Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

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…

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

August 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So help me Golf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

August 19, 2014

In “Ambivalence About America” Mr. Cohen tells us that even as Europeans rage at the United States, they love its products.  Mr. Nocera tells us about “The Man Who Blew the Whistle.”  He says when the S.E.C. announced last month that it was awarding $400,000 to a whistle-blower, it didn’t name the recipient per the Dodd-Frank law. His name is Bill Lloyd, and Mr. Nocera gives us his story.  Mr. Bruni tells us all about “The Trouble With Tenure” and says teacher job protections are being challenged, and a lawmaker and former school principal explains why that’s good.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attitudes in Europe toward an America that is regrouping are marked today by extreme ambivalence. Europeans have long been known for finishing their diatribes about the United States by asking how they can get their child into Stanford. These days, European after-dinner conversation tends to be dominated by discussion of the latest episode of “House of Cards” or “Homeland” or “Mad Men.” A French diplomat told me that every meeting he attended at the White House during his tour in Washington ended with one of his party asking if it might be possible to see the West Wing. He found it embarrassing.

Europeans complain of the personal data stored or the tax loopholes exploited by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks, Google and Twitter, but they are hooked on them all. Google, as recently reported by my colleague Mark Scott, now has an 85 percent share of search in Europe’s largest economies, including Germany, Britain and France, whereas its share of the American market is about 67 percent. American tech companies operate seven of the 10 most visited websites in Europe. Rage at the practices of the National Security Agency is outweighed by addiction to a cyberuniverse dominated by American brands.

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

But geostrategic shifts over the past year indicate the contrary: that the United States is Imperial Rome, A.D. 376, with various violent enemies playing the role of the Visigoths, Huns, Vandals et al.; the loss at home of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s fall, called “civic virtue,” as narrow interests paralyze politics; the partial handover of American security to private military contractors (just as a declining Rome increasingly entrusted its defense to mercenaries); the place of plunder rather than productiveness in the economy; and the apparent powerlessness of a leader given to talk of the limits of what the United States can do. There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.

Ambivalence is not peculiar to Europe, of course. To heck with the world’s problems, many Americans now say, we have done our share over all these decades of Pax Americana. If China and India are really rising, let them take responsibility for global security, as America took the mantle from Britain in 1945.

Barack Obama — professional, practical and prudent — would appear to suit this American zeitgeist. He may not be managing decline but he is certainly resisting overreach. He is not the decider. He is the restrainer.

Why, then, is Obama’s no-stupid-stuff approach to the globe so unpopular? Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency. A strange duality seems to be at work. Americans want the troops to come home. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education, health care and infrastructure.

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst. America’s bipolarity sees recent bitter experience vying with the country’s innermost nature, its can-do aspiration to be a “city upon a hill.”

It is not easy to read this world of bipolarity (both European and American), Jihadi Springs and Chinese assertiveness. It is too simple, and probably wrong, to say that the United States is in decline.

But Pax Americana is in decline. America’s readiness to use its power to stabilize the world — the current bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding — is fading. For that reason, the world is more dangerous than it has been in a long time. The waning under Obama of the credibility of American power has created a vacuum no magnetic soft power fills.

The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.

Immediately after this was a notation that Bobo was off today, so I guess Mr. Cohen had to send in his screed and do the saber-rattling and dick swinging instead.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique press release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

The law also prevents the S.E.C. from doing anything to publicly identify the whistle-blowers — hence, the circumspect press release. But through a mutual friend, I discovered the identity of this particular whistle-blower, who, it turned out, was willing to tell his story.

His name is Bill Lloyd. He is 56 years old, and he spent 22 years as an agent for MassMutual Financial Group, the insurance company based in Springfield, Mass. Although companies often label whistle-blowers as disgruntled employees, Lloyd didn’t fit that category. On the contrary, he liked working for MassMutual, and he was a high performer. He also is a straight arrow — “a square,” said the mutual friend who introduced us — who cares about his customers; when faced with a situation where his customers were likely to get ripped off, he couldn’t look the other way.

In September 2007, at a time when money was gushing into variable annuities, MassMutual added two income guarantees to make a few of its annuity products especially attractive to investors. Called Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 6 and Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 5, they guaranteed that the annuity income stream would grow to a predetermined cap regardless of how the investment itself performed.

Then, upon retirement, the investors had the right to take 6 percent (or 5 percent, depending on the product) of the cap for as long as they wanted or until it ran out of money, and still be able, at some point, to annuitize it. It is complicated, but the point is that thanks to the guarantee, the money was never supposed to run out. That is what the prospectus said, and it is what those in the sales force, made up of people like Lloyd, were taught to sell to customers. It wasn’t long before investors had put $2.5 billion into the products.

The following July, Lloyd — and a handful of others in the sales force — discovered, to their horror, that the guarantee didn’t work as advertised. In fact, because of the market’s fall, it was a near-certainty that thousands of customers were going to run through the income stream within seven or eight years of withdrawing money.

Lloyd did not immediately run to the S.E.C. Rather, he dug in at MassMutual and, as the S.E.C. press release put it, did “everything feasible to correct the issue internally.” For a while, he thought he was going to have success, but, at a certain point, someone stole the files he had put together on the matter and turned them over to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is the industry’s self-regulatory body. It was only when the regulatory authority failed to act that his lawyer told him about the whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and he went to the S.E.C., which began its own investigation.

The Dodd-Frank law has provisions intended to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, but there are certain aspects of being a whistle-blower that it can’t do anything about. “People started treating me like a leper,” recalls Lloyd. “They would see me coming and turn around and walk in the other direction.” Convinced that the company was laying the groundwork to fire him, he quit in April 2011, a move that cost him both clients and money. (Lloyd has since found employment with another financial institution. For its part, MassMutual says only that “we are pleased to have resolved this matter with the S.E.C.”)

In November 2012, MassMutual agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine; Lloyd’s $400,000 award is 25 percent of that. It was a slap on the wrist, but more important, the company agreed to lift the cap. This will cost MassMutual a lot more, but it will protect the investors who put their money — and their retirement hopes — on MassMutual’s guarantees. Thanks to Lloyd, the company has fixed the defect without a single investor losing a penny.

Ever since the passage of Dodd-Frank reform, the financial industry has been none too happy about the whistle-blower provisions, and there have been rumblings that congressional Republicans might try to roll back some of it. The S.E.C. now has an Office of the Whistleblower, and a website where potential whistle-blowers can report fraud. It has given out $16 million in whistle-blower awards.

There are, without question, parts of the Dodd-Frank law that are problematic, not least the provisions dealing with the Too Big to Fail institutions.

But the whistle-blower provisions? They are working as intended. That is the moral of Bill Lloyd’s story.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Denver:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.

What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.

He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”

But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.

“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

The law is still being disputed and has not been fully implemented. But since its enactment, a growing number of states have chipped away at traditional tenure or forged stronger links between student performance and teacher evaluations. And the challenges to tenure have gathered considerable force, with many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement.

After a California judge’s recent ruling that the state’s tenure protections violated the civil rights of children by trapping them with ineffective educators in a manner that “shocks the conscience,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.

“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”

Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Johnston said that traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed.

“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.

“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”

When job protections are based disproportionately on time served, he said, they don’t adequately inspire and motivate. Referring to himself and other tenure critics, he said, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Johnston frames it well.

“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

August 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to take their toys away.

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

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

Jim Risen is gruff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

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

And you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

August 12, 2014

In “Clinton, Obama and Iraq” Bobo gurgles that Hillary Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy offers a wise contrast to President Obama’s excess of caution.  The word “Bush” appears nowhere…  In “From Sneakers to O’Bannon” Mr. Nocera explains how a sports marketer came to take on the N.C.A.A.  In “Hillary Clinton, Barbed and Bellicose” Mr. Bruni says it’s clear that she’s in the race. It’s just as clear that she’s in a bind.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, Hillary Clinton had a fascinating interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The interview got immediate attention because of the way she discussed her differences with President Obama.

While admitting that no one will ever know who was right, Clinton argues that Obama might have done more to help the moderate opposition in Syria fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she told Goldberg.

While showing lavish respect for the president’s intelligence and judgment, Clinton also made it clear that she’d be a more aggressive foreign policy leader. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said, citing Obama’s famous phrase.

But the interview also illuminates the different flavors of Democratic thinking on foreign policy. We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq. The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation because it epitomizes the core problem at the center of so many crises: the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.

In her interview with Goldberg, Clinton likens the current moment to the Cold War. The U.S. confronts a diverse global movement, motivated by a hostile ideology: jihadism.

“Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand.” This jihadism shows up in many contexts, but whether in Gaza or Syria or Iraq, she says, “it is all one big threat.”

Clinton speaks as a Truman-Kennedy Democrat. She’s obviously much, much more multilateral than Republicans, but there’s a certain muscular tone, a certain assumption that there will be hostile ideologies that threaten America. There is also a grand strategic cast to her mind. The U.S. has to come up with an “overarching” strategy, she told Goldberg, to contain, deter and defeat anti-democratic foes.

She argues that harsh action is sometimes necessary. “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets, “ she declared, embracing recent Israeli policy. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas.”

This tone sometimes stands in tension with the approach President Obama articulated in his West Point speech in the spring, or in his interview with my colleague Thomas Friedman on Friday.

Obama has carefully not organized a large part of his foreign policy around a war against jihadism. The foreign policy vision he describes is, as you’d expect from a former law professor, built around reverence for certain procedures: compromise, inclusiveness, rules and norms. The threat he described in his West Point speech was a tactic, terrorism, not an ideology, jihadism. His main argument was against a means not an end: the efficacy of military action.

Obama is notably cautious, arguing that the U.S. errs when it tries to do too much. The cast of his mind is against intervention. Sometimes, when the situation demands it, he goes against his natural temperament (he told Friedman that he regrets not getting more involved in Libya), but it takes a mighty shove, and he is resistant all the way. In his West Point speech, he erected barriers to action. He argued, for example, that the U.S. could take direct action only when “there is near certainty of no civilian casualties.” (This is not a standard Franklin Roosevelt would have applied.)

Obama and Clinton represent different Democratic tendencies. In their descriptions of the current situation in Iraq, Clinton emphasizes that there cannot be inclusive politics unless the caliphate is seriously pushed back, while Obama argues that we will be unable to push back the caliphate unless the Iraqis themselves create inclusive politics. The Clinton language points toward some sort of intervention. Obama’s points away from it, though he may be forced by events into being more involved.

It will be fascinating to see how Clinton’s approach plays in Democratic primaries. (I’d bet she is going to get a more serious challenge than people now expect.) In practice, the Clinton approach strikes me as more sound, for the same reason that early intervention against cancer is safer than late-term surgery. In the Middle East, malevolent groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grow unless checked. Even in situations where our “friends” are dysfunctional, the world has to somehow check them, using a multitude of levers. Having done so little in Syria and Iraq for the past year, we can end the caliphate or we can stay out of Iraq, but we can’t do both.

If you don’t take steady, aggressive preventive action, of the sort that Clinton leans toward, then you end up compelled to take the sort of large risky action that Obama abhors.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

“When I first heard about the decision, I was speechless,” said Sonny Vaccaro. Speechless as in he never thought this day would come.

Vaccaro is the former sneaker marketer turned anti-N.C.A.A. crusader, and he was talking about Friday’s decision in the O’Bannon case — the one in which Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the principle of amateurism is not a legal justification for business practices that violate the nation’s antitrust laws.

Though he is not a lawyer, Vaccaro is as responsible for the O’Bannon case as anyone. (Disclosure: One of the O’Bannon lawyers works for same law firm as my wife. She has no involvement in the case.)

Vaccaro first got the idea for the lawsuit in the late 1990s, around the time that ESPN bought Classic Sports Network for $175 million. ESPN Classic, as it was renamed, replays games from the past, many of which involve college teams. The players in those games have long since left college, yet they have no rights to their names and likenesses, just as had been the case when they were in school.

How, wondered Vaccaro, could that possibly be O.K.?

Vaccaro is probably best known for coming up with the idea of the “sneaker contract” during his heyday as a marketer for Nike. That’s a deal in which a college coach receives payment for having his team wear a particular brand of sneakers. In the 1980s, still with Nike, he took the idea a step further, paying a university to have all its athletes wear the same brand. There is not much question that Vaccaro helped fuel the commercialization of college sports. Though, as he likes to remind people, “the schools could have turned the money down. They never did.”

In 2007, Vaccaro quit his final job in the sneaker industry — he was at Reebok at the time — to devote his time to fighting the N.C.A.A., an organization he had come to loathe. He began going around the country making anti-N.C.A.A. speeches at universities. Five years ago, while in Washington to make a speech at Howard University, he had dinner with a lawyer friend and laid out his idea of bringing a lawsuit revolving around the names and likenesses of former college athletes. Before long, he was put in touch with Michael Hausfeld, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who was looking for a high-profile case to run with.

And one other thing: He found Ed O’Bannon, the former U.C.L.A. basketball star who became the lead plaintiff. Or, rather, O’Bannon called Vaccaro after seeing an avatar, clearly based on himself, in a video game, asking if he had any recourse. Vaccaro, in turn, put O’Bannon together with Hausfeld. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the cool light of day, Judge Wilken’s decision does not appear likely to radically reshape college sports. The relief she granted the plaintiffs is likely to put some money into the pockets of athletes who play big-time football or men’s basketball. But it is certainly not going to make anybody rich, and the average fan won’t even notice the difference. It is not like the kind of change that took place when major league baseball players gained the right to become free agents in the 1970s. For instance, she ruled that players still won’t be able to endorse products for money. In so ruling, she bought into one of the N.C.A.A.’s core views — namely that college athletes need to be protected from “commercial exploitation.”

What is radical about her decision — and what could pave the way for further changes in other lawsuits — was her dismantling of the various rationales the N.C.A.A. has put forth over the years as its justification for insisting on amateurism as the bedrock of college athletics. Assuming her decision stands up on appeal, the N.C.A.A. will lose its ability to argue that amateurism is so noble an ideal that, in and of itself, it justifies anticompetitive behavior.

“Do I wish the decision had gone further?” Vaccaro said on Monday.  “Sure. It vindicated people like me, who have been voices in the wilderness for so long.”

“We have exposed them,” said Hausfeld.  “We have gotten rid of their implicit immunity from the antitrust laws.”

In March, another antitrust suit was filed against the N.C.A.A., by Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer best known in the sports world for bringing the suit that gained free agency for professional football players.

 Kessler’s suit is much more ambitious than O’Bannon’s. He is arguing that the “matrix of restrictions” (as he put it to me) that prevent universities from deciding how to value and compensate players is anticompetitive and violates the antitrust laws.

Thus does O’Bannon now pass the baton to Kessler, as the N.C.A.A.’s critics begin the next leg of this race.

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

The other night, a prominent Democrat I know made the craziest statement.

“I don’t think Hillary’s going to run,” he proclaimed, silencing the room. He might as well have said that he’d just spotted Bigfoot pilfering rhubarb from the White House vegetable garden or that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in line to play Lear on Broadway. (“Cordelia, I’ll be baaaaack.”) He was humming some kind of loony tune.

His evidence?

“She seems tired,” he said, and that’s when all of us cracked up. Oh, yeah, she seems positively exhausted. That explains the juggernaut of a book tour, the CNN town hall and all the other interviews, including the doozy with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, which I’ll turn to in a bit. If there was nap time in there, I missed it.

Without yet becoming president, she has ascended to some level of saturation exposure that’s above and beyond omnipresent. At this point she’s practically ambient. Her “inevitability” may boil down to the fact that no one can imagine a political ecosystem — nay, a habitable environment! — without her. When it comes to the Clintons, we apparently have two choices. Put them on Rushmore, or put them back in the White House.

And yet.

She is walking a tightrope, and the challenge and peril of it become clearer all the time. The question isn’t whether she’s running: Of course she is, and the only newsworthy announcement down the road would be that she’s getting out of the race. The question is whether she can belittle Barack Obama as much as she must in order to win, but not so much that it plays as an act of sheer betrayal.

She needs the voters who elected him, twice, and who maintain affection for him. She also needs the voters in the throes of buyer’s remorse. Many of them jilted her for their romance with him and now see it as a heady but heedless affair. Can she exploit that, but in a high-minded, diplomatic fashion?

Not on the evidence of her blunt and condescending remarks to Goldberg, which were published over the weekend.

With Obama’s approval ratings sinking lower, especially in the realm of foreign policy, she reiterated that he’d made the wrong call in not arming Syrian rebels. This time around she also suggested that the jihadists of ISIS wouldn’t be so potent if we’d gone a different route.

But that wasn’t the surprise. Nor, really, were the words that she summoned — stronger than the president’s — to defend Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

The clincher was this withering assessment of Obama’s approach to the world: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” A sagacious elder was rolling her eyes at a novice’s folly.

It wasn’t her only admonishment. “When you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.” That would presumably be the fault of the storyteller in chief.

Her welling dissent leaves her exposed on several fronts. If decisions made while she was still the secretary of state were flawed, is she blameless? Sure, her job, like any appointee’s, was to implement the chief executive’s vision, to follow his lead. But it was also to lobby and leave an imprint. Is she conceding that she didn’t do that effectively enough?

Her dissent also subjects her to the charge that has long dogged her: Everything is calculation and calibration. Obama’s down, so she’s suddenly and gratuitously blunt, dismissing his doctrine as more of a ditty.

Clinton is in a bind, because the president is indeed ripe for second-guessing, and because she is and has to be her own person, with differences of opinion that are surely genuine.

She must marvel at the strange turn of events. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she suffered for seeming too truculent in comparison with him, and he held her vote to authorize force in Iraq over her. Now she feels forced to make clear that she’s more truculent than he is, and his authorization of force in Iraq could have reverberations for his successor.

And she’s compelled to pledge a departure from the last six and a half years, because polls reveal a profound, stubborn discontent and pessimism in Americans. The soft bromides of “Hard Choices” aren’t going to do the trick. Is her barbed commentary in the Goldberg interview a better bet? Or can she find a bittersweet spot in between?

Although she’s always been a stickler for loyalty, her inevitability could hinge on how well she finesses disloyalty. It’s not going to be easy. But if you think it’ll dissuade her, have I got a Broadway play for you.

We need Clinton like a moose needs roller skates.  Count me among the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) folks.

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

August 10, 2014

In “The Right War” The Putz babbles that America can’t fix Iraq, but we can make a difference.  Well, we’ve sure as hell made a difference there over the past 10 years…  MoDo, in “Back to Iraq,” says once again, we are ensnared in our mess in Mesopotamia.  Mr. Cohen has a question:  “Will the Voices of Conscience Be Heard?”  He says Israelis and Palestinians struggle to defeat fear.  Mr. Kristof also has a question:  “Is a Hard Life Inherited?”  He wants us to meet Rick Goff of Yamhill, Ore. His life story is a study in the national crisis facing working-class men.  In “Grief, Smoke and Salvation” Mr. Bruni says a trailblazing ambassador for Israeli food acknowledges his secrets, his struggle and how the violence of his homeland factored into it all.  Here’s The Putz:

Three times before last week’s decision to launch airstrikes against the self-styled caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama was urged to intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts: in Libya in the spring of 2011, in Syria from 2011 onward and in Iraq two short months ago, when Baghdad was threatened by the swift advance of ISIS.

In each case, there were good reasons to hesitate. In Libya, we had little to gain strategically from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall, and more to fear from the vacuum that might follow. Syria was a more significant theater, and Bashar al-Assad’s downfall a consummation more devoutly to be wished — but there as in Libya, there was little clarity about what forces (liberals? warlords? jihadis?) we would be empowering and what would follow Assad’s rule.

A similar problem existed for the recent battles outside Baghdad. There was no question that America had an interest in seeing the southward advance of ISIS rolled back. But dropping bombs on behalf of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s thuggish, failing government was a possible fool’s errand: We would have been essentially serving as “the air force for Shia militias” (to quote David Petraeus, no dove) and by extension for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

All three situations were hard calls, and the fact that intervention in Libya and inaction in Syria produced similar outcomes — rippling chaos and jihadi gains — has allowed both hawks and doves to claim vindication.

But in all three debates, the noninterventionist position ultimately had the better of the argument. We were better off sending advisers but not warplanes when ISIS threatened Baghdad; we were wise not to funnel arms (or at least not that many, depending on what the C.I.A.’s been doing) into Syria’s chaos; and Obama would have been wise to heed the cautious Robert Gates on Libya, rather than Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

The latest crisis, however, is different. This time, the case for war is much stronger, and the decision to intervene is almost certainly the right call.

In the earlier debates, the humanitarian case for action was in clear tension with strategic issues on the ground. In northern Iraq right now, the two are much more closely aligned. Alongside a stronger moral obligation to act than we had in Syria or Libya, we have a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now.

The stronger moral obligation flows from two realities. First, this humanitarian crisis is one our actions directly helped create: The cleansing of Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities began in the chaos following our invasion of Iraq, and it has taken a more ruthless turn because ISIS profited from the fallout from our too-swift 2011 withdrawal. (Indeed, it’s often using American-made weapons to harry, persecute and kill.)

Second, ISIS represents a more distinctive form of evil even than a butcher like Assad. As the blogger Razib Khan argued last week, the would-be caliphate is “utopian in its fundamentals,” and so its ruthless religious cleansing isn’t just a tyrant’s “tool to instill terror” and consolidate power; it’s the point of gaining power, an end unto itself.

These arguments — a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil — still do not compel action absent a clear strategic plan, which is why the president was right to hesitate to take the fight to ISIS around Baghdad.

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

So our intervention in northern Iraq has a limited, attainable objective: Push ISIS back toward the Sunni heartland, allow its victims to seek refuge in Kurdish territory and increase the Kurds’ capacity to go on offense against the caliphate.

But if this president is thinking strategically, instead of just conducting a humanitarian drive-by, this intervention could also set the stage for a broader policy shift. Swiftly or gradually, depending on political developments in Baghdad, an independent, secure, well-armed Kurdistan could replace an unstable, perpetually fragmenting Iraq as the intended locus of American influence in the region.

That influence will be necessarily limited: We are not going to stamp out ISIS on our own, or prevent the Middle East’s rival coalitions — Sunni vs. Shiite, oligarchic vs. populist — from continuing their brutal proxy wars. There is not going to be a major American-aligned model nation in the Arab world anytime soon, of the sort the Iraq invasion’s architects naïvely hoped to build.

But by protecting a Kurdistan that can extend protection to groups made homeless by the fighting, we can still help save something from the wreckage.

Not a model, but a refuge.

Next up we have MoDo:

It was exhilarating to drop a bunch of 500-pound bombs on whatstheirname.

Just when Americans thought they could stop trying to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, we’re in a new war in Iraq with some bad “folks,” as the president might say, whose name we’re still fuzzy on.

We never know what we’re getting into over there, and this time we can’t even agree what to call the enemy. All we know is that a barbaric force is pillaging so swiftly and brutally across the Middle East that it seems like some mutated virus from a sci-fi film.

Most news organizations call the sulfurous spawn of Al Qaeda leading the rampage through Iraq “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” (Isis is also the name of an Egyptian goddess and the Earl of Grantham’s yellow lab on “Downton Abbey.”) Yet the White House, State Department and United Nations refer to the group as “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”

The BBC reported that some people have also started referring to the jihadis as “Da’ish” or “Daesh,” a designation that the extremists object to because it is “a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.’ ” Al-Sham, the BBC noted, can be translated as “the Levant,” “Greater Syria,” “Syria” or “Damascus.”

Adding to the confusion, ISIS a.k.a. ISIL engaged in a slick “Mad Men” rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself “the Islamic State.” So then Agence France-Presse began referring to the militants as “IS” or “the group formerly known as ISIS,” and The Wall Street Journal switched to “IS.” The Times, however, still calls our murderous new enemy “ISIS” while quoting administration officials and military officers using the acronym “ISIL.”

It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.

If all that is not confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the vicious religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis, a small and secretive sect belonging to one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. Their faith has origins in Islam and Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C. As Time pointed out, though the name “Izidis” translates to “worshipers of God,” ISIS considers them “devil-worshipers” who must convert to Islam or be killed.

ISIS mistakenly torments the sect that has survived 72 genocides, The Telegraph explained, because the Yazidis worship a fallen angel called the Malek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. But unlike Lucifer, their angel sought forgiveness and went back to heaven.

Fifty thousand Yazidis were driven by the jihadis to take refuge on Mount Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled Erbil, where they were trapped and dying of dehydration and exposure, which spurred President Obama to order Navy planes to drop food and water for them.

Although it felt momentarily bracing to see American pilots trying to save innocents in a country we messed up so badly that it’s not even a country any more, some critics warned that the pinprick bombings were a political gesture, not a military strategy, and “almost worse than nothing,” as John McCain put it.

The latest turn of the screw in Iraq also underscored how we keep getting pulled back, “Godfather”-style, without ever understanding the culture. Our boneheaded meddling just creates ever-more-virulent monsters. The United States has taken military action in Iraq during at least 17 of the last 24 years, the ultimate mission creep in a country smaller than Texas on the other side of the world.

What better symbol of the Middle East quicksand than the fact that Navy planes took off for their rescue mission — two years after Obama declared the war in Iraq over — from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea?

Bush Senior’s war to expel Saddam from Kuwait — a gas station of a country chockablock with spoiled rich Arabs — would not have been necessary if Saddam, a tyrant first enabled by J.F.K.’s C.I.A., had not been given the wrong signals by our side. W.’s war with Saddam, the prodigal son’s effort at outdoing his father, ended up undoing Iraq and the neglected Afghanistan.

Caught in the Sunni backlash and the back draft of his predecessor’s misguided attempt to impose democracy, Obama is leery and proceeding cautiously. But what can he do? He has dispatched a few hundred advisers to Iraq to fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade.

Some fellow Democrats are fretting that the pull of Iraq will be too strong, after Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The president has not laid out a specific end date.” Iraq, after all, is a country that seems to have a malignant magnetism for our leaders.

We now get to Mr. Cohen:

There are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.

I was reminded of this in recent weeks. An email from an Israeli woman, Ruth Harari, told me of how her parents arrived in what would become Israel from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920s, how they built a kibbutz, how she was educated there in “the values and principles of freedom, honoring human beings whoever they were.” Her forebears stayed in Europe, where they vanished in the Holocaust. Hardship in the Holy Land never diluted her parents’ commitment to Israel and justice, ideas indivisible to them.

“We still have values,” she wrote during the third and most deadly Gaza eruption in six years, with its almost 2,000 dead, most of them Palestinian civilians. “For that reason, I argue, it is more painful for me as an Israeli to hear and see the footage of the innocents, children especially, in Gaza, and to read about the suffering inflicted upon them not only by Israeli attacks, but by the ferocity of their leadership. We have to sit and talk. We have to live with one another.”

What do such words amount to? No more than confetti in a gale, perhaps, scattered by the force of Hamas, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the unblushing Jewish advocates of forcible removal of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and even Israel itself.

The center, it seems, cannot hold. This little war has had about it something of the Salem witch trials, bookended by murky incidents of murder or disappearance generating mass hysteria. With each war, each tweet, even, vitriol grows.

Hannah Arendt warned of the dangers of nationalism in a Jewish state; she thought it might be redoubled by dependence on the United States. I find another thought of hers more important: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Conscience and individual courage do count, even if they appear powerless, especially if they appear powerless.

In a different context, the words of the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy killed in the buildup to the war, count: “Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed?”

I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.

Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.

For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”

In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.

Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.

It will take immense courage now for Israelis who wrestle with their consciences to raise their voices for a two-state peace — and just as much for Palestinians to engage in open self-criticism of disastrous choices. The next time hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for cheap housing, they should draw a connection between that demand and the billions spent on the occupation. An Israeli zealot killed Yitzhak Rabin. He cannot be allowed to kill Rabin’s last endeavor.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.

Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.

I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.

One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.

“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.

His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.

Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”

A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.

“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”

In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.

In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.

Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroin, prison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.

One of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.

The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.

This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.

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

People who don’t know the full truth about Mike Solomonov judge him by his fried chicken at Federal Donuts, a cult favorite in this city, and by his hummus at Zahav, an Israeli restaurant here of national renown. They’re the signposts in a career that has burned bright in recent years and seems destined to burn brighter still.

But they’re not his real success. They’re not what his wife and best friends look at with so much gratitude — and so much relief. Those closest to Mike realize that his crucial achievement is staying clean. And it’s measured in the number of days in a row that he’s drug-free.

When he opened Zahav in May 2008, he was sleeping just an hour or two many nights, and the reason wasn’t work. It was crack cocaine. He smoked it compulsively. Sometimes he mixed things up and smoked — or snorted — heroin instead. There was also booze: Scotch, vodka, triple sec, whatever was within reach. His reputation was on the rise. He was on the skids.

“I was living a double life,” Mike, 35, told me. “I look back and I’m horrified.”

Until now he hasn’t gone into detail about this publicly. But with two new restaurants about to open and a PBS documentary about his culinary love affair with Israel in the works, he found himself haunted by the sense that he wasn’t being wholly honest, wasn’t owning up to how easily all of this might have slipped away, wasn’t sounding the warning and sharing the lessons that he could.

“Nobody expects somebody like me to be a recovering crackhead,” he said. “I felt I was holding back.”

So last week he told me his story, all of it. It has an added pathos right now, because the violence in Israel echoes a personal heartbreak that fed his addiction, the worst of which followed the death of his younger brother, David, in 2003, at the age of 21. He was killed by sniper fire on the border with Lebanon while he served in the Israeli army. He was just three days shy of the end of his military commitment.

The two brothers grew up partly in the United States and partly in Israel, although David spent more time there. Mike did the opposite, and went to college at the University of Vermont, although he lasted just three semesters. He partied more than he studied. To pay for all the pot he was smoking, he became a dealer.

“I was the guy who always did a little too much,” he said. And he was fine with that, at least until the night when he took a fistful of Xanax to counterbalance an excess of cocaine. He passed out and woke up in a hospital bed some 12 hours later, his stomach pumped.

For a while he straightened up. Buckled down. Learned to cook, graduating from a bakery near Tel Aviv to culinary school in Florida to work in Philadelphia. He had a job at the venerated Italian restaurant Vetri when he got the news about David. The call came as he drove a family car, a green Hyundai Accent, from Pittsburgh back to Philadelphia so that David, who was about to move to the United States, could claim it.

David hadn’t even been scheduled for duty on the day he died, but it was Yom Kippur and he’d swapped places with a soldier who wanted to go to synagogue. Mike couldn’t stop thinking about that or about his recklessness with his own life and how little sense any of this made.

“This is a horrible thing to say, but of the two of us, if one should have ended up dead at a young age, he didn’t deserve it,” he said, shaking his head.

He turned to drugs to blot out his grief, which also became the perfect excuse, the perfect cover. He was stealthy enough that his business partner, Steve Cook, didn’t catch on. Nor did his wife, Mary, whom he married in 2006.

Sometimes when he fetched supplies in the middle of a workday, he’d take a detour to buy crack and smoke it in the car: the green Hyundai meant for David.

And sometimes after Mary went to sleep at night, he’d quietly drive off to find more, and he’d cruise around the city high and drunk, returning at daybreak, he said, to “slither back into bed” before she woke up. The chirping of birds in the dawn stillness grew familiar. It was as if they were shaming and mocking him.

He grew thinner and thinner. Mary saw it, but not really. What opened her eyes was his sudden, strange illness during a vacation in Bermuda in July 2008. He was in withdrawal, because he’d gone too quickly through some heroin that he’d secretly carried with him. Back home, she consulted Steve and they confronted Mike one morning, telling him that they were taking him to rehab right then. He pleaded for a few minutes and walked into the yard.

He remembers thinking, “I could just jump the fence. I wouldn’t be the first junkie running around South Philly in my bathrobe.”

He went back inside. He did the program. Then he attended 12-step meetings, as often as every day. Steve and his wife handled the transportation, because they didn’t want him alone in that Hyundai.

“I was scared,” Steve said, noting that the restaurant Zahav had been up and running for only a few months. “We had almost $1 million that we’d signed for personally — investors, loans.” He needed Mike to be healthy.

Mary was angry. But, she said, “He needed help and support. And I remember my sister saying, ‘You don’t leave people at their darkest hour.’ ” She monitored Mike’s recovery by making him take random drug tests. After a lapse or two at the start, he passed each one, and she could see how hard he was trying.

The impulse to get high doesn’t completely vanish. It flickers back. Mike remembers that in the hours around midnight on July 23, 2011, he had the fleeting notion that he could easily sneak off and find drugs. It was a reflexive reaction to being all alone, with his wife out of the house, and the thought wasn’t squelched by the reason she was gone. She was in the hospital. She’d just given birth to the first of their two sons.

He doesn’t want to lie about these things. He wants to hold himself to full account.

In so many regards he’s lucky, he said, and one is that he’s found a better way to respond to losing his brother: through his cooking, which pays tribute to the country and the people his brother died for. The restaurant Dizengoff, officially opening on Monday, is a classic Israeli hummusiya, focusing on quick meals of hummus and small salads. Abe Fisher, which is scheduled to open early next month, will serve dishes of the Jewish diaspora, and its name is a mash-up of Jewish ancestors of his and Steve’s.

Last October Mike led a group of American chefs on a tour of Israel. They paused to cook a special meal on the 10th anniversary of David’s death. Mike made brief remarks, describing a painting by David that hung above his firstborn son’s changing table, a prompt for telling the boy about the missing man in whose memory he’d been named. Mike would remind his son, before they left the room: “Say goodbye to Uncle David.”

Brooks and Bruni

August 5, 2014

We’ve got just Bobo and Bruni this morning since Mr. Nocera is off, probably busy filling his water buckets for Big Energy.  Bobo has turned his eye to Africa.  In “The Battle of the Regimes” he babbles that with support, a new style of emerging market hero can lead African nations to a democratic rather than autocratic future.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston starts his comment with this:  “Another fractured fairy tale from David Brooks, in which he rewrites reality to suit his ideology. The bogey man in this one is the Authoritarian Regime, which starts out looking like China but morphs eerily into the U.S. government.”  In “Plato and the Promise of College” Mr. Bruni tells us that one summer school seeks social mobility and better citizens through the classics.  Here’s Bobo:

James Mwangi grew up on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains in central Kenya. His father lost his life during the Mau Mau uprising against the colonial authorities. His mother raised seven children, making sure both the girls and the boys were well educated. Everybody in the family worked at a series of street businesses to pay the bills.

He made it to the University of Nairobi and became an accountant. The big Western banks were getting out of retail banking, figuring there was no money to be made catering to the poor. But, in 1993, Mwangi helped lead a small mutual aid organization, called Equity Building Society, into the vacuum.

The enterprise that became Equity Bank would give poor Kenyans access to bank accounts. Mwangi would cater to street vendors and small-scale farmers. At the time, according to a profile by Anver Versi in African Business Magazine, the firm had 27 employees and was losing about $58,000 a year.

Mwangi told the staff to emphasize customer care. He switched the firm’s emphasis from mortgage loans to small, targeted loans.

Kenyans got richer, the middle class boomed and Equity Bank surged. By 2011, Equity had 450 branches and a customer base of 8 million — nearly half of all bank accounts in the country. From 2000 to 2012, Equity’s pretax profit grew at an annual rate of 65 percent. In 2012, Mwangi was named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.

Mwangi’s story is a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale. Mwangi has also become a celebrated representative of the new African entrepreneurial class, who now define the continent as much as famine, malaria and the old scourges.

But Mwangi’s story is something else. It’s a salvo in an ideological war. With Equity, Mwangi demonstrated that democratic capitalism really can serve the masses. Decentralized, bottom-up capitalism can be the basis of widespread growth, even in emerging markets.

That theory is under threat. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.

On July 26, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary gave a morbidly fascinating speech in which he argued that liberal capitalism’s day is done. The 2008 financial crisis revealed that decentralized liberal democracy leads to inequality, oligarchy, corruption and moral decline. When individuals are given maximum freedom, the strong end up stepping on the weak.

The future, he continued, belongs to illiberal regimes like China’s and Singapore’s — autocratic systems that put the interests of the community ahead of individual freedom; regimes that are organized for broad growth, not inequality.

Orban’s speech comes at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of morale. Only 31 percent of Americans are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Autocratic regimes — which feature populist economics, traditional social values, concentrated authority and hyped-up nationalism — are feeling confident and on the rise. Eighty-five percent of Chinese are very satisfied with their country’s course, according to the Pew survey.

It comes at a time when the battle of the regimes is playing out with special force in Africa. After the end of the Cold War, the number of African democracies shot upward. But many of those countries are now struggling politically (South Africa) or economically (Ghana). Meanwhile, authoritarian Rwanda is famously well managed.

China’s aggressive role in Africa is helping to support authoritarian tendencies across the continent, at least among the governing elites. Total Chinese trade with Africa has increased twentyfold since 2001. When Uganda was looking to hire a firm for an $8 billion rail expansion, only Chinese firms were invited to apply. Under Jacob Zuma, South Africa is trying to copy some Chinese features.

As Howard French, the author of “China’s Second Continent,” points out, China gives African authoritarians an investor who doesn’t ask too many questions. The centralized model represses unhappy minority groups. It gives local elites the illusion that if they concentrate power in their own hands they’ll be able to move decisively to lift their whole nation. (Every dictator thinks he’s Lee Kuan Yew.)

French notes that popular support for representative democracy runs deep in most African countries. But there have to be successful examples of capitalism for the masses. There have to be more Mwangis, a new style of emerging market hero, to renew faith in the system that makes such people possible.

President Obama is holding a summit meeting of African leaders in Washington this week. But U.S. influence on the continent is now pathetically small compared with the Chinese and Europeans. The joke among the attendees is that China invests money; America holds receptions.

But what happens in Africa will have global consequences in the battle of regimes. If African nations succumb to the delusion of autocracy, we’ll have Putins to deal with for decades to come.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Kimberly Lantigua, 17, is an avid reader, but of a somewhat unusual oeuvre. Not long ago she worked her way through novels that spawned movies starring Meryl Streep, one of her favorite actresses. “The Devil Wears Prada” was a breeze. “Sophie’s Choice” is Kimberly’s unsummited Everest.

But for three weeks in July, she kept to a literary diet that focused on Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as she sat for several hours daily in a seminar at Columbia University titled “Freedom and Citizenship in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Thought.”

On the morning when I dropped by, she and 14 other high school students between their junior and senior years were listening to their professor, Roosevelt Montás, discuss Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on “the social contract” and the balance of rights between an individual and a community.

Although the summer sun was shining like a cruel taunt outside the windows, the kids paid close attention, nodding and chiming in. There was no stealthy texting on smartphones. No fidgeting that I could see.

At a time when a lot of the talk about diminished social mobility in America is just that — talk, lip service, a wringing of hands rather than a springing into action — this seminar represents a bold exception, worthy of applause and emulation.

Most of the teenagers in the classroom with Kimberly — and most of another 15 in a separate section of the seminar — are minorities who were referred from the Double Discovery Center, a program in Upper Manhattan that couples undergraduate mentors from Columbia with New York City kids who hope to become the first in their families with college degrees.

This was the seminar’s sixth consecutive summer and the first in which the number of students rose to 30 from 15. The course intends to get them ready for higher education, and that isn’t unusual in and of itself. Many summer enrichment programs attempt as much.

But the distinction of this one and the reason it should be replicated is that it doesn’t focus on narrow disciplines, discrete skills, standardized tests. It doesn’t reduce learning to metrics or cast college as a bridge to a predetermined career.

It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.

Montás also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums ago, and they understand “their fundamental stake in our political debate.”

“They read the news differently,” he said. “They see themselves as political agents, able to participate.”

So as he toggled over the span of the seminar from the French Revolution to Obamacare, he wasn’t just connecting dots for them. He was rooting them in our noble, troubled democracy, and trying to turn them into enlightened caretakers of it.

For the course’s duration, thanks to funding from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center, the kids live and eat free at Columbia. For Kimberly, who typically shares a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and five siblings, that was part of the lure. Another student, Mysterie Sylla, 17, told me that her time on campus was a reprieve from stints in foster care.

For every five kids in the seminar, there’s one teaching assistant, a Columbia undergraduate who will maintain contact with them over the next year and guide them through the college-application process. What a great model: Current college students who are blessed enough to be in the Ivy League extend a hand to would-be college students whose paths haven’t been easy.

The kids who completed Montás’s seminar in the summer of 2013 are bound this fall for a range of schools including Syracuse, Brandeis and, in three cases, Columbia itself.

Montás is the director of Columbia’s celebrated Core Curriculum, which requires freshmen and sophomores to dive into the Western canon. His summer seminar asks kids like Kimberly, who attends high school at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, to splash around in it.

She was intimidated only briefly by the texts. “Once Professor Montás walks you through them, they’re approachable,” she told me.

The proof was in her participation. I heard her pipe up repeatedly: about the meaning of liberty, about necessary checks on what she called our “innate thirst for total power.” Her voice was clear and strong.

I bet she wrestles Sophie to the ground soon enough. And I think that college could carry her far.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

July 6, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has a question in “A Company Liberals Could Love.”  He babbles that Hobby Lobby and religious organizations serve the common good. So why not encourage, rather than obstruct, them?  Cripes, where to begin…  In the comments “LES” from Southgate, KY also has a question:  “This is a ridiculous argument. Religion is being used as a way around a government mandate. Period. Where is the separation of church and state?”  MoDo is in the dumps.  In “Who Do We Think We Are?” she whines that as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July in blazing red, white and blue, the emphasis this year is on the blue.  Mr. Kristof writes about “When They Imprison the Wrong Guy” and says this legal thriller isn’t a John Grisham tale. It’s a Texas man’s life story. And his perspective on the criminal justice system was unjustly earned.  Mr. Bruni asks “Is Joe Riley of Charleston the Most Loved Politician in America?”  He says in an era of cynicism and stasis, Charleston’s indefatigable mayor talks about how government can and should function.   Here’s the Putz:

For a generation now, liberals have bemoaned the disappearance of the socially conscious corporation, the boardroom devoted to the common good. Once, the story goes, America’s C.E.O.s recognized that they shared interests with workers and customers; once wages and working hours reflected more than just a zeal for profits. But then came Reagan, deregulation, hostile takeovers, and an era of solidarity gave way to the age of Gordon Gekko, from which there’s been no subsequent escape.

There are, however, exceptions: companies that still have a sense of business as a moral calling, which can be held up as examples to shame the bottom-liners.

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

But this isn’t just a point about the company’s particular virtues. The entire conflict between religious liberty and cultural liberalism has created an interesting situation in our politics: The political left is expending a remarkable amount of energy trying to fine, vilify and bring to heel organizations — charities, hospitals, schools and mission-infused businesses — whose commitments they might under other circumstances extol.

So the recent Supreme Court ruling offers a chance, after the hysteria cools and the Taliban hypotheticals grow stale, for liberals to pause and consider the long-term implications of this culture-war campaign.

Historically, support for religious liberty in the United States has rested on pragmatic as well as philosophical foundations. From de Tocqueville’s America to Eisenhower’s, there has been a sense — not universal but widespread — that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.

But in the past, tensions over pluralism’s proper scope usually occurred when a specific faith — Catholicism and Mormonism, notably — unsettled or challenged the mostly Protestant majority. Today, the potential tensions are much broader, because the goals of postsexual revolution liberalism are at odds with the official beliefs of almost every traditional religious body, be it Mormon or Muslim, Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Jewish, Calvinist or Catholic.

If liberals so desire, this division could lead to constant conflict, in which just about every project conservative believers undertake is gradually threatened with regulation enforcing liberal norms. The health coverage offered by religious employers; the activity of religious groups on college campuses; the treatments offered by religious hospitals; the subject matter taught in religious schools … the battlegrounds are legion.

And liberals seem to be preparing the ground for this kind of expansive conflict — by making sharp distinctions (as the White House’s mandate exemptions did) between the liberties of congregations and the liberties of other religious organizations, by implying that religion’s “free exercise” is confined to liturgy and prayer, and by suggesting (as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in her Hobby Lobby dissent) that religious groups serve only their co-believers, not the common good.

That last idea, bizarre to anyone who’s visited a soup kitchen, could easily be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insist that for legal purposes there’s no such thing as a religiously motivated business, and you will get fewer religiously motivated business owners — and more chain stores that happily cover Plan B but pay significantly lower wages. Pressure religious hospitals to perform abortions or sex-reassignment surgery (or some eugenic breakthrough, down the road), and you’ll eventually get fewer religious hospitals — and probably less charity care and a more zealous focus on the bottom line. Tell religious charities they have legal rights only insofar as they serve their co-religionists, and you’ll see the scope of their endeavors contract.

But this is not a path liberals need to choose — not least because the more authentically American alternative does not require them to abandon their policy goals. (Obamacare’s expansion of contraceptive coverage, for instance, will be almost as sweeping if some religious nonprofits and businesses opt out.)

Rather, it just requires a rediscovery of pluralism’s virtues, and the benefits of allowing different understandings of social justice to be pursued simultaneously, rather than pitted against each other in a battle to the death.

Next up we have MoDo’s whinging:

America’s infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance.

Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome.

With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defense, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

“The Fourth of July was always a celebration of American exceptionalism,” said G.O.P. pollster Frank Luntz. “Now it’s a commiseration of American disappointment.”

From Katrina to Fallujah, we’re less the Shining City Upon a Hill than the House of Broken Toys.

For the first time perhaps, hope is not as much a characteristic of American feelings.

Are we winners who have been through a rough patch? Or losers who have soured our sturdy and spiritual DNA with too much food, too much greed, too much narcissism, too many lies, too many spies, too many fat-cat bonuses, too many cat videos on the evening news, too many Buzzfeed listicles like “33 Photos Of Corgi Butts,” and too much mindless and malevolent online chatter?

Are we still the biggest and baddest? Or are we forever smaller, stingier, dumber, less ambitious and more cynical? Have we lost control of our not-so-manifest destiny?

Once we had Howard Baker, who went against self-interest for the common good. Now we have Ted Cruz. Once we had Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose fortitude in a Japanese P.O.W. camp was chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken.” Now we’ve broken Iraq, liberating it to be a draconian state run on Sharia law, full of America-hating jihadists who were too brutal even for Al Qaeda.

We’re a little bit scared of our own shadow. And, sadly, we see ourselves as a people who can never understand one another. We’ve given up on the notion that we can cohere, even though the founders forged America by holding together people with deep differences.

A nation of immigrants watched over by the Statue of Liberty — with a government unable to pass immigration reform despite majority support — sees protesters take to the streets to keep Hispanic children trying to cross the border from being housed in their communities.

Andrew Kohut, who has polled for Gallup and the Pew Research Center for over four decades, calls the mood “chronic disillusionment.” He said that in this century we have had only three brief moments when a majority of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going: the month W. took office, right after the 9/11 attacks and the month we invaded Iraq.

The old verities seem quaint. If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll lose out to those guys who can wire computers to make bets on Wall Street faster than the next guy to become instant multimillionaires. Our quiet traditional virtues bow to our noisy visceral divisions, while churning technology is swiftly remolding the national character in ways that are still a blur. Boldness is often chased away by distraction, confusion, hesitation and fragmentation.

Barack Obama vowed to make government cool again, but young people, put off by the dysfunction in our political, financial, military and social institutions, are eschewing government jobs. Idealism is swamped by special interests. The middle class is learning to do more with less. The president, sort of the opposite.

“The world sees us as having gone from a president who did too much to a president who does too little,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

David Axelrod, the president’s Pygmalion, mused: “Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. Bush and Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”

Young people are more optimistic than their rueful elders, especially those in the technology world. They are the anti-Cheneys, competitive but not triumphalist. They think of themselves as global citizens, not interested in exalting America above all other countries.

“The 23-year-olds I work with are a little over the conversation about how we were the superpower brought low,” said Ben Smith, the editor in chief of Buzzfeed. “They think that’s an ‘older person conversation.’ They’re more interested in this moment of crazy opportunity, with the massive economic and cultural transformation driven by Silicon Valley. And kids feel capable of seizing it. Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture.”

Ben Domenech, the 32-year-old libertarian who writes The Transom newsletter, thinks many millennials are paralyzed by all their choices. He quoted Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman”: “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” He also noted that, given their image-conscious online life in the public eye, millennials worry about attaching themselves with a click to the wrong clique or hashtag: “It heightens the level of uncertainty, anxiety and risk aversion, to know that you’re only a bad day and half a dozen tweets from being fired.”

Jaron Lanier, the Microsoft Research scientist and best-selling author, thinks the biggest change in America is that “technology’s never had to shoulder the burden of optimism all by itself.”

And that creates what Haass calls a tension between “dysfunctional America vs. innovative America.”

Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute and author of the best-selling “Steve Jobs,” agreed that “there’s a striking disconnect between the optimism and swagger of people in the innovative economy — from craft-beer makers to educational reformers to the Uber creators — and the impotence and shrunken stature of our governing institutions.”

Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” which depicts the Patriots, warts and all, warns against gilding the past. “They weren’t better than us back then; they were trying to figure things out and justify their behavior, kind of like we are now,” he said. “From the beginning to the end, the Revolution was a messy work in progress. The people we hold up as paragons did not always act nobly but would then later be portrayed as always acting nobly. It reminds you of the dysfunction we’re in the middle of now.

“The more we can realize that we’re all making it up as we go along and somehow muddling through making ugly mistakes, the better. We’re not destined for greatness. We have to earn that greatness. What George Washington did right was to realize how much of what he thought was right was wrong.”

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

On the day after his 32nd birthday, Michael Morton returned from work to find his home in Austin, Tex., surrounded by yellow police tape.

Morton jumped out of his car and raced to the door. “Is Eric O.K.?” Morton asked, thinking that something might have happened to his 3-year-old son. The sheriff said Eric was fine.

What about Chris, Morton’s wife?

“Chris is dead,” the sheriff answered.

Morton reeled after learning that Chris had been bludgeoned in their bed, and then the police arrested him for the murder.

Eric had told his grandma that he actually saw a “monster with the big mustache” hit his mother, but police suppressed this and other evidence. The jury deliberated two hours before convicting Morton of murder in 1987, and he received a sentence of life in prison.

“It seemed as if the word guilty was still ringing through the courtroom when I felt the cold steel of the cuffs close on my wrists — a sensation that in the next quarter-century would become as familiar as wearing a wristwatch,” Morton writes in a stunning memoir to be published on Tuesday.

Chris’s family turned on him, assuming him to be the killer. Eric was raised by Chris’s sister and her husband, and Eric eventually changed his name to match theirs. At age 15, he wrote his dad to say he would stop visiting him.

“I crumpled onto the bunk and just lay there,” Morton writes, “clenching and unclenching my fists, feeling hot tears forming and then falling, clutching the letter to my chest as if I were trying to squeeze all the hurt out of it.”

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’s brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’s DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history.

What’s more, Norwood’s DNA was also found at the scene of a murder very similar to Chris’s — that of a young woman with a 3-year-old child, also beaten to death in her bed, just 18 months after Chris’s murder.

“The worst fact about my being convicted of Chris’s murder wasn’t my long sentence,” Morton writes. “It was the fact that the real killer had been free to take another life.”

With the DNA evidence, the courts released Morton, after 25 years in prison, and then soon convicted Norwood of Chris’s murder. Ken Anderson, who had prosecuted Morton and later became a judge, resigned and served a brief jail term for misconduct.

As for Morton, he’s rebuilding his life. He and Eric have come together again, and he is happily married to a woman he met at church.

“Life’s good now, even on my bad days,” Morton told me, laughing. “Perspective is everything.”

Morton has a measured view of lessons learned. Most of the people he met in prison belonged there, he says, but the criminal justice system is also wrongly clogged with people who are mentally ill. As for complete miscarriages of justice like his own, he figures they are rare but still more common than we would like to think.

My take is that our criminal justice system is profoundly flawed. It is the default mental health system, sometimes criminalizing psychiatric disorders. It is arbitrary, and the mass incarceration experiment since the 1970s has been hugely expensive and grossly unfair. Prisons are unnecessarily violent, with some states refusing to take steps to reduce prison rape because they say these would be costly. And the system sometimes seems aimed as much at creating revenue for for-profit prisons as at delivering justice.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Michael Morton is able to deliver this aching and poignant look at the criminal justice system only because he didn’t get a death sentence. When Morton was finally freed from prison, some of his first words were: “Thank God this wasn’t a capital case.”

Last up we have Mr. Bruni:

The custom here is for a mayor’s portrait to be hung in the City Council chamber only after he leaves office. But in 2007, folks got tired of waiting for Joe Riley to make his exit, and he was put on the wall while still on the job. He’d been running Charleston for more than 31 years.

It’s almost 39 at this point: a period long enough that he can’t remember the color of his hair, now white, when he first took office, in December 1975.

“Brownish-blond, I guess?” he said.

It’s equally hard for many people to recall what Charleston looked like back then. Its center wasn’t the beautifully manicured, lovingly gentrified showpiece it is today.

That transformation helps explain why voters have elected Riley 10 times in a row. They adore the man, or at least many of them do, as I witnessed firsthand when I ambled around town with him last week. More than once, someone spotted him — he vaguely resembles Jimmy Stewart, only lankier — and then followed him for a few blocks just to shower him with thanks.

These admirers had to hustle to catch up with him, because even at 71 he moves fast, unflustered by his new hip and unbothered by the South Carolina summer heat.

Politicians around the country speak of him reverently, casting him as the sagacious Obi-Wan Kenobi (or maybe Yoda) of local government and noting that no current mayor of a well-known city has lasted so long.

“To maintain enormous popularity in your city and equal reservoirs of respect professionally among your peers — I don’t think there’s anyone who’s been able to do that like he has,” Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, told me.

I had to visit him. I was exhausted with all the cynicism, including my own, about politics and politicians, and I craved something and someone sunnier. I was curious about the perspective of a leader who had clearly gotten a whole lot right.

What makes for good governance? Riley’s observations warranted attention.

Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”

He has fumbled balls and ruffled feathers, drawing censure for the city’s response to a 2007 blaze that killed nine firefighters, and warring with preservationists and environmentalists.

But he has been careful not to pick abstract and unnecessary battles, and he has deliberately concentrated on visible, measurable realities: the safety, beauty and vibrancy of streets; the placement of parks; the construction of public amusements; the availability of housing.

What people want from government, he stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.

“Mayors can’t function as partisans,” he said. And in Charleston they officially don’t. While Riley happens to be a Democrat, candidates for mayor and City Council here aren’t party designees; there are no primaries.

But perhaps nothing, he said, is more vital than making sure that an electorate’s diversity is taken into account — Charleston is about 70 percent white and 25 percent African-American — and that voters feel fully respected by the leaders who represent them. Inclusion is everything, and he has long considered it the South’s mission, and his own, to build bridges between white and black people.

In the Charleston of his youth, schools were segregated, and when he practiced the proper manners that his parents had taught him and once answered a question from an African-American waiter with the words “yes, sir,” they corrected him. You didn’t say “sir” to a black man.

“The rules were phony,” he told me, adding that he and many of his friends realized it even then.

As a member of the South Carolina Legislature in the early 1970s, he advocated unsuccessfully for a state holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. In 1982, as mayor, he hired Charleston’s first African-American police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who held that job for 23 years and was considered a huge success.

One day in 2000, Riley arrived at his office and told a senior adviser, David Agnew, “Maybe I had too much coffee this morning, but I have an idea.” The mayor proposed — and then organized — a five-day, 120-mile march from Charleston to Columbia, the state capital, to urge the removal of the Confederate battle flag that still fluttered over the statehouse.

He was fed up with South Carolina’s image to outsiders as a preserve of stubborn bigotry, Agnew told me, “and he believed that the best instincts of South Carolina were better than what the Legislature was doing.”

Agnew said that Riley received death threats before the march and that Police Chief Greenberg insisted that he wear a bulletproof vest during it.

The walking bloodied and blistered his feet, which he swaddled in bandages so he could get to the finish line. The flag came down later that year, which was also when South Carolina became the last state to sign a King holiday into law.

Now his passion is the establishment of an African-American history museum on Charleston’s harbor. There are similar museums elsewhere, he said, but perhaps none in a setting as fitting. Charleston played a central role in the slave trade: Four of every 10 slaves came on ships that passed through the city. So Charleston, Riley said, should be at the forefront of guaranteeing that people remember what happened.

“It’s a profound opportunity to honor the African-Americans who were brought here against their will and helped build this city and helped build this country,” he told Charleston’s main newspaper, The Post and Courier, last year.

As he showed me the stretch of waterfront where he envisioned the museum rising, he talked about the horrors that slaves endured and “the amazing resilience of the human spirit.”

He is trying to secure the financing, bringing prominent architects on board and hoping that everything will be nailed down by December 2015. That’s when he has vowed to retire, at the end of 40 years. It’s time, he said.

The museum would be completed later, a legacy consistent with a conviction that he has held from the start. You can’t have “a great, successful city,” he said, “unless it’s a just city.”

Wise words. They hold true for a country as well.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

July 1, 2014

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “The Evolution of Trust.”  He gurgles that the evolution to more frugal, deinstitutionalized living that has created the sharing economy may also lead to less involvement of government in everyday life.  Following his POS I’ll quote “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn’s entire comment, which begins with “David, you can’t be serious.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Socialist World Cup,” says in Brazil, the culture of the group vanquishes the money culture of the superstar.  In “From 9/11 to BP to G.M.” Mr. Nocera says Kenneth Feinberg is proving that you can compensate victims without litigation.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “A Grope and a Shrug:”  With American Apparel’s sexually audacious founder and other prominent men, do we excuse the inexcusable?  Here’s Bobo:

I’m one of those people who thought Airbnb would never work. I thought people would never rent out space in their homes to near strangers. But I was clearly wrong. Eleven million travelers have stayed in Airbnb destinations, according to data shared by the company. Roughly 550,000 homes are now being shared by hosts. Airbnb is more popular in Europe than it is even in the United States. Paris is the largest destination city.

And Airbnb is only a piece of the peer-to-peer economy. People are renting out their cars to people they don’t know, dropping off their pets with people they don’t know, renting power tools to people they don’t know.

In retrospect, I underestimated the power of a few trends that make the peer-to-peer economy possible. First, I underestimated the effects of middle-class stagnation. With wages flat and families squeezed, many people have to return to the boardinghouse model of yesteryear. They have to rent out rooms to cover their mortgage or rent.

Second, I underestimated the power that liberal arts majors would have on the economy. Millions of people have finished college with a hunger for travel and local contact, but without much money. They would rather stay in spare rooms in residential neighborhoods than in homogenized hotels in commercial areas, especially if they get to have breakfast with the hosts in the morning.

And the big thing I underestimated was the transformation of social trust. In primitive economies, people traded mostly with members of their village and community. Trust was face to face. Then, in the mass economy we’ve been used to, people bought from large and stable corporate brands, whose behavior was made more reliable by government regulation.

But now there is a new trust calculus, powered by both social and economic forces. Socially, we have large numbers of people living loose unstructured lives, mostly in the 10 years after leaving college and in the 10 years after retirement.

These people often live alone or with short-time roommates, outside big institutional structures, like universities, corporations or the settled living of family life. They become very fast and fluid in how they make social connections. They become accustomed to instant intimacy, or at least fast pseudo-intimacy. People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships.

Economically, there are many more people working as freelancers. These people are more individualistic in how they earn money. They often don’t go to an office. They have traded dependence on big organizational systems for dependence on people they can talk to and negotiate arrangements with directly. They become accustomed to flexible ad-hoc arrangements.

The result is a personalistic culture in which people have actively lost trust in big institutions. Strangers don’t seem especially risky by comparison. This is fertile ground for peer-to-peer commerce.

Companies like Airbnb establish trust through ratings mechanisms. Their clients are already adept at evaluating each other on the basis of each other’s Facebook pages. People in the Airbnb economy don’t have the option of trusting each other on the basis of institutional affiliations, so they do it on the basis of online signaling and peer evaluations. Online ratings follow you everywhere, so people have an incentive to act in ways that will buff their online reputation.

As companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Sidecar get more mature, they also spend more money policing their own marketplace. They hire teams to hunt out fraud. They screen suppliers. They look for bad apples who might ruin the experience.

The one thing the peer-to-peer economy has not relied on much so far is government regulation. The people who use these companies may be mostly political progressives, but they are operating in a lightly regulated economic space. They vote left, but click right.

As this sector matures, government is getting more involved. City officials have clashed with Airbnb and Uber on a range of issues. But most city governments don’t seem inclined to demand tight regulations and oversight. Centralized agencies don’t know what to make of decentralized trust networks. Moreover, in most cities people seem to understand this is a less formal economy and caveat emptor rules to a greater degree.

Meanwhile, companies like Airbnb and even Uber seem inclined to compromise and play nice with city governments. They’re trying to establish reputations as good citizens, to play nice with bureaucrats and co-op boards; they can’t do that with in-your-face, disruptive tactics.

We’re probably entering a world in which some sectors, like energy, retain top-down regulatory regimes. Other sectors, like bake sales, are unregulated. But more sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone in between.

As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government plays a smaller role.

And now here’s the comment from “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, which deserves to be read in its entirety:  “David, you can’t be serious.  Why do you suppose it is that this peer-to-peer networking phenomenon has grown – and that more Americans are today working as freelancers? Are you seriously alleging that it is voluntary? Isn’t it more likely that most Americans (and Europeans, for that matter), in the aftermath of the World Financial Crisis and the meager recovery that the austerity hawks refused to fund, are so financially strapped that they have had to make other arrangements, do whatever it took to keep a roof over their heads?  David, speaking of ratings mechanisms, if the Times allowed your readership to rate your columns, do you imagine you would get more 1-star or 5-star ratings? My money would be on a predominance of 1-star ratings. You’d be like the restaurant on Yelp that no consumer would ever willingly visit.”  Ain’t that the truth…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Paris:

Money talks in global soccer, as it does everywhere else, perhaps more so. The sport is big business. The likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are international brands, as recognizable as any Hollywood star. Compare a club’s wage bill to its success rate: the correlation is overwhelming. When billionaires acquire clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or Chelsea, their fortunes change. When a very rich country like Qatar wants to host the World Cup, it gets its way even if entirely unsuited to the undertaking.

All this often undermines the beauty of the game. Sulky and overpaid stars, dubious deals and rapacious players’ agents are now part of the scenery. Football has been no exception to the inexorable process that sees the authentic and the genuine undermined by big money and manufactured images.

Until along came Diego Simeone and his “socialist football.” Think of him as the Thomas Piketty of the soccer world. It is impossible to understand what has been happening at the remarkable World Cup in Brazil without considering his impact.

Simeone, an Argentine, is the manager of the Spanish club Atlético Madrid that, against all the odds and all I have described above, won La Liga (the Spanish league title) this year, triumphing over Barcelona (home to Messi and Neymar) and Real Madrid (home to Ronaldo). Here, the normally reliable wage-bill indicator of success broke down. Atlético’s players earned a fraction of the salaries of their illustrious rivals.

What Atlético had was unity, cohesion, determination, energy and self-belief. The culture of the group vanquished the culture of the superstar. Simeone spoke with pride of his working-class side in a Spain of massive youth unemployment. “We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight,” he said. “People identify with us. We’re a source of hope.”

Every trend produces its countertrend. Soccer is no exception. This World Cup has not been about the stars, for all the brilliance of Neymar and Messi. It has been about unsung teams in the Atlético mold playing an intense, cohesive, never-say-die game. Their constant pressing has sent the likes of England, Italy, Spain and Ronaldo’s Portugal home, while giving Brazil and the Netherlands a real scare. I am thinking of Costa Rica (now in the last eight), Chile (very unlucky to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout), Mexico (cheated of a deserved victory in the last minutes by the Dutch) and, in its own way, Jurgen Klinsmann’s gritty United States.

Here in France, whose team only just qualified for the World Cup, there has been much talk of how victories have stemmed from the absence of its stars. Franck Ribéry, a brilliant winger, was injured, and Samir Nasri, a wonderfully creative playmaker and goal scorer, was omitted because he was deemed a troublemaker. (France had a disastrous last World Cup campaign in South Africa that collapsed with players in open revolt.)

The result of their absence has been a more “socialist” French side with many good players but no stars, and a tough work ethic in the image of midfielder Blaise Matuidi. Intense tempo and cohesion have produced improved results. (I write as France prepares to play Nigeria in the Round of 16, a game that will test its true caliber).

France has already scored eight goals in three matches in the image of a World Cup that, before the quarterfinal stage is reached, has seen as many goals (145 as I write) scored as in the entire South African World Cup. This reflects a changed game. In every area there has been a reaction: refereeing (less restrictive, more inclined to let matches flow); style (more attack-minded, less cautious); and teamwork (the ascendancy of the high-tempo, all-for-one Simeone model).

I doubt that Ann Coulter, the conservative American commentator, had heard of Simeone’s “socialist football” when she recently lamented the “moral decay” she sees in Americans’ growing interest in soccer. Still, it was intriguing that she saw a liberal agenda being pushed by a sport in which “individual achievement is not a big factor” and “there are no heroes.” Like an idiot-savant who stumbles on a grain of truth through total ignorance, she was onto something. This is the anti-individual World Cup.

(Coulter fails to see that soccer is growing in popularity in the United States because the national team keeps getting better, Hispanics now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and America is getting globalized just like everywhere else. America’s core strength is constant reinvention, in part through immigration; soccer’s surge is no sign of weakness.)

Of course, multimillion-dollar bids from billionaire-owned clubs for the best of Simeone’s socialist stars are about to unstitch the Atlético team; Simeone himself may be lured elsewhere by some fat contract. Money will go on talking. But before it does, enjoy this revolutionary World Cup and the hope it embodies.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The title of Kenneth Feinberg’s 2012 book is: “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.” It is part memoir and part meditation on some of the well-known compensation systems he has administered during the course of his career, from the Agent Orange settlement to the 9/11 fund to the Gulf coast compensation fund that Feinberg managed for BP. “Where is it written,” he muses at one point, “that the tort system, and the tort system alone, must be the guiding force in determining who gets what?” It’s a good question.

On Monday morning, however, Feinberg unveiled his latest effort, a new fund, proposed and paid for by General Motors, to compensate victims of its ignition-switch failures with the Chevy Cobalt, the Saturn Ion and several other G.M. cars. It is very much tied to the tort system, as Feinberg was quick to concede when I spoke to him Monday afternoon. The family of a married father of two who had a $50,000-a-year job — and who died in an ignition-switch accident — would potentially get several million dollars more than, say, the family of an unmarried, out-of-work 29-year-old. An investment banker who was seriously injured would get more than a laborer who was seriously injured because the investment banker’s potential earnings were higher than the laborer’s. That may not necessarily be fair, but it is the calculation that courts use to compensate people in the tort system.

There is a reason that the G.M. compensation fund is set up to replicate the tort system, of course. Like the 9/11 fund and the BP fund before it, the General Motors fund has as one of its primary goals to keep victims from filing lawsuits. Indeed, the quid pro quo is quite explicit: After Feinberg and his staff have made an offer in an ignition-switch case, the victim has to be willing to sign a document saying he or she won’t sue to get the money. There is no cap on the total amount of money G.M. has agreed to spend on victims’ payments.

“It is designed to help claimants,” Feinberg said flatly. “It is not designed to punish G.M.”

Although the fund will pay some money for pain and suffering, punitive damages are not part of the equation. Claimants — and their lawyers — seeking “punis” will have to forego Feinberg’s offer of compensation and take their chances in court.

The fund has other features that have become associated with a Feinberg-run fund. On the one hand, it is probably overly generous to certain classes of claimants. “Contributory negligence” — that is drivers who were drinking, say, when they got into an ignition switch accident — will not be a factor in Feinberg’s calculations. People with minor scrapes that required a trip to the emergency room will get some money.

On the other hand, Feinberg isn’t just giving out cash willy-nilly. He is going to require documentation that the ignition switch was the “proximate cause” of the accident. I remember once asking Feinberg why he insisted on such rigor when he was handing out BP’s money. He told me that “if the process has no integrity, then people will begin to question the legitimacy of this alternative to the court system.”

The other thing about these funds is that they work. Some 97 percent of the families of 9/11 victims opted into that fund, according to Feinberg; the number for BP fund was 92 percent — this despite the best effort of some plaintiffs’ lawyers to undermine it.

In his book, Feinberg says that he thinks funds like the one established by BP should be rare because they set up “special rules for a select few.” He adds that “the American legal system, with its emphasis on judges, juries and lawyers all participating in adversarial give-and-take, works well in the great majority of cases.”

But I think the country would be better served if they became more frequent. Compensating people while keeping them out of the tort system is a worthy goal. For one thing, such funds can serve as a kind of public atonement for a company, as is the case with General Motors. For another, courts can be a crapshoot. Finally, these funds can pay people quickly, without years of litigation and the anxiety it brings.

“Money is a pretty poor substitute for loss,” said Feinberg toward the end of his prepared remarks on Monday morning. He noted that the millions of dollars he is about to parcel out to ignition-switch victims and their families won’t bring back loved ones, or give a permanently injured person back his or her health.

In “Who Gets What,” he also points out that other cultures have different ways of offering compensation, and it often doesn’t involve money. “It is,” he concluded, “the limit of what we can do.”

It is also the American way.

And last up this morning is Mr. Bruni:

It was fully a decade ago that Dov Charney, the founder and (at that point) chief executive of American Apparel, decided that the right way to behave in front of a female journalist doing a profile of him was to masturbate. Not once, mind you. “Eight or so times,” according to the story, in Jane magazine, which is no longer around.

A year or so later a string of sexual harassment lawsuits against him began, and in a deposition released in 2006, he defended a sexist slur as “an endearing term,” saying, “There are some of us that love sluts.” Onward he marched as the company’s C.E.O.

He survived revelations that he liked to strut around the office in his underwear, an image that “Saturday Night Live” spoofed in a 2008 skit. He survived public references to women as “chicks” with big or small breasts.

He even survived a determination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 that American Apparel had discriminated against women “by subjecting them to sexual harassment.”

It wasn’t until two weeks ago that the company’s board of directors finally gave him the boot. To review his record is to be floored and outraged that it took so long.

But that’s different from being surprised.

Charney’s story provides a familiar example of how, at least with men, we fail to distinguish sexual peccadilloes from sexual predation, lechery from hostility, chalking up the latter as the former and seeing all of it in one big, forgiving blur of testosterone.

His ouster at American Apparel happened, interestingly, around the same time that the photographer Terry Richardson came under fresh scrutiny for accusations of sexual abuse and intimidation that go back many years and were brushed aside as his edgy legend in the fashion world flourished.

The two cases are reminders and alarms. Across a spectrum of occupations, there has often been an acceptance of the most driven and dynamic men as the messiest ones, possessing unwieldy appetites, pockets of madness, streaks of cruelty or all of the above. Boys will be boys and great men will be monsters, including to women. Too readily, we shrug.

Or we figure that a certain macho bravado is the key to their accomplishments and that certain lusts come with it — and won’t always be prudently channeled.

That was many Americans’ spoken or unspoken attitude toward Bill Clinton, whose sexual behavior persistently threatened to be, or was, disruptive. His interest in seduction, prized in the political arena, couldn’t be switched off when he retreated behind closed doors. It was part of the charismatic bargain.

Under the constant gaze of a twitchy media, politicians have at least tried to be more careful since. And following the Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood hearings in the 1990s, there are clearer formal rules about how men should and shouldn’t engage women in the workplace.

But it’s astonishing how blind they can still be. I know male journalists who covered the humiliation and downfall of politicians like Packwood and nonetheless proceeded to crack lewd jokes or make crude remarks to female colleagues. When some other guy does that, he’s a creep. When you do it, it’s fun, flirty and maybe even appreciated. The male ego is a wondrous instrument of self-delusion.

Charney’s in particular. A video of him prancing around naked that appeared on the Internet two months ago suggests just how besotted with every last inch of himself he is.

For as long as he was making oodles of money, business associates were besotted with him, too, no matter his misdeeds, which they saw — sickeningly — as part of some erotically charged mystique.

“That Jane article put him on the map,” Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, told Laura Holson of The Times back in 2011. “What is American Apparel without sex?”

A year earlier, a profile of Charney in a Canadian newspaper noted that he had been “so colorful and infuriating that those qualities alone seem to have elevated the company’s profile.” Future masters of the universe, take note. You can masturbate your way to the top. Onanism is a career strategy.

Sure, certain professions are more tolerant of acting out. But I fear that not just in fashion, art and entertainment but in Silicon Valley and other precincts, there’s a conflation of artistry and eccentricity — and of eccentricity and abuse — that sometimes excuses inexcusable conduct.

Does the premium that we place on boldness and boundary-flouting provocateurs create a tension between our entrepreneurial and moral cultures? It needn’t and shouldn’t, not if we’re honest and vigilant about lines that are nonnegotiable.

Charney crossed them, and when American Apparel looked golden, his associates looked the other way. Only when its luster dimmed and his genius was called into question did they see him for what he’d always been.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

June 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one wrote about blondes like Raymond Chandler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Hillary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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