Bobo has produced a towering pile of crap in which he tries to convince us he’s really a nice guy at heart. In “The Prodigal Sons” he gurgles that the prodigal son parable provides an apt lesson as we strive to craft modern social policies. Of course everything that Bobo shills for is in stark opposition to the parable, but we’re not supposed to notice that. In the comments “Michael O’Neill” from Bandon, Oregon had this to say: “Beyond the total knee slapper of David Brooks as a member of the middle class is the idea that Mitt’s 47% are layabouts who are partying on food stamps, Medicaid and minimum wage jobs.” In “Britannia Rues the Waves” Mr. Cohen says Scotland looks south and wonders. Britain could break up. Mr. Nocera, in “Joyce Does It Her Way,” says an artist’s commitment to feminism and her music provides lessons for us all. Mr. Bruni considers “Hillary’s Secrets” and says there are ugly implications to leaving her and other public figures without any safe space. Here, unfortunately, is Bobo:
We take as our text today the parable of the prodigal sons. As I hope you know, the story is about a father with two sons. The younger son took his share of the inheritance early and blew it on prostitutes and riotous living. When the money was gone, he returned home.
His father ran out and embraced him. The delighted father offered the boy his finest robe and threw a feast in his honor. The older son, the responsible one, was appalled. He stood outside the feast, crying in effect, “Look! All these years I’ve been working hard and obeying you faithfully, and you never gave me special treatment such as this!”
The father responded, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But he had to celebrate the younger one’s return. The boy was lost and now is found.
Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?
The father’s critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted.
The father’s example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism.
But we don’t live in that kind of society. We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.
It’s a valid critique, but I’d defend the father’s example, and, informed by a reading of Timothy Keller’s outstanding book “The Prodigal God,” I’d even apply the father’s wisdom to social policy-making today.
We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”
But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.
The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.
The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.
The father’s lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.
The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.
Sanctimonious little turd, isn’t he? Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
Pity poor Scotland. Within days it has been warned that if it has the temerity to vote for independence in September it can forget about a currency union with the pound and forget about becoming a member of the European Union, two ideas Scottish nationalist leaders have presented as entirely feasible.
The first warning came from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who declared that, “If Scotland walks away from the U.K. it walks away from the U.K. pound.” He added that “there’s no legal reason why the rest of the U.K. would need to share its currency with Scotland.”
The second was delivered by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who told the BBC it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for Scotland to join the European Union because it would require the unanimous approval of other member states. That was a remote possibility given the dim view taken by some countries, notably Catalonia-fearing Spain, on secession. Spain, Barroso noted, had not recognized Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia.
“Bluff, bluster and bullying” was the verdict of Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the campaign for independence, to Osborne’s apparent threat. John Swinney, Scotland’s finance minister, called Barroso’s remarks “pretty preposterous.” Scots, both men suggested, would not be cowed.
The battle for Scotland is heating up 307 years after the union of 1707. A pretty successful union it has been, too, but, unthreatened and restless, Scots troop off to Norway, another small country with oil, and think, hey, why not? Some are more inclined to recall the victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago than Englishmen and Scots together in the trenches of World War I a century ago.
Recent polls suggest a close outcome, with the plurality that favors staying inside the union eroding fast. The refusal of David Cameron, the British prime minister, to debate Salmond has not helped the union’s cause.
The Tories are cordially disliked in Scotland. Cameron, an old Etonian, has been singled out as a “toff” out of touch with ordinary people. Scots distrust him. They are overwhelmingly favorable to the European Union, about which the prime minister has shown a fatal ambiguity, possibly opening the door to Britain’s departure.
Two points need underlining. The first is that the threats from Osborne and Barroso are ill-advised and could well rebound against them. The Scots are proud people. It is wiser to debate them than admonish them, or raise the specter of isolation from afar.
The second is that Britain in Europe, its union intact, offers the best chance for the nation to count and prosper in the 21st century. A Scottish departure, followed by rump Britain limping out of the European Union, would be a disaster. It is a safe bet that the Northern Irish question, quieted but unresolved, would then resurface with a vengeance.
Imagine the Chinese gazing at the North Sea after this fragmentation and trying to make out what the little speck of land bobbing around out there signifies.
That said, Scots must look south these days and wonder. Growing areas of England are under water, a fact Cameron has been among the last to grasp. Politicians appear to spend much of their time squabbling over how to dredge a river. Officials issue frantic edicts on “health and safety.” A barmy prince declares that “there is nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.” The world’s financial center is turning into the world’s aquatic center, its main attraction a ship of fools.
At the helm sits Cameron drifting across the Somerset Levels. Thames floodwaters are closing in on London; his Environment Agency is a laughing stock run by a man a member of his own Conservative party has called a “little git.”
There are shades of the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Chris Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, has become Britain’s Michael Brown, the American disaster-response director of whom President George W. Bush famously observed, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Smith is doing a heck of a job.
Scots seem to be drawing the conclusion that they would be better off by themselves. (They might, however, want to take a closer look at the balance sheets of Scottish banks before breaking away.)
“We want you to stay,” Cameron pleaded in a recent speech. The Gettysburg Address it was not. He sounded sincere even if the thought must cross his mind that the chances of Labor ever winning an election again would be minimal, absent Scotland. He might then rule in perpetuity.
That is a very sobering thought. The satirist Peter Cook once suggested Britain was about to sink “giggling into the sea.” Never has that vision seemed closer. Giggle away. The bits of Britain could go one by one.
And now we get to Mr. Nocera:
I’d like to tell you a story about a Brazilian musician you’ve probably never heard of. Her name is Joyce Moreno; she is 66 and has been singing and composing professionally for 47 years, during which time she has made more than 30 recordings. I flipped for her music when I first heard her last spring at Birdland, in Midtown Manhattan, and I’ve been listening to her, more or less obsessively, ever since.
But that’s not the reason I want to tell you about her. A few months after I first heard her play, we struck up an email correspondence. When Joyce came to New York in September for an engagement, my wife and I had dinner with her and her husband, the Brazilian drummer Tutty Moreno. And during my recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, I interviewed her, figuring that I would write about her when I got back. Somewhat to my surprise, what has stuck with me from those encounters has less to do with her music, glorious though I think it is, and more to do with the way she has conducted her career. She has lessons to teach that go well beyond music.
Joyce’s career began in controversy. When she was 19, she wrote a song that began, “I was told that my man doesn’t love me.”
In the Brazil of that era, her blunt, first-person, female-centric lyric was considered by many to be vulgar — not the sort of thing a woman was supposed to sing about.
“It was strange,” she told me — bewildering to be at the center of such a storm at such a young age. But she never backed down from the way she approached her songwriting. In a country that didn’t exactly embrace feminism, she was always a staunch feminist, and that’s reflected in some of her best lyrics.
As is true for every Brazilian of her generation, she also had to deal with the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. In December 1968, the dictatorship issued a decree that, among other things, instituted broad censorship of the arts. Some of the country’s most important musicians, like Gilberto Gil, were imprisoned and then sent into exile.
Other musicians and artists had to submit their work to the censors. Joyce recalls that she was forbidden to use words like “pregnant” in her songs.
“I was censored because I had a feminine point of view,” she says. By 1980, however, the worst of the censorship had ended, and Joyce recorded a song called “Feminina,” which became, in many ways, her anthem.
“Oh, Ma,” it begins. “Please explain to me, teach me
Tell me, what is feminine?
It’s not in the hair, the mojo or the look
It’s being a female everywhere.”
In the early 1980s, she had a handful of small hits, “Feminina” included. But, says Nelson Motta, a Brazilian writer and producer, “her music has never been very commercial from a Brazilian standpoint,” and, over time, she became someone who was more respected than listened to.
Several times during her career, she seemed on the cusp of breaking out. Once, early in her career, she recorded an album produced by Claus Ogerman, who had arranged songs for Antônio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. For reasons that have never been clear to her, the album was never released. “It was painful,” she told me, “but I lived with it.”
Years later, Verve signed her to a two-record contract. As is so often the case, however, the label and the musician had very different ideas about what the recordings should sound like. “They said they liked what I was doing,” she told me, “but then they wanted me to do something completely different.” Joyce found the experience miserable, and it reinforced her belief that she could be happy only by staying true to herself, no matter what effect that had on her career.
And so it has been. She is more popular in Japan than she is in Brazil. She cuts her own records, even though it means she often has to pay for it out of her pocket. “It is a way of preserving my independence as an artist,” she said.
“Joyce has never worried about being popular,” says Motta. When I saw her give a concert in Rio de Janeiro in December, there were maybe 250 people in the hall — and the admission was free. I felt disappointed for her, but it didn’t bother her at all. Afterward, she autographed copies of her new CD and posed for pictures. When I asked her about it, she said, “I’m fine with where my career is. I’ve had a very lucky life.”
Would that we could all so easily make our peace with what life throws us — the good, the bad and everything in between.
Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
Her perseverance often awes me. Her arrogance sometimes galls me. And her particular braid of high-mindedness and high-handedness almost always leaves me puzzled and exhausted.
But what I’ve been feeling for and about Hillary Clinton over the last week is sadness. Does she have even a smidgen of privacy left? Can she utter a syllable or think a thought with any assurance that it won’t be exposed, analyzed, ridiculed?
When she was talking decades ago with Diane Blair, whose journals are part of “The Hillary Papers,” she no doubt assumed an audience of one: her dear friend. Her best friend. But this corner of Hillary’s life, like every other, has now been put on public display. Get as close as you like. Gawk. Judge.
I’m not suggesting that The Washington Free Beacon, the news site that presented “The Hillary Papers,” did anything unusual or wrong. By recognizing that an archive of documents at the University of Arkansas hadn’t received much scrutiny and going through it, The Free Beacon provided candid, intimate glimpses of the Clintons that hadn’t existed before. This was indeed a scoop, one that many other media organizations would have been happy to trumpet.
But to absorb it in the context of the endless drip-drip-drip about Hillary over the years was to worry that we’ve lost sight of any boundaries and limits — that maybe even Hillary herself has stopped hoping for anything kinder. When the archive was opened to the public in 2010, she gave a tribute to Blair, who died in 2000.
Details in the documents were fresh. Most of the truths they fleshed out weren’t. We already knew that Hillary had found tortured rationales for Bill’s infidelities. We already knew that her compromised brand of feminism accommodated the vilification of women who dared to threaten the couple’s purchase on power.
What’s at least as interesting is what the documents say about the political arena that the Clintons inhabit: the toll it takes, the cynics it makes. Early in her White House years, Hillary’s guard has already gone up. Blair chats with Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, and writes, in April 1993, that while “Janet wants to connect” with Hillary, she “finds HC a ‘mask.’ ”
This is even before the fever pitch of impeachment and the Starr Report in all its lurid detail and the sustained analysis of every provisional hairstyle and the millions of pages by authors determined to turn her into a symbol of this, that or the other. She has been called a Rorschach, but as I read “The Hillary Papers,” I couldn’t stop thinking of her as a carcass. With a tireless zest, we pick her clean.
The latest book about her, “HRC,” by the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, was published last week. It focuses on recent years, and is flattering: The Hillary here is resourceful and diligent and has enough guile and grace to win over the people whom she sets out to.
She’s also obsessed with loyalty, which governs her decisions, leading to bad ones. That’s perhaps inevitable when you’ve been so thoroughly peered and poked at. You do your damnedest to carve out a safe space.
Blair was surely supposed to be that, and it’s not clear why she was taking notes or what she intended to do with them. It’s also not clear that the Hillary in those notes is the truest one. With our friends, yes, we bare our souls. But we also let off steam, allowing ourselves a theatricality and sloppiness that exaggerate our emotions.
Blair’s journals are the kind of material from which biographies and histories have long been woven. But it doesn’t always surface so soon, and it is now augmented by the eavesdropping and tattling of cabinet secretaries (see “Duty,” by Robert Gates) and political allies and handlers eager to make themselves look better, even at a benefactor’s expense (see “Game Change” and the robust genre to which it belongs).
Frenzied media feed on this, to a degree that arguably goes beyond our obligation to keep politicians honest, and it’s troubling in two regards. How many decent, gifted people who contemplate public office look at what someone like Hillary endures and step away? And the people who aren’t scared off: How cold and hard are they, or how cold and hard do they become?
“HRC” recalls that just after the 2008 presidential election, a photo came to light of one of Barack Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau, pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary. The image is shocking, but then again not. For a good long while, we’ve done with Hillary as we pleased, frequently looking past her humanity, routinely running roughshod over her secrets. She has gained so much — tremendous influence, significant riches — but lost so much, too. Was that the bargain she expected? Has she made peace with it?