Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

October 1, 2014

In “Order vs. Disorder, Part 4″ The Moustache of Wisdom ‘splains that the strategy of “containment” this go-round is not what it was during the Cold War.  In “Serving Without Protecting” Mr. Bruni says a hearing into the White House security breach underscores the public shame of the Secret Service.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve been arguing for a while now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the wider East-West clash of civilizations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. It’s where you can see many trends at a smaller scale first. That is why I study it closely. Whether it is airline-hijacking, suicide-bombing or trying to do nation-building with the other — Israelis called it “Lebanon invasion” and “Oslo”; we called it “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” — what happens there often moves to the larger stage. So, as I have asked before: What’s playing Off Broadway now?

It’s a play called “Containment.” When faced with a barrage of rockets from the Hamas militants in Gaza, Israel largely retaliated with artillery and air power. These inflicted enough pain on Hamas and the Gaza civilian population that Hamas eventually agreed to a cease-fire — but not to surrender.

Indeed, Israel chose to deliberately leave Hamas in power in Gaza because it did not want to put Israeli boots on the ground and try to destroy it — which would have required bloody house-to-house fighting — and because Israel also did not want to leave Gaza as an ungoverned space. Israel’s adopting a strategy of containment toward Gaza also became viable after Egypt’s top military commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, replaced the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood saw Hamas as an ally and allowed it to dig tunnels into Egypt and smuggle in goods for profit and rockets to hit Israel. Sisi, who sees the Brotherhood as his archenemy, has closed those tunnels.

So containment, as a purely military strategy to stem disorder, can work for Israel, for now. Containment also seems to be where the U.S.-led coalition is heading, for now, against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. Since neither we nor our coalition partners are willing — or, thus far, in the case of the Iraqi Army and Syrian “moderates,” able — to put many boots on the ground to oust ISIS, we will rely on air power to prevent ISIS from expanding and maybe to shrink it.

But here we come to the most important difference between the containment we used to defeat the Soviet Union and the containment of Hamas and ISIS. We and the Israelis are both using containment to seal off a problem that we each perceive as too costly, politically and in human terms, to try to eliminate. But that strategy has its limits.

As Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and the co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, put it to me: “In the Cold War, we contained the Soviets militarily to set the conditions for the U.S.S.R. to collapse on itself, but that wasn’t the whole story. We also rebuilt the shattered economies of our former enemies, built international institutions like the I.M.F. and World Bank, and redesigned our own governing institutions to address our new post-World War II reality so that we would have the strategic scaffolding in place to continue building a post-Cold War world once the Soviet Union did in fact collapse.

“In the case of Gaza,” he added, “the Israelis are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a chronic problem by simply ‘containing’ the Palestinians.” Without a strategy for improving living conditions there, that could prove very damaging to Israel in the long run as Gaza becomes a human disaster zone. The West is doing something similar with ISIS: containing without building “the regional scaffolding to support and leverage” a more modern, consensual and pluralistic Middle East that might fill the ISIS space.

Containment, said Mykleby, only makes long-term sense if you commit money and political capital to fill that space with something decent. Israel is not doing that because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be a partner to a two-state solution. And because right-wing Jewish settlers so dominate Israel’s ruling coalition that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu cannot or will not put on the table anything close to what the more moderate Palestinian Authority demands for a two-state deal. Nor is it clear the Palestinians could deliver the security Israel demands. In short, the whole relationship is broken, making a strategy beyond containment very hard.

On Broadway, we’re hamstrung in building a post-ISIS political strategy by the fact that some of our coalition partners have no shared vision for a post-ISIS Syria or Iraq and do not want democracy in this region. Also, some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are purveyors of the intolerant, anti-pluralistic Sunni ideology that inspires ISIS fighters. Even Turkey’s Islamist government has some pro-ISIS sympathies.

In short, containment in both theaters is necessary but not sufficient for long-term stability. But, unlike the Cold War where our containment strategy was largely the product of like-minded democracies working to liberate like-minded people from a bad system, in the Middle East, we have few like-minded partners.

The most we can hope for are “least bad” allies and “least bad” outcomes. In today’s Middle East, least bad is the new good.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

My mother used to leave the front door unlocked. She used to leave the side and back doors unlocked, too. This was mostly a function of sloppiness — she had four kids, three pets and a whole lot else on her mind — but when pressed about it, she reasoned that anyone bent on intrusion would find a way and that it was all a matter of chance in the end.

She missed her calling as the director of the Secret Service.

What we’ve discovered over the last week and a half about the crackerjack operations of this elite agency boggles the mind, and nothing I learned during Tuesday’s congressional hearing into its procedures did anything to un-boggle it.

The subject was how, on Sept. 19, a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House — much deeper, it turns out, than the agency initially let on. We were first given the impression that he’d merely made it through the front door. Only later did The Washington Post and other news organizations unearth that he had zipped down the vestibule, past a staircase, through the East Room and almost to the Green Room. By the time all the facts emerge, we’ll find out that he treated himself to a grilled cheese and a glass of Ovaltine in the kitchen, where he was interrupted mid-sandwich and given a doggie bag.

At the hearing, there were acute questions and ludicrous ones, genuine concern and disingenuous grandstanding, florid preening and runaway egos, which is to say that many politicians were crowded into one room.

There was verbiage so oblique it barely qualified as English, which is to say that government officials testified. Front and center was the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, who behaved in the manner of so many beleaguered bureaucrats before her. She pledged reviews, reports, inquiries and assessments — a brimming thesaurus of self-examination — and tried to run out the clock.

She muttered sentences like this: “In downtown areas, there is sound attenuation.” This was a reference to the Secret Service’s confusion in 2011 over whether someone had been shooting at the White House or a motor vehicle in its vicinity had backfired.

The answer was shooting: Seven bullets hit one of this country’s defining symbols, which is also the president’s private residence, in which he and his family must feel — and be — unconditionally safe. And it wasn’t Secret Service agents who identified the evidence. It was a housekeeper, happening upon shattered glass days after the fact.

These aren’t minor, random smudges on the record of the Secret Service, which was also embarrassed a few years ago when agents on assignment in Colombia partied with prostitutes. They’re cause for grave worry and a different kind of housecleaning.

Nothing about the events of Sept. 19 honors the responsibilities and capabilities of a great nation. According to Pierson’s testimony, two agents that day had eyes on the intruder, who was known to them as a potential troublemaker and had shown up at the White House fence less than a month earlier with a hatchet. They were right not to detain him then: He’d committed no crime. But how could their monitoring of him during his return visit be so lax that he even got over that fence?

Not a beast or a beep worked properly. The guard dogs didn’t guard. The alarm boxes didn’t alarm. The front door couldn’t be locked automatically as he sprinted toward it, because it wasn’t rigged that way. We can fly drones over Pakistan, but we can’t summon a proper locksmith to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Time and again, Washington validates the naysayers who like to dismiss it as the capital of bureaucratic incompetence. The president unveils his signature health care reform — arguably the cornerstone of his legacy — and the website repeatedly crashes. The I.R.S. loses whole years of emails. A contractor for the National Security Agency steals away with a seemingly bottomless trove of classified documents.

The Department of Homeland Security fails to keep track of more than 6,000 foreigners in the country on student visas, or so ABC News reported in early September. And don’t even get me started on the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There’s precedent, yes, for White House intrusions. An uninvited guest once watched a movie with Franklin Delano Roosevelt before being detected.

And America isn’t alone. In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II awoke in Buckingham Palace to encounter a strange man in her bedroom. He and she reportedly chatted for 10 minutes.

I guess the palace didn’t have all the “layers” and “rings” of security repeatedly mentioned at the congressional hearing, though a lot of good all those layers and rings did us. In the end, it’s people who make the difference. The Secret Service needs better ones.

I can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “While this recent lapse is alarming, we should remember that in 2000 a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House, and stayed there for eight years.”

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

September 28, 2014

In “The Cult Deficit” the Putz tries to ‘splain why a creative society needs fringe groups and gurus.  In “From Pen and Phone to Bombs and Drones” MoDo says in needing Arab allies to help in the fight against ISIS, we turn a blind eye to their record on women.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “Who Had it Easier, Reagan or Obama?”  He says the final answer will have to come from historians years from now, but he seems to think a look at several critical areas offers some hints.  Mr. Kristof considers “Stranger Danger and Guns,” and also has a question:  Is knocking on a stranger’s door dangerous? If so, maybe that’s because we tolerate a society in which unregulated guns are prevalent.  In “The Wilds of Education” Mr. Bruni says the landscape that students romp across shouldn’t be too tame.  Here’s the Putz:

Like most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms. Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.

Twice in the last few months I’ve encountered writers taking note of this shift, and both have made a similar (and provocative) point: The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

The first writer is Philip Jenkins, a prolific religious historian, who argues that the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects” is both “genuine and epochal,” and something that should worry more mainstream religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.

The second writer is Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and controversialist, who includes an interesting aside about the decline of cults in his new book, “Zero to One” — officially a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, but really a treatise on escaping what he regards as the developed world’s 40-year economic, technological and cultural malaise.

The implications of Jenkins’s argument are specific to religion. Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged (as Koresh’s followers were, with fatal consequences); moreover, spiritual experiments led by the charismatic and the zealous are essential to religious creativity and fruitful change. From the Franciscans to the Jesuits, groups that looked cultlike to their critics have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church, and a similar story can be told about the role of charismatic visionaries in the American experience. (The enduring influence of one of the 19th century’s most despised and feared religious movements, for instance, is the reason the state of Utah now leads the United States on many social indicators.)

Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”

Thiel’s view of our overall situation is hotly contested, not surprisingly, on his own Silicon Valley turf. The Internet is cluttered with debates (some friendly, some less so) between Thiel and his peers over whether innovation has actually slowed down, whether recent technological progress is actually as disappointing as he frequently suggests.

But in the intellectual realm, the stagnation he identifies seems readily apparent, since whole swaths of political, ideological and religious terrain that fascinated earlier generations have been mostly written off in ours. As Mark Lilla noted in a recent New Republic essay, it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place.

Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists.

Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.

Next up we have MoDo:

The president was at the United Nations on Wednesday urging young people across the Muslim world to reject benighted values, even as America clambers into bed with a bunch of Middle East potentates who espouse benighted values.

President Obama has been working hard to get a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates because they provide cover in the fight against the brutal, metastasizing threat of the Islamic State, a “network of death” known as ISIS, that our blunders — both of action and inaction — helped create.

He and Secretary of State John Kerry have cajoled this motley crew for the coalition — American warplanes are doing most of the airstrikes in Syria — even though in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, powerful elements are financing some of the same terrorists that their governments have been enlisted to fight.

At the U.N. on Tuesday, in a scene in a fancy-old New York hotel that evoked Marlon Brando making the peace with the heads of the five families in “The Godfather,” President Obama offered a tableau of respect to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“This represents partners and friends in which we have worked for very many years to make sure that security and prosperity exists in the region,” he said.

When American presidents rain down bombs on Muslim countries, they use the awful treatment of women in the Middle East as one of their justifications.

In his speech at the United Nations, President Obama said he wanted “to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world” and urged them to create “genuine” civil societies.

“Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed,” he said. “And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”

Yet, because we need the regressive rulers in the Persian Gulf to sell us oil and buy our fighter jets and house our fleets and drones and give us cover in our war coalitions, we don’t really speak out about their human rights violations and degradation of women as much as we should. The Obama administration was sparked to action by the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia — wooed to be in the coalition by Kerry with a personal visit this month — has been chopping off heads regularly, sometimes for nonlethal crimes such as drugs or sorcery.

The president should just drop the flowery talk and cut to the chase. Americans get it. Let’s not pretend we’re fighting for any democratic principles here.

America failed spectacularly in creating its democratic model kitchen with Iraq. So now we have to go back periodically and cut the grass, as they say in Israel, to keep our virulent foes in check.

It is pre-emption. But the difference with President Obama’s pre-emption is that there is an actual threat to the globe from a vicious, maniacal army. President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice made up a threat to America from a contained and diminished Saddam Hussein to justify pre-emption and serve their more subterranean purposes.

Eight months ago, the president was reduced to threatening to act without Congress, warning: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”

Now he’s brandishing bombs and drones on a scale he’s never done before. The ex-community activist elected on a peace platform has grown accustomed to coldly ordering the killing of bad guys.

“It’s hard to imagine that in his wildest dreams — or nightmares — he ever foresaw the in-box he has,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, as Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, said once, when asked what disrupted his best-laid plans: “Events, dear boy, events.”

As the U.S. woos the Arab coalition, Arab leaders are not speaking out against the atrocities of ISIS against women.

“It is the obligation and duty of Arab countries, where men always feel so possessive about their mother, their wife, their daughter, to condemn ISIS’s violence against women,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. “Why don’t they say a word?

“I’ve been working with women in the Middle East for 40 years, and I’ve never seen such brutality, such barbarism as that which ISIS is committing against women. It is unbelievable.”

We are so far from where the dunderheads of the Bush administration were in 2003, with George W. Bush bragging about his cakewalk of weakening dictators, forging democracies and recognizing the rights of women. As it has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region, ISIS has been targeting professional women. An Iraqi lawyer who worked to promote women’s rights was grabbed from her home last week after she posted complaints on her Facebook page about ISIS’s “barbaric” destruction of mosques and shrines in Mosul. Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy was tortured for days; then a masked firing squad executed her on Monday and then told her family she could not have a funeral.

In a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “ISIS’s Cruelty Toward Women Gets Scant Attention,” Esfandiari toted up a litany of horrors, including the tragic story of a woman who was tied to a tree, naked, and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters, who are “rewarded” with droit du seigneur as they assault and pillage their way toward an Islamic caliphate.

She noted that even though ISIS propaganda emphasizes protecting the morality of women, it has taken little girls playing with dolls and married them off to fighters three times older, set up “marriage bureaus” in captured Syrian towns to recruit virgins and widows to marry fighters, and tied together women with a rope as though “they were being led to a makeshift slave market.”

She told me that “it’s a strategy to shame women and undermine their families. In our part of the world, a woman who has been raped, whether once or 50 times, feels ashamed, her family feels ashamed. Some commit suicide. Others become pregnant and are ostracized by their family and community, with no fault at all of their own.”

Haass noted that one of the lessons we should have learned in fighting halfway around the world, from Vietnam to Iraq, is “the power of local realities.”

“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can’t deliver fundamental social and cultural transformation in this part of the world,” he said. “Our ability to influence the position or status of women in the Arab or Muslim world is limited.”

He said the Arab coalition is necessary because “our priority has got to be to push back and weaken ISIS.

“Even if we’re not in a position to give women the better life they deserve,” he concluded, “we are in a position to save many of them from what ISIS would do to them. And that’s significant.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ken Adelman’s fascinating history “Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War.” Adelman, who led Reagan’s arms control agency, was an adviser at Reagan’s 1986 Iceland summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Using some newly declassified documents, Adelman fills out the extraordinary dialogue between the two leaders that set in motion a dramatic cut in nuclear arms.

You learn a lot about Reagan’s leadership in the book. For me, the most impressive thing was not Reagan’s attachment to his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, which is overrated in ending the Cold War. What is most impressive about Reagan is that he grasped that Gorbachev was a radically different kind of Soviet leader — one with whom he could make history — long before his intelligence community did. That made a big difference.

These days there is a lot of “if-only-Obama-could-lead-like-Reagan” talk by conservatives. I’ll leave it to historians to figure out years from now who was the better president. But what I’d argue is this: In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now.

“Easier world, are you kidding?” say conservatives. “Reagan was up against a Communist superpower that had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at us! How can you say that?”

Here’s how: The defining struggle in Reagan’s day was the Cold War, and the defining feature of the Cold War was that it was a war between two different systems of order: Communism versus democratic capitalism. But both systems competed to build order — to reinforce weak states around the world with military and economic aid and win their support in the Cold War. And when either Moscow or Washington telephoned another state around the world, there was almost always someone to answer the phone. They even ensured that their proxy wars — like Vietnam and Afghanistan — were relatively contained.

Obama’s world is different. It is increasingly divided by regions of order and regions of disorder, where there is no one to answer the phone, and the main competition is not between two organized superpowers but between a superpower and many superempowered angry men. On 9/11, we were attacked, and badly hurt, by a person: Osama bin Laden, and his superempowered gang. When superempowered angry men have more open space within which to operate, and more powerful weapons and communication tools, just one needle in a haystack can hurt us.

Most important, Reagan’s chief rival, Gorbachev, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for doing something he never wanted to do: peacefully letting go of Eastern Europe. Obama’s foes, like the Islamic State, will never win the Nobel Peace Prize. Reagan could comfortably challenge Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this wall” because on the other side of that wall was a bad system — Communism — that was suppressing a civilization in Eastern and Central Europe, and part of Russia, that was naturally and historically inclined toward democratic capitalism. And there were leaders there — like Lech Walesa, another Nobel Peace Prize winner — to lead the transition. We just needed to help remove the bad system and step aside.

“The countries of Eastern and Central Europe were forcibly part of a Communist empire but culturally were always part of Western civilization,” explained Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist and author of “The Road to Global Prosperity.” “They never saw themselves as Communist, but rather as Westerners who had been kidnapped.” After Gorbachev, under pressure from Reagan and the West, released them, “they ran as fast as they could to embrace Western institutions.”

In the Middle East, which has consumed so much of Obama’s energy, the people tore down their walls — their systems — but underneath was not a civilization with the suppressed experience, habits and aspirations of democracy and free markets. Instead it was a toxic mix of Islamism, tribalism, sectarianism and an inchoate aspiration for democracy.

Reagan’s leadership challenge was to bring down a wall and then reap the peace dividends by just letting nature take its course. Obama’s challenge is that on the other side of the wall that the Arabs took down lies the world’s biggest nation-building project, with a civilization that is traumatized, divided and often culturally hostile to Western values and institutions. It’s an enormous job that only the locals can lead.

The one time that Reagan faced the miniversion of Obama’s challenge was in Lebanon. After Israel toppled the Palestinian ministate there, Reagan hoped it would unleash a naturally democratic order, with just a little midwifing help from American Marines. But after 241 U.S. servicemen were blown up in Beirut in 1983, Reagan realized that the civilization there was a mix of Islamists, sectarian Christians, Syrians, Shiite militias, Palestinian refugees and democrats. It required a lot more than us just standing guard. It required nation-building. And what did Reagan do? He left.

I was there to wave goodbye to the last Marines on the beaches of Beirut.

So comparing Reagan with Obama in foreign policy is inevitable. But when you do, also compare their respective contexts. The difference is revealing.

And let’s not forget that the grinning, senile old B-movie actor didn’t have to deal with virulent racism at home and an opposition party that had completely lost its mind.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Earlier this month, my iPhone vanished.

I looked up its location on an app called Find My Friends that my wife and I use, and I had a shock: The app said my phone was in a house 15 miles away, in a neighborhood that I’d never visited.

I drove there. It was night. The house looked creepy.

My wife stayed in the car, cellphone in hand, ready to summon the cavalry. I walked to the front door and rang the doorbell.

Nothing. The lights were on, so I rang again and knocked hard. I spent five minutes ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door. Finally, a man emerged.

“I think you have my phone,” I explained tautly.

“Your phone?” he asked.

“YOU HAVE MY PHONE!”

“Oh,” he said, “your phone.” He pulled it out, still with my name, email address and office phone number pasted on it, and meekly handed it over.

I left, no questions asked.

Full of myself, I posted about the adventure on social media — and provoked a firestorm. A typical comment on Facebook, from Glenna: “Are you insane?”

Many followers scolded me, while others — particularly those abroad — expressed bewilderment that it should be dangerous to knock on a door and ask for one’s property. Heidi asked: “What kind of society do we live in when knocking on someone’s door to retrieve a lost iPhone becomes perceived as life-threatening?”

Put aside the question of whether I was a knucklehead. Isn’t there a larger question of why we tolerate a society so bristling with guns that such a quest may be perilous? Aren’t we all knuckleheads for tolerating such a threat?

About one-third of American households have guns, according to a Pew survey (a bit more, Gallup says), and these firearms kill 32,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just last month, a Detroit man, Theodore Wafer, 55, was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, 19, who apparently knocked on his door seeking help after she was in a car accident.

When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I encountered bewilderment at the fate of a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in Louisiana who had been invited to a Halloween party. The boy, Yoshihiro Hattori, mistakenly went to the wrong address and rang the bell.

The homeowner, Rodney Peairs, came out with a gun and shouted, “Freeze.” Yoshihiro didn’t understand. Peairs shot him in the chest, killing him. We, as a country, should be ashamed that this prompted the Japanese government to teach its citizens traveling to the United States the word “freeze.”

As for Peairs, he had to live with himself. He was later quoted as saying that he would never again use a gun.

We turn to guns in the belief that they will make us safer. Nonsense!

Sure, there are cases where guns are successfully used for self-defense, but a study in the journal Injury Prevention found that the purchase of a handgun was associated with 2.4 times the risk of being murdered and 6.8 times the risk of suicide. Several other studies confirm that a gun in the house significantly increases the risk that a person in the home will be murdered or commit suicide.

Partly that’s because we misperceive the risks. We imagine a home invasion, but a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that 76 percent of homicide victims knew their assailant. That study also said that men with guns in the home are 10 times as likely to commit suicide in the home as men without a gun. Look, there are no simple solutions when we already have 300 million guns circulating in America. It’s also fair to note that any single gun is not much of a danger (statistically, a child is more likely to die from a swimming pool at a house than from a gun in the house).

But, with so many guns, often kept loaded without trigger locks, the collective toll is enormous. Just since 1968, it has been calculated, more Americans have died from gunfire than have died in all the wars in our country’s history.

The simplest baby step forward would be to institute universal background checks before gun purchases, to prevent sales to criminals. That was favored by 92 percent of Americans in a poll last year, as well as by three-quarters of members of the National Rifle Association. Yet the N.R.A. leadership is so extreme that it fights even such a step, and craven politicians buckle to its will.

I may have been a fool for trying to reclaim my phone. But we’re all idiots for accepting a society where knocking on a door is a deadly risk.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.

But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?

Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?

Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?

Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools and on too many college campuses. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left, in suburbs and cities and states red and blue.

Last week was Banned Books Week, during which proponents of unfettered speech and intellectual freedom draw attention to instances in which debate is circumscribed and the universe sanitized. As if on cue, a dispute over such censorship erupted in the affluent Dallas-area community of Highland Park, where many students pushed back at a recent decision by high school administrators to suspend the teaching of seven books until further review. Some parents had complained about the books.

Their titles? That was the strangest part. The seven offenders included the young adult novel “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green. It was deemed too sexually frank. Also “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” by David K. Shipler. It has references to rape and abortion. “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir, was tagged for its portraits of alcoholism and mental illness. And “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, dared to include a scene in which a teenage girl under the age of consent comes on to an older man. In several sentences, her breasts are described.

It’s not exactly “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I mean, its narrator is a Labrador-terrier mix.

“It’s the dog book,” Stein marveled when I reached him by telephone in Seattle, where he lives. “My book’s the dog book.” In it an animal who expects to be reincarnated as a person puzzles over humanity — and prepares for it — by studying his master, a racecar driver.

“It’s full of life lessons: about responsibility, about self-reliance, about perseverance,” Stein said. Apparently, nipples trump all of that.

The events in Highland Park brought to mind other stories, including one in the Denver area that received national attention last week: A newly conservative board for the Jefferson County School District, which is Colorado’s second-largest, raised the possibility of pruning the curriculum of books and material that could be seen to exalt civil disobedience and promote unpatriotic thoughts. Where does that leave the civil rights movement? Vietnam?

Late last spring, during commencement season, students at one college after another succeeded in warding off scheduled speakers and honorary-degree recipients whose politics they disagreed with. Condoleezza Rice felt compelled to back out of a speech at Rutgers University. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, canceled an appearance at Smith College, where students were circulating a petition that charged the I.M.F. with the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Brandeis University reacted to faculty and student protests there by rescinding its invitation to the writer and women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had made strongly negative statements about Islam.

Around that same time, there were movements on scattered college campuses to attach so-called trigger warnings to texts whose evocations of, say, anti-Semitism or rape might prompt emotional turmoil in students. This echoed moves years earlier by officials at some elementary, middle and secondary schools to prune standardized tests of words that might distress students, either by summoning life’s harshness, reminding them of their deprivation or making them feel excluded. “Poverty,” “slavery,” “divorce,” “hurricanes” and “birthdays” were on a list drawn up by New York City educators, who later abandoned the plan.

While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.

The efforts are also inextricable from subtler, more pervasive dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms and schools, where “failure” and “disappointment” are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one. When high-school students obsessed with getting into elite colleges avoid any courses that play to their weaknesses, they’re treating education in precisely the wrong way, no matter how understandable their motivation.

And when students at those colleges march in lock step toward certain majors (economics, for example) and certain professions (finance and consulting), they’re missing out. That’s what the recent best seller “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, noted and rued: the treatment of hallowed universities as placid pastures for contented grazing rather than majestic landscapes to romp and rage across, their bruising pitfalls redeemed by their exhilarating peaks.

Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.

“You’re only diminishing a young person’s ability to go off into the world and interface with people from all walks of life,” Stein said. Thinking back to his own childhood in the suburbs of Seattle and then his years at Columbia University, he said, “The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who stand up in front of the class and wave their arms and say provocative things that students then react to.”

He recalled that in the eighth grade, he read a book, recommended by a school librarian, in which bullies tormented a kid by pulling off his shoes and urinating in them. It upset him, because it was a situation alien to his own experience. That’s also why he needed to be exposed to it, he said.

“It showed me that this happens,” he explained, with a note of gratitude in his voice. “It made me understand.”

Friedman and Bruni

September 24, 2014

In “ISIS Crisis” The Moustache of Wisdom says the mounting tension involved in the fight against the Islamic State is not going away anytime soon.  In ” ‘I Do’ Means You’re Done” Mr. Bruni says the Catholic Church will be haunted by its inhumane treatment of many gay couples.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There is a tension at the heart of President Obama’s campaign to confront the Islamic State, and it explains a lot about why he has so much trouble articulating and implementing his strategy. Quite simply, it is the tension between two vital goals — promoting the “soul-searching” that ISIS’s emergence has triggered in the Arab-Muslim world and “searching and destroying” ISIS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

Get used to it. This tension is not going away. Obama will have to lead through it.

The good news: The rise of the Islamic State, also known and ISIS, is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst. Look at a few samples, starting with “The Barbarians Within Our Gates,” written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel.

“With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama … is stepping once again — and with understandably great reluctance — into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down. Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

“Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed,” Melhem added. “The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. … The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk — what was left of a broken-down civilization.

The liberal Saudi analyst Turki al-Hamad responded in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper to King Abdullah’s call for Saudi religious leaders to confront ISIS ideology: How can they? al-Hamad asked. They all embrace the same anti-pluralistic, puritanical Wahhabi Sunni ideology that Saudi Arabia diffused, at home and abroad, to the mosques that nurtured ISIS.

“They are unable to face the groups of violence, extremism and beheadings, not out of laziness or procrastination, but because all of them share in that same ideology,” al-Hamad wrote. “How can they confront an ideology that they themselves carry within them and within their mind-set?”

The Lebanese Shiite writer Hanin Ghaddar in an essay in August on Lebanon’s Now website wrote: “To fight the I.S. and other radical groups, and to prevent the rise of new autocratic rulers, we need to assume responsibility for the collective failures that have produced all of these awful tyrants and fanatics. Our media and education systems are liable for the monster we helped create. … We need to teach our children how to learn from our mistakes instead of how to master the art of denial. When our educators and journalists start to understand the significance of individual rights, and admit that we have failed to be citizens, then we can start hoping for freedom, even if it is achieved slowly.”

Nurturing this soul-searching is a vital — and smart — part of the Obama strategy. In committing America to an air-campaign-only against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, Obama has declared that the ground war will have to be fought by Arabs and Muslims, not just because this is their war and they should take the brunt of the casualties, but because the very act of their organizing themselves across Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines — the very act of overcoming their debilitating sectarian and political differences that would be required to defeat ISIS on the ground — is the necessary ingredient for creating any kind of decent, consensual government that could replace ISIS in any self-sustaining way.

The tension arises because ISIS is a killing machine, and it will take another killing machine to search it out and destroy it on the ground. There is no way the “moderate” Syrians we’re training can alone fight ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. Iraqis, Turkey and the nearby Arab states will have to also field troops.

After all, this is a civil war for the future of both Sunni Islam and the Arab world. We can degrade ISIS from the air — I’m glad we have hit these ISIS psychopaths in Syria — but only Arabs and Turks can destroy ISIS on the ground. Right now, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS. He won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air. What’s in his soul? What’s in the soul of the Arab regimes who are ready to join us in bombing ISIS in Syria, but rule out ground troops?

This is a civilization in distress, and unless it faces the pathologies that have given birth to an ISIS monster its belly — any victory we achieve from the air or ground will be temporary.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

In and around Rome, the talk is of Pope Francis’ sage acceptance of the 21st century, of his empathy, of his departure from the stern moralizing on matters of the heart that his predecessors engaged in.

In Montana, a gay couple who have been together for more than three decades have been told that they’re no longer really welcome in the Catholic parish where they’ve been worshiping together for 11 years.

This happened last month, in the town of Lewistown. By all accounts, these two men, one of them 73, the other 66, had done no one any harm. They hadn’t picked a fight. Hadn’t caused any particular stir. Simply went to Mass, same as always. Prayed. Sang in the church choir, where they were beloved mainstays.

There was only this: In May of last year, without any fanfare, the men had traveled to Seattle, where they had met and lived for many years, to get married. And while they didn’t do anything after to publicize the civil ceremony, word eventually leaked out.

So in early August, a 27-year-old priest who had just begun working at the parish summoned them to a meeting, according to local news reports. And at that meeting, he told them that they could no longer be choir members, perform any other roles like that or, for that matter, receive communion.

If they wanted those privileges restored, there was indeed a remedy, which the priest and other church officials spelled out for them over subsequent conversations. They would have to divorce. They would have to stop living together. And they would have to sign a statement that marriage exists only between a man and a woman.

Translation: Renounce a love fortified over 30 years. Unravel your lives. And affirm that you’re a lesser class of people, barred from the rituals in which others blithely participate.

With those little tweaks, the body of Christ can again be yours.

In one sense there’s nothing revelatory here. For all the changes afoot in enlightened countries around the world, the church remains censorious of same-sex marriage — fervently so, in many instances — and Catholic teaching still forbids sexually intimate relationships between two men or two women.

But there are details to note, rue and reject. One is the hypocrisy (or whatever you want to call it) of punishing a same-sex couple for formalizing a relationship that was already obvious, as these men’s partnership was.

Such punishment has befallen many employees of Catholic schools or congregations since the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states allowed them civil weddings. Teachers long known to be gay are suddenly exiled for being gay and married, which is apparently too much commitment and accountability for the church to abide. Honesty equals expulsion. “I do” means you’re done.

I reached the Montana couple, Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff, on the phone Tuesday, and Wojtowick expressed befuddlement. “We’re just two old men,” he said, and their relationship was no secret. “We’re only 5,900 people in this town, and Paul and I are really well known.”

He said that seven generations of his family had worshiped in the parish, where he himself was baptized. In recent years he’d been on the parish council, and until last month, he was the organist. “This is my home,” he said.

He said that he and Huff had decided to get married not to make a statement but because they were getting on in years and didn’t want any confusion or challenge about beneficiaries, health care proxies and hospital visitation rights.

The Catholic Church does incalculable good, providing immeasurable comfort — material as well as spiritual — to so many. But it contradicts and undercuts that mission when it fails to recognize what more and more parishioners do: that gay people deserve the same dignity as everyone else, certainly not what happened to the Montana couple. If Francis and his successors don’t get this right, all his other bits of progress and pretty words will be for naught.

This tension was captured in a blog post Monday by Andrew Sullivan, who is both a leading gay marriage advocate and a practicing Catholic. He indicated that stories like the one from Montana are making those identities ever harder to reconcile. “There is only so much inhumanity that a church can be seen to represent before its own members lose faith in it,” he wrote.

A bishop in Montana conceded to a local newspaper that half the congregation was upset by the men’s ouster. Wojtowick told me that the choir had essentially disbanded, in solidarity with him and Huff, and that some congregants had stopped attending services, Huff among them.

Wojtowick still goes, but only for the first half of the Mass, before communion approaches. “Then I get up,” he said. “I make a profound bow to the altar. And I walk out.”

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

September 21, 2014

In “Grand Illusion in Syria” The Putz tells us that the White House is trying a cheaper version of what didn’t work in Iraq.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “The only thing we might take away from this quandary, as we circle the drain, is to never again elect the ignorant, the pandering, the sanctimonious and the deluded to positions of power. Not in November, and not in 2016.”  In “Two Redheaded Strangers” MoDo tells us that, on the Honeysuckle Rose, Willie Nelson and Maureen talk pot, politics and a certain trip to the White House in the Carter years.  In “Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism” The Moustache of Wisdom explains why the no vote in Scotland was a good thing.  Mr. Kristof sends us “Alicia Keys Asks: Why Are We Here?”  He says Alicia Keys wants to galvanize an infantry that moves from being frustrated about the world to improving it.  In “Up From Pain” Mr. Blow says he had to stop hating his abuser to start loving himself. He had to let go of his past so that he could step into his future.  Mr. Bruni takes a look at “The Vain and the Desperate” and says our political process repels many leaders who might do us good and leaves us with a sometimes motley crew.  Here’s The Putz:

Across years of war and at an extraordinary cost, the United States built an army that was supposed to prevent jihadists from gaining a sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East. It had American-trained leaders, American-made weaponry and 250,000 men under arms — far more troops and firepower than any insurgent force that might emerge to challenge it.

That army was the Iraqi Army, and we know what happened next: The Syrian civil war spilled over into Iraq, jihadists first found a foothold and then led an insurgency against the Iraqi military, and the jihadists won. American-organized units were routed; American-trained soldiers fled; American-made weapons fell into the hands of the Islamic State, the self-declared caliphate with which we ourselves are now at war.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a lesson here about how hard it is to conjure up reliable allies amid the chaos of the current Middle East. But if so, we seem determined not to learn it, since our official strategy for fighting the Islamic State involves basically trying the same thing again, this time on the cheap: inventing allies, funneling them money and weaponry, and telling ourselves that it will all work out.

Those allies are the “moderate” and “vetted” — euphemisms for “not as scary as the other guys” — rebels in Syria, whom Congress voted last week to finance and train and arm. As fighting forces go, they promise to be rather less impressive than the last army we trained, since if all goes well just 5,000 rebels will be ready for the fight this year, or about one-sixth as many fighters as ISIS now has under arms. (And those odds get even longer when you consider that the rebels intend to use our weapons to fight the Assad regime as well.)

If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.

The first realistic, non-farcical option is the one that the president seemed to choose initially, when he launched limited airstrikes to rescue the embattled Kurds last month. This would basically be a strategy of containment and attrition, oriented around the current lines of battle in Iraq, in which we see if the Kurds and those Iraqi Army units that didn’t collapse can push the front westward, see if a post-Maliki government can woo local Sunni leaders, and use our air power to degrade the caliphate’s fighting capacity while letting its internal weaknesses degrade it from within.

The trouble with containment is that it would leave the Islamic State in control of a great deal of territory (with more beheading videos, no doubt) for months and years to come. Hence the administration’s pivot to Syria; hence the strategic dream palace that is our arm-the-rebels strategy.

The cold reality, though, is that defeating ISIS outright in Syria will take something more substantial than dropping a few bombs in support of a few U.S.-trained moderates. Either the American military will have to intervene in force (including with substantial ground troops) or we’ll have to ally, in a very un-American display of machtpolitik, with Bashar al-Assad. Both options may have supporters within the Republican Party. Many hawks seem ready to send in ground forces, and John McCain has explicitly argued that we should be willing to go to war with both Assad and the Islamists at once. From Rand Paul, meanwhile, you hear what sounds like a version of the ally-with-Assad approach, albeit couched in somewhat ambiguous terms.

The White House would clearly prefer not to choose either path, either escalation. But its current approach seems likely to drift more in McCain’s direction, with a gradual ramping-up (today bombing, tomorrow special forces, the next day … ?) in Syria that makes a clash with Assad and a multifront war steadily more plausible.

There is still time for the president to reconsider, to fall back on the containment-and-attrition strategy in Iraq and avoid a major commitment inside Syria. That strategy does not promise the satisfaction of the Islamic State’s immediate elimination. But neither does it require magically summoning up a reliable ally amid Syrian civil strife, making a deal with the region’s bloodiest dictator, or returning once again to ground warfare and nation-building in a region where our efforts have so often been in vain.

It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003, and that hard experience should have disabused us of by now.

But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.

Next up we have MoDo:

When Willie Nelson invites you to get high with him on his bus, you go.

The man is the patron saint of pot, after all, and I’m the poster girl for bad pot trips.

It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.

When Nelson sang at the 9:30 club in D.C. one recent night, I ventured onto the Honeysuckle Rose, as his tour bus and home-away-from-home is called.

I was feeling pretty shy about meeting him. The 81-year-old Redheaded Stranger is an icon, one of America’s top songwriters and, as Rolling Stone said, “a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” The Smithsonian wants his guitar, “Trigger.”

I needed a marijuana Miyagi, and who better than Nelson, who has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a first-degree black belt in helping Norml push for pot legalization?

In a Rolling Stone cover piece last month on “America’s Most Beloved Outlaw,” Nelson told writer Patrick Doyle that he had read my column on having a bad reaction to a marijuana-infused candy bar while I was in Denver covering the pot revolution in Colorado.

“Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he said, laughing, adding that I was welcome to get high on his bus “anytime.”

So that’s how I found myself, before Nelson’s show here, sitting opposite him in a booth on the bus as he drank black coffee out of a pottery cup, beneath a bulletin board filled with family photos.

His eyes were brass-colored, to use Loretta Lynn’s description. His long pigtails were graying. His green T-shirt bore the logo of his son’s band, Promise of the Real.

So, Sensei, if I ever decide to give legal pot a whirl again, what do I need to know?

“The same thing that happened to you happened to me one or two times when I was not aware of how much strength was in whatever I was eating,” Nelson said, in his honeyed voice. “One time, I ate a bunch of cookies that, I knew they were laced but I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to see what it would do, and I overdid it, naturally, and I was laying there, and it felt like the flesh was falling off my bones.

“Honestly, I don’t do edibles,” he continued. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, because I don’t enjoy the high that the body gets. Although I realize there’s a lot of other people who have to have it that way, like the children that they’re bringing to Colorado right now for medical treatments. Those kids can’t smoke. So for those people, God bless ’em, we’re for it.”

Eager not to seem like a complete idiot, I burbled that, despite the assumption of many that I gobbled the whole candy bar, I had only taken a small bite off the end, and then when nothing seemed to be happening, another nibble.

Nelson humored me as I also pointed out that the labels last winter did not feature the information that would have saved me from my night of dread.

Now, however, Colorado and Washington State have passed emergency rules to get better labeling and portion control on edibles, whose highs kick in more slowly and can be more intense than when the drug is smoked. Activists are also pushing to make sure there are stamps or shapes to distinguish pot snacks — which had, heretofore, been designed to mimic regular snacks — so that children don’t mistakenly ingest them.

Trying to prevent any more deaths, emergency-room trips or runaway paranoia, the Marijuana Policy Project has started an educational campaign called “Consume Responsibly.”

Its whimsical first billboard in Denver shows a bandjaxed redhead in a hotel room — which is far too neat to be mine — with the warning: “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation. With edibles, start low and go slow.”

Bill Maher also offered Colorado, “the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” some tips, including having budtenders talk to customers “like a pharmacist would,” curtail pot products that look like children’s candy, and don’t sell novices kief, superconcentrated crystals so potent that they’re “harvested directly from Willie Nelson’s beard.”

I asked Nelson about Jerry Brown’s contention that a nation of potheads would threaten American superiority.

“I never listened to him that much,” he said, sweetly.

He showed me his pot vaporizer, noting: “Everybody’s got to kill their own snakes, as they say. I found out that pot is the best thing for me because I needed something to slow me down a little bit.” He was such a mean drunk, he said, that if he’d kept drinking heavily, “there’s no telling how many people I would have killed by now.”

I asked him about the time he was staying in the Carter White House — on bond from a pot bust — and took a joint up to the roof.

“It happened a long time ago,” he said, adding slyly, “I’m sure it happened.”

Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?

“In what?” he replied, mischievously. “I wouldn’t do anything Lincoln wouldn’t have done.”

Given all the horrors in the world now, I said, maybe President Obama needs to chill out by reuniting the Choom Gang.

“I would think,” Nelson said, laughing, “he would sneak off somewhere.”

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Madrid:

This was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.

As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day.

Why is pluralism such a big advantage today? Two reasons: politics and innovation. Before I explain, though, it’s worth recalling: What is pluralism? I like the definition that the Pluralism Project at Harvard offers on its website: “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity” because “mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.” A society being “pluralistic” is a reality (see Syria and Iraq). A society with pluralism “is an achievement” (see America).

Pluralism, it also notes, “does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind. … It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” And, it posits that real pluralism is built on “dialogue” and “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” — and “dialogue means both speaking and listening.”

That pluralism is more important than ever is easily divined by just looking at the Middle East. Iraq and Syria were pluralistic societies that lacked pluralism. Their diversity — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites — was something to be controlled from the top down by iron-fisted Ottomans, then the British and French and finally by local kings and colonels. Society was kept stable by a strongman.

But the diffusion of communication technologies and globalization is making all forms of top-down, autocratic control weaker, obsolete or more expensive in blood, money or arrests. Either these countries develop an ethic of pluralism — so they can govern themselves horizontally through social contracts forged among equal citizens — or they’ll stay in violent turmoil.

It’s no accident that the two democratizing Middle East entities doing best today are Tunisia and Kurdistan. Neither has fully mastered pluralism yet, but they’ve mastered its necessary precursor for self-governance, which was the principle used in 1989 to settle the Lebanese civil war: “No victor, no vanquished” among the major players. Everyone’s interests have to be balanced. Iraq is now struggling to get there; Syria is not even close.

Social networks and hyperglobalization are also increasing the economic returns from pluralism. After all, where does innovation come from? It comes from mashing up different perspectives, ideas and people. Google began as a mashup between Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant. The more pluralism your society has, the more trust it has, and trust plus pluralism enables people to collaborate, spark new ideas and businesses, and to comfortably reach out anywhere in the globe for the best co-creators. Sure, melting pots can boil over, but, when fueled by a pluralistic ethic, the energy they provide is undeniable. The Economist reported in April 2013 that some “40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.”

Democratic Spain in the last decade has impressively absorbed more than four million immigrants — mostly from Ecuador, Romania and Morocco — or 10 percent of its population. They came during the economic boom and have triggered no anti-immigrant party (yet). No wonder Spain’s national leaders today expressed relief at the no vote in Scotland. But the Catalan regional government insists it will proceed with its own nonbinding separatist referendum in November.

That will meet headwinds. To manage its diversity, Spain already awards a lot of autonomy to its 17 regions — a process called “coffee for all” — and many Spaniards “don’t want” to be pressed into a deeper breakup, explained José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You go to Barcelona and people are hanging the Catalan independence flag on their balcony. If you’re not, it means you’re not in favor of independence, but I don’t want to fight you by hanging the Spanish flag.” Many people here think you can be “a good Spaniard, good Catalan and good European” all at once.

The other danger of all these separatist movements, added Torreblanca, is that they “change the axis” of the political debate. “Politics should be about left and right — how to grow and how to redistribute.” Historically in Europe, he said, right-wing parties come in and create growth and inequality and left-wing parties come in and redistribute — and back and forth. “But the net result is that you end up with societies that are both competitive and cohesive.” All these separatist movements take you off that track, he said, and put you onto one of “identity politics,” which is precisely why places like Syria and Iraq can’t make progress.

America has always been “a country of citizens,” which made its pluralism relatively easy, noted Torreblanca. “The Europe Union is a country of nation states,” and it is trying to get more pluralistic by integrating those states ever more tightly into a super-state, called the European Union. But that is stalled now because the next level of integration requires not just giving up your currency but sovereignty, so there can be a truly common economic policy. In Syria and Iraq today, you have neither citizens nor states, but rather clans, sects and tribes, which now need to reorganize themselves into voluntary states, as opposed to those imposed by colonial powers, so they can be real citizens.

This is why America has such an advantage with its pluralism, and why — if Scots are brave enough to preserve theirs, and Spaniards are struggling to keep theirs and Iraqis are groping to find theirs — we should have the wisdom to pass an immigration reform bill that enriches ours.

Next up on the roster today we have Mr. Kristof:

Alicia Keys is a superstar singer who has mostly kept her clothes on and gossip off. So what is she doing in this photo, dressed only in a peace sign?

Her answer has to do with the purpose of life. Last month, as she was sickened by grim news — from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the toll in Gaza and Syria — a friend of hers lobbed a provocative question about the meaning of our existence: Why are you here?

“Nobody had asked me that question before,” Keys recalled. It got her thinking about her mission in life, her legacy. She is one of the world’s best-known singers, but many of her songs have been about love or heartbreak. She has 35 million fans on Facebook and almost 20 million followers on Twitter, but she wasn’t leveraging that audience for some broader purpose.

So she is now starting a We Are Here movement to channel her music and her fans to social justice causes, from stricter gun laws to criminal justice reform, from gay rights to global girls’ education.

“I want to gather an army,” Keys told me. She wants to galvanize that infantry of fans from feeling frustrated about the world to improving it.

Keys is expecting her second child in December — the movement arises partly from her concern about the world that the child will inherit — so she decided to be photographed nude with a peace sign on her belly as an image of amity to kick off the effort.

“It’s time to get people’s attention,” she said. “People won’t be able to ignore this visual.”

She plans to kick off the We Are Here Movement on Sunday at the Social Good Summit, a grass-roots version of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Keys says she will encourage her fans to support 12 specific groups: All Out, a gay rights organization; CARE, the aid group; Equal Justice Initiative, which combats racial inequity in the criminal justice system; the Future Project, which empowers high school students in America; Girl Rising, which supports girls’ education around the world; Keep a Child Alive, which helps children affected by H.I.V. and AIDS; Moms Rising, which supports universal prekindergarten, maternal leaves and tighter gun laws; Oxfam, which fights global poverty; Partners in Health, which tackles disease worldwide; the Trevor Project, which prevents suicide among gay and lesbian youths; the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which fights racial profiling; and War Child, which supports children in conflict areas.

To get the effort started, Keys is donating $1 million of her own money, to be divided among the 12 groups, and she hopes that her fans will make their own donations directly to the charities. A website, WeAreHereMovement.com, provides information.

There is, of course, a tradition of socially conscious musicians, and Bono has done as much as anybody to highlight the challenges of global poverty. Keys seems less inclined to lobby at Group of 8 summit meetings; rather, she says, she wants to work with fans at the grass-roots level.

As a theme for the effort, Keys released a new song, “We Are Here.” She says that her songs henceforth will do more to address racism, injustice and poverty; she aspires to be a moral voice as well as a musical one.

Keys is biracial, the daughter of a white mother and black father, and she says she has black relatives and friends who have been unjustly imprisoned. But her concerns far transcend race and gender.

So what will her fans think of her advocating on hot-button issues like stricter gun laws? On the whole, she thinks her audiences welcome such direction. Many are frustrated about social inequities, she says, but feel helpless to make a difference.

“We’re in the same head space. We think the same things,” she said. “This is bothering us, so how can we take that to the next step and do something about that, as opposed to just being angry?”

The next steps, she says, will include petitions, rallies, protests and public awareness efforts, as well as fund-raising. She also hopes to bring other artists into the effort, and she has already reached out to some.

I don’t know whether a youthful musical audience can be easily deputized into a posse for social justice. But Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, is optimistic.

“Whether or not it’s a huge financial gain, who knows?” Dr. Gayle told me. “What she’s able to do is get people to pay attention to these issues. I can talk about these issues until I’m blue in the face and do cartwheels, and I can’t get people to pay as much attention as she can. This is a huge opportunity to raise visibility.”

In an unusual appearance on Sunday here’s Mr. Blow:

I was away at college doing much of nothing, just pushing back against sorrow as it pressed down. My mother called. She told me someone wanted to speak to me. There was a silence on the line, and then words: “What’s going on, boy?”

It was an older cousin, whom I’ll call Chester. He was at my mother’s house, our house. It had been years since I had heard that voice. “What’s going on, boy?” as if nothing had ever happened, as if everything was buried and forgotten. But betrayal doesn’t work that way. Even when it’s buried, it doesn’t stay buried. It’s still alive down there, scratching its way back to the surface.

I don’t recall saying anything or even hanging up. I flung myself down the stairs of the apartment, wearing only pajama pants and a T-shirt. I burst out of the door and bolted to the car.

I was engulfed in an irrepressible rage. Everything in me was churning and pumping and boiling. All reason and restraint were lost to it. I was about to do something I wouldn’t be able to undo. Bullets and blood and death. I gave myself over to the idea.

The scene from the night when I was 7 years old kept replaying in my mind: waking up to him pushed up behind me, his arms locked around me, my underwear down around my thighs. The weight of the guilt and grieving that followed. The years of the bullying designed to keep me from telling — and the years of questioning my role in his betrayal.

I jumped in the car, grabbed the gun from under the car seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip, the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, “just in case.”

The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, 25 miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of north Louisiana road from Grambling State to my hometown, Gibsland, a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.

Bawling and with the heat of my anguish being released into the winter air, I reviewed my simple plan: walk into the house, find Chester, and shoot him in the head as many times as possible. No arguing. No explanation. Done.

Then I thought about who I was now, and who I could be. Seeing him in a pool of his own blood might finally liberate me from my past, but it would also destroy my future.

I had to make a choice: drive forward on the broad road toward the unspeakable or take the narrow highway exit. I don’t know which chose, my head or my hand, but I exited and drove through my college campus, thinking about all that I had accomplished. Me. With my own mind and grit. I had reinvented and improved myself. I was a man — a man with a future. I couldn’t continue to live my life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.

That night, I forced myself to come to terms with some things. Chester had done damage, but he didn’t deserve to die for what he had done, and I deserved to live in spite of it.

I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.

Yes, the mark that Chester’s betrayal had left on my life was likely to be permanent, but blaming him for the whole of the difference in my emerging sense of sexual identity, while convenient, was most likely not completely accurate. Abusers don’t necessarily make children different, but rather, they are diabolically gifted at detecting difference, often before the child can see it in him or herself. It is possible that Chester glimpsed a light in me, and that moved the darkness in him.

In addition to being attracted to women, I could also be attracted to men. There it was, all of it. That possibility of male attraction was such a simple little harmless idea, but I had allowed it to consume and almost ruin my life. The attraction and my futile attempts to “fix it” had cost me my dreams. The anguish, combined with a lifetime of watching hotheads brandishing cold steel, had put me within minutes of killing a man.

My world had told me that there was nothing worse than not being all of one way, that any other way was the same as being dead, but my world had lied. I was very much alive. There was no hierarchy of humanity. There was no one way to be, or even two, but many. And no one could strip me of my value and dignity, because no one had bestowed them. These things came into the world with me.

I had done what the world had signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh, held “the demon” at bay, kept the covenant, borne the weight of my crooked cross. But concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.

DARING to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable.

But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.

I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me — made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life.

I had spent my whole life trying to fit in, but it would take the rest of my life to realize that some men are just meant to stand out. I would have to learn to simply relax and be: complex, betwixt and between, and absolutely all right.

I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me.

That would include attempts at male intimacy.

The first time I tried ended disastrously. I had worked up the nerve to go to a gay bar, thinking that if male intimacy was something my body wanted, I might as well know it.

It was a world apart from the one I knew. Instead of feeling a sense of belonging, I felt apart. The bar was brimming with sameness — not the locker room, frat house kind I was familiar with, full of ego-measuring and distance-keeping, but a different and disorienting kind. I was the object of considerable attention. I was young and tall and fit and new. I was being watched. I knew it, and I liked it. So I sat alone at the end of the bar and took long sips of my drink as I soaked up pensive admiration.

Soon a man sidled up to me and began making small talk. He was unremarkable in appearance and seemed slightly older than me. He said he was a shoe importer. He sounded smart and seemed kind, and he smiled a lot. He invited me to his apartment for more drinks. I said, “Why not?” In my mind, the moment I had walked through the door of the bar, I had passed the point of no return.

When we arrived at his place, he poured a glass of wine, but I was too nervous to drink it. He talked more about his business and showed me shoe samples — ugly, rough-cut sandals that I couldn’t imagine anyone with even a dash a style deigning to wear.

Then, without warning, the mood shifted. The man disrobed, walked toward his bedroom, and beckoned me to follow. But the sight of him naked caused whatever attraction I might have had to collapse. His body looked sculpted, the way a body looks after years of proper eating and unstinting exercise, but I wasn’t drawn to it. My body went limp and cold.

I could in no way imagine us intertwined. I found the idea of it all immensely unsettling. I was surprised by my reaction — embarrassed by it — but my feeling was unambiguous: I wasn’t interested. So I grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the apartment.

I figured then that if I could indeed go both ways, one way didn’t quite prefer to go all the way.

I would come to know what the world called people like me: bisexuals. The hated ones. The bastard breed. The “tragic mulattos” of sexual identity. Dishonest and dishonorable. Scandal-prone and disease-ridden. Nothing nice.

And while the word “bisexual” was technically correct, I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. But, in addition, it would seem to me woefully inadequate and impressionistically inaccurate. It reduced a range of identities, unbelievably wide and splendidly varied, in which same-gender attraction presented itself in graduated measures, from a pinch to a pound, to a single expression. To me it seemed too narrowly drawn in the collective consciousness, suggesting an identity fixed precisely in the middle between straight and gay, giving equal weight to each, bearing no resemblance to what I felt.

In me, the attraction to men would never be equal to the attraction to women — for men, it was often closer to the pinch — but it would always be in flux. Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, “What are you?” I’d reply with something coy: “Complicated.” It would take many years before the word “bisexual” would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn’t only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity.

Few people would be open to the idea of men like me even existing, in any incarnation. Even the otherwise egalitarian would have no qualms about raising questions and casting doubt. Many could conceive of bisexuality only in the way it existed for most people willing to admit to it: as a transitory identity — a pit stop or a hiding place — and not a permanent one. Whatever the case, folks would never truly understand me, nor I them.

To me, their limits on attraction would seem overly broad and arbitrary. To them, I would be a man who walked up to the water’s edge and put only one foot in, out of fear or confusion or indecision. I would be the kind of man who wanted it all — clinging to the normative while nodding to difference.

But that’s not the way it works within me. I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide.

I wouldn’t always get things right. I wouldn’t always find the courage to tell people the whole truth about myself, or do so before their love had already reached through my secret and touched my shame, but at least I learned to move in the right direction. I wouldn’t lay the weight of my shame down all at once, but a bit at a time over many years, like forks of hay pitched from the back of a pickup truck, until the bales dwindled and the load was made light.

I would get married fresh out of college — to my college sweetheart, the love of my young life — after we both stopped pretending there was any other we would rather be with. I confessed, though not as soon as either of us would have preferred, to her my past and my proclivities, as fully as I understood them at the time, including the story of my encounter with the shoe importer. We figured that our love was greater than my complexity. We had three beautiful children — first a boy and then girl-boy twins — in rapid succession, but the marriage didn’t survive the seventh year. Still, the marriage confirmed for me that extended fidelity was in fact possible, not by denying part of my nature, but by submitting the whole of my heart. Monogamy was a choice. That was a side I could pick.

AFTER my wife and I split, I decided to give male intimacy another try. The male attraction was still there, running alongside the female one — not equal, but there. I assumed my first failure might have been the result of youth and nerves and a mixed match. But now, again, my body sometimes failed to respond. Other times I was able to engage more fully, but almost always with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol, which left me barely able to remember the encounters and often wanting to forget them. This felt fraudulent to me, and opportunistic, and dangerous.

Still, no matter how much I drank, no matter how altered my consciousness, I couldn’t completely rid myself of the unease of being intimately close to another man’s body, hard and hairy and muscular and broad at the shoulders, more stem than flower — too much like my own.

In those moments I was acutely aware that I missed the tug of the female form, the primary sensation and the peripheral ones. The look of soft features and the feel of soft skin. The graceful slopes of supple curves. The sweet smells. The giggles. The thing in me that yearned for those sensory cues from a woman wouldn’t quietly accept a substitute.

I had to accept a counterintuitive fact: my female attraction was fully formed — I could make love and fall in love — but my male attraction had no such terminus. To the degree that I felt male attraction, it was frustrated. In that arena, I possessed no desire to submit and little to conquer. For years I worried that the barrier was some version of self-loathing, a denial. But eventually I concluded that the continual questioning and my attempts to circumvent the barrier were their own form of loathing and self-flagellation.

I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.

And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

In case you missed it, our nation’s officeholders, current and former, have been working overtime to make us proud.

Ted Cruz threw a histrionic hissy fit in front of Arab Christians. Sarah Palin went to a birthday party where her family reportedly got into a brawl. Mark Sanford emitted a self-pitying aria of romantic angst. Debbie Wasserman Schultz compared some Republicans to wife beaters.

Somewhere in there, I sank into a newly deep funk about the kinds of people drawn to politics these days.

Then I burrowed into Matt Bai’s new book and I hit rock bottom.

It’s called “All the Truth Is Out,” it will be published later this month and it’s about Gary Hart. Remember him: the presidential contender who rode a boat named Monkey Business into a media whirlpool? You should, as the book, which is excerpted in The Times Magazine this weekend, makes clear.

And the reason isn’t so much the scandal that swallowed him or his particular exit from the political arena. It’s the warning that his story sounded — about a new brutality on the campaign trail, about uncharted frontiers of media invasiveness and about the way both would wind up culling the herd, not in favor of the strongest candidates but in favor of those so driven or vacuous that the caress of the spotlight redeems the indignities of the process.

Has running for public office become less attractive than ever? Does it frighten off potential leaders who might benefit us and clear a path for aspirants with less to offer?

Bai’s book suggests as much, and he points a finger at political journalism, which, he writes, is “now concerned almost entirely with exposing lies and unearthing character flaws, sexual or not.”

“Hart’s downfall,” Bai continues, “was the thing that tipped the scales completely, the catalyst that made it O.K. — even necessary — for all aspiring political reporters to cast themselves as amateur P.I.s and psychotherapists. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would have been: We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”

“All the Truth Is Out” has fascinating tidbits, in particular about friendships that bloomed between Hart and Mikhail Gorbachev and Hart and Bill Clinton, his descendant in the annals of sexual scandal.

It also has a few belly laughs — painful ones. Bai writes that when the media was consumed by Hart’s sex life, Johnny Carson joked that “the nomination would fall into Hart’s lap — if there was any room left there. On the highly rated sitcom ‘Golden Girls,’ one of the little old ladies commented of another character, ‘She’s Gary Hart’s campaign manager. It doesn’t pay much, but you don’t have to get out of bed to do it.’ ”

Those jokes serve a point: Hart was reduced to a single trait, and everything else he had to say was muffled by it. And the same questionable fate befell many politicians after him, as privacy perished and the media’s insistence on a certain sort of juicy narrative intensified.

“It’s just getting worse,” Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican strategist who spearheaded Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told me. “It’s the most grueling process imaginable.”

As CNN’s Peter Hamby noted in a study he wrote during a fellowship at Harvard last year, the accelerated news cycle of the social-media age demands meaningless scoops, trumpets dubious gaffes and turns the reporters trailing a candidate into “one giant, tweeting blob.”

That blob suffocates its quarry, often at the prodding of his or her rivals, who supply opposition research (or “oppo”) that strays from serious byways down silly cul-de-sacs. This was captured in a story about the Senate elections that was splashed across the top of the Politico website Friday afternoon.

The headline blared, “GOTCHA! How oppo took over the midterms.” And the story began, “Why would anyone want to talk about immigration, terrorism, gun control or the national debt, when there’s Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bus, John Walsh’s thesis, Bruce Braley’s chickens and Pat Roberts’ recliner? Gotcha stories — ranging from those tangentially related to issues of the day to the completely ephemeral and even absurd — have been front and center in an abnormally large number of top races this year.”

Everything’s a teapot, primed for a tempest. Although Joe Biden has a famously spastic tongue and there’s no reason to believe he is anti-Semitic, he makes an indecorous reference to “Shylocks” and the outrage machinery cranks into gear. The content-ravenous blogosphere lights up.

BUT the hysteria of the present media climate isn’t the only problem or turnoff. There’s the extended duration of a political race. There’s the ceaseless fund-raising, the burden of which was spelled out in an internal memo that leaked from Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign in Georgia. It decreed that drumming up money should consume 80 percent of her time in the first quarter of 2014, declining to 70 percent in the third.

The memo identified Jews as a “tremendous financial opportunity,” so long as Nunn struck the right position on Israel, still to be finessed. Ah, the heartfelt conviction that animates today’s candidate!

Writing about the memo in The Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich said that his main takeaway was “that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit.” He presumes a soul to take.

Seriously, who’s attracted to this ordeal? Some people with only the best intentions and motivations, yes. But also plenty like Sanford, whose 2,346-word Facebook post about his postmarital woes signaled a Newt-caliber neediness. Or like Wasserman Schultz, an intemperate warrior who, if Politico’s profile of her last week got it right, is consumed by self-centered ambition. Or like Cruz, with his lust for attention, even if it’s negative.

Or like Palin. She’s clearly on Bai’s mind when he writes that the “post-Hart climate” of estrangement between politicians and the press — and of shallow campaign pageantry — made it easier for candidates with little policy expertise or insight into governance, because no one expected any candidate to say anything too detailed or deep.

“A politician could duck any real intellectual scrutiny simply by deriding the evident triviality of the media,” Bai writes.

It’s odd and funny that the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer sought to vilify President Obama last week by calling him, of all things, a narcissist. When this came up on “The View” and narcissism was explained to Rosie O’Donnell as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration,” she replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me.”

It’s a lot of politicians, too. The process guarantees it.

Friedman and Bruni

September 17, 2014

In “Take a Deep Breath” The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we should ponder a few important questions about ISIS and the Arab world.  Mr. Bruni, in “Apples and Hurricanes,” says Obama can be measured without the yardstick of Bush.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from London:

An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or is it theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that’s the question that needs answering.

What concerns me most about President Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it’s being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and fear that ISIS, a.k.a., the Islamic State, is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Didn’t we build a Department of Homeland Security?

I am not dismissing ISIS. Obama is right that ISIS needs to be degraded and destroyed. But when you act out of fear, you don’t think strategically and you glide over essential questions, like why is it that Shiite Iran, which helped trigger this whole Sunni rebellion in Iraq, is scoffing at even coordinating with us, and Turkey and some Arab states are setting limits on their involvement?

When I read that, I think that Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners, is correct when he says: “When it comes to intervening in the Arab world’s existential struggle, we have to stop and ask ourselves why we have such a challenge getting them to help us save them.”

So before we get in any deeper, let’s ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing? George Friedman (no relation), the chairman of Stratfor, raised this idea in his recent essay on Stratfor.com, “The Virtue of Subtlety.” He notes that the ISIS uprising was the inevitable Sunni backlash to being brutally stripped of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite governments and militias in Baghdad and Syria. But then he asks:

Is ISIS “really a problem for the United States? The American interest is not stability but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralyzed so that no one who would threaten the United States emerges. … But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe that the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act in the margins, or even hinder the Americans. The United States must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the United States, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.”

Therefore, he concludes, the best U.S. strategy rests in us “doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition.” I am not sure, but it’s worth debating.

Here’s another question: What’s this war really about?

“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this moment from all others,” argues Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar associated with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.

Saudi financing for these groups is a byproduct of the ruling bargain there between the al-Saud family and its Salafist religious establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The al-Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS members (some 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world.

This game has reached its limit. First, because ISIS presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia. ISIS says it is the “caliphate,” the center of Islam. Saudi Arabia believes it is the center. And, second, ISIS is threatening Muslims everywhere. Khalidi told me of a Muslim woman friend in London who says she’s afraid to go out with her head scarf on for fear that people will believe she is with ISIS — just for dressing as a Muslim. Saudi Arabia cannot continue fighting ISIS and feeding the ideology that nurtures ISIS. It will hurt more and more Muslims.

We, too, have to stop tolerating this. For years, the U.S. has “played the role of the central bank of Middle East stability,” noted Mousavizadeh. “Just as the European Central Bank funding delays the day that France has to go through structural reforms, America’s security umbrella,” always there no matter what the Saudis do, “has delayed the day that Saudi Arabia has to face up to its internal contradictions,” and reform its toxic ruling bargain. The future of Islam and our success against ISIS depend on it.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Whenever Barack Obama seems in danger of falling, do we have to hear that George W. Bush made the cliff?

It happened with the economy. For the president’s staunchest defenders, legitimate questions about whether the stimulus was wisely crafted and whether Obamacare was rushed took a back seat to lamentations over the damage that his predecessor had done. Obama wasn’t perfect, but at least he wasn’t Bush.

And with the Middle East, those defenders sometimes turn Bush’s epic mistakes into Obama’s hall pass. Perhaps he hasn’t figured out what’s right, but he isn’t guilty of the original wrong, which is constantly being litigated anew, as if a fresh verdict on the events of 2003 could alter the challenges and stakes of 2014.

On Tuesday there was another spasm of this. As Congress debated the escalation of airstrikes against Islamic extremists, Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, digressed to inveigh against “the wholly unnecessary Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq,” a bell that was rung 11 1/2 years ago and can’t be un-rung now.

And to judge from my inbox lately and the chatter I overhear, what matters to many of Obama’s most stalwart fans isn’t whether he erred in the way he spoke of those extremists, turned his attention to them quickly enough or is now confronting them with the correct dose of belligerence: not too little, not too much.

At least he’s not Bush. He didn’t hallucinate weapons of mass destruction, make a spurious case for war or condone torture. I hear so much about Bush’s failings and Bush’s sins that you’d think he were still huddled over a desk in Washington rather than dabbing at a canvas in Texas.

Enough. It’s true that Obama hasn’t replicated Bush’s offenses, and it’s consoling. But it isn’t exactly reason for a parade, and it doesn’t inoculate him. The culpability that lies elsewhere doesn’t relieve the responsibilities that are now his.

And not being as bad as someone else is hardly the same as being good. Obama can rise far above Bush and still fall short. The presidency isn’t “The Voice” (though it is a little like “Survivor”). You’re not judged only in relation to the other performers who’ve been on stage. You’re judged by how well you respond to the unique circumstances of your time and place — by your ability to clean up the mess, not whether you made it.

This not-as-bad-as defense is a pointless partisan tic. We’ve seen a lot of it over the course of this presidency and will no doubt see a lot of it during the next, be it Democratic or Republican.

The I.R.S. scandal was not as bad as Watergate. (Nothing’s ever as bad as Watergate, which serves a nifty historical function as the gold standard of executive malfeasance and mendacity.)

The bungled rollout of Obamacare was not as bad as the botched response to Katrina.

It’s apples and hurricanes, but they’re put in the same basket, in a manner that recalls a child trying to evade punishment by ratting out a sibling for something worse. Don’t be mad, Mommy, about Operation Fast and Furious and all those guns that ended up with Mexican drug cartels. Ronnie traded arms for hostages as part of this whole Iran-contra affair!

I sometimes like to imagine presidential campaigns waged along these lines and what the candidates’ not-as-bad-as bumper stickers might say.

“Fewer Lies Than Nixon.” “Fewer Sweaters Than Carter.” “Fewer Interns Than Clinton.” “Better Speller Than Quayle.”

It works in the other direction, too, and Obama has definitely suffered plenty of not-as-good-as slings. Former presidents are held up not merely as yardsticks; they’re rulers used to rap the knuckles of the Oval Office’s current inhabitant and beat him over the head.

Smack: That Teddy Roosevelt certainly understood the power of the bully pulpit! Thwack: That L.B.J. really knew how to schmooze! A president is like a second spouse living in the saintly shadow of a first one who perished too soon.

Edmund Burke famously said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. But are those who fixate on it blind to how peculiar the present is, and to the fact that no degree of longing for a lost hero or blaming of a departed villain is going to change what lies ahead?

If we’re determined to glance back at a figure who flatters Obama, let’s really have at it and look all the way to Warren Harding. Golf wasn’t his only distraction. He also had a thing for poker. And when it came to seeming and feeling overwhelmed, the 29th president, an Ohio Republican, reputedly confessed to friends that he was lost in the job.

By that measure Obama is a rock. But it doesn’t make him a boulder.

Cripes.  MoDo or Bobo could have written that.  He should go back to reviewing restaurants or being a judge on The Food Channel…

Friedman and Bruni

September 10, 2014

Oh, frabjous day!  The Times has decided that one dose of MoDo a week is sufficient!  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that she’ll be on Sunday, a day they’re already ruining with The Pasty Little Putz.  Today we have The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  In “It Takes a Mentor” The Moustache informs us that Gallup says successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.  Mr. Bruni, in “American Horror Story,” says the status quo is cursed, but it’s not about to change. That’s the great, ugly paradox of the 2014 midterm elections.  Here’s The Moustache:

With millions of students returning to school — both K-12 and college — this is a good time to review the intriguing results of some research that Gallup did over the past year, exploring the linkages between education and long-term success in the workplace. That is: What are the things that happen at a college or technical school that, more than anything else, produce “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track? According to Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup’s education division, two things stand out. Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.

“We think it’s a big deal” where we go to college, Busteed explained to me. “But we found no difference in terms of type of institution you went to — public, private, selective or not — in long-term outcomes. How you got your college education mattered most.”

Graduates who told Gallup that they had a professor or professors “who cared about them as a person — or had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams and/or had an internship where they applied what they were learning — were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being,” Busteed said.

Alas, though, only 22 percent of college grads surveyed said they had such a mentor and 29 percent had an internship where they applied what they were learning. So less than a third were exposed to the things that mattered most.

Gallup’s data were compiled from polls of parents of 5th through 12th graders, business leaders and interviews with teachers, superintendents, college presidents, principals, college graduates, Americans ages 18 to 34, and students in grades 5 through 12. All told, “we collected the voices of close to one million Americans in the past year alone,” said Busteed, who added that he found the results “alarming” — not only because too few students are getting exposed to the most important drivers of workplace engagement, but because there is also a huge disconnect in perceptions of the problem.

Busteed said that 96 percent of the college provosts Gallup surveyed believed their schools were successfully preparing young people for the workplace. “When you ask recent college grads in the work force whether they felt prepared, only 14 percent say ‘yes,’ ” he added. And then when you ask business leaders whether they’re getting enough college grads with the skills they need, “only 11 percent strongly agree.” Concluded Busteed: “This is not just a skills gap. It is an understanding gap.”

This comes at a time when our country faces creative destruction on steroids thanks to the dynamism of technology and growing evidence that climbing the ladder of job success requires constant learning and relearning. Therefore, the need for schools to have a good grasp of what employers are looking for and for employers to be communicating with schools about those skills is greater than ever.

Some help may be on the way from Washington. Last year, President Obama quietly asked Vice President Joe Biden to oversee an overhaul of the government’s education-to-work programs after hearing from one too many employers across the country that, as one White House official put it, “they were having trouble hiring workers for some of their fastest-growing jobs,” such as operating sophisticated machine tools or software testing and debugging.

As they dove into the problem, said Byron Auguste, a White House deputy national economic adviser, they found that the success stories shared a lot of the same attributes that Gallup found to be differentiating. In successful programs, said Auguste, “students got as much applied, hands-on experience as possible, whether in a classroom or on a job site. Schools, colleges and training centers had close partnerships with regional employers, industry groups and skilled trade unions to stay up to date on job-relevant skills. And students or working learners got a lot of coaching and guidance to understand how to trace a direct path between their training today and careers tomorrow.”

The key now is to scale those insights. The Labor Department has awarded $1.5 billion in the last three years to more than 700 community colleges to develop employer-validated training programs for new careers like natural gas field work and cybersecurity. Later this month, another $500 million is set to be awarded as part of a kind of race-to-the-top for whoever can build the best community college-industry group partnership anywhere in the country where new industries are finding gaps in the kind of workers they need.

Employers used to take generalists and train them into specialists for their industry. But fewer employers want to do that today or can afford to in a globally competitive economy, especially when they fear they’ll train someone who will then leave for a competitor. So everyone wants employees out of college or technical schools who are as ready to plug and play as possible. That’s why government has a role in fostering more and more employer-educator partnerships — this is the new, new thing — which businesses, small and large, can benefit from, as well as all would-be employees.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Like the smattering of other Americans who still pay close attention to the wearying spectacle of our country’s politics, I worry about what will happen on Nov. 4, the day of the midterm elections.

But I worry even more about what will happen the day after, when a nation of people fed up with the stubborn dysfunction of our country’s government realize that nothing’s going to change and we’re in for more of the same.

I worry about the combustible tension between our abysmal regard for the Congress that we’ve got and a near certainty that the Congress we’re about to get will be its spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.

Our history is such that we just keep returning the incumbents; our system is such that insurgents are few and far between. They lack the money, and politics is increasingly about money. They lack name recognition, and it’s the era of celebrity.

In all but one of the last five elections for the House, at least 90 percent of the incumbents vying for another term got one. In all but one of the last five Senate elections, at least 80 percent of incumbents fared similarly.

This would be a happy fact if Americans adored their government. But a new Gallup poll shows that only 14 percent approve of the job that Congress is doing.

In an ABC/Washington Post poll last month, a majority of Americans disapproved not only of Congress in general but of their own House members in particular. This departed from the norm. It charted a new frontier of disgust.

And it dovetailed with a belief among most Americans that the country is on the wrong track and in decline.

So on Nov. 4, it’s out with the bums?

Ha.

I asked Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst behind The Rothenberg Political Report, to review the current House and Senate races and predict the rate of incumbent success. He estimated that between 90 and 96 percent of the House members running for re-election will be victorious, and between 78 and 90 percent of incumbent senators will.

Yes, there’s uncertainty over which party will wind up with control of the Senate.

But whatever happens, we’ll still have a Democratic president facing off against a Republican House, with all or much of the acrimony that this combination has produced for the past few years. The “fever” that President Obama talked about during the 2012 presidential campaign has never broken, and Nov. 4 won’t deliver the ibuprofen that at last does the trick.

No, it will deliver us to Nov. 5, at which point Senate and House leaders will begin to plot their every step in terms of whether it hurts or helps their party’s chances of taking the presidency in 2016.

That’s what dominates our politics: a war to gain or maintain turf, not a battle for a better America. You see that in the negativity and political gyrations of the 2014 campaigns.

Democrats are running away from the president, and I don’t mean just Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Udall of Colorado, who wasn’t even in the state when Obama did a fund-raiser for him there. I mean Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Al Franken of Minnesota, who have questioned the administration’s response to Islamic extremists.

Republicans are running away from their party’s beleaguered brand and even their own pasts, as they discover newly calibrated positions on the minimum wage, say, or “personhood.”

But what are all these politicians running toward? I know more about what they want to destroy than about what they yearn to create. That’s partly because of all the campaign spending that’s funneled through outside groups, which tend not to produce inspiring ads for the candidates they support but blistering ones against the candidates they oppose.

The system is toxic that way, and seems to have only enough oxygen to recycle known people and ideas, not to introduce and nurture new ones. With Jeb Bush looking less likely to run, Republicans are reassessing Mitt Romney. If Hillary Clinton takes a pass, Joe Biden’s waiting, and it’s not impossible that Jerry Brown swoops in.

Even the supposed mold breaker and flavor du jour, Rand Paul, comes with a road-tested surname, a dynastic leg up.

How a country so rightly anxious about the days ahead stays fixed in the days behind is the great paradox of the 2014 elections.

Rothenberg told me that he used to think of this country’s politics as a comedy. “Now,” he said, “it’s a tear-jerker.”

I’ve been catching up with the first season of “American Horror Story,” and our political travails bring to mind the freaked residents of that foul house. They can sense their doom. But they can’t seem to get out.

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

September 7, 2014

In “Rape and Rotherham” Putzy ‘splains that the grim story shows how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out that “there is not a tale so sordid that Douthat can’t use it to shift focus from the evils perpetrated by the Catholic Church. In this installment, he’s admitting wrongdoing by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the conservative hierarchy only to draw a false equivalence between that and his favorite target of late, liberal multiculturalism.”  MoDo has a question:  “Is It World War III or Just Twitter?”  She hisses that President Obama blames social media for our knowing just how messy the world is.  Sure he does, MoDo, sure he does.  And I’m the Czarina of all the Russias.  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “Leading From Within.”  He asks what’s the best way for the United States to address both ISIS and Vladimir Putin at once?  Mr. Kristof, in “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 2,” says a column on “smug white delusion” drew a deluge of responses. He gives us a few.  Mr. Bruni says we should be “Demanding More From College.”  He says in a world of many separate camps, college can and should be a bridge.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

There are enough grim tidings from around the world that the news from Rotherham, a faded English industrial town where about 1,400 girls, mostly white and working class, were raped by gangs of Pakistani men while the local authorities basically shrugged and did nothing, is already slipping out of American headlines.

But we should remain with Rotherham for a moment, and give its story a suitable place of dishonor in the waking nightmare that is late summer 2014.

We should do so not just for the sake of the victims, though for their sake attention should be paid: to the girls gang-raped or doused with gasoline; to the girls assaulted in bus stations and alleyways; to the girl, not yet 14, who brought bags of soiled clothes as evidence to the police and earned nothing for her trouble save for a check for 140 pounds — recompense for the garments, which the cops somehow managed to misplace.

But bearing witness is insufficient; lessons must be learned as well. This is more than just a horror story. It’s a case study in how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.

Interpreted crudely, what happened in Rotherham looks like an ideological mirror image of Roman Catholicism’s sex abuse scandal. The Catholic crisis seemed to vindicate a progressive critique of traditionalism: Here were the wages of blind faith and sexual repression; here was a case study in how a culture of hierarchy and obedience gave criminals free rein.

The crimes in Rotherham, by contrast, seem scripted to vindicate a reactionary critique of liberal multiculturalism: Here are immigrant gangs exploiting a foolish Western tolerance; here are authorities too committed to “diversity” to react appropriately; here is a liberal society so open-minded that both its brain and conscience have fallen out.

A more subtle reading, though, reveals commonalities between the two scandals. The rate of priestly abuse was often at its worst in places and eras (the 1970s, above all) where traditional attitudes overlapped with a sudden wave of liberation — where deference to church authority by parents and police coexisted with a sense of moral upheaval around sexuality and sexual ethics, both within seminaries and in society at large. (John Patrick Shanley’s famous play “Doubt,” in which a hip, with-it, Kennedy-era priest relies on clericalism to evade accusations of abuse, remains the best dramatization of this tangle.)

In a somewhat similar way, what happened in Rotherham was rooted both in left-wing multiculturalism and in much more old-fashioned prejudices about race and sex and class. The local bureaucracy was, indeed, too fearful of being labeled “racist,” too unwilling, as a former member of Parliament put it, to “rock the multicultural community boat.” But the rapes also went unpunished because of racially inflected misogyny among police officers, who seemed to think that white girls exploited by immigrant men were “tarts” who deserved roughly what they got.

The crucial issue in both scandals isn’t some problem that’s exclusive to traditionalism or progressivism. Rather, it’s the protean nature of power and exploitation, and the way that very different forms of willful blindness can combine to frustrate justice.

So instead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Joe Paterno’s pigskin-mad Happy Valley, it meant a beloved football coach.

In status-conscious, education-obsessed Manhattan, it meant charismatic teachers at an elite private school.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry — still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect — it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Because your assumptions and pieties are evil’s best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what’s most likely to condemn victims to their fate.

I really wish the Times would move him back to Monday, a day that sucks already.   Why ruin Sunday?  Next up we have MoDo’s ravings, replete with using fictional characters as straw men:

Shockingly, in the end, I didn’t miss Brody.

I was perfectly happy with The Drone Queen, as Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison is christened on her birthday cake in the first episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” returning next month.

I gingerly went to a screening in New York, assuming that, without my favorite ginger, my interest would wane. But the show, set in Kabul and Islamabad, where Carrie is now working for the C.I.A. directing “playtime,” as they call drone strikes, having dumped her ginger baby with her sister back home, crystallizes America’s Gordian knot in the Middle East. It vividly shows our fungible moral choices and the disruptive power of social media.

So many gigantic blunders have been made since 9/11, so many historical fault lines have erupted, that no matter which path the Obama administration takes, it runs into a “No Exit” sign. Any choice seems like a bad choice.

Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson, now working for a defense contractor in New York, warns a group of military officers that America is walking away from Afghanistan “with the job half-done.”

He stands up to his boss, who is upset by his impolitic behavior, asking if “we really want to risk going back” to “girls not allowed in school, roving gangs of men with whips enforcing Sharia law, a safe haven again for Al Qaeda”?

When Carrie oversees an airstrike in Pakistan to take out the No. 4 terrorist target on the kill list, the bombs incinerate innocents at a wedding. Afterward, the Air Force pilot who conducted the strike confronts Carrie in a bar and calls her a monster. When Rupert Friend’s haunted C.I.A. assassin Peter Quinn asks Carrie if she’s ever bothered by dropping fire on a hydra-headed kill list, sometimes with tragic mistakes, she rolls her eyes and replies, “It’s a job.”

Carrie at first contends that they’re “bulletproof,” that no one will find out about what she calls “collateral damage” because the strike was in a tribal region. But then a medical school student, angry that his friend’s mother and sister were killed at the wedding, posts a cellphone video of the gory scene.

The murderous melee that ensues is redolent of President Obama’s provocative remark at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in New York, talking about the alarming aggressions flaring up around the world and alluding to the sulfurous videos of the social-media savvy ISIS fiends beheading American journalists.

“If you watch the nightly news,” the president said, “it feels like the world is falling apart.”

Trying to reassure Americans who feel frightened and helpless, he posited that “the truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”

“I think he’s trying to blame the messenger,” said Terry McCarthy, the president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “Whether or not James Foley’s brutal beheading was shown on YouTube or disseminated on Twitter doesn’t affect the horror of what was done, and in another era, it would have been just as shocking, even if reported only on network TV or radio or in a newspaper.

“I think it is also condescending to say we are just noticing now because of social media. How about the recoil at the news of the My Lai massacre, broken by Sy Hersh on a newswire? Or the Abu Ghraib pictures run on ‘60 Minutes II’ and in The New Yorker?

“ISIS beheading American journalists, crucifying people, stoning a man to death in Mosul, targeting minorities for genocide, is not simply ‘messy as always’ — are you kidding me? It is an outright abomination in the face of humanity, however and through whatever media it is reported and it needs our, and our allies’, most urgent attention.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the impact of social media was exaggerated during the Arab Spring, leading to the mistaken belief that liberal secularists in Tahrir Square and other places posed a serious alternative to authoritarian regimes or radical Islamists.

The world is more disorderly for all kinds of reasons, he said, including the loss of confidence in American reliability and the American model, and reactions to things the United States has done, like the Iraq war, or not done, like acting on chemical weapons use in Syria.

“But to blame it on social media,” Haass said, “is something of a cop-out.”

He contended that while the sky may not be falling, “it certainly is lower,” and to deny that “is to engage in denial. We need to be very careful lest people begin to conclude that Americans are disinterested in the world. We don’t want that narrative to take hold.”

Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford historian who wrote “Paris 1919” and “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914,” says the president is right that we probably are more aware of what’s going on around the world, even with all the “rubbish” on the web, but she also believes that, from voracious Putin to vicious jihadists, “sometimes we’re right to be scared.”

She predicted that instead of World War III, “The 21st century will be a series of low grade, very nasty wars that will go on and on without clear outcomes, doing dreadful things to any civilians in their paths.”

Certainly, Obama never complained about a frenzied social media when it served his political purposes.

The president’s observation unfortunately underscored his role as Barack Seneca Obama, his air of disconnection, his “we don’t have a strategy” vagueness on engagement, his belief that extreme excitement, outrage and sentimentality are suspect.

His “bucket list” visit Friday to the alien-looking Stonehenge was the perfect backdrop for his strange pattern of detachment, and his adamantine belief that his Solomonic wisdom and Spocky calm help him resist the siren songs to disaster.

Joe Biden was the one connecting with Americans, promising to chase the ISIS savages “to the gates of hell,” while Obama’s subliminal, or not so subliminal, message was that before certain atrocities, the heart must muzzle itself, rejecting flights of anxiety, worry and horror as enemies of lucid analysis.

In some situations, panic is a sign of clear thinking. Reality is reality, whether it’s tweeted or not. And the truth doesn’t always set you free. The mind and the will don’t always act in concert. You can know a lot of things and still not act. And as we saw with the Iraq invasion, you can not know a lot of things and still act.

Bill Clinton couldn’t stop biting his lip. Now we’d kill to see Obama baring his teeth.

Just had to say “kill” didn’t you…  Typical Dowd crap.  Next up we’re facing The Moustache of Wisdom:

I don’t know what action will be sufficient to roll back both the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, but I do know what’s necessary. And it’s not “leading from behind,” which didn’t really work for President Obama in Libya, and it isn’t simply leading a lonely and unpopular charge from in front, which certainly didn’t work for President Bush in Iraq. It’s actually reviving America’s greatest strategy: leading from within.

The most effective leadership abroad starts with respect earned from others seeing us commit to doing great and difficult things at home that summon the energy of the whole country — and not just from our military families. That is how America inspires others to action. And the necessary impactful thing that America should do at home now is for the president and Congress to lift our self-imposed ban on U.S. oil exports, which would significantly dent the global high price of crude oil. And combine that with long overdue comprehensive tax reform that finally values our environment and security. That would be a carbon tax that is completely offset by lowering personal income, payroll and corporate taxes. Nothing would make us stronger and Putin and ISIS weaker — all at the same time.

How so? First you need to understand how much Putin and ISIS have in common. For starters, they each like to do their dirtiest work wearing a mask, because deep down, somewhere, they know that what they’re doing is shameful. The ISIS executioner actually wears a hood. Putin lies through his poker face.

Both seem to know that their ideas or influence are unsellable on their merits, so they have to impose them with intimidating force — “convert to puritanical Islam or I will chop your head off,” says ISIS, and “submit to Russia’s sphere of influence or I will invade you and wipe out your regime,” says Putin.

Both are clearly motivated to use force by an intense desire to overcome past humiliations. For Putin, it is the humiliation over Russian weakness that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which he once described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, which left millions of Russian speakers outside the Russian state. And for ISIS, it is how modernity has left so many Arab/Muslim nations behind in the 21st century by all the critical indices of human development: education, economic growth, scientific discoveries, literacy, freedom and women’s empowerment. Preventing Ukrainians from exercising their free will is Putin’s way of showing Russia’s only real strength left: brute force. Beheading defenseless American journalists is ISIS’s way of saying it is as strong as the United States. Both are looking for respect in all the wrong places.

Both Putin and ISIS are also intent on recreating states from an overglorified past to distract their peoples from their inability to build real economies — ISIS calls its recreation the “caliphate” and Putin calls his “Novorossiya,” or New Russia (or Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast). Both are also intent on rewriting the prevailing rules of the international system, which they see as having been drawn up by America or the West to advantage themselves and disadvantage Arabs or Russians. And, very significantly, they both are totally dependent on exploiting high-priced oil or gas to finance their madness.

The way you defeat such an enemy is by being “crazy like a fox,” says Andy Karsner, the former assistant energy secretary in the last Bush administration and now the C.E.O. of Manifest Energy. “We have one bullet that hits both of them: bring down the price of oil. It’s not like they can suddenly shift to making iWatches.” We are generating more oil and gas than ever, added Karsner, and it’s a global market. Absurdly, he said, the U.S. government bans the export of our crude oil. “It’s as if we own the world’s biggest bank vault but misplaced the key,” added Karsner. “Let’s lift that export ban and have America shaping the market price in our own interest.”

But that must be accompanied by tax reform that puts a predictable premium on carbon, ensuring that we unite to consistently invest in clean energies that take us beyond fossil fuels, increase efficiency and address climate change. Draining our enemies’ coffers, enhancing security, taxing environmental degradation — what’s not to like? And if we shift tax revenue to money collected from a carbon tax, we can slash income, payroll and corporate taxes, incentivize investment and hiring and unleash our economic competitiveness. That is a strategy hawks and doves, greens and big oil could all support.

If the price of oil plummets to just $75 to $85 a barrel from $100 by lifting the ban, and we have implemented tax reform that signals our commitment to clean growth, we inevitably weaken Putin and ISIS, strengthen America and show the world that we deserve to lead because we’re back to doing big, hard things at home that once again differentiate us — not just bombing in distant lands and pretending that’s getting the job done.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, asked Karsner, if we showed up at the global poker table, across from Putin and ISIS,  “holding four aces, instead of just bluffing with a pair of 2’s?”

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

In my column a week ago, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” I took aim at what I called “smug white delusion” about race relations in America, and readers promptly fired back at what they perceived as a smugly deluded columnist.

Readers grudgingly accepted the grim statistics I cited — such as the wealth disparity between blacks and whites in America today exceeding what it was in South Africa during apartheid — but many readers put the blame on African-Americans themselves.

“Probably has something to do with their unwillingness to work,” Nils tweeted.

Nancy protested on my Facebook page: “We can’t fix their problems. It’s up to every black individual to stop the cycle of fatherless homes, stop the cycle of generations on welfare.”

There was a deluge of such comments, some toxic, but let me try to address three principal arguments that I think prop up white delusion.

First, if blacks are poor or in prison, it’s all their fault. “Blacks don’t get it,” Bruce tweeted. “Choosing to be cool vs. getting good grades is a bad choice. We all start from 0.”

Huh? Does anybody really think that we all take off from the same starting line?

Slavery and post-slavery oppression left a legacy of broken families, poverty, racism, hopelessness and internalized self-doubt. Some responded to discrimination and lack of opportunity by behaving in self-destructive ways.

One study found that African-American children on welfare heard only 29 percent as many words in their first few years as children of professional parents. Those kids never catch up, partly because they’re more likely to attend broken schools. Sure, some make bad choices, but they’ve often been on a trajectory toward failure from the time they were babies.

These are whirlpools that are difficult to escape, especially when society is suspicious and unsympathetic. Japan has a stigmatized minority group, the burakumin, whose members once held jobs considered unclean. But although this is an occupational minority rather than a racial one, it spawned an underclass that was tormented by crime, educational failure, and substance abuse similar to that of the American underclass.

So instead of pointing fingers, let’s adopt some of the programs that I’ve cited with robust evidence showing that they bridge the chasm.

But look at Asians, Mark protests on my Google Plus page: Vietnamese arrived in poverty — and are now school valedictorians. Why can’t blacks be like that?

There are plenty of black valedictorians. But bravo to Asians and other immigrant groups for thriving in America with a strong cultural emphasis on education, diligence and delay of self-gratification. We should support programs with a good record of inculcating such values in disadvantaged children. But we also need to understand that many young people of color see no hope of getting ahead, and that despair can be self-fulfilling.

A successful person can say: “I worked hard in school. I got a job. The system worked.” Good for you. But you probably also owe your success to parents who read to you, to decent schools, to social expectations that you would end up in college rather than prison. So count your blessings for winning the lottery of birth — and think about mentoring a kid who didn’t.

Look, the basic reason young black men are regarded with suspicion is that they’re disproportionately criminals. The root problem isn’t racism. It’s criminality.

It’s true that blacks accounted for 55 percent of robbery arrests in 2012, according to F.B.I. statistics. But, by my calculations, it’s also true that 99.9 percent of blacks were not arrested and charged with robbery in 2012, yet they are still tarred by this pernicious stereotype.

Criminality is real. So is inequity. So is stereotyping.

The United States Sentencing Commission concluded that black men get sentences one-fifth longer than white men for committing the same crimes. In Louisiana, a study found that a person is 97 percent more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering a white person than a black person.

Mass incarceration means that the United States imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than apartheid South Africa did, further breaking up families. And careful studies find that employers are less likely to respond to a job inquiry and résumé when a typically black name is on it.

Society creates opportunity and resiliency for middle-class white boys who make mistakes; it is unforgiving of low-income black boys.

Of course, we need to promote personal responsibility. But there is plenty of fault to go around, and too many whites are obsessed with cultivating personal responsibility in the black community while refusing to accept any responsibility themselves for a system that manifestly does not provide equal opportunity.

Yes, young black men need to take personal responsibility. And so does white America.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

I’m beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents. These were the nuggets that the media understandably grabbed hold of, drawing the lesson that college isn’t the springboard that young men and women want and perhaps need it to be.

I have a problem with all of this. But my concern isn’t about the arguments themselves or some of the conclusions drawn. It’s about the narrowness of the discussion, which so heavily emphasizes how a career is successfully forged and how financial security is quickly achieved.

While those goals are important and that focus is understandable, there’s another dimension to college, and it’s one in which students aren’t being served, or serving themselves, especially well. I’m referring to the potential — and need — for college to confront and change political and social aspects of American life that are as troubling as the economy.

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn. It gives them more agency over their calendars and their allegiances. They can better construct their world from scratch.

And the clay hasn’t dried on who they are. They’re not yet set in their ways.

But too many kids get to college and try instantly to collapse it, to make it as comfortable and recognizable as possible. They replicate the friends and friendships they’ve previously enjoyed. They join groups that perpetuate their high-school experiences.

Concerned with establishing a “network,” they seek out peers with aspirations identical to their own. In doing so, they frequently default to a clannishness that too easily becomes a lifelong habit.

If you spend any time on college campuses, you’ll notice this, and maybe something else as well: Many students have a much more significant depth than breadth of knowledge. They know tons about what they’re interested in, because they’ve burrowed, with the Internet’s help, into their passions. But burrows are small and often suffocating, and there are wide spaces between them. You’re in yours; I’m in mine. Where’s the common ground?

The Internet has proved to be one of the great ironies of modern life. It opens up an infinite universe for exploration, but people use it to stand still, in a favorite spot, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing hobbies (and established hobbyhorses) and customizing their social media feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced, their opinions forever affirmed.

A report published late last month by the Pew Research Center documented this. Summarizing it in The Times, Claire Cain Miller wrote, “The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different.”

College is precisely the time not to succumb to that. Every student orientation should include the following instructions: Open your laptops. Delete at least one of every four bookmarks. Replace it with something entirely different, maybe even antithetical. Go to Twitter, Facebook and such, and start following or connecting with publications, blogs and people whose views diverge from your own. Mix it up.

That’s also how students should approach classes and navigate their social lives, because they’re attending college in the context not only of a country with profound financial anxieties, but of a country with homogeneous neighborhoods, a scary preoccupation with status and microclimates of privilege. Just as they should be girding themselves for a tough job market, they should be challenging the so-called sorting that’s also holding America back.

Arum and Roksa, in “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” do take note of upsetting patterns outside the classroom and independent of career preparation; they cite survey data that showed that more than 30 percent of college graduates read online or print newspapers only “monthly or never” and nearly 40 percent discuss public affairs only “monthly or never.”

Arum said that that’s “a much greater challenge to our society” than college graduates’ problems in the labor market. “If college graduates are no longer reading the newspaper, keeping up with the news, talking about politics and public affairs — how do you have a democratic society moving forward?” he asked me.

Now more than ever, college needs to be an expansive adventure, yanking students toward unfamiliar horizons and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who and where they already are. And students need to insist on that, taking control of all facets of their college experience and making it as eclectic as possible.

It could mean a better future — for all of us. And there’s no debate that college should be a path to that.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

September 2, 2014

In “The Revolt of the Weak” Bobo gurgles that this summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired, putting the norms of civilization under threat.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Human Toll of Offshoring:”  What should we be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us?  In “Obama’s Messy Words” Mr. Bruni says there’s inadequate urgency or reassurance in the president’s language, as Americans gaze with horror at events abroad.  Here’s Bobo:

The toughest part of governing is the effect on the mind of those who govern. As Henry Kissinger said, once you get in government you are not building up human capital; you are just spending it down. People in senior positions are simply too busy to learn fundamental new viewpoints. Their minds are locked within the ones they brought into power.

Then there is the problem of myopia. People at the top of government confront such a barrage of immediate small issues — from personnel to scheduling — that it is hard for them to step back and see the overall context in which they operate.

Finally, there is the problem of the bunker. People in power are hit with such an avalanche of criticism — much of it partisan and ill-informed — that they naturally build mental walls to protect themselves from abuse.

All of which makes it hard to govern now. We are not living in a moment of immediate concrete threat, but we are in a crisis of context.

The specific problems that make headlines right now are not cataclysmic. The venture by President Vladimir Putin of Russia into Ukraine, for all its thuggery, is not, in itself, a cataclysmic historical event. The civil war in Syria, for all its savagery, is not a problem that threatens the daily lives of those who live outside.

These problems are medium-size, but the underlying frameworks by which nations operate are being threatened in fairly devastating ways. That is to say, there are certain unconscious habits and norms of restraint that undergird civilization. These habits and norms are now being challenged by a coalition of the unsuccessful.

What we’re seeing around the world is a revolt of the weak. There are certain weak movements and nations, beset by internal contradictions, that can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization. Therefore, they are conspiring to blow up the rule book.

The first example is Russia. Putin is poor in legitimacy. He is poor in his ability to deliver goods and dignity for his people. But he is rich in brazenness. He is rich in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.

There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can. But this is precisely the norm that Putin is brazenly crushing under foot. If Putinism can effectively tear down this norm, more and more we’ll live in a world in which brazenness is rewarded and self-restraint is punished.

Then there are the Islamist movements like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This movement is poor in offering a lifestyle that most people find attractive. But it is strong in spiritual purity, so it wants to set off a series of religious wars and have the world organized by religious categories.

There has been a norm, developed gradually over the centuries, that politics is not a totalistic spiritual enterprise. Governments try to deliver order and economic benefits to people, but they do not organize their inner spiritual lives.

This is precisely the norm that ISIS and other jihadi groups are trying to destroy. If they succeed, then the Middle East will devolve into a 30 years war of faith against faith. Zealotry will be rewarded, and restraint will be punished.

Putin and ISIS are not threats to American national security, narrowly defined. They are threats to our civilizational order.

If you are caught up in that day-to-day business of government, you are likely to see how weak Putin and ISIS are. You are likely to conclude that you don’t need to do much, because these threats will inevitably succumb on their own to their internal contradictions. But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.

People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era. People instinctively understand that just after World War II, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and others did something remarkable. They stepped outside the immediate crush of events and constructed a context in which people would live for the next several decades.

Some of the problems they faced did not seem gigantic: how to prevent a Communist insurgency from taking over a semifailed government in Greece. But they understood that by projecting American power into Greece, they would be establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.

Then, democratic self-confidence was high. Today, unfortunately, it is low. This summer, the bad guys have looked energetic while the good guys have looked tired. We’ll see at the NATO summit meeting in Wales this week if there’s a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The subtitle of Beth Macy’s new book, “Factory Man” — “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town” — gives every impression that it is going to be an upbeat read, a capitalistic feel-good story.

And, indeed, Macy, a former longtime reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, doesn’t skimp on the story of a furniture baron named John Bassett III, her colorful main character, a Southern charmer with a fondness for quoting General Patton. After being pushed out of his family’s furniture company in (where else?) Bassett, Va., JBIII, as Macy calls him, buys into another, smaller company, Vaughan-Bassett, in the nearby town of Galax, right around the time that Chinese furniture manufacturers began to move seriously into the American furniture market with low-priced knockoffs of American furniture designs.

As furniture manufacturers all around him — including his family’s company — begin shuttering plants and start marketing and selling the Chinese imports, Bassett decides to fight back. Although he, too, has had to shrink his work force, he refuses to shut down his company, and he mobilizes others in the industry to charge the Chinese with dumping their goods on the market — that is, selling them below the cost of manufacturing them.

In 2005, the government did indeed conclude that the Chinese had been dumping furniture, and it put tariffs on Chinese furniture that helped make the Americans a little more competitive. Thanks to something called the Byrd amendment, some of the money from the Chinese went directly to Bassett’s company, which “invested $23 million in new plant equipment, put some in the employee profit-sharing plan, and used some of it to start a companywide free health clinic for families,” writes Macy. “The money saved upwards of 700 jobs in Galax, which, in turn, as some have argued, have saved the town.” Vaughan-Bassett has since become the largest wooden bedroom furniture maker in the country.

Surely, if they make a movie out of “Factory Man” — and I think there is a pretty decent chance they will — that will be the story line.

What is striking about Macy’s first book, though, is how little she does to make that made-for-the-movies plot stand out. Her wonderful central character notwithstanding, she’s really after something else: the effects of globalization on her little corner of the world, that is, the regions of North Carolina and Virginia where furniture making was once king. From her point of view, that story is anything but upbeat.

Nor does she miss the historic twist in her tale: as she notes early on, in the years after the Civil War, Southern entrepreneurs like Bassett’s grandfather capitalized on “cheap, hungry labor and all those tree-stocked hills” to shift furniture manufacturing from places like Grand Rapids, Mich., to the South, where it thrived for a century or more before the Chinese began doing the same thing to them.

But again and again, she comes back to the factories that have been closed, the jobs that have been lost. “Between 2002 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million factory jobs went away,” she notes. She finds people who, having been laid off, do exactly what you would hope they might do: go to college and become well-paid knowledge workers.

But far more often she introduces us to people who have been displaced by the Chinese furniture manufacturers and can’t see a better future. It is especially difficult for people who have lost their jobs in what amount to company towns — where there really isn’t any other work to be had. She asks, “What good did it do to have access to cheap consumer goods if you had no money to buy them?”

She quotes the University of Oregon economist Bruce Blonigen, who tells her, “In reality, we shouldn’t be making bedroom furniture anymore in the United States. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to educate these workers’ kids to get them into high-skilled jobs and away from what’s basically an archaic industry?”

I happen to think Blonigen is right — that is exactly what we should be doing to make globalization work for us instead of against us. But I also find myself deeply sympathetic to Macy’s essential point, which is that globalization inflicts a great deal of suffering on millions of people, something the news media should do a better job of acknowledging and the government should do a better job of mitigating.

Toward the end of her book, Macy travels to Indonesia, where she talks to a factory executive. “What I do worry about every year is the future of the factory,” he tells her. “I worry that someone somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, will start to make furniture, and that will be that for us.”

It never ends.

I love the scorn directed at blue-collar workers by Blonigen (and agreed with by Mr. Nocera) — apparently if you work with your hands you’re not worth considering.  You should be in some pie-in-the-sky high tech job that doesn’t exist.  And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There are things that you think and things that you say.

There’s what you reckon with privately and what you utter publicly.

There are discussions suitable for a lecture hall and those that befit the bully pulpit.

These sets overlap but aren’t the same. Has President Obama lost sight of that?

It’s a question fairly asked after his statement last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic extremists in Syria. Not having a strategy, at least a fixed, definitive one, is understandable. The options aren’t great, the answers aren’t easy and the stakes are enormous.

But announcing as much? It’s hard to see any percentage in that. It gives no comfort to Americans. It puts no fear in our enemies.

Just as curious was what Obama followed that up with.

Speaking at a fund-raiser on Friday, he told donors, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” He had that much right.

But it wasn’t the whole of his message. In a statement of the obvious, he also said, “The world has always been messy.” And he coupled that with a needless comparison, advising Americans to bear in mind that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rapacity of Putin, the bedlam in Libya and the rest of it were “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”

Set aside the question of how germane the example of the Cold War is. When the gut-twisting image stuck in your head is of a masked madman holding a crude knife to the neck of an American on his knees in the desert, when you’re reading about crucifixions in the 21st century, when you’re hearing about women sold by jihadists as sex slaves, and when British leaders have just raised the threat level in their country to “severe,” the last thing that you want to be told is that it’s par for the historical course, all a matter of perspective and not so cosmically dire.

Where’s the reassurance — or the sense of urgency — in that?

And maybe the second-to-last thing that you want to be told is that technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling especially on edge. Obama said something along those lines, too. It’s not the terror, folks. It’s the tweets.

Is the president consoling us — or himself? It’s as if he’s taken his interior monologue and wired it to speakers in the town square. And it’s rattling.

When he came along, many of us were fed up with misinformation and “Mission Accomplished” theatrics and bluster. America had paid a price for them in young lives.

And we were tired and leery of an oversimplified, Hollywood version of world affairs, of the Manichaean lexicon of “evil empire” and “axis of evil.” We longed for something less rash and more nuanced.

But there’s plenty of territory between the bloated and bellicose rhetoric of then and what Obama is giving us now. He’s adopted a strange language of self-effacement, with notes of defeatism, reminding us that “America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything”; that we must be content at times with singles and doubles in lieu of home runs; that not doing stupid stuff is its own accomplishment.

This is all true. It’s in tune with our awareness of our limits. And it reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach.

But that doesn’t make it the right message for the world’s lone superpower (whether we like it or not) to articulate and disseminate. That doesn’t make it savvy, constructive P.R. And the low marks that Americans currently give the president, especially for foreign policy, suggest that it’s not exactly what we were after.

In The Washington Post on Sunday, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”

And no matter what Obama ultimately elects to do, such an image is vital. But in its place are oratorical shrugs and an aura of hesitancy, even evasion, as he and John Kerry broadcast that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?

Echoing Hillary Clinton to some degree, Senator Dianne Feinstein just complained that Obama was perhaps “too cautious.”

Not in what he says, he’s not. Not when he draws and then erases red lines. Not with his recent adjectives.

“Messy” is my kitchen at the end of a long weekend. What’s happening in much of Syria and Iraq is monstrous.

Apparently next week Bruni will show up on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Dowd, Cohen, Kristof and Bruni

August 31, 2014

Praise the FSM, The Pasty Little Putz and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  MoDo is fizzing over a thespian again.  (Which is certainly better than another venomous column about Obama/Clinton/marijuana/any random Democrat.)  In “High Tea With Mr. Fancypants Sheen” she babbles that after playing everyone from Mozart to Tony Blair, the actor Michael Sheen puts the Master of Sex on top.  In “Diplomat and Warrior” Mr. Cohen says we need Richard Holbrooke’s skill and resolve today.  In the comments “Query” from the West sums it up well:  “Thus column reveals all the useless pettiness of our Very Serious People.”  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” Mr. Kristof says white America should wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Many challenges remain to achieving equality.  Mr. Bruni, in “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” says religiously unaffiliated Americans are owed a larger, better vocabulary for their spirituality.  Here’s MoDo:

Is sex more important than music, war, sports and vampires? Is sex more important than Nixon?

Michael Sheen thinks so.

The nimble Welsh actor has played a royal flush of renowned men — Mozart, Tony Blair (three times), the English soccer manager Brian Clough and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He also starred as a villainous vampire in the “Twilight” movies.

Asked how he rates the importance of historical figures he has channeled, he places his current conjuring, William Masters in Showtime’s mesmerizing “Masters of Sex,” on top.

“Sex, sexuality, is something every single person has to engage in, whether you’re actively pursuing, avoiding, enjoying in the moment or regretting later,” Sheen says over tea at Trump SoHo, looking sharp in a black Armani suit and black Prada tie. “So anyone who’s played a part in affecting that, I suppose it’s about as wide-ranging as it gets, really.”

Sheen contended that while the revolutionary research Masters did with his partner and later wife, Virginia Johnson, did not always lead them to correct conclusions — they claimed to have made some homosexuals straight and overstated how easily H.I.V. could be contracted — at least they were trying to measure things scientifically, unlike Alfred Kinsey, whose research comprised interviews.

“All you have to do is talk to someone about their sex life to get a sense of how untrustworthy each of us might be about that,” Sheen said dryly.

In the show, Masters suggests to Johnson that they have research sex, noting that “we get the benefit of interpreting the data first hand.” Later, he tells her it’s a condition of her job. But Sheen and the alluring Lizzy Caplan, plus the writing, soften the nasty coercion on his part and coldblooded careerism on hers with a subtext of mutual attraction.

Late in life, Johnson told the biographer Thomas Maier that she had never desired Masters, only the job.

“It is sexual harassment,” Sheen said, but “they both have different agendas. Conscious and unconscious motivations are something we’re playing with in the show.”

He also suggests that there may have been “a bit of revisionism” on Johnson’s part, colored by the fact that Masters seemed to prefer his Doberman pinschers and left her after 22 years for a woman he’d had a crush on in college.

“While at the beginning he was quite intimidating and wasn’t an easily likable man and Virginia was the one people warmed to, by the end, it had completely reversed,” Sheen said.

He noted that there’s a “Beauty and the Beast” undersong to their telling of the relationship of Masters and Johnson, a sexually free woman who had a stint as a country singer and three divorces behind her when she became his secretary in her early 30s.

“He’s drawn to the beauty but at the same time can’t accept that she might see him as anything else than a monster, which I think is also the story of intimacy — how do you cope with someone seeing the ugliest part of you?” Sheen said.

He said he chose to play Masters as “one of the hardest characters to ever like in a lead role,” knowing that it would make the arrogant gynecologist’s rare displays of vulnerability more affecting. “I only ever play myself, with the volume turned up on certain aspects. If I was playing anyone else, I’d be acting and I hate acting.”

I note that the repellent Masters was the opposite of Blair and Frost, who tried to ingratiate.

“American audiences, at that time anyway, tended to go, ‘Oh, we love Blair and we love what you do because you make him so likable,’ ” he said. “People hate Blair in Britain and saw what I was doing as a kind of criticism of him, that he was false, opportunistic, ambitious. Same with Frost.”

Sheen is also in the spotlight for his romance with Sarah Silverman, who came to New York with him.

When the 43-year-old Silverman won an Emmy for her HBO special, she made an affectionate reference to “Mr. Fancypants Sheen.” At another red carpet event, the raunchy comedienne grabbed her proper boyfriend’s butt.

“She sort of makes a big deal of me doing Shakespeare and I know lots of words and it just makes me laugh,” said the 45-year-old Sheen, who, like Silverman, has never been married.

Not a fan of living in Los Angeles — he is there to raise his 15-year-old daughter, Lily, with ex-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale — Sheen said “one of the things I really appreciate about Sarah is that she’s not concerned about a lot of things that a lot of people are concerned about in L.A.” She’s “grounded,” he said, yet “just as out there and quirky and eccentric as anyone in L.A. but in a lovely way.” After they began dating last winter, she took a role in the Showtime show as a lesbian palm reader.

He seems like the buttoned-up part of the twosome — a variation on the odd-couple romance he had with Tina Fey on “30 Rock” as Brit Wesley Snipes — but Sheen has a wild side, or at least a “Where the Wild Things Are” side.

His daughter gave him an adult Max suit for Christmas a couple years ago because he loves the Maurice Sendak character so much.

“What I actually want to do, if I can get the guts together eventually, is eschew clothes altogether and just wear that,” he says with a delighted grin. “I just want to be the guy in the Max outfit.”

She’d probably be much happier writing breathless puff pieces for “People”…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen, although his POS might just as well have been stolen from MoDo:

On Sept. 8, 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, wrote to the secretary of the Army requesting that an exception to policy be granted to allow Richard C. Holbrooke to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Holbrooke had collapsed in her office nine months earlier. He died soon after while serving in the most thankless of his many assignments, as President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Few diplomats throughout history have made as deep and sustained an impact upon the course of war and peace than Richard did, and few civilian leaders have consistently provided more support to the U.S. military,” Clinton wrote in her appeal. “Indeed, his nearly fifty-year career in public service was inextricably intertwined with our military, and, more than once, Richard found himself on the front lines, the living embodiment of ‘one mission, one team.’ ” Arlington Cemetery is reserved for active or retired members of the Armed Forces and their families, but several exceptions have been made over the course of its history in cases of what are deemed to be exceptional civilian service benefiting the military — and sometimes for other reasons.

Clinton, in a two-page letter made available to me, went on to describe Holbrooke’s long diplomatic career — as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam; at the Paris Peace talks that led to the end of that conflict; as ambassador to Germany at a time of post-Cold War military transformation; as the diplomat who “brokered the historic Dayton Accords that brought the bloody war in the Balkans to a close”; and finally in “the most complex and vexing foreign and military policy challenge of our day” in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That last assignment was particularly “vexing” because Obama and Holbrooke never got along. The “no drama” president had little patience for high-drama Holbrooke. There was no significant place in the president’s young, tight-knit foreign policy team for this man of vast experience and sweeping insights. Holbrooke had backed Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries; his loyalty was questioned. In an extraordinary put-down, Obama took several staffers with him to Afghanistan in March, 2010, but not Holbrooke, his supposed point man.

In hindsight, this clash offered indications of how Obama’s hesitant foreign policy, forged in that narrow White House circle, would evolve. The president has just declared that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was talking about possible military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a comment later narrowed by his spokesman to apply to military strikes against ISIS in Syria). The comment, however construed, should not have been uttered. It conveys indecision even if intended to convey methodical caution. It suggests weakness.

The remark was of a piece with others about hitting singles and doubles but rarely more as American president, and running a no-stupid-stuff foreign policy, and various riffs on the limits of American power in a tough world. There is merit to prudence after a season of American rashness. But the appearance of feckless incoherence from the White House is very dangerous — as the eruptions in the Middle East and Ukraine have underscored.

Holbrooke was a passionate believer in American power and its capacity for good. He acknowledged American failings but would never talk down the transformative power of a nation that is also an idea. Realism, even fierce realism, could never efface idealism about America’s ability to spread freedom. It is a pity Obama shunned him. More experienced, battle-hardened voices might have helped the president.

On Oct. 26, 2011, John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, wrote to Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, who had petitioned for an exception, to say that he had reviewed all the information available to him, “including letters of support from some of our Nation’s most senior officials,” and concluded that “Ambassador Holbrooke, unfortunately, is not eligible to be laid to rest at Arlington.” McHugh wrote that Holbrooke’s “national and international service was exceptional,” but noted that “interment and inurnment at Arlington is deeply rooted in military service.” Holbrooke never served in the military.

Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me he was a strong supporter of the idea that Arlington be Holbrooke’s resting place. “I felt very strongly about it because Richard spent so much time with the military through so many conflicts,” he said. “He was deserving.” But Mullen, who also wrote on Holbrooke’s behalf, believed that only a White House intervention could change McHugh’s decision — and knew that would not be forthcoming. The White House did not respond to emails seeking comment.

My own view of Holbrooke was etched by watching him bring the war in Bosnia to an end — a remarkable achievement involving the full panoply of American power, diplomatic and military. Through skill and conviction at the service of clear strategy, the impossible was achieved at Dayton. Not another shot was fired in anger.

Clinton wrote that Holbrooke was a “great warrior for peace.” As an emblem of service and resolve that America sorely needs today, he was worth an Arlington exception.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Many white Americans say they are fed up with the coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A plurality of whites in a recent Pew survey said that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News reflected that weariness, saying: “All you hear is grievance, grievance, grievance, money, money, money.”

Indeed, a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Yes, you read that right!

So let me push back at what I see as smug white delusion. Here are a few reasons race relations deserve more attention, not less:

• The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data. The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid. (Whites in America on average own almost 18 times as much as blacks; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was about 15 times.)

• The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

• A black boy born today in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy.

• Black students are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advanced math and science courses than white students. They are three times as likely to be suspended and expelled, setting them up for educational failure.

• Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

All these constitute not a black problem or a white problem, but an American problem. When so much talent is underemployed and overincarcerated, the entire country suffers.

Some straight people have gradually changed their attitudes toward gays after realizing that their friends — or children — were gay. Researchers have found that male judges are more sympathetic to women’s rights when they have daughters. Yet because of the de facto segregation of America, whites are unlikely to have many black friends: A study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.

That’s unfortunate, because friends open our eyes. I was shaken after a well-known black woman told me about looking out her front window and seeing that police officers had her teenage son down on the ground after he had stepped out of their upscale house because they thought he was a prowler. “Thank God he didn’t run,” she said.

One black friend tells me that he freaked out when his white fiancée purchased an item in a store and promptly threw the receipt away. “What are you doing?” he protested to her. He is a highly successful and well-educated professional but would never dream of tossing a receipt for fear of being accused of shoplifting.

Some readers will protest that the stereotype is rooted in reality: Young black men are disproportionately likely to be criminals.

That’s true — and complicated. “There’s nothing more painful to me,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

All this should be part of the national conversation on race, as well, and prompt a drive to help young black men end up in jobs and stable families rather than in crime or jail. We have policies with a robust record of creating opportunity: home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership; early education initiatives like Educare and Head Start; programs for troubled adolescents like Youth Villages; anti-gang and anti-crime initiatives like Becoming a Man; efforts to prevent teen pregnancies like the Carrera curriculum; job training like Career Academies; and job incentives like the earned-income tax credit.

The best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools. We fail those boys before they fail us.

So a starting point is for those of us in white America to wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Yes, the progress is real, but so are the challenges. The gaps demand a wrenching, soul-searching excavation of our national soul, and the first step is to acknowledge that the central race challenge in America today is not the suffering of whites.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.

This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Had Harris at last found God? And is “Waking Up” a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?

Hardly. Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom broached publicly in America, where religion is such sacred and protected turf, where God is on our currency and at our inaugurals and in our pledge and sometimes written into legislation as a way to exempt the worshipful from dictates that apply to everyone else.

The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced, willed one, because he had felt similar exaltation and rapture “at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned,” or in other circumstances where he had slowed down, tuned out distractions and focused on the moment at hand. In other words, there are many engines of flight from quotidian worries, many routes of escape from gravity and the flesh. They include prayer, but they also include meditation, exercise, communion with music, immersion in nature.

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

According to a 2012 Pew poll that drew considerable attention, nearly 20 percent of adults in this country fell into that category. Less than a third of those people labeled themselves atheists or agnostics. Seemingly more of them had a belief in some kind of higher power, but that conviction was unmoored, unclassifiable and maybe tenuous. These nomads aren’t looking for a church, but may want some of the virtues — emotional grounding, psychic grace — that are associated and sometimes conflated with one. The subtitle of “Waking Up” can be read as a summons to them: “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

Harris made his name with his acclaimed 2004 best seller, “The End of Faith,” which took a buzz saw to Christianity, Islam and the rest of it. He was strenuously edgy and perhaps gratuitously insulting: While he’s right that it’s dangerous to play down all the cruelty done in the name of religion, it’s also a mistake to give short shrift to the goodness.

But the man has guts. Just read a blog post that he wrote in late July about the fighting in Israel and Gaza. By traveling down byways of the debate about Israel’s actions that most politicians and pundits avoid, it rightly caused a stir, along with a surge in traffic to his website that temporarily crashed it.

IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.

“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.

There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.

Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.

Cohen and Bruni

August 26, 2014

Bobo and Nocera are off today, so all we have are Cohen and Bruni.  In “The Making of a Disaster” Mr. Cohen mansplains to us that a long list of American missteps paved the way to ISIS.  Mr. Bruni is feeling “Lost in America,” and moans that we’ve gone from gumption to gloom, with political implications that are impossible to foretell.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Almost 13 years after 9/11, a jihadi organization with a murderous anti-Western ideology controls territory in Iraq and Syria, which are closer to Europe and the United States than Afghanistan is. It commands resources and camps and even a Syrian military base. It spreads its propaganda through social media. It has set the West on edge through the recorded beheading of the American journalist James Foley — with the promise of more to come.

What went wrong? The United States and its allies did not go to war to eradicate Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan only to face — after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure — a more proximate terrorist threat with a Qaeda-like ideology. The “war on terror,” it seems, produced only a metastasized variety of terror.

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

A large part of Western failure has been the inability to counter the attraction of such extremism. Perhaps racked with historical guilt, European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the central hope of the Arab Spring has been dashed: that more open and representative societies would reduce the frustration that leads to extremism.

President Obama shunned the phrase “war on terror” to distance himself from the policies of President George W. Bush. But in reality he chose to pursue the struggle by other military means. He stepped up drone attacks on several fronts. His most conspicuous success was the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

The curtain, it seemed, had fallen on America’s post-9/11 trauma. Then, a little over three years after Bin Laden’s death, ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and the world woke up to the radicalization through the festering Syrian war of another generation of Muslims; youths drawn to the slaughter of infidels (as well as Shiite Muslims) and the far-fetched notion of recreating an Islamic caliphate under Shariah law. When a hooded ISIS henchman with a British accent beheaded Foley last week, the new threat acquired urgency at last.

The list of American errors is long: Bush’s ill-conceived and bungled war in Iraq; a failure to deal with the fact that two allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been major sources and funders of violent Sunni extremism; an inability to seize opportunity in Egypt, home to nearly a quarter of the world’s Arabs, and so demonstrate that Arab societies can evolve out of the radicalizing confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism; a prolonged spate of dithering over the Syrian war during which Obama declared three years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” without having any plan to achieve that; a lack of resolve in Syria that saw Obama set a red line on the use of chemical weapons only to back away from military force when chemical weapons were used; an inability to see that no one loves an Arab vacuum like jihadi extremists, and a bloody vacuum was precisely what Obama allowed Syria to become; and inattention, until it was too late, to festering sectarian conflict in a broken Iraqi society left to its fate by a complete American withdrawal.

The chicken that came home to roost from the Syrian debacle is called ISIS. It is not Al Qaeda. But, as the journalist Patrick Cockburn has noted, Al Qaeda “is an idea rather than an organization, and this has long been the case.”

ISIS grew through American weakness — the setting of objectives and red lines in Syria that proved vacuous. But the deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.

But to what or whom can Americans turn?

In the most recent of Sosnik’s periodic assessments of the electorate, published in Politico last month, he wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.” He cited a Gallup poll in late June that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called “near record lows,” with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.

The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in another recent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.

So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right?

That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.

Conventional wisdom says that President Obama’s anemic approval ratings will haunt Democrats. But it doesn’t take into account how effectively some Republicans continue to sully their party’s image. It doesn’t factor in how broadly Americans’ disapproval spreads out.

Conventional wisdom says that better unemployment and job-creation numbers could save Democrats. But many Americans aren’t feeling those improvements. When asked in the Journal/NBC poll if the country was in a recession — which it’s not — 49 percent of respondents said yes, while 46 percent said no.

The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Students amass debt. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.

“People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

Well, you can drown all the Republicans…


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