s own errors, it’s much harder to admit that your entire political movement got it badly wrong. Inflation phobia has always been closely bound up with right-wing politics; to admit that this phobia was misguided would have meant conceding that one whole side of the political divide was fundamentally off base about how the economy works. So most of the inflationistas have responded to the failure of their prediction by becoming more, not less, extreme in their dogma, which will make it even harder for them ever to admit that they, and the political movement they serve, have been wrong all along.

The same kind of thing is clearly happening on the issue of global warming. There are, obviously, some fundamental factors underlying G.O.P. climate skepticism: The influence of powerful vested interests (including, though by no means limited to, the Koch brothers), plus the party’s hostility to any argument for government intervention. But there is clearly also some kind of cumulative process at work. As the evidence for a changing climate keeps accumulating, the Republican Party’s commitment to denial just gets stronger.

Think of it this way: Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining a Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated — hence Mr. Rubio’s statement, which was effectively a partisan pledge of allegiance.

And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm. A decade ago, only the G.O.P.’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstream within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in general.

It’s hard to see what could reverse this growing hostility to inconvenient science. As I said, the process of intellectual devolution seems to have reached a point of no return. And that scares me more than the news about that ice sheet.

I continue to thank God that I don’t have children who will have to live through what’s coming, and also that I’ll be dead before the worst of it.

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

May 11, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to weigh in on “Rape and the College Brand.”  He says that the corporate university doesn’t want to hear about sexual assault.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “Douthat is on a one-man crusade to end sex between consenting adults, and he’s not going to let a bunch of (here he spits on the ground) “left-wing” and “feminist” groups mischaracterize what really underlies campus sexual abuse. The problem with the lax response to sexual aggression isn’t just that campus administrators are not taking such accusations seriously, but, according to Mr. Douthat, that they aren’t enforcing an overall policy of moral rectitude. Opus Dei wouldn’t put up with that, and neither should Harvard.”  At this juncture I can’t resist reminding people about Chunky Reese Witherspoon.  MoDo has found a new target.  In “With Malice Toward Nuns” she snarls that the cool pope begins to lose his cool.  The Moustache of Wisdom is in Hanoi.  In “More Chopsticks, Please” he tells us that traveling from Kiev to Hanoi within a matter of days was extremely revealing.  He doesn’t mention a cab driver…  Mr. Kristof has a question:  “What’s So Scary About Smart Girls?”  He says the greatest threat to extremism isn’t an army. It’s girls reading books. Want to stick it to Boko Haram? Help educate a girl.  In “Lessons in Catholic Judgment” Mr. Bruni says despite the pope’s gentle words, parochial school teachers confront a harsh litany of “thou shalt not.”  Here’s The Putz:

In last week’s column, I wrote about the connection between college social life and socioeconomic stratification, and the way the party scene at many universities, oriented toward heavy drinking and hooking up, creates distinctive challenges for working-class students, whether they’re attracted to its thrills or alienated by its excesses.

What I didn’t discuss was the ongoing ideological war over a more specific and toxic issue in college social life: the prevalence on campuses, often in alcohol-infused situations, of rape and sexual assault, and the question of what college administrations should be obliged to do about it.

The conflict pits an array of campus activists — students who have been raped or assaulted, supported by left-wing and feminist groups — against their own deans and administrators and disciplinary committees. The activists, lately with the support of the Obama White House, have leveraged Title IX’s rules against sex discrimination to pressure colleges to expand counseling for victims, to cooperate more fully with police departments and — most important — to take a much harder disciplinary line against sexual misconduct.

The colleges, for various reasons, are disinclined to push back too hard publicly against their critics. So conservative and libertarian observers — a mostly female group, it should be said, including Reason’s Cathy Young, Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle, the American Enterprise Institute’s Caroline Kitchens and others — have stepped into the breach.

These writers have cast doubt on some of the statistics invoked by campus activists (particularly the White House’s claim that one in five collegiate women will be sexually assaulted), questioned whether college disciplinary committees are really equipped to adjudicate guilt and innocence in such cases (“if a college wouldn’t conduct a murder trial, it shouldn’t be conducting rape trials,” writes McArdle) and cited instances — which might be multiplied if the activists had their way — in which accused male rapists were denied a fair hearing and railroaded instead.

Such arguments add up to a plausible case against some of the activists’ prescriptions. But they don’t inspire much sympathy for the colleges’ position in this controversy. The protesting students may be overzealous and unduly ideological, but when you’re running an essentially corrupt institution, sometimes that’s the kind of opposition you deserve.

Corruption is a strong word, but not, I think, unmerited. Over the last few generations, America’s most prominent universities — both public and private — have pursued a strategy of corporate expansion, furious status competition, and moral and pedagogical retreat. But the moral retreat has in certain ways been disguised: elite schools have abandoned any explicit role in policing the choices and shaping the character of their students, but they have masked that abdication in the nostrums of contemporary P.C. piety — promising diversity, tolerance, safe spaces, etc., with what can feel like a preacher’s sincerity and self-righteousness.

This has allowed them, notionally, to be many things to many people: students are promised adult liberty and a community that will protect them if anything goes wrong; parents get a fuzzy rather than a corporate vibe from deans, R.A.’s and other authority figures; admissions departments get to pitch a fun, even bacchanalian lifestyle while faculty-lounge liberals get to feel as if they’re part of a worthy ideological project.

But the modern university’s primary loyalty is not really to liberalism or political correctness or any kind of ideological design: It’s to the school’s brand, status and bottom line. And when something goes badly wrong, or predators run loose — as tends to happen in a world where teens and early-twentysomethings are barely supervised and held to no standard higher than consent — the mask of kindness and community slips, and the face revealed beneath is often bloodless, corporate and intent on self-protection.

I glimpsed this face, and saw it reflected in my friends’ eyes, at various moments of crisis during my own four years in higher education; I doubt that anything has changed for the better in the 12 years since. This seems to be what the anti-rape activists — victims, friends, sympathizers — are reacting against so strongly: the realization that an institution that seemed to make one set of promises had other priorities all along.

That the activists’ moral outrage is justified does not mean, again, that their prescriptions are correct. Their fatal conceit in many cases is the idea that by sweeping away misogyny they can resolve the internal contradictions of social liberalism, and usher in a world where everyone can be libertines together, and a hard-drinking, sexually permissive culture can be experienced identically by male and female, rich and middle class and poor.

This is a utopian, ahistorical vision, and its pursuit is fraught with peril: like many revolutionaries, today’s campus activists might well end up toppling a corrupt order only to install a kind of police state in its stead.

But the regime they’re rebelling against still deserves — richly — to eventually be overthrown.

And now here’s MoDo:

So much for all the cozy hugs and soothing cold calls and fun selfies and humble gestures and talk of mercy, love, inclusion, equality and justice.

Pope Francis appears guilty of condoning that most base Vatican sport: bullying nuns.

The cool pope suddenly doesn’t seem so cool, allowing Rome’s grand inquisitors to torque up the derogation this Mother’s Day of the American sisters who have mothered so many — even as an endless parade of ghoulish priests were shielded as they defiled vulnerable kids in their care.

Pope Benedict’s Vatican was determined to rein in American nuns inspired by Vatican II, accusing them of pushing “radical feminist themes” and caring for the sick instead of parroting church teaching opposing contraception, gay relationships and the ordination of women.

Although some conservative American bishops have politicized the abortion issue, punishing liberal pols who were pro-choice, they were furious that some uppity nuns supported the president’s health care plan, including his compromise on contraception for religious hospitals.

On Monday, we learned that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, upbraided the officers of the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which has already been investigated and reprimanded by Rome. He objected to their plan to honor Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham theology professor who has written that women are uncomfortable with “the dominant images of God as father, lord, and king” and would prefer “non-authoritarian” female language for God.

Last year Pope Francis said he would let the Vatican’s coercive reform of the nuns’ group continue. And this past week, he was silent following Müller’s mauling of the nuns.

The odd thing, as his biographer Paul Vallely told me, is, “He basically agrees with the nuns.”

The new pope’s focus on the poor and social justice, his “Who am I to judge?” cri de coeur on gays, his critique that the church has become too “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception — all these shocking and refreshing moves echo the gospel-infused spirit for which the nuns are being punished.

“This latest slapdown raises a big question about Pope Francis’s character,” said Kenneth Briggs, the author of “Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns.” “Is he content projecting a Mr. Nice Guy image while giving the green light to the Vatican big boys to pursue a hard line? Is he the butterfly who delights everybody, or is he also the strong arm?”

Although the 77-year-old pope has said that women could gain greater power in the church, other comments have been typically atavistic. While praising women for their “sensitivity,” “intuition” and mothering skills, he said flatly that women’s ordination to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion.”

The pope has admitted that as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, head of the Jesuits in Argentina, he did not do enough to fight the Dirty War. Bergoglio helped some people privately but did not come to grips publicly with the murderous junta.

“It was a sin of omission,” Briggs said. “He apparently didn’t have the gumption to go to that next step. It parallels what has happened with the nuns.”

Two of his priests, vocal advocates of the poor who worked in the slums, were captured and viciously tortured by the junta. One wrote a book claiming that Bergoglio had informed on them to the military, a claim the pope denies.

In his book “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” Vallely writes that Bergoglio later realized he “should have seen the danger in which he was placing his two priests” and “has been trying to atone for his behavior ever since.”

In Rolling Stone, Mark Binelli said that Pope Francis’s charm masks “authoritarian steel.”

Vallely told me that the pope is “intent on sending ambiguous signals in certain areas.”

He did not contradict Cardinal Müller “because that would be sending out a liberal message rather than an inclusive message,” the biographer said. But in June, the pope reportedly told a group of nuns and priests from Latin America not to worry if they heard from the orthodoxy enforcers because “this will pass!”

Vallely said that the pope was allowing the liberal German Cardinal Walter Kasper to make speeches on changing the rules to allow divorced Catholics to take Communion at the same time he’s allowing conservatives to oppose the same thing. He chose a liberal pope for sainthood to balance the conservative, pedophile-shielding pope.

“The thing he really hates is the way the papacy used to work like a medieval monarchy,” Vallely said. “He wants the church to reach decisions slowly, by conversations within the church. He wants to hear all the different voices. He’s letting a thousand flowers bloom.”

Or not. Women, gays and dissident Catholics who had fresh hope are going to have to face the reality that while this pope is a huge improvement on the last, the intolerance is still there.

We are still going to be discriminated against, but with a smile instead of a frown.

Maybe a frown is more honest.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

By an accident of scheduling, I’ve visited Kiev and Hanoi in the last couple weeks, and it’s been accidentally extremely revealing. Ukraine is a middle power living next to a giant bear, and Vietnam is a middle power living next to a giant tiger. Ukraine is struggling with how to deal with a declining Russia that is looking for dignity in all the wrong places — like in Crimea — and Vietnam is struggling with how to deal with a rising China that is looking for oil in all the wrong places — like in Vietnam’s territorial waters. Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine has been: “Marry me, or I’ll kill you.” And China’s toward Vietnam has been a variation of that line from “There Will Be Blood”: “I have a long straw, so I think I’ll drink my milkshake and yours.”

Meanwhile, America is trying to figure out how to buttress both Vietnam and Ukraine in their struggles with their giant neighbors without getting entangled in either dispute. And in my jet-lagged torpor, all I’ve been trying to do is make sure I don’t order Chicken Kiev in Hanoi and Chicken Spring Rolls in Kiev.

Both conflicts tell us a lot about the post-post-Cold War world. Neither Russia’s intervention in Ukraine nor China’s in Vietnam’s territorial waters is based on grand ideology or global aspiration. Both are about regional control, spurred by nationalism and resource competition.

Another similarity is that both Russia and China have not engaged in traditional crossborder aggression with their neighbors, choosing instead to operate behind cutouts. Russia used “little green men” in Ukraine — camouflaged pro-Russia gunmen whose identities are unclear — and China deployed a flotilla of 70 civilian vessels and just a few navy ships to the South China Sea. They towed a giant deep-sea drilling rig 130 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam — well within Vietnam’s continental shelf but also in range of the disputed Paracel Islands that China claims are its own and therefore entitle Beijing to control a wide arc of surrounding waters.

Vietnamese TV has been airing an animated re-enactment of the confrontation: When a Vietnamese navy patrol boat challenged a larger Chinese vessel, it rammed the Vietnamese ship, wounding six sailors. Then another Chinese ship used a giant water cannon to shoo away the Vietnamese boats. It’s a huge story here in Hanoi.

In both cases, Russia and China used tactics firm enough to get their way but calibrated not to galvanize the international community to react much. China’s timing, though, right after President Obama’s visit to the region — when he criticized China’s expansive maritime claims — seemed to be a squirt gun in his face.

“It has been a real shock for the whole region,” Ha Huy Thong, the vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Vietnamese Parliament told me. “They use civilian vessels, and then if you attack them they say, ‘Why did you attack our civilians?’ ”

But Vietnam has limited options. China “is a rising power. The question is how can we deal with it?” said Thong. “It is not only a violation of our territory but of international law.”

The only way to deter such regional powers when they bully one neighbor is with a coalition of all the neighbors. But such coalitions are hard to build when the threat is to just one country, is relatively low level and when the threatening country (China or Russia) controls so much trade to the rest of Asia in the case of China and so much gas to Ukraine and Europe in the case of Russia.

“We have a saying in Vietnamese,” added Thong: “It’s easy to break two chopsticks, but it’s very hard to break a bundle of them.” Until such a coalition gets built, Vietnam — in an irony of history — finds itself now looking to America for more protection from its historical predator, China.

Le Duy Anh, 24, a lecturer at Hanoi’s FPT School of Business (FSB), remarked to me when I visited his campus that whenever China does something to Vietnam these days people go to the American Embassy in Hanoi and demonstrate. For so many years, Vietnamese fought a war with Americans “trying to get you out,” he said, “and now we are demonstrating to get you to intervene. We don’t want bloodshed, so we need someone to tell someone else to calm down.”

So Americans may think we’ve lost influence in the world, but, the truth is, many people out here want our “presence” more than ever. This is especially true of those living on the borders of Russia and China, who are each sort of half in and half out of today’s globalization system — beneficiaries of its trading and investment regimes but revisionists when it comes to playing by all the rules in their own neighborhoods. We may not be so interested in the world, but a lot of the world is still interested in us — and saying: “Yankee come hither” more than “Yankee go home.”

We’re not going to go to war on either front. And Russia and China also have claims and interests that bear consideration. But if we are to persuade Moscow and Beijing to resolve these border disputes peacefully, not unilaterally, we’ll clearly need a few more chopsticks in our bundle. Which is why America’s ability to build coalitions is as vital today as the exercise of its own power.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

When terrorists in Nigeria organized a secret attack last month, they didn’t target an army barracks, a police department or a drone base. No, Boko Haram militants attacked what is even scarier to a fanatic: a girls’ school.

That’s what extremists do. They target educated girls, their worst nightmare.

That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head at age 15. That’s why the Afghan Taliban throws acid on the faces of girls who dare to seek an education.

Why are fanatics so terrified of girls’ education? Because there’s no force more powerful to transform a society. The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.

In that sense, Boko Haram was behaving perfectly rationally — albeit barbarically — when it kidnapped some of the brightest, most ambitious girls in the region and announced plans to sell them as slaves. If you want to mire a nation in backwardness, manacle your daughters.

What saddens me is that we in the West aren’t acting as rationally. To fight militancy, we invest overwhelmingly in the military toolbox but not so much in the education toolbox that has a far better record at defeating militancy.

President Obama gives the green light to blow up terrorists with drones, but he neglects his 2008 campaign promise to establish a $2 billion global fund for education. I wish Republicans, instead of investigating him for chimerical scandals in Benghazi, Libya, would shine a light on his failure to follow through on that great idea.

So why does girls’ education matter so much? First, because it changes demography.

One of the factors that correlates most strongly to instability is a youth bulge in a population. The more unemployed young men ages 15 to 24, the more upheaval.

One study found that for every 1 percentage point increase in the share of the population aged 15 to 24, the risk of civil war increases by 4 percent.

That means that curbing birthrates tends to lead to stability, and that’s where educating girls comes in. You educate a boy, and he’ll have fewer children, but it’s a small effect. You educate a girl, and, on average, she will have a significantly smaller family. One robust Nigeria study managed to tease out correlation from causation and found that for each additional year of primary school, a girl has 0.26 fewer children. So if we want to reduce the youth bulge a decade from now, educate girls today.

More broadly, girls’ education can, in effect, almost double the formal labor force. It boosts the economy, raising living standards and promoting a virtuous cycle of development. Asia’s economic boom was built by educating girls and moving them from the villages to far more productive work in the cities.

One example of the power of girls’ education is Bangladesh, which until 1971 was (the seemingly hopeless) part of Pakistan. After Bangladesh gained independence, it emphasized education, including of girls; today, it actually has more girls in high school than boys. Those educated women became the backbone of Grameen Bank, development organizations like BRAC and the garment industry.

Likewise, Oman in the 1960s was one of the most backward countries in the world, with no television, no diplomats and radios banned. Not a single girl attended school in Oman. Then there was a coup, and the new government educated boys and girls alike.

Today, Oman is stable and incomparably better off than its neighbor, Yemen, where girls are still married off young and often denied an education. America is fighting Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Pakistan with drones; maybe we should invest in girls’ schools as Bangladesh and Oman did.

Girls’ education is no silver bullet. Iran and Saudi Arabia have both educated girls but refused to empower them, so both remain mired in the past. But when a country educates and unleashes women, those educated women often become force multipliers for good.

Angeline Mugwendere was an impoverished Zimbabwean girl who was mocked by classmates because she traipsed to school barefoot in a torn dress with nothing underneath. She couldn’t afford school supplies, so she would wash dishes for her teachers in hopes of being given a pen or paper in thanks.

Yet Angeline was brilliant. In the nationwide sixth-grade graduation examinations, she had the highest score in her entire district — indeed, one of the highest scores in the country. Yet she had no hope of attending seventh grade because she couldn’t afford the fees.

That’s when a nonprofit called the Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed, came along and helped pay for Angeline to stay in school. She did brilliantly in high school and is now the regional director for Camfed, in charge of helping impoverished girls get to school in four African countries. She’s paying it forward.

Educating girls and empowering women are also tasks that are, by global standards, relatively doable. We spend billions of dollars on intelligence collection, counterterrorism and military interventions, even though they have a quite mixed record. By comparison, educating girls is an underfunded cause even though it’s more straightforward.

Readers often feel helpless, unable to make a difference. But it was a grass-roots movement starting in Nigeria that grabbed attention and held leaders accountable to address it. Nigeria’s leaders perhaps now realize that they must protect not only oil wells but an even greater treasure: the nation’s students.

Likewise, any of us can stick it to Boko Haram by helping to educate a girl. A $40 gift at Camfed.org buys a uniform so that a girl can go to school.

We can also call on members of Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, which would elevate the issue of sexual violence on the global agenda.

Boko Haram has a stronghold in northeastern Nigeria because it’s an area where education is weak and women are marginalized. Some two-thirds of women in the region have had no formal education. Only 1 in 20 has completed high school. Half are married by age 15.

Obviously, the situation in the United States is incomparably better. But we have our own problems. It’s estimated that 100,000 girls under 18 years old in the United States are trafficked into commercial sex each year. So let’s fight to #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria but also here in the United States and around the world.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

“Would Pope Francis Sign the New Catholic Teacher Contract?” That’s the question spelled out on a dozen billboards that have gone up around Cincinnati over the last week or so.

And it’s an excellent one, because it flags the tension between what’s been said in Rome and what’s happening in Ohio, between a message of greater tolerance and the practice of the same old intolerance, between the direction in which the Catholic church needs to move and the matters of sexual morality on which it keeps getting stuck.

Those matters take center stage in an expanded employment contract that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is forcing on more than 2,000 teachers, some of whom are refusing to sign it. In what the document does and doesn’t spell out, it sends the tired message that virtue resides in whom you share your bed with and how you do or don’t procreate.

The more things change, the more they remain mired in libido and loins.

The billboards are sponsored by Cincinnati Voice of the Faithful, which is part of a quickly welling protest of the newly detailed terms of employment.

Teachers in Catholic schools have long been forced to accept a vague morals clause telling them that they shouldn’t contradict Catholic doctrine. But teachers in Catholic schools in the Cincinnati archdiocese are being given a longer, more explicit litany of words and deeds that could get them fired.

The new contract expressly forbids a “homosexual lifestyle” and any “public support” of one. But it says nothing about public support of the death penalty, something else that the church opposes.

The new contract specifically rules out any use or advocacy of abortion rights, surrogacy, even in vitro fertilization. But it doesn’t address possible advocacy of the sorts of bloody military engagements that the church often condemns.

The new contract forbids “living together outside marriage,” “sexual activity out of wedlock” and any public endorsement of either. But there’s no reference to concern for the downtrodden, to the spirit of giving, to charity. And while those are surely more difficult to monitor, aren’t they as essential to Catholic principles, and closer to the core of the faith?

The Cincinnati document could be a harbinger of similar ones around the country. Already, Catholic officials in Hawaii and in Oakland, Calif., have introduced new teacher contracts that reflect the same concerns or delve into the same specifics.

And these specifics contradict what Pope Francis said last year about the church’s undue attention to a handful of divisive social issues.

Remember: Faithful Catholicism has never been a condition of employment in most Catholic schools, which have Protestant teachers, Jewish teachers, teachers of no discernible religion. They know to be respectful. They know to be discreet. But they’re there to decipher the mysteries of algebra, to eradicate the evils of dangling prepositions. They’re not priests.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is blurring that distinction, labeling the new employment agreement a “teacher-minister contract.” The language is deliberate. Religious organizations can claim exemption from anti-discrimination statutes in the hiring and firing of ministers who are actual caretakers of the faith. Putting teachers in that category — lumping them together with clergy — is an end run around laws that govern other employers.

But if Catholic schools are allowed an exemption from public accountability, shouldn’t they be denied public money? In Ohio they receive a significant amount of it, in the form of school-choice vouchers that families can use for parochial education.

With the “teacher-minister” classification and the long list of forbidden behaviors, Catholic officials in Cincinnati are trying to insure themselves against lawsuits like one filed by an unmarried female teacher who was fired after she became pregnant by artificial insemination. (A jury awarded her $171,000.) They’re also rationalizing decisions like the dismissal last year of Mike Moroski, a dean who indicated support for same-sex marriage on his blog.

Over recent days I spoke with him and other former and current employees of Catholic schools in the Cincinnati area. They wondered why religion gets to trump free speech.

They also wondered about run-of-the-mill political activity: Can a teacher be canned for attending a rally for a candidate who’s pro-choice? The contract suggests so.

Does a Catholic-school teacher relinquish the basic privileges of citizenship? The contract raises the question.

And what constitutes “public support” of a Catholic no-no? If a teacher’s Facebook page includes photographs of her niece’s same-sex wedding, is that cause to be fired?

“THE previous contract was two pages,” Richard Hague, who has taught literature and writing for 45 years at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati, said to me. “It was sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell.”

The new contract is six pages and offends him in its suggestion that he must, for example, not express support for gay people in his life. Before it was distributed, Hague, 66, planned to teach for another five years. Now he doesn’t, and explained in a letter to the archdiocese: “I simply cannot believe that Jesus would require me to condemn my friends.”

Hague, who described himself as “a recovering Catholic,” said that his objections were distilled by a priest who told him that the archdiocese was turning “matters of the confessional” into “matters of the firing line.”

Mindy Burger, 63, is also declining to sign the contract, which she called “really misogynistic.”

“If I’m a teacher in a Catholic school and I’m a man, who’s going to know if I’m having sex outside of marriage?” she noted. “But if I’m an unmarried woman and get pregnant, I’m fired.”

These next weeks will be the end of her 18 years as an art teacher at her Catholic elementary school. She attended that very school decades ago and reared her own children as Catholics, but she told me: “At this point, I don’t consider myself Catholic anymore.”

There are so many losers here: kids — many from the inner city — who depend on parochial schools that will now be drained of talent; younger teachers who can’t afford to quit and will carry an embittered attitude into their classrooms; Catholics everywhere, forced to wrestle anew with their church’s archaic fixations; church leaders, who have such a sad knack for driving people away. Isn’t that what Pope Francis was urging an end to?

“I don’t see much in the gospel about sexual stuff,” said Timothy Garry, a lawyer in the Cincinnati area who sent all three of his children to Catholic schools and is trying to persuade the Cincinnati archdiocese to adjust the new contract.

Burger told me: “With Francis, everyone feels so hopeful. That’s one of the ironies of this.”

Dowd and Friedman

May 7, 2014

Well, MoDo’s at it again.  In “Burning the Beret” she hisses that with Monica’s help, the Clintons continue to overshadow Barry.  “ClearEye” from Princeton said everything that needs to be said in the comments:  “Ms. Dowd, by your disrespectful name for the President and obsession with gossipy trivia, you shame yourself and your newspaper.  We would all be better off if you found a position more suited to your abilities, such as columnist for a magazine like Us weekly or on camera reporter for one of the hideous celebrity TV shows.  It is truly disappointing that the NYT allows you to get away with this.”  Amen.  The Moustache of Wisdom apparently thinks that Teddy Roosevelt said “Get crazy and swing a big dick.”  In “Go Big, Get Crazy” he gurgles that President Obama has a legacy opportunity in Ukraine if he would only act on it.  He’s also apparently been living under a rock for the last 6 years since he thinks Republicans can be reasoned with.  Here, unfortunately, is MoDo:

Monica Lewinsky says she would meet me for a drink.

I’m game.

In her new meditation in Vanity Fair, Monica mashes Hawthorne and Coleridge, proclaiming that she’s ready to rip off her “scarlet-A albatross,” “reimagine” her identity and reclaim her narrative.

At long last, she says, she wants to “burn the beret and bury the blue dress” and get unstuck from “the horrible image” of an intern who messed around with the president in the pantry off the Oval Office, spilled the details to the wrong girlfriend and sparked a crazy impeachment scandal.

I wish her luck. Though she’s striking yet another come-hither pose in the magazine, there’s something poignant about a 40-year-old frozen like a fly in amber for something reckless she did in her 20s, while the unbreakable Clintons bulldoze ahead. Besides, with the Clinton restoration barreling toward us and stretching as far as the eye can see to President Chelsea, we could all use a drink.

The last time I encountered Monica was at the Bombay Club, a restaurant nestled between my office and the White House. It was at the height of the impeachment madness and she was drinking a Cosmo at a table with her family. After requesting that the piano player play “Send in the Clowns,” she leaned in with me, demanding to know why I wrote such “scathing” pieces about her.

My columns targeted the panting Peeping Tom Ken Starr and the Clintons and their henchmen, for their wicked attempt to protect the First Couple’s political viability by smearing the intern as a nutty and slutty stalker. I did think Monica could skip posing for cheesecake photos in Vanity Fair while in the middle of a plea bargain. But I felt sorry for her. She had propelled herself into that most loathed stereotype (except by Helen Gurley Brown): the overripe office vixen who seduces her married boss. Feminists turned on her to protect a president with progressive policies on women.

Monica bristled with confidence when she talked to me, but then she retreated to the ladies’ room and had a meltdown on her cellphone with Judy Smith. Smith would go on to fame and fortune as a co-executive producer on Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal,” which focuses on Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, a blend of Judy, who was an African-American crisis manager, and her client Monica, who had an affair with the president.

Washington journalists fawned over the stars of “Scandal” last weekend at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner festivities, which served mainly as a promotional vehicle for the ABC show and HBO’s “Veep.”

The plot of “Scandal” is so luridly over-the-top, it makes the saga of the pizza-bearing intern who inspired it seem almost quaint. You’d think that the book “Monica’s Story,” the HBO documentary, Barbara Walters’s interview and the 1998 Vanity Fair spread would be enough about the most covered affair in history. Heck, the seamy Starr report was enough.

But she must feel that her reticence over the last 10 years of “self-searching and therapy” has led the public to hunger for her thoughts on the eve of Hillary’s book rollout in June and at a moment when President Obama is struggling to pull focus back from the Clintons, whose past and future are more dominant than Obama’s present. Monica is in danger of exploiting her own exploitation as she dishes about a couple whose erotic lives are of waning interest to the country.

But, clearly, she was stung and wanted to have her say about the revelation in February that Hillary had told her friend Diane Blair, knowing it would be made public eventually, that Bill was at fault for the affair but deserved props for trying to “manage someone who was clearly a narcissistic loony toon.” Hillary also said she blamed herself for Bill’s dalliance. Monica trenchantly notes about the feminist icon, who is playing the gender card on the trail this time around: “I find her impulse to blame the Woman — not only me, but herself — troubling.”

Lewinsky said that Bill “took advantage” of her — in a consensual way. “Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath,” she writes, “when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”

Disingenuously and pretentiously, Monica said that the tragedy of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate secretly streamed his liaison with another man over the Web, had wrought “a Prufrockian moment:” Did she dare disturb the Clinton universe to become a spokeswoman against bullying?

Her bullies were crude strangers in person and online who reduced her to a dirty joke or verb. Monica corrects Beyoncé, who sings, “He Monica Lewinsky’d all on my gown,” saying it should be “He Bill Clinton’d all on my gown.” But her bullies were also the Clintons and their vicious attack dogs who worked so hard to turn “that woman,” as Bill so coldly called her, into the scapegoat.

As Hillary gave a campaign-style speech in Maryland Tuesday, warning that economic inequality could lead to “social collapse,” That Woman started her own campaign, keening about her own social collapse. It was like a Golden Oldie tour of a band you didn’t want to hear in the first place.

Well, MoDo, if you don’t want to hear the band why not just STFU about it?  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Up to now, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been playing a weak hand in Ukraine very well. I mean, how strong are you when your allies insist on wearing masks? But Putin thinks he knows his adversaries better than they know themselves. He thinks the Americans will never be serious about energy, that the Europeans will never be serious about sanctions, that the Ukrainian reformers will never be serious about governance, and that he can control the separatist forces he’s unleashed in eastern Ukraine and dial them up or down as he pleases.

The outcome of the Ukraine crisis rides primarily on whether he is right about all this. How’s his bet going so far?

There has been much talk about President Obama’s “leadership” of late. All I know is that, if Obama wants it, Ukraine provides him an ideal legacy leadership opportunity. With one initiative he could simultaneously make America stronger, Putin weaker, the planet healthier and our grandchildren safer.

Since we’ve ruled out sending troops, our short-term ability to influence Putin has to rely on targeted sanctions. But the serious way to weaken Putin, whose economy and government budget is hugely dependent on $100-plus-a-barrel-oil, is with an American domestic grand bargain on energy that unleashes forces that, over time, begin to impact the global price and availability of oil and gas.

Obama should summon the congressional leadership to Camp David and put his own plan on the table: Offer the Republicans the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded oil drilling and fracking (but only at the highest environmental standards) and, in return, demand a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a national renewable portfolio standard that would require every utility in America to gradually introduce more renewable power, and a national California-level home building code for energy efficiency. I would also toss in incentives for expanding the share of nuclear power in our energy mix.

I hate Keystone, which brings disgusting tar sands oil from Canada, and I worry about fracking at low environmental standards, but I’d take this deal in a second because, soon enough, a proper carbon tax would make oil from tar sands uneconomical, and fracking that is paired with a renewable portfolio standard would ensure that natural gas replaces coal not solar, wind and other renewables.

The White House just released a study that found the effects of human-induced climate change impacting every corner of our country, not to mention the world. So such a grand bargain could not be a more timely and necessary win-win-win strategy. It would simultaneously increase our leverage against Putin and Mother Nature. And it would drive a suite of technologies down their cost-curves so we can deploy them at scale and ensure that America is the leader in the next great global industry: clean technology. Obama should throw caution to the wind and go big. If Republicans won’t meet him even halfway on this (yes, I know, unlikely) it would expose them as unwilling to do the things that would meaningfully deter Putin, not to mention buy some insurance against climate change with policies that would make us stronger and healthier even if climate change turns out to be milder.

Go big, Mr. President. Get crazy.

But, as I said, Putin thinks he knows us better than we know ourselves, that we are all hat and no cattle. He is not without reason: for decades, both parties in America have failed to develop an energy strategy, and we’ve paid for it — with oil price shocks, wars, pollution and climate change. Are we forever condemned to be takers, not makers, of energy policy?

And Putin thinks he knows the Europeans better, since so many are beneficiaries of his oil and gas. So far, Europe’s response has been more hand-wringing about Putin than neck-wringing of Putin. They talk softly and carry a big baguette.

The Ukrainian reformers, too, have a huge role to play. They must find a way to conduct free and fair elections in as much of Ukraine as possible on May 25 and then quickly move to parliamentary elections and constitutional reform to put in place the basis for decent governance. The last thing Putin wants is a fairly elected reformist government in Kiev that would have the legitimacy to associate Ukraine with the European Union. Therefore, it’s the first thing Ukrainians must do.

But Putin needs to beware. The separatist allies he ginned up with his agents and Goebbels-scale propaganda campaign in eastern Ukraine could spin out of control. The Putin-inspired separatists could persuade western Ukraine that there is no future with the East, and Kiev might just let them all fall into Putin’s lap — and economic responsibility.

Putin may think he’s Superman, but, the fact is, America, Europe and the Ukrainian reformers collectively have the ability to generate the Kryptonite that would render him powerless: European unity, Ukrainian government legitimacy and U.S. energy. Those are the things of which he is most afraid. What they all have in common, though, is that they’re hard, entail serious choices and will require extraordinary leadership to achieve. So watch all these fronts. I can assure you that Putin is.

Dowd and Friedman

April 30, 2014

Oh, crap.  MoDo’s at it again.  She asks “Is Barry Whiffing?”  The bitch says about the President that a singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.  She apparently wants Obama to be more like the head of the NBA, while using a baseball metaphor.  “stu freeman” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “First off the baseball analogy is ridiculous. Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew are only three of the singles hitters who’ve made it (deservedly) into the Hall of Fame. Second, if Mr. Obama wanted to emulate Adam Silver he’d ban lots of cretinous Tea Party members from taking their seats in Congress. Last I looked he doesn’t have the legal authority to do that. … if you’re in a critical or sardonic mood I suggest you reread your Sunday column so as to recall who the real villains are these days.”  I guess poor MoDo yearns for a real dick-swinger in the White House.  Some of us recall with horror the 8 years we had with W…  In “Challenging Putin’s Values” The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  What if the sanctions on Russia work too well? He says we have to be ready for that.  Here’s that bitch MoDo:

Stop whining, Mr. President.

And stop whiffing.

Don’t whinge off the record with columnists and definitely don’t do it at a press conference with another world leader. It is disorienting to everybody, here at home and around the world.

I empathize with you about being thin-skinned. When you hate being criticized, it’s hard to take a giant steaming plate of “you stink” every day, coming from all sides. But you convey the sense that any difference on substance is lèse-majesté.

You simply proclaim what you believe as though you know it to be absolutely true, hoping we recognize the truth of it, and, if we don’t, then we’ve disappointed you again.

Even some of the chatterers who used to be in your corner now make derogatory remarks about your manhood. And that, I know, really gets under your skin because you think they just don’t get your style of coolly keeping your cards to yourself while you play the long game. Besides, how short memories are. You were the Ice Man who ordered up the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

I also appreciate the fact that it’s harder for you than it was for J.F.K., W. and all those other pols who had their rich daddies and their rich daddies’ rich friends to buy anything they needed and connect them up and smooth the way for them. That gives them a certain nonchalance in the face of opprobrium and difficulty, a luxury that those who propel themselves to the top on their own don’t have.

We understand that it’s frustrating. You’re dealing with some really evil guys and some really nutty pols, and the problems roiling the world now are brutally hard. As the Republican strategist Mike Murphy says, it’s not like the campaign because you have “bigger problems than a will.i.am song can fix.”

But that being said, you are the American president. And the American president should not perpetually use the word “eventually.” And he should not set a tone of resignation with references to this being a relay race and say he’s willing to take “a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf,” and muse that things may not come “to full fruition on your timetable.”

An American president should never say, as you did to the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, about presidents through history: “We’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

Mr. President, I am just trying to get my paragraph right. You need to think bigger.

An American president should never say, as you did Monday in Manila when you got frustrated in a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run.”

Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.

In the immortal words of Earl Weaver, the Hall of Famer who managed the Baltimore Orioles: “The key to winning baseball games is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.” A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.

It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world.

How can we accept these reduced expectations and truculent passivity from the man who offered himself up as the moral beacon of the world, even before he was elected?

As Leon Wieseltier wrote in the latest New Republic, oppressed and threatened swaths of the world are jittery and despairing “because the United States seems no longer reliable in emergencies, which it prefers to meet with meals ready to eat.”

The Times’s Mark Landler, who traveled with the president on his Asia trip, reported that Obama will try to regain the offensive, including a graduation address at West Point putting his foreign policy in context.

Mr. President, don’t you know that we’re speeched out? It’s not what we need right now.

You should take a lesson from Adam Silver, a nerdy technocrat who, in his first big encounter with a crazed tyrant, managed to make the job of N.B.A. commissioner seem much more powerful than that of president of the United States.

Silver took the gutsy move of banning cretinous Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life, after many people speculated that there was little the N.B.A. chief could do except cave. But Silver realized that even if Sterling tries to fight him in court (and wins) he will look good because he stood up for what was right.

Once you liked to have the stage to yourself, Mr. President, to have the aura of the lone man in the arena, not sharing the spotlight with others.

But now when captured alone in a picture, you seem disconnected and adrift.

What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences? Where have you gone, Babe Ruth?

She should consider having her gall bladder checked.  Too much bile isn’t good for you…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

While you can talk about Ukraine until the cows come home, this story is 95 percent about Vladimir Putin and how he has chosen to define Russia’s interests. The truth is, Russia and its neighbors need a different definition of Russia’s interests. That, however, raises a series of questions: Can Moscow ever define its interests differently under Putin? If not, how do we deter him without also weakening Russia to the point of instability? And if we do induce such instability over time with sanctions, do we know what comes next and will we be better off?

I think America and the European Union have done exactly the right thing in ratcheting up sanctions on Putin, to try to stop him from destabilizing Ukraine further and preventing the presidential elections there on May 25 from producing a legitimate government. But we’d also better be ready for the consequences of success.

When we lived in a world of walls — during the Cold War era — weakening Russia was a strategy that seemed to have only upsides. But in a world of webs, a world that is not only more interconnected but interdependent, the steps we take to make Russia weaker can also come back to haunt us. When the world gets this tightly interwoven, not only can your friends kill you as quickly as your rivals (see Greece), but your rivals crumbling can be as dangerous as your rivals rising (see Russia or China).

Russia still has thousands of nuclear warheads that need to be controlled, and hundreds of nuclear bomb-designers. We need Russia’s help to control mafia crime, drug trafficking and cybercrime. And we need a stable Russia to serve as a counterbalance to China, to be a global energy supplier and to provide a social safety net for all its elderly.

The sanctions thus far will not cripple Russia, but, over time, they will sap its strength, and, if widened, will really hurt. Will Putin change? Today’s globalization doesn’t mean leaders won’t do crazy, aggressive or nationalistic things that rattle markets and seemingly defy their economic interests. Putin has already confirmed that. But it does mean that whatever price an autocrat is willing to pay for such behavior will almost always be bigger, and come faster, than anticipated.

Look how just our limited sanctions triggered a stampede by the electronic herd of global investors who have pulled more than $50 billion out of Russia this year. Standard & Poor’s just cut Russia’s rating to one notch above junk status, raising its borrowing costs. The same day, Russia’s central bank boosted a crucial interest rate from 7 percent to 7.5 percent to try to stave off a run on the ruble. Russia’s currency has lost nearly 8 percent against the dollar this year, while its stock market is off 13 percent.

Bloomberg News reported last week that: “Russia scrapped bond sales for the seventh time in eight weeks as investors demanded higher yields.” That is why S.& P. added that continued regional tensions could “further undermine already weakening growth prospects.”

I take no joy in seeing Russia put under economic stress, and we should be ready to consider its legitimate interests in terms of protecting its borders. But the problem today is how President Putin defines those interests. It’s bogus. After all, what is Ukraine trying to do? Host U.S. nuclear missiles? No. Join NATO? No. It isn’t even trying to become a full member of the E.U. It wants to sign an “Association Agreement” that would provide Ukrainian companies more unfettered access to European markets and require them to abide by E.U. regulations, which Ukrainian reformers believe would help drive more rule of law inside their own country and make it more globally competitive. The Ukrainians want to import E.U. rules, not NATO missiles!

It’s actually what Putin should be trying to do for his country, rather than trying to prevent his neighbors from associating with Europe. But Putin is focused on building the power of his state, not the prosperity of his people. And he wants total political control and the right for him and his clique to steal vast sums, while seeking out foreign devils to distract the Russian public. These are not geopolitical interests that we have to respect.

Ukraine is not threatening Russia, but Ukraine’s revolution is threatening Putin. The main goal of the Ukraine uprising is to import a rules-based system from the E.U. that will break the kleptocracy that has dominated Kiev — the same kind of kleptocracy Putin wants to maintain in Moscow. Putin doesn’t care if Germans live by E.U. rules, but when fellow Slavs, like Ukrainians, want to — that is a threat to him at home.

Don’t let anyone tell you the sanctions are meaningless and the only way to influence Russia is by moving tanks. (Putin would love that. It would force every Russian to rally to him.) If anything, we should worry that over time our sanctions will work too well. And don’t let anyone tell you that we’re challenging Russia’s “space.” We’re not. The real issue here is that Ukrainians, as individuals and collectively, are challenging Putin’s “values.”

 We couldn’t stop them if we wanted to. They’ve been empowered by globalization and the I.T. revolution. Get used to it, Comrade Putin.

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

April 27, 2014

There’s nothing quite so tiresome as a convert sometimes.  The Putz has his cassock in a twist over “The Pope’s Phone Call.”  He sniffles that expectations of doctrinal changes on subjects like divorce and communion are growing, and that presents perils for Pope Francis.  Only from rigid little freaks like you, Putzy…  MoDo, in “Slaves to Prejudice,” ponders home home on the racist range, where the cows and the antelope play (for free).  The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Who Will Influence Whom?”  He says as Russia pushes Ukraine, Ukraine pushes Europe.  Mr. Kristof, in “Religion for $1000, Alex,” says Americans are a nation of believers, all right. He then asks, but do they really know what they’re believing in?  In “The Angel in Larry Kramer” Mr. Bruni says with an HBO movie of “The Normal Heart,” a complicated hero gets the tribute he’s due.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

This weekend in Rome, the Catholic Church is celebrating a double canonization — two popes, two sainthoods, 2,000 buses full of pilgrims — that serves as a kind of capstone on Pope Francis’s first year in office, and an illustration of his agenda for the church.

The two popes are John XXIII and John Paul II, respectively the pontiff who summoned the Second Vatican Council and the pontiff who put his stamp on its interpretation. In the partially accurate clichés of Catholic punditry, they are the liberalizer and the conservative, the icon of Catholic progressives and the hero of the Catholic right. And in canonizing them together, Francis is engaging in very deliberate symbolism — signaling, not for the first time, a desire to push the church’s left and right toward a kind of synthesis, and to move Catholicism beyond its post-1960s civil war.

For now, that push has been remarkably successful: to an extent that seemed nearly impossible before his elevation, Francis has altered the church’s image among its more disaffected members (and in the secular press) without making any of the doctrinal shifts that conservative Catholics believe the church, by definition, cannot make.

For now. But there may be trouble ahead.

The source of the potential trouble lies in a place where Francis has arguably been most effective — in the distinction he’s drawn between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between how the church expounds its moral rules and how it approaches the human beings trying to live up to them.

This distinction, always part of Catholicism’s lived experience, has allowed the pope to finesse difficult issues like homosexuality and divorce, and reach out to people whose states of life have left them feeling alienated from their faith.

Now, though, it’s come up in a more specific case — an alleged papal phone call, reported on somewhat confusedly last week, to an Argentine woman who was seeking permission to take communion despite being married to a divorced man, a situation the church considers adultery unless the man’s original marriage were annulled.

According to the husband, who wrote about the phone call on Facebook, Pope Francis gave permission for the woman to do so. According to the Vatican, what Pope Francis said is nobody’s business except for the woman herself. Such conversations, a Vatican spokesman said, “do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities,” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred.”

This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naïf about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely.

And whatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.

One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions — like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks — and not actually trying to teach a living faith.

The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.

Indeed, it could happen even if there are some changes to church rules. The Vatican could relax procedures governing annulments, for instance, in ways that (depending on her circumstances) might address the Argentine woman’s situation, and a press expecting something more sweeping might treat the reform as a big nothing.

There is also a third perilous scenario, even if my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule it out. Francis could actually be considering a truly major shift on remarriage and communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted.

Such a shift wouldn’t just provoke conservative grumbling; it would threaten outright schism. The church has famous martyrs to the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and its teaching on divorce and adultery is grounded not just in tradition or natural law, but in the explicit words of Jesus of Nazareth.

This means that admitting to communion people the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships wouldn’t just look like a modest development in doctrine. It would look like a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction.

Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.

But from small phone calls, large theological crises sometimes grow.

Now here’s MoDo:

When a cranky anarchist in a cowboy hat starts a sentence saying “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” you can be dang sure it’s going downhill from there.

The unsettling thing about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s ugly rant on the Virgin River on Saturday, The Times’s Adam Nagourney told me, was that there was no negative reaction from the semicircle of gun-toting and conspiracy-minded supporters who had gathered round to hear it. The oblivious 67-year-old Bundy, who has refused for 20 years to pay for his cattle to graze on our land, offered a nostalgic ode to slavery.

Recalling that he saw African-Americans sitting on the porch of a public-housing project in North Las Vegas who seemed to have “nothing to do,” Bundy declaimed: “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”

The man hailed as a “savior” and “folk hero” by Fox News doubled down Thursday, declaring: “Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering” if the black community was happier during slave days when “they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them and their men having something to do.”

By Friday, he was saying that all Americans are slaves to the government and comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Just another dark-ages bigot who goes nuts at the idea that whites are losing clout in an America run by a New Age black president. What’s the use of being white, after all, if you can’t be king of the hill — even if the hill really belongs to the government?

Conservatives saw no hypocrisy in rallying around Bundy for breaking the law, refusing to pay between $1 and $2 a month per cow to graze on federal land, while they refuse to consider amnesty for illegal immigrants committing Acts of Love.

Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee, took almost a day to distance himself from the self-immolating Bundy. Paul was so worried about alienating the segment of the party that will decide the nomination, he couldn’t even respond quickly to say the most simple thing on earth: Racism is bad.

As BuzzFeed reported, Chris McDaniel, a G.O.P. state senator mounting a strong challenge to Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary, has written blog posts blaming the “welfare dependent citizens of New Orleans” for not finding higher ground during Katrina, charging that “Mexicans” entering the country are hurting “our culture” and calling racial profiling of Muslims a “victory for common sense.”

From cockfighting rallies to online gun sweepstakes to cracks about “wetbacks” to waxing nostalgic about slavery, the Republican fringe has gone mainstream. When the younger stars of the G.O.P. race to embrace a racist anarchist lionized by Sean Hannity, it underscores the party’s lack of leadership or direction.

After making noise about reaching out to women (even as Senate Republicans unanimously blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and Republican legislatures around the country pass more abortion restrictions), the G.O.P. now has the delightful Det Bowers out there doing marital counseling. Politico reported that the wacky 62-year-old evangelical minister, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina G.O.P. Senate primary, once asserted that 95 percent of broken marriages are caused by women giving more attention to their children than to their husbands. “He did run off with some other woman, and you packed his bags,” Bowers said, adding: “You just ran him off. You paid more attention to your children than you did to him. ‘Oh, he doesn’t need me?’ He needs you more than they do. He chose you, they didn’t. An abominable idolatry.”

It’s a measure of how hallucinogenic conservatives are that they are trying to re-litigate slavery during the second term of the first African-American president.

Earlier this month, Jim DeMint, Tea-Party godfather and president of the Heritage Foundation, bizarrely told a Christian radio station that it was not “big government” that freed the slaves, but “the conscience of the American people” and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. (Umm, wasn’t he big government along with his hundreds of thousands of troops?)

In another case of inexplicable foot-dragging, Rand Paul was reluctant to cut loose Jack Hunter, his social media director and co-author on a Tea Party book, after the media wrote about his past life as a shock jock named the Southern Avenger who advocated secession, wore a Confederate flag mask, toasted John Wilkes Booth, and complained that whites are “not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity” because anything “that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect.”

At Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Friday, Paul said that “The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die.”

He might want to listen to his own advice.

I’ll ask again — what do you think would happen if a black man or a Muslim pulled the kind of crap Bundy is?  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Kiev:

Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?”

Sych’s question cut right to the core of what is unfolding here. Quite simply, a majority of Ukrainians got mad as hell at the game imposed on them — serving as bit players in Putin’s sphere of influence, so Russia could continue to feel like a great power, and also being forced to tolerate a breathtakingly corrupt pro-Russian regime in Kiev. After a bottom-up revolution in the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, which cost 100-plus lives — “the Heavenly Hundred” as they are referred to here — Ukrainians are asserting their own sphere of influence, a desire to be part of the E.U.

But, in doing so, they’re posing a deep philosophical and political challenge to Putin’s Russia — as well as to the E.U. and America. How so?

If Putin loses, and Ukraine breaks free and joins the E.U., it would threaten the very core identity of the Russia that Putin has built and wants to expand — a traditional Russia, where the state dominates the individual and where the glory of Mother Russia comes from the territory it holds, the oil and gas it extracts, the neighbors it dominates, the number of missiles it owns and the geopolitical role it plays in the world — not from empowering its people and nourishing their talents.

If Putin wins and prevents Ukraine from holding a free and fair election on May 25, his malign influence over his neighbors would only grow. And you would see more of what you saw last week when Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, the German engineering giant, went to Moscow to slobber over Putin and reassure him that all their deals would proceed — despite what Kaeser called “politically difficult times.” (That’s German for Putin’s blocking Ukrainians from E.U. membership that Germans already enjoy.)

You can’t walk the cobblestone streets of the St. Sophia Square in Kiev, or tour the magnificent 11th-century onion-domed church of the same name, without learning just how much Russia and Ukraine have influenced one another over the centuries — and today will be no different. The first unified “Rus” state was born in Kiev, when “St. Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev,” unified all the tribes and territories in the region into an entity called by historians “Kievan Rus.” St. Vladimir also made Orthodox Christianity the official religion.

Now fast-forward 1,000-plus years, and you have another “Vladimir the Great” — Mr. Putin — massing troops on Ukraine’s border to re-establish Russia’s influence here. Putin recently hinted that it might be time for him to reclaim “Novorossiya” or New Russia, which is how a region of southeastern Ukraine was referred to by the czars in the 19th century, when it was part of Russia.

So when Putin says New Russia, he really means Old Russia — a Russia that used to dominate Ukraine. And he wants to prevent a New Ukraine from arising that again influences today’s Russia with new ideas, only this time liberal ones.

“This has become an existential fight for everybody,” explained Pavlo Sheremeta, Ukraine’s new economy minister, who added that his liberal Russian friends are calling him, saying: “Please hang on. Don’t betray us.” Don’t let Putin crush the model that Ukraine is trying to build, otherwise Russia will never change.

“Long term, Russia’s success depends on how it competes in the 21st century, and you don’t just compete with oil and tanks and by bullying someone else,” added Sheremeta. That may make you feel strong “at the moment, but it is just a drug. Ukraine’s eventual success can be another proof that democracy, rule of law and human rights are the best recipe for sustainable development — and not the drug [Putin] is giving to his people.”

Nataliya Popovych, a businesswoman and civil society activist here, said Ukrainians have learned from their Orange Revolution in 2004, when they got rid of an old order but just turned everything over to a new group of corrupt politicians. This time the Maidan revolution has spawned a web of civil society groups that are acting as watchdogs on every minister and working to guarantee fair presidential elections.

But it won’t be easy. Ukraine is a complicated place. Its legacy of corruption, venal elites and police brutality mean there are plenty of domestic foes to the Maidan revolutionaries. But Putin’s interventions just make the struggle for a more decent, E.U.-anchored future here that much more difficult.

“The Heavenly Hundred died here for human rights and European values,” Popovych told me. But for these to get consolidated into a new politics in Ukraine, the fledgling new state “has to survive” and that will require the E.U. and America to help protect it.

“We would love this to be all about us,” she said. “But it is a civilizational battle going on. We just happen to be at the center of it.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

With Easter and Passover freshly behind us, let’s test your knowledge of the Bible. How many mistakes can you find:

Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments; for all the differences among religious denominations, the Ten Commandments are a common bedrock that Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree on.

Sodom and his wild girlfriend, Gomorrah, soon set the standard for what not to do. They are turned to pillars of salt.

The Virgin Mary, a young Christian woman, conceives Jesus immaculately and gives birth to him in a Jerusalem manger. Jesus, backed by the Twelve Apostles and their wives, the Epistles, proclaims what we call the Golden Rule: “Do one to others before they do one to you.” The Romans repeatedly crucify Jesus — at Cavalry, Golgotha and other sites — but he resurrects himself each time.

Christianity spreads through the gospels, which differ on details but all provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life from birth to death. Finally, Rome tires of throwing Christians to lions and becomes the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion. The Bible is translated from the original English into countless languages.

So how many errors did you spot? There are about 20 mistakes, which I’ve listed at the end of this column, and they reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.

Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.

“Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion,” Stephen Prothero noted in his book, “Religious Literacy.” “Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

Many Americans know even less about other faiths, from Islam to Hinduism. Several days after 9/11, a vigilante shot and killed an Indian-American Sikh because of the assumption that a turban must mean a Muslim: Ignorance and murderous bigotry joined in one.

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn’t matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America.

How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?

Every high school and college graduate in America should, I think, have some familiarity with statistics, economics and a foreign language such as Spanish. Religion may not be as indispensable, but the humanities should be a part of our repertory. They may not enrich our wallets, but they do enrich our lives. They civilize us. They provide context.

And we don’t want to emulate the long-ago Texas governor who, in one of those stories that may be too good to be true, opposed Spanish instruction because: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”

Errors in the Bible story above: Joan wasn’t Noah’s wife (and Arc wasn’t his name); Moses climbed Mount Sinai, not Cyanide; there were 12 (unnumbered) commandments, and Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions depending in part on how they compress them into 10; Sodom wasn’t a person; same for Gomorrah; they weren’t the ones turned into salt; the Virgin Mary was Jewish; the immaculate conception is a Catholic doctrine referring to the conception of Mary; Jesus was said to be born in Bethlehem; epistles are letters; the Golden Rule governs what you do “unto others”; Jesus was crucified once; it’s Calvary, not Cavalry, and it’s the same place as Golgotha; Jesus is said to have been resurrected once; although we don’t know much about the gospel writers, they presumably weren’t eyewitnesses but incorporated eyewitness sources; the Gospels of Mark and John do not refer to the birth of Jesus; Armenia was first to adopt Christianity as state religion; the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek, not English.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I learned long ago to open my inbox with trepidation. A journalist is a magnet for complaints.

I also learned to take a deep breath and maybe a stiff drink if an email from Larry Kramer lurked there. A journalist who weighed in on gay issues or AIDS was a magnet for his complaints, which were no mere complaints. They were harangues, tirades, jeremiads about what was being overlooked and minimized, about festering injustices and faltering responses, about the need for everyone to summon a fury and determination commensurate to his.

I dreaded Larry Kramer, and sometimes I even detested Larry Kramer, but always — always — I knew that he was on the side of the angels and that we needed him there, in all his unappeasable and obnoxious glory. He was the blazing conscience of a generation of gay people at a crucial hinge of history, when a critical mass of us came far out of the closet, largely because of the AIDS epidemic. He, among others, demanded no less, making clear that our survival depended on it. His outrage gave birth in the 1980s to the protest group Act Up, with its utterly perfect slogan of “Silence=Death.” And the end of silence marked the beginning of so much else.

How to honor that? To thank him? I’m not sure there’s any adequate way, though there is, finally, a tribute that he long craved, sought and despaired of ever seeing, a movie version of “The Normal Heart,” his strident and devastating play of the plague years, during which his thinly fictionalized alter ego, Ned Weeks, tries to sound an early alarm. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Ned, Matt Bomer as his dying lover and Julia Roberts as a physician who shares his sense of urgency, and it will make its debut on HBO on May 25. There are friends of Kramer’s who say that his excitement about it may be helping to keep him alive.

He’s 78 and in precarious health — there have been sustained complications from a liver transplant more than a decade ago — and I used the past tense to describe his screeds only because they have receded. He seems to have lost the energy for them, and he has pulled back from the spotlight, even turning down requests for interviews about the HBO movie.

But maybe he has also looked at the changed landscape around him — the legalization of same-sex marriage in nearly 20 states, gay characters on every other television show, a new postage stamp commemorating Harvey Milk — and mellowed just the teensiest bit. Over the last few years, his emails changed. “I send you hugs and kisses,” he wrote to me about 18 months ago. Hugs and kisses? Kramer used to send brickbats and Molotov cocktails.

Right now there’s an impassioned conversation about proper credit for the huge successes of the marriage-equality movement. It stems from the publication of a book by my Times colleague Jo Becker, “Forcing the Spring,” which focuses narrowly on a few key figures from the fight to overturn a 2008 California referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage. In giving them such primacy, “Forcing the Spring” has raised hackles, and it suggests a new corollary to an old adage. Perhaps history isn’t simply written by the victors. Perhaps it’s written by the publicity-conscious participants with the foresight to glue journalists to their sides.

But any serious discussion of credit has to travel back many decades, to scores of pioneers who fought for the baseline recognition of gay and lesbian people that was a prerequisite for “I do.” It has to encompass Milk, Urvashi Vaid and, yes, Kramer, whose association chiefly with AIDS activism — with getting doctors, drug companies, politicians and gay men to wake the hell up — shortchanges his broader cause and full effect.

He understood as well as anybody else did that for Americans in the 1980s to care about AIDS, they had to care about homosexuals, and to care about homosexuals, they had to realize how many they knew and loved. He appreciated the need for visibility, from which so much subsequent progress on so many other fronts flowed.

Ryan Murphy, who directed “The Normal Heart” and helped shepherd it onto the screen, said recently that when he looks at blessings in his life — the husband he married in the summer of 2012, the son they had later that year — he sees Kramer’s handiwork, Kramer’s bequest.

“I don’t think we’d have the rights we do today as gay people if it wasn’t for Larry,” he told me. “For me, Larry is a civil rights leader, and I rank him up there with all of the greats.”

Kramer is complicated, though, and “The Normal Heart” acknowledges as much while putting a polite spin on it. Part of what makes him so fascinating is how vividly he demonstrates the braid of flattering and less flattering qualities in many heroes. Is it altruism that draws them to the barricades, or vanity? Where does conviction end and zeal begin, and what’s the line between fearlessness and obstinacy? Kramer grew so accustomed to doing battle — it was his default mode, his reflex — that he picked unnecessary fights.

He blew up at Tony Kushner because Kushner’s evolving screenplay for the movie “Lincoln” wasn’t going to explore the belief that the 16th president was gay. He blew up at the writer Michael Cunningham for some other act of supposed heresy. And he once said, in an interview with New York magazine, that he didn’t understand why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say.”

“I’m serious,” he added.

The actress Ellen Barkin, who won a Tony for the role in “The Normal Heart” that Roberts plays in the movie, recently told me about Kramer’s apoplexy when, midway through the production’s run, some fabric on her character’s wheelchair was changed in a way that he deemed all wrong.

In Barkin’s recollection, Kramer said, “Ellen, did you notice that it’s flowers now? She wouldn’t have flowers.”

“I did notice,” she replied to him, “but it’s fine.”

“It’s not fine!” Kramer sputtered. “It’s not.”

And yet, Barkin told me, he could also be the sweetest man she ever met. “It’s an amazing paradox,” she said.

Both sides of Kramer are reflected in a documentary about him that HBO is producing. Its tentative title is “Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger,” and it begins with archival footage of him bellowing the word “plague,” along with expletives, as his eyes bulge. He looks like a deranged messiah.

And then, later in the unfinished movie, he looks like a dazed child, silent and full of wonder as he exchanges wedding vows with his longtime partner, David Webster, in the intensive care unit of a hospital last year.

The documentary is scheduled for release sometime in 2015, possibly in conjunction with an epic gay history of sorts, “The American People,” that Kramer has been writing for decades. It sprawls to thousands of pages, its heft a hint of the same grandiosity that prompted him to call a second autobiographical play of his “The Destiny of Me.”

“He has said again and again, and I think it is truly, truly felt by him, that he loves gay people and considers us all his children,” said Peter Staley, who worked with Kramer to set Act Up in motion.

Staley’s words reminded me of a remarkable novel, “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, that I’d just read. Levithan intersperses scenes of gay teenagers in the present with commentary from a Greek chorus of their gay forebears, who watch them and wonder if they’re aware of the dying and the marching that came before.

“We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers,” says the chorus. “We taught you how to dance.”

The movie of “The Normal Heart” in fact ends with a gay dance, at Yale University, Kramer’s alma mater. From its sidelines, Kramer, in the form of Ned Weeks, gazes at the next generation, seemingly knowing that it will live with less shame and in less fear than his did. His pride and relief are palpable.

“It was important for me to shoot that because it had hope,” Murphy told me, adding that he encouraged Ruffalo to “give a little smile of ‘thank you, Larry, for what you’ve done.’ ”

Thank you indeed. Hugs and kisses.


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