Archive for the ‘Another pile of crap’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

August 29, 2014

Bobo has one of his burning questions in “The Mental Virtues:”  How do you build character in front of your keyboard at work?  Well, Bobo, you could start by not playing Gunga Din to the Mole People.  Just a thought…  Prof. Krugman also has a question in “The Fall of France:”  Has President François Hollande doomed the European project as the disastrous consequences of austerity policies grow more obvious with each passing month?  Here’s Bobo:

We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.

In their 2007 book, “Intellectual Virtues,” Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University and W. Jay Wood of Wheaton College list some of the cerebral virtues. We can all grade ourselves on how good we are at each of them.

First, there is love of learning. Some people are just more ardently curious than others, either by cultivation or by nature.

Second, there is courage. The obvious form of intellectual courage is the willingness to hold unpopular views. But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientists often simply ignore facts that don’t fit with their existing paradigms, but an intellectually courageous person is willing to look at things that are surprisingly hard to look at.

Third, there is firmness. You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness. The firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information. She can gracefully adjust the strength of her conviction to the strength of the evidence. Firmness is a quality of mental agility.

Fourth, there is humility, which is not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.

Fifth, there is autonomy. You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.

Finally, there is generosity. This virtue starts with the willingness to share knowledge and give others credit. But it also means hearing others as they would like to be heard, looking for what each person has to teach and not looking to triumphantly pounce upon their errors.

We all probably excel at some of these virtues and are deficient in others. But I’m struck by how much of the mainstream literature on decision-making treats the mind as some disembodied organ that can be programed like a computer.

In fact, the mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.

Montaigne once wrote that “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing how to handle your own limitations. Warren Buffett made a similar point in his own sphere, “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 I.Q. beats the guy with the 130 I.Q. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble.”

Character tests are pervasive even in modern everyday life. It’s possible to be heroic if you’re just sitting alone in your office. It just doesn’t make for a good movie.

What a tool…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

François Hollande, the president of France since 2012, coulda been a contender. He was elected on a promise to turn away from the austerity policies that killed Europe’s brief, inadequate economic recovery. Since the intellectual justification for these policies was weak and would soon collapse, he could have led a bloc of nations demanding a change of course. But it was not to be. Once in office, Mr. Hollande promptly folded, giving in completely to demands for even more austerity.

Let it not be said, however, that he is entirely spineless. Earlier this week, he took decisive action, but not, alas, on economic policy, although the disastrous consequences of European austerity grow more obvious with each passing month, and even Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, is calling for a change of course. No, all Mr. Hollande’s force was focused on purging members of his government daring to question his subservience to Berlin and Brussels.

It’s a remarkable spectacle. To fully appreciate it, however, you need to understand two things. First, Europe, as a whole, is in deep trouble. Second, however, within that overall pattern of disaster, France’s performance is much better than you would guess from news reports. France isn’t Greece; it isn’t even Italy. But it is letting itself be bullied as if it were a basket case.

On Europe: Like the United States, the euro area — the 18 countries that use the euro as a common currency — started to recover from the 2008 financial crisis midway through 2009. But after a debt crisis erupted in 2010, some European nations were forced, as a condition for loans, to make harsh spending cuts and raise taxes on working families. Meanwhile, Germany and other creditor countries did nothing to offset the downward pressure, and the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, didn’t take extraordinary measures to boost private spending. As a result, the European recovery stalled in 2011, and has never really resumed.

At this point, Europe is doing worse than it did at a comparable stage of the Great Depression. And even more bad news may lie ahead, as Europe shows every sign of sliding into a Japanese-style deflationary trap.

How does France fit into this picture? News reports consistently portray the French economy as a dysfunctional mess, crippled by high taxes and government regulation. So it comes as something of a shock when you look at the actual numbers, which don’t match that story at all. France hasn’t done well since 2008 — in particular, it has lagged Germany — but its overall G.D.P. growth has been much better than the European average, beating not only the troubled economies of southern Europe but creditor nations like the Netherlands. French job performance isn’t too bad. In fact, prime-aged adults are a lot more likely to be employed in France than in the United States.

Nor does France’s situation seem particularly fragile. It doesn’t have a large trade deficit, and it can borrow at historically low interest rates.

Why, then, does France get such bad press? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.

And Mr. Hollande, even though he leads France’s Socialist Party, appears to believe this ideologically motivated bad-mouthing. Worse, he has fallen into a vicious circle in which austerity policies cause growth to stall, and this stalled growth is taken as evidence that France needs even more austerity.

It’s a very sad story, and not just for France.

Most immediately, Europe’s economy is in dire straits. Mr. Draghi, I believe, understands how bad things are. But there’s only so much the central bank can do, and, in any case, he has limited room for maneuvering unless elected leaders are willing to challenge hard-money, balanced-budget orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Germany is incorrigible. Its official response to the shake-up in France was a declaration that “there is no contradiction between consolidation and growth” — hey, never mind the experience of the past four years, we still believe that austerity is expansionary.

So Europe desperately needs the leader of a major economy — one that is not in terrible shape — to stand up and say that austerity is killing the Continent’s economic prospects. Mr. Hollande could and should have been that leader, but he isn’t.

And if the European economy continues to stagnate or worse, what will become of the European project — the long-term effort to secure peace and democracy through shared prosperity? In failing France, Mr. Hollande is also failing Europe as a whole — and nobody knows how bad it might get.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

August 24, 2014

Mr. Kristof is off today.  The Putz is now an authority on ISIS.  In “Our Thoroughly Modern Enemies” he putz-splains to us why radical Islam isn’t just a medieval throwback.   This thing deserves “gemli” from Boston’s entire comment:

“A regular reader of Ross Douthat will know why he was moved to write this hair-splitting denunciation of Islamic terrorism. For one thing, it manages to find something to complain about in Obama’s condemnation of ISIS. No conservative worth his salt can ever completely approve of anything the president does. It also takes a swipe at “liberal” democracy, as if liberalism is inherently toxic, and brutal attacks against it are to be expected.  But the more disturbing reason is that Mr. Douthat has vigorously promoted some views that also have “no place in the 21st century.” These would include most of the tedious conservative dogma that says the poor deserve their fate, or that marriage and childbirth should be “encouraged” by governmental inducements, or that reform conservatism is an actual thing, and not merely the latest shade of lipstick on the proverbial pig. And we shouldn’t overlook Douthat’s writings that accused the pope of not being Catholic enough, when he dared to suggest that the rules might be relaxed regarding Catholics re-marrying and receiving communion.  ISIS is a conservative movement, energized by religious fundamentalism. Their views are extreme, but their warmongering, their embrace of dogma, their attitudes towards women, and their dismissal of education and science are not unknown to us. Sometimes these things are just a matter of degree.”

Amen.  MoDo has taken another cheap shot in “The Golf Address,” giving us from the great battlefield of Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, a few words of national import.  In the comments “rik” from Chappaqua, NY had this to say:  “Satire devolved to insult is not satire…it is snark. Lincoln deserves much better. And so does Obama. The Gettysburg address should never, never be used in this matter. Think of the context, then rethink your words.”  That will never happen, Rik.  The Moustache of Wisdom has sent in “Order Vs. Disorder, Part 3″ in which he says the inequality of freedom is causing instability and chaos as it expands around the world.  In “Black, White and Baseball” Mr. Bruni says the man who coached Mo’ne Davis sees the promise of inner-city kids.  Here, saints preserve us, is the Putz:

In his remarks on the murder of James Foley, the American journalist decapitated by the terrorists of ISIS, President Obama condemned Foley’s killers, appropriately, as a “cancer” on the Middle East and the world. But he also found room for the most Obama-ish of condemnations: “One thing we can all agree on,” he insisted, is that the would-be caliphate’s murderous vision has “no place in the 21st century.”

The idea that America’s foes and rivals are not merely morally but chronologically deficient, confused time travelers who need to turn their DeLorean around, has long been a staple of this administration’s rhetoric. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and tyrants in general have been condemned, in varying contexts, for being on the dreaded “wrong side of history.” Earlier this year, John Kerry dismissed Putin’s Crimea adventure in the same language Obama used last week: “19th-century behavior in the 21st century,” foredoomed by its own anachronism.

These tropes contain a lot of foolishness. Where ISIS is concerned, though, they also include a small but crucial grain of truth.

The foolishness starts with the fact that the history of liberal democracy is actually inseparable, as Abram Shulsky writes in The American Interest, from “the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.” Whether reactionary or utopian, secular or religious, these counter-ideologies are as modern, in their way, as the Emancipation Proclamation or the United Nations Charter. Both illiberal nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are younger than the United States. They aren’t just throwbacks or relics; they’re counterforces that liberal modernity seems to inevitably conjure up.

So writing off the West’s challengers as purely atavistic is a good way to misunderstand them — and to miss the persistent features of human nature that they exploit, appeal to and reward.

These features include not only the lust for violence and the will to power, but also a yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty argues, discussing the Europeans who have joined up with ISIS, liberalism’s “all-too-human order” — which privileges the sober, industrious and slightly boring — is simply “not for everyone.” Nor, most likely, will it ever be: in this century, the 22nd, or beyond.

Which is why liberalism’s current dominance is contingent rather than necessary, and why its past victories have often been rather near-run things. The arc of history, another favored Obama phrase, has at times bent toward pogroms and chattel slavery, totalitarianism and genocide, nuclear annihilation. (For the Middle East’s persecuted Christians and Yazidis, it bends toward annihilation even now.) The ideals of democracy and human rights are ascendant in our age, but their advance still depends on agency, strategy and self-sacrifice, no matter what date the calendar displays.

And yet: Despite perpetuating various comforting fallacies, the White House’s talk of history’s favorites does hint at an important point about the key weakness of the enemies we face right now.

That’s because even if history doesn’t actually take sides, many people the world over share President Obama’s impulses: They want to feel that it sides with them. So the most successful counterideologies, the most threatening of liberalism’s rivals, have always managed to give the impression that their ideas are on the winning side of history, and that it is the poor milquetoast liberal democrats who are antique and out of date.

This was obviously true of Marxist-Leninism, but it was true of fascism as well. The fascists were reactionaries, to a point, in their appeals to mythic Roman and Teutonic pasts. But they offered far more than nostalgia: What the late Christopher Hitchens called “the mobilizing energy of fascism” was inseparable from a vision of efficiency, technology and development, one that helped persuade many Europeans (and some Americans) that Mussolini and then even Hitler stood at history’s vanguard, that the future was being forged in Rome and Berlin.

Fortunately for us, that kind of energy is mostly absent from today’s counterideologies, and particularly from the self-styled caliphate whose brutality was on display last week. The term “Islamofascist,” popularized after 9/11, was imprecise because it gave groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS too much credit: They may know how to use the Internet to propagandize, but they otherwise lack even a hint of the reactionary futurism, the marriage of romanticism to industrial efficiency, that made the original fascism appealing to so many.

That doesn’t mean their ideas are destined to disappear. Their place in our century, our era, is secure. We may crush them militarily, kill and scatter their adherents, but variations on Al Qaeda and ISIS will probably persist as long as liberalism does.

But to contend for mastery, to threaten us the way Nazis and Communists once did, they would need to do more than demonstrate, by their continued depredations, that history doesn’t have necessary destinations. They would need to somehow persuade the world that history’s arc might actually be about to bend toward them.

From one POS to the next POS, here’s MoDo:

FORE! Score? And seven trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth on this continent a new playground, conceived by Robert Trent Jones, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when it comes to spending as much time on the links as possible — even when it seems totally inappropriate, like moments after making a solemn statement condemning the grisly murder of a 40-year-old American journalist beheaded by ISIL.

I know reporters didn’t get a chance to ask questions, but I had to bounce. I had a 1 p.m. tee time at Vineyard Golf Club with Alonzo Mourning and a part-owner of the Boston Celtics. Hillary and I agreed when we partied with Vernon Jordan up here, hanging out with celebrities and rich folks is fun.

Now we are engaged in a great civil divide in Ferguson, which does not even have a golf course, and that’s why I had a “logistical” issue with going there. We are testing whether that community, or any community so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure when the nation’s leader wants nothing more than to sink a birdie putt.

We are met on a great field of that battle, not Augusta, not Pebble Beach, not Bethpage Black, not Burning Tree, but Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, which we can’t get enough of — me, Alonzo, Ray Allen and Marvin Nicholson, my trip director and favorite golfing partner who has played 134 rounds and counting with me.

We have to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for my presidency, if I keep swinging from behind.

Yet it is altogether fitting and proper that I should get to play as much golf as I want, despite all the lame jokes about how golf is turning into “a real handicap” for my presidency and how I have to “stay the course” with ISIL. I’ve heard all the carping that I should be in the Situation Room droning and plinking the bad folks. I know some people think I should go to Ferguson. Don’t they understand that I’ve delegated the Martin Luther King Jr. thing to Eric Holder? Plus, Valerie Jarrett and Al Sharpton have it under control.

I know it doesn’t look good to have pictures of me grinning in a golf cart juxtaposed with ones of James Foley’s parents crying, and a distraught David Cameron rushing back from his vacation after only one day, and the Pentagon news conference with Chuck Hagel and General Dempsey on the failed mission to rescue the hostages in Syria.

We’re stuck in the rough, going to war all over again in Iraq and maybe striking Syria, too. Every time Chuck says ISIL is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” I sprout seven more gray hairs. But my cool golf caps cover them. If only I could just play through the rest of my presidency.

ISIL brutally killing hostages because we won’t pay ransoms, rumbles of coups with our puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan, the racial caldron in Ferguson, the Ebola outbreak, the Putin freakout — there’s enough awful stuff going on to give anyone the yips.

So how can you blame me for wanting to unwind on the course or for five hours at dinner with my former assistant chef? He’s a great organic cook, and he’s got a gluten-free backyard putting green.

But, in a larger sense, we can dedicate, we can consecrate, we can hallow this ground where I can get away from my wife, my mother-in-law, Uncle Joe, Congress and all the other hazards in my life.

The brave foursomes, living and dead, who struggled here in the sand, in the trees, in the water, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or subtract a few strokes to improve our score. Bill Clinton was Mr. Mulligan, and he is twice at popular as I am.

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we shot here, or why I haven’t invited a bunch of tiresome congressmen to tee it up. I’m trying to relax, guys. So I’d much rather stay in the bunker with my usual bros.

Why don’t you play 18 with Mitch McConnell? And John Boehner is a lot better than me, so I don’t want to play with him.

It is for us, the duffers, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who played here have thus far so nobly advanced to get young folks to stop spurning a game they find slow and boring.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us of getting rid of our slice on the public’s dime — that from this honored green we take increased devotion to that cause for which Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy gave their last full measure of devotion — and divots.

We here highly resolve that these golfing greats shall not have competed in vain, especially poor Tiger, and that this nation, under par, shall have a new birth of freedom to play the game that I have become unnaturally obsessed with, and that golf of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

So help me Golf.

She should be horsewhipped.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The United States is swamped by refugee children from collapsing Central American countries; efforts to contain the major Ebola outbreak in West Africa are straining governments there; jihadists have carved out a bloodthirsty caliphate inside Iraq and Syria; after having already eaten Crimea, Russia keeps taking more bites out of Ukraine; and the U.N.’s refugee agency just announced that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” If it feels as though the world of disorder is expanding against the world of order, it’s not your imagination. There’s an unfortunate logic to it.

Three big trends are converging. The first is what one of my teachers Dov Seidman calls the growing number of  “un-free” people in the world — the millions who “have secured a certain kind of freedom but yet feel un-free because they’re now aware that they don’t have the kind of freedom that matters most.”

Seidman, author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, which advises global businesses on governance, points out that while there’s been a lot of warranted focus on the destabilizing effects of income inequality, there is another equally destabilizing inequality emerging at the same time: “It is the inequality of freedom, and it is even more disordering.”

That may sound odd. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of dictators in the Arab awakening, how could more people be feeling “un-free”?

Seidman looks at the world through the framework of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In recent years, he argues, “more people than ever have secured their ‘freedom from’ different autocrats in different countries.” Ukrainians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis to name a few. “But so few are getting the freedom we truly cherish,” he adds. “And that is not just ‘freedom from.’ It is ‘freedom to.’ ”

“Freedom to” is the freedom to live your life, speak your mind, start your own political party, build your own business, vote for any candidate, pursue happiness, and be yourself, whatever your sexual, religious or political orientation.

“Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Such values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats. That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces: countries with what Seidman calls “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics; countries with imposed order — or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions; and, finally, whole regions of disorder, such as Iraq, Syria, Central America and growing swaths of Central and North Africa, where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together anymore.

Imposed order, says Seidman, “depends on having power over people and formal authority to coerce allegiance and compel obedience,” but both are much harder to sustain today in an age of increasingly empowered, informed and connected citizens and employees who can easily connect and collaborate to cast off authority they deem illegitimate.

“Exerting formal power over people,” he adds, “is getting more and more elusive and expensive” — either in the number of people you have to kill or jail or the amount of money you have to spend to anesthetize your people into submission or indifference — “and ultimately it is not sustainable.” The only power that will be sustainable in a world where more people have “freedom from,” argues Seidman, “is power based on leading in a two-way conversation with people, power that is built on moral authority that inspires constructive citizenship and creates the context for ‘freedom to.’ ”

But because generating such sustainable leadership and institutions is hard and takes time, we have a lot more disorderly vacuums in the world today — where people have won “freedom from” without building “freedom to.”

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. That is what President Obama is trying to do in Iraq, by demanding Iraqis build a sustainable inclusive government in tandem with any U.S. military action against the jihadists there. Otherwise, there will never be self-sustaining order there, and they will never be truly free.

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

Now add a third trend, and you can really get worried: America is the tent pole holding up the whole world of order. But our inability to agree on policies that would ensure our long-term economic vitality — an immigration bill that would ease the way for energetic and talented immigrants; a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would replace income and corporate taxes; and government borrowing at these low rates to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, while gradually phasing in long-term fiscal rebalancing — is the definition of shortsighted.

“If we can’t do the hard work of building alliances at home,” says David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming book “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” “we are never going to have the strength or ability to build them around the world.”

 The Cold War involved two competing visions of order. That is, both sides were in the world of order, and all we in the West needed to do was collaborate enough to contain the East/Communism. Today is different. It is a world of order versus a world of disorder — and that disorder can only be contained by the world of order collaborating with itself and with the people in disorder to build their “freedom to.” But “building” is so much harder than “containing.” It takes so much more energy and resources. We’ve got to stop messing around at home as if this moment is just the same-old, same-old — and our real and tacit allies had better wake up, too. Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from South Williamsport, PA:

If you were looking last week for a thread of hope amid all the hurt in America and savagery abroad, for something to thrill to and cheer about, this is where you found it, on a baseball diamond in central Pennsylvania that really did amount to a field of dreams.

It was here, at the Little League World Series, that Mo’ne Davis captured the country’s hearts. A 13-year-old wunderkind from Philadelphia, she was believed to be the first black girl to play in the series. She was definitely the first girl ever to pitch a shutout. She landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, exploded stereotypes about women and sports and did it with a poise and grace that most people twice or even four times her age struggle to muster.

She was some story. So is a lanky white man who watched her from a seat behind home plate, gripped by nervousness, pride and a gnawing regret.

“What haunts me is that for every success we have, there are probably 100 other kids who could be successes but just never had the opportunity,” he told me. “I hope this opened people’s eyes: Kids, given the chance, will excel, whatever their economic background, whatever their race.”

His name is Steve Bandura. He brought Davis into baseball and for many years has coached her, as he has hundreds and hundreds of other inner-city Philadelphia kids going back to the 1990s, when he chucked a well-paying job in marketing to establish a baseball, basketball and soccer league for them.

“These kids had nothing,” Bandura, now 53, told me. “And you’re going to criticize them for getting into trouble when they have nothing to do?”

He was trying to give them focus, purpose, a point of entry to top high schools and colleges and a purchase on bigger, brighter futures. And he accomplished just that. Davis is an example: She’s now an honors student on a scholarship at a private school in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. “And it’s not just her,” Mark Williams, her stepfather, told me. “Steve’s done this for so many inner-city kids. He wants to prove that they can go anywhere. I’ve never met a better person, and when I say that, I mean it.”

Recent events in Ferguson, Mo., were a reminder of how heartbreakingly far apart black and white can be. Bandura and his players provide a glimpse of a different, better possibility.

“The guy is a Disney movie,” said Maximillian Potter, a Denver-based writer who grew up with him in a white working-class area of Philadelphia where racism was prevalent.

Bandura vividly remembers a conversation he once overheard between his father, a machinist, and a landlord in the neighborhood who said that he’d had to throw out a stack of applications from prospective renters. All of the applicants were black.

Bandura’s father didn’t talk or think like that.

“He would go to whatever lengths were necessary to help anyone,” Bandura said. Noting that he and his two sisters were adopted, he told me, “I always felt like the luckiest kid alive. I felt like I won the lottery.”

Sometimes gratitude begets generosity. When Bandura started the inner-city sports league, which was initially for kids ages 5 to 8, he wasn’t even paid. The work remains a considerable financial sacrifice, although he now runs the program as an employee of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, out of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly.

Soon after the league was born, he extended its age range and began taking the best of the older kids and putting them on a traveling baseball team called the Anderson Monarchs, with which Davis and six of the other 11 players on the squad at the Little League World Series are affiliated.

And he turned the Monarchs into more than just a team.

It was a finishing school. He’d bark at the kids about manners, posture, tucking in their shirts, chewing with their mouths closed.

It was a history lesson. He made them read up on Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues, civil rights.

It was a home away from home. For many Monarchs, Bandura was a second father. For some, he was the only one.

“It’s bigger than baseball,” said Bandura’s wife, Robin, who is black. “It’s a culture. It’s about discipline and self-respect and camaraderie: things that don’t really get taught a lot of places.”

IN 1997, which was exactly 50 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Bandura and supporters of the Monarchs raised money so that the players at that time could replicate the kind of “barnstorming” tour that Negro Leagues teams once did, traveling the country to strut their stuff. It was both homage and act of remembrance.

He was able to pull that off again for the Monarchs of 2004 and of 2012. All three times, the tour included a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and all three times, it began or ended with a visit to Robinson’s grave in Brooklyn.

Bandura said that his journeys with the Monarchs have shown him how unaware of their own bigotry people can be: “I’ve been told a hundred times over the years, ‘Your kids are so well-behaved, Coach.’ Do you say that about white teams that you play against? They think they’re giving you a compliment, but they’re just showing their preconceived notions.”

And yet, he said, “With each generation of Monarchs through the years, it gets better.” Touring the Midwest in 1997, the players were treated suspiciously in restaurants. Touring the same region in 2012, they were treated like celebrities.

He used to worry that he was too tough on them with his incessant talk of professionalism and sportsmanship. “I thought they’d hate me,” he said.

But four of the Monarchs from the 1997 team showed up here on Wednesday night, to root for Davis and to see Bandura. They’d all graduated from college.

Bandura told me that he still has the book reports that he made them do decades ago on “Jackie Robinson and the Story of All-Black Baseball.” He required it of them and of many of their successors because, he said, “If you don’t know where you came from, you have no idea where you’re going.” And because he wanted them to have as many role models as possible.

Few can match Robinson. And, Bandura said, there aren’t many messages better than the one on Robinson’s tombstone, a photograph of which appears on the team’s Facebook page.

“A life is not important,” it reads, “except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Dowd and Friedman

August 20, 2014

We’ve got another screed from MoDo.  In “Alone Again, Naturally” she snarls that the rock-star candidate who got elected on his electrifying promise has become a bored bird in a gilded cage.  It’s more of her typical crap.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Will the Ends, Will the Means,” says some important questions have gone unanswered in the Syria blame game.   Here’s MoDo:

Affectations can be dangerous, as Gertrude Stein said.

When Barack Obama first ran for president, he theatrically cast himself as the man alone on the stage. From his address in Berlin to his acceptance speech in Chicago, he eschewed ornaments and other politicians, conveying the sense that he was above the grubby political scene, unearthly and apart.

He began “Dreams From My Father” with a description of his time living on the Upper East Side while he was a student at Columbia, savoring his lone-wolf existence. He was, he wrote, “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” When neighbors began to “cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.”

His only “kindred spirit” was a silent old man who lived alone in the apartment next door. Obama carried groceries for him but never asked his name. When the old man died, Obama briefly regretted not knowing his name, then swiftly regretted his regret.

But what started as an affectation has turned into an affliction.

A front-page article in The Times by Carl Hulse, Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear chronicled how the president’s disdain for politics has alienated many of his most stalwart Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill.

His bored-bird-in-a-gilded-cage attitude, the article said, “has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office.”

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an early Obama backer, noted that “for him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials.”

First the president couldn’t work with Republicans because they were too obdurate. Then he tried to chase down reporters with subpoenas. Now he finds members of his own party an unnecessary distraction.

His circle keeps getting more inner. He golfs with aides and jocks, and he spent his one evening back in Washington from Martha’s Vineyard at a nearly five-hour dinner at the home of a nutritional adviser and former White House assistant chef, Sam Kass.

The president who was elected because he was a hot commodity is now a wet blanket.

The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike L.B.J., who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.

Almost everything else — from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson — just seems like too much trouble.

The 2004 speech that vaulted Obama into the White House soon after he breezed into town turned out to be wrong. He misdescribed the country he wanted to lead. There is a liberal America and a conservative America. And the red-blue divide has only gotten worse in the last six years.

The man whose singular qualification was as a uniter turns out to be singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment.

His boosters argue that we spurned his gift of healing, so healing is the one thing that must not be expected of him. We ingrates won’t let him be the redeemer he could have been.

As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox: “If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better.”

He concluded: “There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.”

So The One who got elected as the most exciting politician in American history is The One from whom we must never again expect excitement?

Do White House officials fear that Fox News could somehow get worse to them?

Sure, the president has enemies. Sure, there are racists out there. Sure, he’s going to get criticized for politicizing something. But as F.D.R. said of his moneyed foes, “I welcome their hatred.”

Why should the president neutralize himself? Why doesn’t he do something bold and thrilling? Get his hands dirty? Stop going to Beverly Hills to raise money and go to St. Louis to raise consciousness? Talk to someone besides Valerie Jarrett?

The Constitution was premised on a system full of factions and polarization. If you’re a fastidious pol who deigns to heal and deal only in a holistic, romantic, unified utopia, the Oval Office is the wrong job for you. The sad part is that this is an ugly, confusing and frightening time at home and abroad, and the country needs its president to illuminate and lead, not sink into some petulant expression of his aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomaniacs.

Once Obama thought his isolation was splendid. But it turned out to be unsplendid.

You’d think she’d get tired…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Hillary Clinton recently reignited the who-lost-Syria debate when she suggested that President Obama made a mistake in not intervening more forcefully early in the Syrian civil war by arming the pro-democracy rebels. I’ve been skeptical about such an intervention — skeptical that there were enough of these “mainstream insurgents,” skeptical that they could ever defeat President Bashar al-Assad’s army and the Islamists and govern Syria. So if people try to sell you on it, ask them these questions before you decide if you are with Clinton or Obama:

1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the S.N.C. resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.

2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?

3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any American boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?

4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?

5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the U.S. having to get involved?

6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men from across the Muslim world have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?

The notion that the only reason that the Islamist militias emerged in Syria is because we created a vacuum by not adequately arming the secular rebels is laughable nonsense. Syria has long had its own Sunni fundamentalist underground. In 1982, when then President Hafez al-Assad perpetrated the Hama massacre, it was in an effort to wipe out those Syrian Islamists. So, yes, there are cultural roots for pluralism in Syria — a country with many Christians and secular Muslims — but there’s also the opposite. Do not kid yourself.

That is why on a brief visit to Darkush, Syria, in December 2012, I was told by the local Free Syrian Army commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, that even after Assad’s regime is toppled there would be another war in Syria: “It will take five or six years,” he added, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah, and we want democracy.” There were always going to be two civil wars there: The liberals and jihadists against Assad and the liberals and jihadists against each other.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with the brave Syrian liberals who dared to take to the streets and demand regime change — unarmed. These are decent, good people, the kind you would like to see running Syria. But it would take a lot more than better arms for them to defeat Assad and the jihadists.

Here Iraq is instructive. You need to go back to the 2010 elections there when Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, who ran with Sunnis, Shiites and Christians on a moderate, pluralistic platform — like Syria’s moderates — actually won more seats than his main competitor, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

What enabled that? I’ll tell you: The U.S. decapitated Saddam’s regime, then helped to midwife an Iraqi Constitution and elections, while U.S. (and Iraqi) special forces either arrested or killed the worst Sunni and Shiite extremists. We took out both extremes without reading them their Miranda rights. That is what gave Iraq’s moderate center the space, confidence and ability to back multisectarian parties, which is what many Iraqis wanted. When our troops left, though, that center couldn’t hold.

I don’t want U.S. troops in Syria any more than anyone else, but I have no respect for the argument that just arming some pro-democracy rebels would have gotten the job done. Yes, there has been a price for Obama’s inaction. But there is a price for effective action as well, which the critics have to be honest about. It’s called an international force. We are dealing not only with states that have disintegrated, but whole societies — and rebuilding them is the mother of all nation-building projects. Will the ends, will the means. Otherwise, you’re not being serious.

And why, pray tell, is it OUR job to rebuild their societies?

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

August 17, 2014

In “Playing Soldier in the Suburbs” The Putz actually thinks he can explain how warrior policing found its way to Ferguson, Mo.  (Hint — it all started with the SLA…)  In the comments “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “…while you and Senator Paul are outspoken about the militarized police, you are silent about the other side of the arms race, a populace that is totally free to arm itself to the teeth.  Until you admit that it’s time to also address the grotesque level of individual armament, I’ll take what you say with a ton of salt. ”  MoDo has a question:  “Where’s the Justice at Justice?”, and also asks why do the president and the attorney general praise the First Amendment while they push to imprison truth?  Mr. Kristof considers “Sister Acts” and says instead of investigating and mocking nuns, we’d be better off if we spent more time emulating them.   In “A Battleground and Bellwether” Mr. Bruni says with several tight, emblematic races, Colorado is a major 2014 player.   Here’s The Putz:

To understand what’s been happening in Ferguson, Mo., where protests and violence following a cop’s shooting of an unarmed teenager summoned up a police response that looked more like a military invasion, it helps to flash back to the heyday of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The S.L.A., one of the loopiest and most dangerous of the homegrown terrorist groups that flourished in the madhouse of the early 1970s, was already famous for kidnapping and “converting” Patty Hearst when its members engaged in a nationally televised shootout in Los Angeles in the spring of 1974.

The firefight, in which six terrorists died without injury to police or bystanders, helped publicize the innovations of a small group of Angeleno police officers. Eight years earlier, after the Watts riots, they began to develop the combat-ready police unit that played a central role in taking down the S.L.A. That unit was America’s first special weapons and tactics team, or SWAT.

In an era of riots and hijackings, the SWAT model understandably spread nationwide. But as the riots died away and the threat of domestic terror receded, SWAT tactics — helicopters, heavy weaponry, the works — became increasingly integrated into normal crime-fighting, and especially into the war on drugs.

This was phase one in the militarization of America’s police forces, as described in Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book on the subject, “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.” Phase two, in which the federal government began supplying local police with military hardware, began in the 1990s and accelerated after 9/11, under the theory that Islamic terrorists could strike anywhere, and that it might take a cop with a grenade launcher to stop them.

In the name of local preparedness, Washington has been bestowing antiterror grants and Pentagon surplus on communities barely touched by major crime, let alone by terrorism. Tanks and aircraft, helmets and armor, guns and grenade launchers have flowed to police departments from Des Moines (home of two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots) to Keene, N.H. (population 23,000, murder rate infinitesimal and the proud custodian of an armored BearCat).

Last week, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis ran the numbers for Missouri and found that the state’s Department of Public Safety received about $69 million from the Department of Homeland Security in the past five years alone. Which helps explain why the streets of a St. Louis suburb flooded so quickly with cops in gas masks and camouflage, driving armored cars and brandishing rifles like an occupying army. It’s our antiterror policies made manifest, our tax dollars at work.

And it’s a path to potential disaster, for cops and citizens alike. The “S” in SWAT was there for a reason: Militarized tactics that are potentially useful in specialized circumstances — like firefights with suicidal terrorist groups — can be counterproductive when employed for crowd-control purposes by rank-and-file cops. (The only recent calm on Ferguson’s streets came after state cops started walking through the crowds in blue uniforms, behaving like police instead of storm troopers.)

To many critics of police militarization, of course, the helmets and heavy weaponry are just symptoms. The disease is the entire range of aggressive police tactics (from no-knock raids to stop-and-frisk), the racial disparities they help perpetuate and our society’s drug laws and extraordinary incarceration rate.

Well before Ferguson, this broad critique — long pressed by a mix of libertarians like Balko and left-wingers — was gaining traction in the political mainstream. This is why sentencing reform has a growing number of Republican champions, and why Rand Paul’s critique of the Ferguson police was more pointed and sweeping than President Obama’s.

The argument for broad reform is appealing; it might also be overly optimistic. To be clear: I cheered Paul’s comments, I support most of the reforms under consideration, I want lower incarceration rates and fewer people dying when a no-knock raid goes wrong. But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomization, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what’s keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.

But the military hardware issue, the BearCats and grenade launchers and what we’ve seen unfold in Ferguson — that does seem easy, uncomplicated, clear. Crime rates rise and fall, but crime-fighting is a constant for police; dealing with terrorism and insurrection, however, decidedly is not. Yet for decades we’ve been equipping our cops as though the Symbionese Liberation Army were about to come out of retirement, as if every burst of opportunistic lawlessness could become another Watts, as though the Qaeda sleeper cells we feared after 9/11 were as pervasive in life as they are on “24” or “Homeland.”

And this is where it’s ended: with a bunch of tomfool police playing soldier, tear-gassing protesters, arresting journalists and turning Ferguson into a watchword for policing at its worst.

Time to take their toys away.

Correction: August 16, 2014 An earlier version of this column misstated the name of an antiterrorism vehicle.  As correctly mentioned earlier in the piece, it is the BearCat, not the Bobcat.

And the Times’ fact checkers cover themselves with glory yet again.  Here’s MoDo:

Jim Risen is gruff.

The tall slab of a reporter looks like someone who could have played an Irish Marine sergeant in an old World War II movie.

“Editors think I’m a curmudgeon,” the 59-year-old admits, laughing.

Eric Lichtblau, the reporter who sits next to Risen in The Times’s Washington bureau and who won a Pulitzer with him for their remarkable stories about the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping, says Risen revels in his prickly, old-school style, acting contrary on everything from newfangled computers to the Bush crew’s fictions about Saddam and W.M.D. to cautious editors.

“He’s pushed to go places that often editors are unwilling to go,” Lichtblau said. “He’s never taken the safe route.”

Once Lichtblau took him to a pick-up basketball game and, naturally, Risen got in a fight with a lobbyist about the rules for being out of bounds.

As Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, wryly puts it: “Whether it’s editors or government officials, Jim definitely won’t take no for an answer, but he will certainly give it.”

Over lunch near the White House on Friday, Risen, dressed in his Men’s Wearhouse shirt and khakis and his brown Ecco walking shoes, talked about having the sword of Damocles over his head, as the reluctant star of a searing media-government showdown that could end with him behind bars.

“It’s surreal to be caught up in a news story instead of writing about one,” he said, in his soft voice.

He said he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to get into journalism and that he inherited his skepticism about government from his mom, who grew up in Indiana during the Depression, the daughter of an Irish railway machinist who was often out of work. Every time she saw the pyramids on TV, she would say, “I wonder how many slaves died building that?”

Risen said he’s not afraid that F.B.I. agents will show up one day at the suburban Maryland home he shares with his wife, Penny. (His three sons are grown, and one is a reporter.) But he has exhausted all his legal challenges, including at the Supreme Court, against the Obama administration.

“I was nervous for a long time, but they’ve been after me for six years so now I try to ignore it,” he said, musing that he’s already decided what he’ll take to prison: Civil War books and World War II histories.

The Justice Department is trying to scuttle the reporters’ privilege — ignoring the chilling effect that is having on truth emerging in a jittery post-9/11 world prone to egregious government excesses.

Attorney General Eric Holder wants to force Risen to testify and reveal the identity of his confidential source on a story he had in his 2006 book concerning a bungled C.I.A. operation during the Clinton administration in which agents might have inadvertently helped Iran develop its nuclear weapon program. The tale made the C.I.A. look silly, which may have been more of a sore point than a threat to national security.

But Bush officials, no doubt still smarting from Risen’s revelation of their illegal wiretapping, zeroed in on a disillusioned former C.I.A. agent named Jeffrey Sterling as the source of the Iran story.

The subpoena forcing Risen’s testimony expired in 2009, and to the surprise of just about everybody, the constitutional law professor’s administration renewed it — kicking off its strange and awful aggression against reporters and whistle-blowers.

Holder said in May that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” trying to show some leg and signal that his intention is benign, merely to put pressure on Sterling so that he will plead guilty before his trial.

The president and the attorney general both spoke nobly about the First Amendment after two reporters were arrested in Ferguson, Mo., while covering the racial protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

Obama said that “here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Holder seconded the sentiment, saying that “journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.”

So why don’t they back off Risen? It’s hard to fathom how the president who started with the press fluffing his pillows has ended up trying to suffocate the press with those pillows.

How can he use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistle-blowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his C.I.A. chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?

“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Risen points to recent stories about the administration pressing an unprecedented initiative known as the Insider Threat Program, which McClatchy described as “a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

Risen may be trapped in Ibsen, but Obama is channeling Orwell.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.

“I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,” writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.

“They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,” Piazza writes. “They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.”

One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomize selflessness and compassion.

There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from H.I.V. (They surely don’t mention that to the bishops.)

One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree at Boston College and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After eventually returning to the United States, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.

In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.

I don’t approve of breaking into national security compounds, and I think nuclear doctrine is more complex than Sister Megan probably does. Nonetheless, I admire someone with such guts and commitment to principles.

Another remarkable nun is Sister Jeannine Gramick, who, while working toward a doctorate in mathematics, met a gay Catholic man who asked for religious help. She organized a home service for him that grew into a regular liturgy for gay Catholics in private homes.

In 1977, she helped found New Ways Ministry to support gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican tried to suppress her, and her order, the Loretto Sisters, was instructed at least nine times to dismiss her. It passively resisted.

“The Vatican tried to silence me,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza, “and it just didn’t work.”

At a time when much of Christianity denounced gays and lesbians, Sister Jeannine was a beacon of compassion and struggled to educate the church she loved.

“People always emphasize sex, sex, sex,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza. “And it isn’t about sex. It is about love. It is who you fall in love with that makes you lesbian and gay. Love is the important thing here, not sex.”

All this has led the Vatican to investigate and clamp down on American nuns in a harsh crackdown that has been referred to as the Great Nunquisition. In 2012, the Vatican reprimanded a group of American nuns for promoting “radical feminist themes.”

Piazza quotes a nun who said a friend put it to her this way: “Let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they’re investigating nuns?”

Pope Francis, so far, has continued the crackdown, but he seems more enlightened than his predecessors and maybe he’ll understand that battling nuns is hopeless. Nuns are iron women — and sometimes that’s more than a metaphor.

Sister Madonna Buder, nicknamed “the iron nun,” took up running at age 47 and has completed 366 triathlons. She set her personal best at age 62, and, at age 82, she became the oldest person, male or female, to complete an Ironman triathlon.

In the course of her races, she has broken her arms eight times, her hip twice, her ribs countless times. She runs five miles to and from church, in long pants suitable for Mass, and foregoes a coach. “My coach,” she explains, “is the Man Upstairs.”

Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists. And, in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.

So a suggestion: How about if the Vatican spends less time investigating nuns and the public spends less time mocking nuns — and we all spend more time emulating nuns?

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

Given all of the smoky talk about Colorado and marijuana, you arrive here with the feeling that you’re stepping into some freaky, one-of-a-kind laboratory.

And you are.

But the experiment goes well beyond the responsible legalization and regulation of pot. It extends to questions of whether drillers and environmentalists can peacefully coexist, whether a country bloodied by gunfire can muster any sane response, whether Democrats can use demographic trends and certain social issues to establish a durable advantage, and whether Republicans can summon the specter of an unwieldy government to prevent that. Colorado is where all of this is being hashed out.

“It’s a test tube, and people keep shaking it,” the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, said when I remarked that seemingly every big issue finds vivid expression here, and that Colorado has become the nation’s mirror, rocky and stoned. It’s in the news much more often than its size — it’s the 22nd most populous state — gives it any right to be.

It’s pivotal in the battle for control of the United States Senate. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is up for re-election in November. Republicans smell blood. And the forces shaping the race between him and his opponent, Cory Gardner, are the same ones that are shaping the parties’ national fortunes.

Will President Obama’s dismal approval ratings doom Democrats? Will Republicans’ habit of nominating social conservatives — Gardner fits the bill — alienate so many women, independents and millennials that the party defeats itself? Right now the Senate contest here is a tossup.

In many ways, Colorado is the new Ohio, a political bellwether. The percentage of its voters who chose Barack Obama in each of the last two presidential elections almost precisely matched the percentage of voters who did so nationwide. And nearly all the currents that buffet national politics swirl around the Rockies, which run like a ragged spine through a state that’s both very flat and very tall, bursting with agriculture and booming with high tech, outdoorsy and urbane, a stronghold of the religious right (Colorado Springs) and a liberal utopia (Boulder).

In other ways, “Colorado is the new California,” in Hickenlooper’s words. It floats trial balloons — marijuana being one example, education reforms being another — while other states watch to see which take flight and which wheeze and crumple to earth.

That’s partly because it’s a place without foregone conclusions. The Colorado electorate is divided almost exactly into one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third neither of the above. So conservative and liberal proposals alike are pushed in the Legislature and put before voters; discussion isn’t proscribed by the one-party dominance that you find in a red or blue state.

“We really duke things out,” said Chris Onan, a co-founder of Galvanize, a firm here that provides seed funds, office space and other support for tech start-ups. “There’s never just one position.”

Even the state’s weather is in flux and in extremis. Colorado is a meteorological drama queen, and the sorts of cataclysms that climate change could bring — raging wildfires, biblical flooding — have recurred here with scary frequency.

“It’s almost Old Testament,” said Hickenlooper. “We had 13 federal declarations of disaster in four years. I think that’s more than any other state in the history of the country.”

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also up for re-election. And his race, against Bob Beauprez, a former Congressman, has been tighter than political analysts had initially expected it to be.

But an even more interesting contest is the one in the state’s Sixth Congressional District, where the efforts of a three-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, to fend off a fierce Democratic challenge will hinge largely on his ability to woo Latino voters. Their share of the electorate here, as in the nation, has risen significantly, and they now represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s population. In recent Colorado elections, they have heavily favored Democrats.

“For its predictive value in seeing where the Hispanic vote nationally is going to go, the Sixth District could be key,” Eric Anderson, a political analyst here, told me. It’s “a petri dish inside the petri dish” of the state, he added.

Although Coffman previously supported measures to declare English the official U.S. language and to deny automatic citizenship to babies born in this country, he’s not singing those songs anymore. No, he’s practicing his Spanish, in weekly sessions with a tutor. His Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff, is fluent.

Money from outside the state is pouring into the Coffman-Romanoff battle, as it is into the one between Udall and Gardner, which is clearly going to be the most expensive Senate race in Colorado’s history. And the Latino vote could give Udall the edge he needs.

But the Udall campaign’s emphasis until this point is in line with a Democratic strategy nationwide for the midterm elections. In three of the six TV commercials that it has released, the focus is on Gardner’s anti-abortion record, and the hope is to cast him as a dutiful and menacing foot soldier in the “war on women” that Democrats decry.

Udall’s campaign also reflects the Democratic dread of Obama’s unpopularity. When the president traveled to Colorado recently for a fund-raiser for Udall, there was no hug or handshake between the two men, and a photo of both of them would have required a very wide-angle lens. Udall stayed far outside the state.

Gardner’s strategy, evident in his constant invocations of Obamacare, is to lash Udall to the president and to tar the Obama administration as a force for ever bigger government.

WHEN I asked Udall’s campaign spokesman, Chris Harris, how much of a handicap Obama posed, he didn’t defend the president’s record but instead stressed Udall’s independence and dissents.

“If any Democrat has been a pain in the White House’s you-know-what lately, it has been Mark,” he said, making clear that Udall “follows his own compass” and had held the administration’s “feet to the fire over the N.S.A.” That detail suggested Democrats’ worry that the National Security Agency’s privacy infringements are especially repellent to the party’s young voters.

It’s surprising that Udall and Hickenlooper aren’t in better shape, given that Colorado’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent from over 9 in late 2010. Business Insider just ranked Colorado’s economy the best among the 50 states.

But Colorado distills the national mood in the following sense, too: While raw numbers have improved, reality hasn’t caught up, and people feel a pessimism that transcends the day’s statistics. In a statewide poll in late June, only 27 percent of Coloradans said the country was on the right track, while 65 percent said it was on the wrong one.

Colorado has shown us the horror of gun violence: the blood bath at Columbine High School in 1999, the massacre in Aurora in 2012. And in their aftermath, it demonstrated the push for — and perverse resistance to — better gun control. Its legislature enacted new firearms restrictions in early 2013, only to see the National Rifle Association lead successful recall efforts against two of the Democrats who voted for them.

Because Colorado is a mecca for both energy companies and wilderness lovers, it’s been engaged in an impassioned debate over fracking that’s both echo and preview of standoffs elsewhere.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist trying to walk a fine line between the camps, once exhibited his conviction in the safety of fracking by drinking fracking fluid. Colorado likes unstuffy politicians who break the mold, which is something candidates with national ambitions increasingly try to do.

Over the last month, Hickenlooper has taken the stage at Red Rocks to play banjo with the Old Crow Medicine Show and has released a video of his attempt to sing a duet of “Counting Stars” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. It was offbeat and off key.

And Udall gazed longingly at the peaks, hoping to find time for an ascent. “He’s climbed 99 of the tallest 100 mountains in Colorado,” said Harris. “That’s who he is.” Harris made him sound like a man eager to get far away from the political muck.

It’s an impulse that most Americans can appreciate. And that they share.

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

August 3, 2014

In “Obama’s Impeachment Game” The Putz actually tries to convince us that all the finger-pointing at Republicans may just be cover for a power grab over immigration.  In the comments “David Underwood” of Citrus Heights had this to say:  “The presence of Douthat as a columnist with the Times is an insult to respectable columnists everywhere.  The publication of blatant lies, twisted logic, falsification of facts, has no place in a respectable journal. He should be removed, for incompetence and prejudicial opinions. He is writing an article that can not be justified as even opinion, it is a plain distortion of the known facts, to present his obvious dislike of Mr. Obama, and is not meant to be anything other than that. It is not discourse with some reasonable opinion as to the impeachment talk, it is a plain hateful attempt to impugn Mr. Obama’s integrity. For shame Douthat, have you no shame?”  No, Mr. Underwood, he doesn’t.  MoDo says “Throw the Book at Him,” and that 43’s biography of 41 should be called “Mano a Mano: I Wish I’d Listened to my Dad.”  And no, she couldn’t resist getting in a gratuitous slap at Obama.  The Moustache of Wisdom thinks he knows “How This War Ends.”  He says any resolution won’t be cheap politically for either Hamas or Israel.  Mr. Cohen has decided to explain to us “Why Americans See Israel the Way They Do.”  He claims the Israeli saga echoes in American mythology, but views are different in Europe, where anti-Semitism is rising.  Mr. Kristof says “Go Take a Hike!”  He suggests that if human-made messes are getting you down, try rejuvenating in the cathedral of the wilderness.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

Something rather dangerous is happening in American politics right now, all the more so for being taken for granted by many of the people watching it unfold.

I do not mean the confusion of House Republicans, or the general gridlock in Congress, which are impeding legislative action on the child migrant crisis (among other matters). Incompetence and gridlock are significant problems, indeed severe ones, but they’re happening within the context of a constitutional system that allows for — and can survive — congressional inaction.

What is different — more cynical and more destructive — is the course President Obama is pursuing in response.

Over the last month, the Obama political apparatus — a close aide to the president, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the “independent” voices at MSNBC — has been talking nonstop about an alleged Republican plan to impeach the president. John Boehner’s symbolic lawsuit against the White House has been dubbed “impeachment lite,” Sarah Palin’s pleas for attention have been creatively reinterpreted as G.O.P. marching orders, and an entire apocalyptic fund-raising campaign has been built around the specter of a House impeachment vote.

Anyone paying attention knows that no such impeachment plan is currently afoot. So taken on its own, the impeachment chatter would simply be an unseemly, un-presidential attempt to raise money and get out the 2014 vote.

But it isn’t happening in a vacuum, because even as his team plays the impeachment card with gusto, the president is contemplating — indeed, all but promising — an extraordinary abuse of office: the granting of temporary legal status, by executive fiat, to up to half the country’s population of illegal immigrants.

Such an action would come equipped with legal justifications, of course. Past presidents have suspended immigration enforcement for select groups, and Obama himself did the same for certain younger immigrants in 2012. A creative White House lawyer — a John Yoo of the left — could rely on those precedents to build a case for the legality of a more sweeping move.

But the precedents would not actually justify the policy, because the scope would be radically different. Beyond a certain point, as the president himself has conceded in the past, selective enforcement of our laws amounts to a de facto repeal of their provisions. And in this case the de facto repeal would aim to effectively settle — not shift, but settle — a major domestic policy controversy on the terms favored by the White House.

This simply does not happen in our politics. Presidents are granted broad powers over foreign policy, and they tend to push the envelope substantially in wartime. But domestic power grabs are usually modest in scope, and executive orders usually work around the margins of hotly contested issues.

In defense of going much, much further, the White House would doubtless cite the need to address the current migrant surge, the House Republicans’ resistance to comprehensive immigration reform and public opinion’s inclination in its favor.

But all three points are spurious. A further amnesty would, if anything, probably incentivize further migration, just as Obama’s previous grant of legal status may well have done. The public’s views on immigration are vaguely pro-legalization — but they’re also malleable, complicated and, amid the border crisis, trending rightward. And in any case we are a republic of laws, in which a House majority that defies public opinion is supposed to be turned out of office, not simply overruled by the executive.

What’s more, given that the Democrats controlled Congress just four years ago and conspicuously failed to pass immigration reform, it’s especially hard to see how Republican intransigence now somehow justifies domestic Caesarism.

But in political terms, there is a sordid sort of genius to the Obama strategy. The threat of a unilateral amnesty contributes to internal G.O.P. chaos on immigration strategy, chaos which can then be invoked (as the president did in a Friday news conference) to justify unilateral action. The impeachment predictions, meanwhile, help box Republicans in: If they howl — justifiably! — at executive overreach, the White House gets to say “look at the crazies — we told you they were out for blood.”

It’s only genius, however, if the nonconservative media — honorable liberals and evenhanded moderates alike — continue to accept the claim that immigration reform by fiat would just be politics as usual, and to analyze the idea strictly in terms of its political effects (on Latino turnout, Democratic fund-raising, G.O.P. internal strife).

This is the tone of the media coverage right now: The president may get the occasional rebuke for impeachment-baiting, but what the White House wants to do on immigration is assumed to be reasonable, legitimate, within normal political bounds.

It is not: It would be lawless, reckless, a leap into the antidemocratic dark.

And an American political class that lets this Rubicon be crossed without demurral will deserve to live with the consequences for the republic, in what remains of this presidency and in presidencies yet to come.

He should be taken out behind the barn and horsewhipped by Clio.  Now here’s MoDo:

I can’t wait to read the book W. won’t write.

Not since Beyoncé dropped a new digital album online overnight with no warning or fanfare has there been such a successful pop-up arts project.

Crown Publishers startled everyone Wednesday by announcing that the 68-year-old W. has written a “personal biography” of his 90-year-old father, due out in November.

I guess he ran out of brush to clear.

“Never before has a President told the story of his father, another President, through his own eyes and in his own words,” the Crown news release crowed, noting that W.’s “Decision Points” was the best-selling presidential memoir ever and promising that 43’s portrait of 41 will be “heartfelt, intimate, and illuminating.”

It is certainly illuminating to learn that W. has belatedly decided to bathe his father in filial appreciation.

Like his whimsical paintings and post-presidency discretion, this sweet book will no doubt help reset his image in a more positive way.

But the intriguing question is: Is he doing it with an eye toward spinning the future or out of guilt for the past?

Just as his nude self-portraits are set in a shower and a bath, this book feels like an exercise in washing away the blunders of Iraq, Afghanistan and Katrina.

Are these efforts at self-expression a way to cleanse himself and exorcise the ghosts of all those who died and suffered for no reason? It’s redolent of Lady Macbeth, guilty over regicide and unable to stop rubbing her hands as though she’s washing them, murmuring “Out, damned spot!”

But some spots don’t come out.

I know that George H.W. Bush and his oldest son love each other. But it has been a complicated and difficult relationship and a foolishly and fatefully compartmentalized one.

Even though both Bushes protested that they didn’t want to be put on the couch, historians will spend the rest of history puzzling over the Oedipal push and pull that led America into disasters of such magnitude.

It would be awesome if the book revealed the truth about the fraught relationship between the gracious father and bristly son, if it were titled “Mano a Mano: I Wish I’d Listened to My Dad.”

Because, after all, never in history has a son diminished, disregarded and humiliated a father to such disastrous effect. But W. won’t write any of the real stuff we all want to hear.

The saga began when W. was 26 and drinking. After a rowdy night, the scamp came to his parents’ home in D.C. and smashed his car into a neighbor’s garbage can. His dad upbraided him.

“You wanna go mano a mano right here?” W. shot back to his shocked father.

It was hard, no doubt, to follow the same path as his father, in school, in sport, in war and in work, but always come up short. He also had to deal with the chilly fact that his parents thought Jeb should be president, rather than the raffish Roman candle, W.

Yet W. summoned inner strength and played it smart and upended his family’s expectations, getting to the governor’s mansion and the Oval Office before his younger brother. But the top job sometimes comes with a tape worm of insecurity. Like Lyndon Johnson with hawkish Kennedy aides, W. surrounded himself with the wrong belligerent advisers and allowed himself to be manipulated through his fear of being called a wimp, as his father had been by “Newsweek.”

When he ran for Texas governor in 1994 and president in 2000, W. basically cut his father adrift, instead casting himself as the son and heir of Ronald Reagan, the man who bested his father. “Don’t underestimate what you can learn from a failed presidency,” he told his Texas media strategist about his father.

His White House aides made a point of telling reporters that Junior was tougher than his father, pointedly noting he was from West Texas and knew how to deal with “the streets of Laredo.”

He was driven to get the second term his father had not had. And he was driven — and pushed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — to do what his dad had shied away from, toppling Saddam Hussein. This, even if it meant drumming up a phony casus belli.

He never consulted his dad, even though H.W. was the only president ever to go to war with Saddam. He treated the former president and foreign affairs junkie like a blankie, telling Fox News’s Brit Hume that, rather than advice on issues, he preferred to get phone calls from his dad saying “I love you, son,” or “Hang in there, son.”

And he began yelling when his father’s confidante and co-author, Brent Scowcroft, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece cautioning that invading Iraq wouldn’t be “a cakewalk” and could be destabilizing to the region and mean “a large-scale, long-term military occupation.”

He never wanted to hear the warning that his father was ready to give, so allergic to being a wimp that he tried, against all odds, history and evidence, to be a deus ex machina. He dissed his father on Iraq, saying “he cut and run early,” and he naïvely allowed himself to be bullied by his dark father, Cheney, who pressed him on Saddam: “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”

As Jon Meacham, the historian who is writing a biography of Bush père, wrote in Time a week ago, H.W. was a man who knew that Woodrow Wilson was wrong in thinking that a big war could end all wars.

“The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about ‘working the problem,’ not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions,” Meacham wrote.

So now, symbolically washing his hands, W.’s putting out this cute little disingenuous book about his father that won’t mention that he bollixed up the globe, his presidency, and marred Jeb’s chances, all because he wasn’t listening to his father or “working the problem.”

W.’s fear of being unmanned led to America actually being unmanned. We’re in a crouch now. His rebellion against and competition with Bush senior led directly to President Obama struggling at a news conference Friday on the subject of torture. After 9/11, Obama noted, people were afraid. “We tortured some folks,” he said. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”

And yet the president stood by his C.I.A. director, John Brennan, a cheerleader for torture during the Bush years, who continues to do things that are contrary to our values.

Obama defended the C.I.A. director even though Brennan blatantly lied to the Senate when he denied that the C.I.A. had hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers while staffers were on agency property investigating torture in the W. era. And now the administration, protecting a favorite of the president, is heavily censoring the torture report under the pretense of national security.

The Bushes did not want to be put on the couch, but the thin-skinned Obama jumped on the couch at his news conference, defensively whining about Republicans, Putin, Israel and Hamas and explaining academically and anemically how he’s trying to do the right thing but it’s all beyond his control.

Class is over, professor. Send in the president.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Ramallah, on the West Bank:

I had held off coming to Israel, hoping the situation in Gaza would clarify — not in terms of what’s happening, but how it might end in a stable way. Being here now, it is clear to me that there is a way this cruel little war could not only be stopped, but stopped in a way that the moderates in the region, who have been so much on the run, could gain the initiative. But — and here is where some flight from reality is required to be hopeful — developing something that decent out of this war will demand a level of leadership from the key parties that has simply never been manifested by any of them. This is a generation of Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders who are experts at building tunnels and walls. None of them ever took the course on bridges and gates.

I happened to be in the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv late Friday when air raid sirens went off as a result of a Hamas rocket being aimed at the city. Standing in the embassy basement, I had a moment of quiet to think about how much creativity lately has gone into war-making around here and how little into peace-making. Israel has developed a rocket interceptor system, the Iron Dome, that can immediately calculate whether a Hamas rocket launched in Gaza will hit a built-up area in Israel — and needs to be intercepted — or will fall into the sea, farm fields or desert and can be ignored and, therefore, avoids the $50,000 cost of an interceptor. The system is not only smart; it’s frugal. If this Israeli government had applied the same ingenuity to trying to forge a deal with the moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas would be so much more globally isolated today — not Israel.

Meanwhile, Hamas, using picks, shovels and little drills, developed an underground maze of tunnels in Gaza, under Israel’s nose, with branches into Israel. If Hamas — which has brought only ruin to the people of Gaza, even in times of quiet — had applied that same ingenuity to building above ground, it could have created the biggest contracting company in the Arab world by now, and the most schools.

Every war here ends eventually, though, and, when this one does, I don’t think we’ll be going back to the status quo ante. Even before a stable cease-fire occurs, Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials have been discussing the principles of a lasting deal for Gaza. Given the fact that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hate Hamas — because of its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — as much as Israel, the potential exists for a Gaza deal that would truly align moderate Arabs, Palestinians and Israel. But it won’t come cheap. In fact, it will require Israel, Hamas and the U.S. to throw out all the old rules about who doesn’t talk to whom.

Here’s why: Hamas has been a formidable foe for Israel, and it is unlikely to stop this war without some agreement to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Israel is not likely to stop this war without having rooted out most of the Hamas tunnels and put in place a regime that will largely demilitarize Gaza and prevent the import of more rockets.

Since neither Israel nor Egypt wants to govern Gaza, the only chance these goals have of being implemented is if the moderate Palestinian Authority here in Ramallah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, is invited back into Gaza (from which it was evicted by Hamas in 2007). And, as one of Abbas’s senior advisers, Yasser Abed Rabbo, explained to me, the only way that can happen is if the Palestinians form a national unity government, including Hamas, and if Israel agrees to resume negotiations with this government about ending the West Bank occupation.

The Palestinian Authority has no intention of becoming Israel’s policeman in the West Bank and in Gaza for free. “To hell with that,” said Abed Rabbo. If the Palestinian Authority is going to come back in as the game-changer, it will be as the head of a Palestinian national unity government, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside, that would negotiate with Israel, he said. If Hamas and Israel want to end this war with some of their gains intact, they will both have to cede something to the Palestinian Authority.

No one should expect, said Abed Rabbo, that “we, ‘the stupid moderates,’ will sit there and play a game in favor of Hamas or Israel and not get anything out of it, and we will go back to the same old negotiations where” Israel just says “blah blah blah.” If we do that again, “my kids will throw me out of my house.”

“We should have a serious Palestinian reconciliation and then go to the world and say, ‘O.K., Gaza will behave as a peaceful place, under the leadership of a united Palestinian front, but, [Egypt], you open your gates, and, Israel, you open your gates,’ ” Abed Rabbo said. The moderate Arab states would then contribute the rebuilding funds.

Unless Hamas or Israel totally defeats the other — unlikely — it is hard for me to see how either side will get out of this war the lasting gains they want without conceding something politically. Israel will have to negotiate in earnest about a withdrawal from the West Bank, and Hamas will have to serve in a Palestinian unity government and forgo violence. I can tell you 17 reasons that this won’t happen. I just can’t think of one other stable way out.

And now we get to Mr. Cohen:

To cross the Atlantic to America, as I did recently from London, is to move from one moral universe to its opposite in relation to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. Fury over Palestinian civilian casualties has risen to a fever pitch in Europe, moving beyond anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism (often a flimsy distinction). Attacks on Jews and synagogues are the work of a rabid fringe, but anger toward an Israel portrayed as indiscriminate in its brutality is widespread. For a growing number of Europeans, not having a negative opinion of Israel is tantamount to not having a conscience. The deaths of hundreds of children in any war, as one editorial in The Guardian put it, is “a special kind of obscenity.”

In the United States, by contrast, support for Israel remains strong (although less so among the young, who are most exposed to the warring hashtags of social media). That support is overwhelming in political circles. Palestinian suffering remains near taboo in Congress. It is not only among American Jews, better organized and more outspoken than their whispering European counterparts, that the story of a nation of immigrants escaping persecution and rising from nowhere in the Holy Land resonates. The Israeli saga — of courage and will — echoes in American mythology, far beyond religious identification, be it Jewish or evangelical Christian.

America tends toward a preference for unambiguous right and wrong — no European leader would pronounce the phrase “axis of evil” — and this third Gaza eruption in six years fits neatly enough into a Manichaean framework: A democratic Jewish state, hit by rockets, responds to Islamic terrorists. The obscenity, for most Americans, has a name. That name is Hamas.

James Lasdun, a Jewish author and poet who moved to the United States from England, has written that, “There is something uncannily adaptive about anti-Semitism: the way it can hide, unsuspected, in the most progressive minds.” Certainly, European anti-Semitism has adapted. It used to be mainly of the nationalist right. It now finds expression among large Muslim communities. But the war has also suggested how the virulent anti-Israel sentiment now evident among the bien-pensant European left can create a climate that makes violent hatred of Jews permissible once again.

In Germany, of all places, there have been a series of demonstrations since the Gaza conflict broke out with refrains like “Israel: Nazi murderer” and “Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” (it rhymes in German). Three men hurled a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in Wuppertal. Hitler’s name has been chanted, gassing of Jews invoked. Violent demonstrations have erupted in France. The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Germany were moved to issue a statement saying “anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews” have “no place in our societies.” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, went further. What Germany had witnessed, he wrote, makes the “blood freeze in anybody’s veins.”

Yes, it does. Germany, Israel’s closest ally apart from the United States, had been constrained since 1945. The moral shackles have loosened. Europe’s malevolent ghosts have not been entirely dispelled. The continent on which Jews went meekly to the slaughter reproaches the descendants of those who survived for absorbing the lesson that military might is inextricable from survival and that no attack must go unanswered, especially one from an organization bent on the annihilation of Israel.

A strange transference sometimes seems to be at work, as if casting Israelis as murderers, shorn of any historical context, somehow expiates the crime. In any case it is certain that for a quasi-pacifist Europe, the Palestinian victim plays well; the regional superpower, Israel, a militarized society through necessity, much less so.

Anger at Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is also “a unifying element among disparate Islamic communities in Europe,” said Jonathan Eyal, a foreign policy analyst in London. Moroccans in the Netherlands, Pakistanis in Britain and Algerians in France find common cause in denouncing Israel. “Their anger is also a low-cost expression of frustration and alienation,” Eyal said.

Views of the war in the United States can feel similarly skewed, resistant to the whole picture, slanted through cultural inclination and political diktat. It is still hard to say that the killing of hundreds of Palestinian children represents a Jewish failure, whatever else it may be. It is not easy to convey the point that the open-air prison of Gaza in which Hamas has thrived exists in part because Israel has shown a strong preference for the status quo, failing to reach out to Palestinian moderates and extending settlements in the West Bank, fatally tempted by the idea of keeping all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Oppressed people will respond. Millions of Palestinians are oppressed. They are routinely humiliated and live under Israeli dominion. When Jon Stewart is lionized (and slammed in some circles) for “revealing” Palestinian suffering to Americans, it suggests how hidden that suffering is. The way members of Congress have been falling over one another to demonstrate more vociferous support for Israel is a measure of a political climate not conducive to nuance. This hardly serves America’s interests, which lie in a now infinitely distant peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and will require balanced American mediation.

Something may be shifting. Powerful images of Palestinian suffering on Facebook and Twitter have hit younger Americans. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that among Americans age 65 or older, 53 percent blame Hamas for the violence and 15 percent Israel. For those ages 18 to 29, Israel is blamed by 29 percent of those questioned, Hamas by just 21 percent. My son-in-law, a doctor in Atlanta, said that for his social group, mainly professionals in their 30s with young children, it was “impossible to see infants being killed by what sometimes seems like an extension of the U.S. Army without being affected.”

I find myself dreaming of some island in the middle of the Atlantic where the blinding excesses on either side of the water are overcome and a fundamental truth is absorbed: that neither side is going away, that both have made grievous mistakes, and that the fate of Jewish and Palestinian children — united in their innocence — depends on placing the future above the past. That island will no doubt remain as illusory as peace. Meanwhile, on balance, I am pleased to have become a naturalized American.

And last but not least we have Mr. Krisof, writing from the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon:

Escaping a grim world of war abroad and inequality at home, I fled with my teenage daughter here to the mountains of Oregon to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and commune with more humane creatures. Like bears and cougars.

The wilderness is healing, a therapy for the soul. We hiked 145 miles, and it was typical backpacking bliss: We were chewed on by mosquitoes, rained on and thundered at, broiled by noonday sun, mocked by a 20-mile stretch of dry trail, and left limping from blisters. The perfect trip!

There are very few things I’ve done just twice in my life, 40 years apart, and one is to backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail across the California/Oregon border. The first time, in 1974, I was a 15-year-old setting off with a pal on a bid to hike across Oregon. We ran into vast snows that covered the trail and gave up. Then I wasn’t quite ripe for the challenge; this year, on the trail with my daughter, I wondered if I might be overripe.

Yet seeing the same mountains, the same creeks, four decades later, was a reminder of how the world changes, and how it doesn’t.

As a teenager, I lugged a huge metal-frame pack, navigated by uncertain maps and almost never encountered another hiker. Now, gear is far lighter, we navigate partly by iPhone, and there are streams of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Indeed, partly because of Cheryl Strayed’s best seller “Wild,” about how a lost young woman found herself on a long-distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the number of long-distance backpackers has multiplied on the trail. There has been a particular surge in women.

We also saw many retirees, including some men and women in their 60s and 70s undertaking an entire “through-hike” from Mexico all the way to Canada, 2,650 miles in one season.

“There seems to be a more than 30 percent increase in long-distance hiking in 2014 over 2013,” based on the number of hiking permits issued, said Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

My hunch is that the trail will grow even more crowded next year, after the movie version of “Wild” hits the big screen with Reese Witherspoon in the starring role.

Unfortunately, America has trouble repairing its magnificent trails, so that collapsed bridges and washed-out sections are sometimes left unrepaired. We were rich enough to construct many of these trails during the Great Depression, yet we’re apparently too poor in the 21st century even to sustain them.

The attraction of wilderness has something to do with continuity. I may now have a GPS device that I couldn’t have imagined when I first hiked, but essential patterns on the trail are unchanging: the exhaustion, the mosquitoes, the blisters, and also the exhilaration at reaching a mountain pass, the lustrous reds and blues of alpine wildflowers, the deliciousness of a snow cone made on a sweltering day from a permanent snowfield and Kool-Aid mix.

The trails are a reminder of our insignificance. We come and go, but nature is forever. It puts us in our place, underscoring that we are not lords of the universe but components of it.

In an age of tremendous inequality, our wild places also offer a rare leveling. There are often no fees to hike or to camp on these trails, and tycoons and taxi drivers alike drink creek water and sleep under the stars on a $5 plastic sheet. On our national lands, any of us can enjoy billion-dollar views that no billionaire may buy.

Humans pull together in an odd way when they’re in the wilderness. It’s astonishing how few people litter, and how much they help one another. Indeed, the smartphone app to navigate the Pacific Crest Trail, Halfmile, is a labor of love by hikers who make it available as a free download. And, in thousands of miles of backpacking over the decades, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one hiker be rude to another.

We’ve also seen the rise of “trail angels,” who leave bottles of water, chocolate bars or even freshly baked bread for hungry or thirsty hikers to enjoy in remote areas.

On one dry stretch of trail on our latest hike, where it wound near a forest service road, we encountered this “trail magic”: Someone had brought a lawn chair and two coolers of soft drinks to cheer flagging backpackers. Purists object to trail magic, saying that it interferes with the wilderness experience. But when the arguments are about how best to be helpful, my faith in humanity is restored!

So when the world seems to be falling apart, when we humans seem to be creating messes everywhere we turn, maybe it’s time to rejuvenate in the cathedral of the wilderness — and there, away from humanity, rediscover our own humanity.

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…


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