Archive for the ‘Bruni’ Category

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.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 10, 2014

Bobo is having more fever dreams.  In “The New Right” he babbles that a new manifesto from a group of reform conservatives is the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says:  “It’s good that conservatives have decided to pretend to care about the middle class. It shows growth. They tried this strategy after Romney lost, making TV and radio appearances galore, offering concessions and opening the flaps to let everyone into their big tent. Trouble was, the tent was so full of rich white people, fundamentalist Christians, homophobes, conspiracy theorists and science-deniers that there’s wasn’t room for anyone else.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Let It Bleed,” says Mick Jagger was right to play Tel Aviv. Israel has been ill-served by its enemies and its friends.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Latest Tea Party Piñata:”  How is it that even a useful, job-creating government agency like the Export-Import Bank is ripe for attacking by the right?  Because they’re the mole people, Joe.  Mr. Bruni gives “A Quiet Cheer For Solitude” and says modern life and modern politics overlook the virtues of ditching the crowd.  Here’s Bobo:

Conservatives generally believe that capitalism is a machine that cures itself. Therefore, people on the right have been slow to recognize the deep structural problems that are making life harder in the new economy — that are leading to stagnant social mobility, widening inequality and pervasive insecurity.

But some conservatives have begun to face these issues head on. These reform conservatives have now published a policy-laden manifesto called “Room to Grow,” which is the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.

In the first essay of the book, Peter Wehner moves beyond the ruinous Republican view that the country is divided between hearty entrepreneurs and parasitic “takers.” Like most reform conservatives, he shifts attention sympathetically to the struggling working and middle classes. He grapples with the fact, uncomfortable for conservatives, that the odds of escaping poverty are about half as high in the United States as in more mobile countries like Denmark.

Yuval Levin argues that conservatives have tacitly accepted the 20th-century welfare state; they just want less of it. To respond to the economy’s structural woes, he continues, conservatives will have to change not only the size of the government but its nature.

“The left’s ideal approach,” Levin writes, “is to put enormous faith in the knowledge of experts in the center and empower them to address the problem.” The right’s ideal approach, he continues, “is to put some modest faith in the knowledge of the people on the ground and empower them to try ways of addressing the problem incrementally.”

Liberals emphasize individuals and the state, Levin argues. Conservatives should funnel resources to nurture the civic institutions in between. They should set up decentralized initiatives that rely on local knowledge and allow for a more dynamic process of experimentation.

The next 10 chapters contain a slew of proposals to decentralize the welfare state. Several writers support much larger family tax credits to empower families. James C. Capretta writes that households without access to employee health plans could be given a tax credit comparable in size to the tax subsidy given to families with these plans.

Frederick M. Hess suggests that parents should be given, “course choice,” the chance to not only choose their children’s school but to use a fraction of school funding to purchase access to specialized programs, in, say, math or science. Scott Winship mentions the universal credit, which consolidates a variety of antipoverty programs and distributes benefits to families as a single amount.

Under these and other proposals, the government would address middle-class economic security by devolving power down to households and local governments. This is both to the left of the current Tea Party agenda (more public activism) and also to the right (more fundamental reform). The agenda is a great start but underestimates a few realities. First, the authors underestimate the consequences of declining social capital.

Today, millions of Americans are behaving in ways that make no economic sense: dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock. They do so because the social guardrails that used to guide behavior have dissolved. Giving people in these circumstances tax credits is not going to lead to long-term thinking. Putting more risk into vulnerable people’s lives may not make them happier.

The nanny state may have drained civil society, but simply removing the nanny state will not restore it. There have to be programs that encourage local paternalism: early education programs with wraparound services to reinforce parenting skills, social entrepreneurship funds to reweave community, paternalistic welfare rules to encourage work.

Second, conservatives should not be naïve about sin. We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.

Sometimes government is going to have to be active to disrupt local oligarchies and global autocracies by fomenting creative destruction — by insisting on dynamic immigration policies, by pumping money into research, by creating urban environments that nurture innovation, by spending money to give those outside the clusters new paths to rise.

I’d say the reform conservatives are still a little too Jeffersonian. They have a bit too much faith in the magic of decentralization. Some decentralized reforms do nurture personal responsibility and community flourishing. But as Alexander Hamilton (and Margaret Thatcher) understood, sometimes decentralization needs to be complemented with energetic national policies, to disrupt local oligarchies, self-serving arrangements and gradual national decline.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

The Rolling Stones played Tel Aviv last week. It being Israel, this was a political event.

Roger Waters and Nick Mason, founding members of Pink Floyd, were vociferous in invoking Israeli “apartheid” as they tried to stop Mick Jagger, Keith Richards et al. from holding their concert June 4. “Playing Israel now is the moral equivalent of playing Sun City at the height of South African apartheid,” they wrote.

Waters calls Israel a “racist apartheid” regime and has more than once compared the situation of the Palestinians to that of the Jews in Nazi Germany. “This is not a new scenario,” he told Counterpunch magazine last year, alluding to Berlin after 1933, “except that this time it’s the Palestinian people being murdered.”

Jagger was right to play Tel Aviv, if nothing else than as a powerful protest against such charges from Europe’s bien-pensants. Jews suffered systematic, industrialized Nazi annihilation in the period to which Waters alludes. There is no parallel to this in Israel, period.

To suggest there is amounts to something much worse than intellectual sloppiness. It is a form of moral calumny.

The inexact apartheid analogy gains purchase because the “apartheid wall,” “apartheid roads,” house demolitions and land confiscation in the West Bank — as well as the relentless expansion there of Israeli settlements — tell an irrefutable story of oppression.

Nevertheless, Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, about 20 percent of the population, enjoy rights unthinkable in apartheid South Africa (and rare for minorities in the Middle East), even if discrimination and prejudice exist. They are represented in the Knesset and an Arab justice sits on the Supreme Court. Even in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians are not citizens and humiliations commonplace, the systematic cruelty of apartheid — its disappearances and judicial hangings — is not the stuff of everyday life.

Waters and Mason, in urging the Rolling Stones not to play, cited their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, calling it “a growing, nonviolent global human rights movement” aimed at ending “Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of basic Palestinian rights.”

The stated aim of the B.D.S. movement is in fact to end the occupation, recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel’s future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge, and the reason I do not trust it.

B.D.S. can too easily be commandeered by anti-Semites posing as anti-Zionists who channel the quest for peace in a direction that ultimately dooms Israel as a national home for Jews.

Among the American opponents of B.D.S. has been J Street, the six-year-old Jewish organization that supports Israel, backs a two-state solution, opposes the settlements and attempts to reclaim the progressive ideals of Zionism by saying that the systematic oppression of the Palestinians undermines Israel. It is a counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the longstanding lobbying organization whose support of Israel is generally uncritical.

J Street has said that “for some, the B.D.S. movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism” and has noted that the movement’s backing for the return of all Palestinian refugees indicates pursuit of “an outcome incompatible with our vision of Israel and incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict.”

Nonetheless, J Street was recently denied admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an important umbrella group, because it was deemed to be outside the mainstream of American Jewish groups. The vote amounted to a scandalous rejection demonstrating why Israel feels able to rely on the uncritical support of major American Jewish organizations for the occupation and settlement expansion; this despite the fact that a growing number of American Jews have become critical of the Israeli government.

The objective of Zionism was to create not only a Jewish homeland but a state of laws; Israel can only be that when the lawless enterprise beyond the Green Line ends. J Street understands this reality.

As Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic, “Quarrel has always been a Jewish norm, and controversy a primary instrument for the development of Jewish culture and Jewish religion. But there are those, the heresy hunters and the truancy hunters, the real Jews, the true Jews, the last Jews, who refuse to accept the community as it empirically is, to engage with the cacophony and its causes.”

He added that, “J Street, which unequivocally denounces B.D.S., is a pro-Israel organization, a Zionist organization, and an organic part of the American Jewish landscape.” Yes, it is.

The Stones kept it simple at their gig: “Satisfaction,” “Paint it Black, “Start Me Up.” What is needed in the Holy Land is also simple — two states for two peoples and no more lies.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

About three weeks ago, Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation. Hensarling is a Tea Party favorite. His core view is that better government is less government, and that there is nothing government can do that the private sector can’t do better.

Hensarling’s speech was about economics, which, of course, meant it was about wasteful government subsidies and “crony capitalism.” He tossed off what he felt were examples of each — the failure of Solyndra; the continued existence of Fannie Mae; the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry — before landing on a government organization that he described as being the “poster child of the Washington insider economy and corporate welfare.”

“Its demise,” he went on, “would clearly be one of the few achievable victories for the Main Street competitive economy left in this Congress. I believe it is a defining issue for our party and our movement.” And what was this government agency that he felt so strongly about?

Would you believe the Export-Import Bank of the United States? Seriously.

Do you know what that bank does? It promotes exports — and American jobs — by backing loans made primarily to foreign entities that want to buy our goods. Sometimes the loans are small — as when a small business wants to expand and start exporting. Sometimes they are large, as when Boeing wants to sell wide-body aircraft to foreign airlines (more on that in a minute). Using numbers culled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Ex-Im Bank says it has supported 1.2 million American jobs since 2009, including 205,000 last year alone.

It also costs the taxpayers nothing — not only does it support itself through the fees and interest it charges for its services, it also regularly sends money to the Treasury to reduce the debt, some $2 billion over the last five years. Its default rate is negligible. The Chamber of Commerce backs the Ex-Im Bank — and so do some unions. Basically, says its chairman, Fred Hochberg, “We support U.S. jobs, especially when those jobs are facing off against foreign competition.”

In other words, it would be hard to find a more useful government agency than the Export-Import Bank. For decades, its reauthorization was often passed in Congress without even a roll-call vote. Besides, lots of countries have agencies that do what the Ex-Im Bank does, and many countries rely on them far more heavily than we do. So how is it that this relatively small agency — of all the agencies in the federal government — has become the latest Tea Party piñata?

Two years ago, the last time the Export-Import Bank was up for reauthorization, Delta Air Lines decided to raise a stink because of the loans the bank guaranteed that helped foreign airlines buy Boeing airplanes. Delta claimed that the Boeing loan guarantees were giving foreign airlines a leg up over American carriers, and that it was unfair.

Delta claims that it was never trying to put the Ex-Im Bank out of business — protectionism was more its goal — but reauthorization was the leverage it had. For a while, Delta’s water was carried by the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, but eventually Cantor backed away after Republicans and Democrats alike made it clear that the Ex-Im Bank was too useful to their constituents to be put out of business. After some face-saving new rules were put in place, reauthorization passed easily.

This September, the Ex-Im Bank’s financing runs out. But a funny thing happened between the last authorization and the upcoming one. Or, rather, a few funny things happened. One is that groups like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, as well as conservative think tanks, having looked more closely at the Export-Import Bank thanks to the 2012 fight, decided it was a perfect target to raise ideological objections. And, second, an ideologue — Hensarling — became chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

What are those ideological objections? The usual: the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. (The Export-Import Bank doesn’t.) Companies like Boeing are receiving corporate welfare when they work with the Ex-Im Bank. (In fact, export help from the government is a critical part of airline financing; if the Ex-Im Bank didn’t help Boeing, the sales would go to Airbus, which gets plenty of its own government assistance.) And so on.

But there is also another reason these groups are attacking the Export-Import Bank. They can actually win the fight if our do-nothing Congress does nothing. Reauthorization requires the passage of a bill, and, so far, Hensarling has shown no signs of moving such a bill out of his committee. Nor is he likely to.

Thus does the fate of a most useful government agency rest in the hands of a man who believes there is no such thing.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

See Hillary run.

I don’t mean for president, not officially. I mean around the country, from TV studio to town hall, New York to Chicago to Austin to Washington. It’s been said that she needs to prove her fitness for a big campaign, and her tour for her book “Hard Choices” deliberately puts her in the thick of it, talking and listening and mingling and moving.

I’d just as soon see her — and other politicians — retreat.

Take more time away. Spend more time alone. Trade the speechifying for solitude, which no longer gets anything close to the veneration it’s due, not just in politics but across many walks of life.

It’s in solitude that much of the sharpest thinking is done and many of the best ideas are hatched. We know this intuitively and from experience, yet solitude is often cast as an archaic luxury and indulgent oddity, inferior to a spirited discussion and certainly to a leadership conference. All hail the leadership conference! The modern world has utterly fetishized it, as if enlightenment required a hotel ballroom, a platter of stale pastries and a gift tote.

Brainstorming is defined almost solely as a group activity, although some of the boldest strokes of lightning happen in isolation, where all the competing advice can be processed, where the meaningful strands come together and the debris falls away.

The calendar of a senior executive or public official is defined by meeting after meeting upon meeting. There’s no comparable premium on solitary pauses, on impregnable periods for contemplation, and a person who insists on them attracts a derogatory vocabulary: loner, loafer, recluse, aloof, eccentric, withdrawn.

“We live in the new groupthink — there’s a shared belief that creativity and productivity must be a collaborative experience, and solitude has fallen out of fashion,” Susan Cain, the author of the 2012 best seller “Quiet,” told me. But, she added, “There’s so much research that flies in the face of this.”

Cain’s book focuses on introverts, making the case that they have a kind of intellectual advantage. And their edge stems largely from greater amounts of solitude, from the degree to which they’ve swapped motion for stillness, chatter for calm. They’ve carved out space for reflection that’s sustained and deep.

This isn’t necessarily a matter of being unplugged, of ditching the hyper-connectedness of our digital lives. It’s a matter of ditching and silencing the crowd.

The metabolism of contemporary politics devalues solitude and makes it difficult. The system is nuts. We in the media keep scornful watch over elected leaders’ vacation schedules, giving them demerits for too many days on their own, though on their own is a crucial place to be.

And campaigns? Nuttier still. Our would-be presidents, governors and senators are expected to spend the prelude to Election Day hurtling across time zones, doing a slew of interviews and oodles of speeches from a practiced script of one-liners that they could recite in their sleep. Shaking hands trumps reading books, mulling problems, probing one’s soul. Is it any wonder that our rulers as a class, and we as a country, are bereft of big ideas?

If a candidate has been out of office for a while, we consider that a handicap. Shouldn’t it be a virtue? He or she has known some solitude and perhaps reaped its fruits.

Teddy Roosevelt reputedly read a book a day. That would now be deemed a wasteful distraction and curious disengagement. Paintings of Abraham Lincoln show him in hushed contemplation. Action is the preferred pose of our era’s politicians, who want to be photographed on the go or leaning in, and who are evaluated in terms of their sociability, their zest for interaction.

Some push back. I recall a Fortune magazine interview years ago with Joel Klein, then the New York City schools chancellor, who said that he routinely sacrificed lunch for a ruminative walk. He also told Fortune that as Lloyd Bentsen stepped down from his post as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, he complained about the shortage of hours for pure thought, saying, “Those are the meeting-est people I ever met.”

There are stirrings of a renewed appreciation for solitude. They’re detectable in the vogue for meditation, in the currency of “mindfulness” and in the work of a group of writers including not just Cain but also the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, whose book “Going Solo” examines the increased percentages of people living alone and finding solace in it.

My favorite snapshot of Hillary Clinton in “Hard Choices” is in the epilogue. She describes the “cozy, sun-drenched third-floor study” where she found solitude — and a place to write — after leaving the Obama administration. In a comfortable chair in that thickly carpeted room, she probably felt a whole new clarity. That’s what happens when you wall off the world. It should happen more often.

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

June 8, 2014

In “There is No Alternative” Putzy tells us that only Hillary Clinton can hold together the Democrats’ political coalition.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “Another dispatch from the outer rim of conservative fantasy-land, a magical place where Republicans make worthwhile policy innovations, and where the Republican Big Tent welcomes all races, colors, creeds and genders. Douthat actually believes that the benefits of conservatism are self-evident, and that those who are blind to its charms have something wrong with them. Only this would explain the little sneer as he lists the members of the Hillary coalition: minority voters in general and African-Americans in particular, waitress-moms, middle-class whites, Bill Clinton nostalgics, and people who actually recognize real political service. He can’t understand why middle America wouldn’t prefer some social-safety-net destroying austerity scold with an anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-minority coalition of Tea Party zealots and Christian conservative climate-change deniers.”  MoDo has decided to tell us more about pot…  In “Pot Rules” she howls that as it moves past the old “Reefer Madness” caricature, the reefer crowd in Colorado gets mad at the prospect of almost any regulations.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Obama on Obama on Climate,” says the president explains in an interview why the new E.P.A. rules on carbon are so pivotal.  Mr. Kristof poses a question in “Madam Secretary Made a Difference:”  Did Hillary Clinton accomplish much as secretary of state? Yes! She helped change the diplomatic agenda for the better.  Mr. Bruni says “Dear Millennials, We’re Sorry.”  He asks how dare we malign kids or pretend to care about them when our habits and spending endanger their future.  Here’s The Putz:

If the excerpts currently circulating in the press are any indication, Hillary Clinton’s latest memoir will resemble pretty much every recent political memoir from a potential presidential candidate: That is, it will be chloroform in print.

Which no doubt troubles its “author” not at all. Clinton has every incentive to bore us, sedate us, lull us to sleep — to hit the snooze button, in effect, for as long as our politics makes possible. She is the rare presidential hopeful who has nothing whatsoever to gain from making news. Leading the Democratic presidential field by a Secretariat-esque margin; leading every potential Republican candidate by around 10 points; running far ahead of President Obama’s job approval numbers … if she had her way, all the months from here till 2016 would be consumed by devouring time without anything altering her current image.

And her desire converges almost perfectly with the interests of her party, even if not every liberal quite realizes it yet. That’s because Clinton’s iconic status is, increasingly, the only clear advantage the Democratic Party has. If her position is weakened, diminished or challenged, the entire coalition risks collapse.

Liberals don’t see this clearly yet because they tend to regard the Obama coalition as a left-of-center mirror-image of Nixon’s and Reagan’s conservative majority — a natural, settled and, thanks to demographic trends, growing presidential majority (if not a congressional one) that should deliver the White House to their party reliably for cycles to come.

Because of this confidence, many Democratic partisans assume that 2016 will inevitably be better for their party than the looming midterms, and many analysts assume that the Republican Party is a long, long way from mounting a substantive challenge to liberalism. My friends on the left have an extensive list of things that the right simply “must” do before the G.O.P. can be relevant at the presidential level again (crush the Tea Party, then move left on immigration, then move left on everything else …), and they express a certain condescension toward the recent stirrings of conservative policy innovation: Nice effort, but you’ll have to move a lot further in our direction if you expect to win the White House back.

But there’s a big flaw in their historical analogy. Political skill builds majorities, but popular policy successes cement them — and that is what has consistently eluded Obama. He resembles Reagan when it comes to electoral-majority building, but he’s a Reagan without the economic boom, without the foreign policy achievements and without the high approval ratings.

As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in the latest issue of National Review, while “the Democrats of the 1980s had to respond to a country that was largely happy with Republican governance and to specific conservative policy successes,” today’s electorate “is persistently unhappy” with the direction of the country, and “liberal policy successes are too hard to detect to be the basis for concessions” by the right. And liberalism’s current forward-looking agenda, such as it is — immigration reform, climate-change regulations, some jaw-jaw about inequality — doesn’t really align with those unhappy voters’ immediate priorities.

Which means that Obama’s coalition, while real enough, may not be durable — and that a Republican comeback at the presidential level might be more likely than many Democrats currently assume.

Especially since the liberal coalition’s extraordinary diversity also offers many potential lines of fracture. To invoke an example from this year’s grim centennial, the post-Obama Democratic Party could well be the Austro-Hungarian empire of presidential majorities: a sprawling, ramshackle and heterogeneous arrangement, one major crisis away from dissolution.

But this is where Hillary Clinton comes in. If her party is Austria-Hungary, she might be its Franz Josef — the beloved emperor whose imperial persona (“coffered up,” the novelist Joseph Roth wrote, “in an icy and everlasting old age, like armour made of an awe-inspiring crystal”), as much as any specific political strategy, helped keep dissolution from the empire’s door.

I really have no idea what proposals Clinton will run on, what arguments she’ll make. But as with Franz Josef, it’s not her policies that make her formidable; it’s the multitudes that “Hillary” the brand and icon now contains. Academic liberalism and waitress-mom populism and Davos/Wall Street/Bloomberg centrism. Female empowerment and stand-by-your-man martyrdom. The old Clintonian bond with minority voters and her own 2008 primary-trail identification with Scots-Irish whites. And then the great trifecta: continuity with the Obama present, a restoration of the more prosperous Clintonian past and (as the first … female … president) a new “yes we can” progressive future.

Like the penultimate Hapsburg emperor with his motley empire, then, she has the potential to embody a political coalition — its identities and self-conceptions, its nostalgias and aspirations — in ways that might just keep the whole thing hanging together.

But without her, the deluge.

Next up we have MoDo:

In the last chapter, I covered how not to get high. In this one, I will cover how to get high.

After my admission that I did a foolish thing in Denver — failing to realize that consuming a single square, about a quarter, of a pot candy bar was dicey for an edibles virgin — many in the pot industry upbraided me for doing a foolish thing.

But some in Mary Jane world have contacted me to say that my dysphoria (i.e., bummer) is happening more and more in Colorado.

Justin Hartfield is the California founder of Marijuana.com and Weedmaps.com (a sort of Yelp for pot), and an entrepreneur involved in some of the nation’s top marijuana-technology companies. As The Wall Street Journal noted in a profile last March, the 30-year-old former high school pot dealer wants to be “the Philip Morris of pot.”

“Your experience points out a significant need for standardized dosing, testing and labeling,” he told me, recalling a similar vertiginous paranoia spiral when he and his wife split a pot brownie in Amsterdam in 2008.

On Friday, Marijuana.com launched an ongoing guide to “the best practices towards both consumption and sale of edibles.” It urged every dispensary in Colorado and throughout America to follow Amsterdam’s lead and put up signs warning about the dangers of oversampling psychotropic treats. (Other websites, from Vice to Vox, also weighed in with helpful safety tips on edibles.)

Hartfield said Weedmaps is providing pamphlets, posters and video to dispensaries and users, including an “Edibles Education” pamphlet with headings like “Start Small,” “Wait” because edibles take two hours or longer to take effect, “Don’t Mix” with alcohol or other substances, and keep “Out of Reach” of children.

“Edibles are not the best delivery device in general for marijuana because it’s notoriously hard to control the titration in your stomach,” Hartfield said. “When you smoke it’s so easy. You have a hit, it affects you immediately. Then you can decide to take another if you want to get higher. With edibles, it hits your stomach all at once, and holy Nelly!”

Some Colorado pols are nervous about stories like that of the Longmont mother who found her 2-year-old daughter eating a pot cookie in front of their apartment building and the two 10-year-olds in Greeley who were caught selling and swapping pot purloined from relatives. (Not to mention the new British study suggesting there may be a correlation between smoking cannabis and a temporary change in the size and shape of sperm.)

“It’s kind of shocking in a way that the states that approved it have not had more oversight and consumer information,” said Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School, who favors legalization. “The horse is out of the barn, so to speak, and there’s a responsibility to consumers and particularly young people. THC is a serious substance. It has increased by 5 to 15 times in today’s plants compared to the 1960s. It’s a long time since Upton Sinclair. Now consumers have to know: Is it pure? What is the concentration? What are the hazards?”

On Wednesday, the state task force met to forge a rule denoting 10 milligrams as a serving, so that the dosage is clearly demarcated. And on Friday, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed legislation proposing a banking solution for the mainly cash pot business, but the Federal Reserve will need to sign off on it.

Because the Colorado law was approved by referendum, it’s like a Wild West statute, where things are getting filled in underneath, with a haphazard application of the regulatory process.

“One major reason I got involved in the movement was so that consumers could have basic access to information about the products they’re consuming, which was totally impossible under the prohibition that created the black market,” said Tom Angell, the founder and chairman of Marijuana Majority. “So it’s particularly disappointing to see that some companies in the legal marijuana industry — which our years of advocacy allowed to exist — are falling short of those principles. It seems basic labeling and consumer information hasn’t been a chief priority, but hopefully now it’s starting to change.”

He wants budtenders behind the counter to be trained so they can give customized guidance to customers of varying tolerance levels.

As the black market comes into the light, the hang-loose community can be uptight about any moves to regulate or put contours around the sale of pot to better protect neophytes, teenagers and children. Perhaps because they have spent so much time fighting to move past the old “Reefer Madness” caricature, the reefer crowd gets mad at the suggestion of any regulation, no matter how small or helpful. The clubby community that long existed in the shadows can have a countercultural reaction to rules.

Also, as one Colorado political aide pointed out: “There’s so much money involved. This is a group of people who probably never thought about money, and now a lot of people just have dollar signs in their eyes.”

Laughing, he noted, “The weirdest thing in the world is to hear from an angry pothead who finishes a tirade about rules with ‘dude.’ ”

Now we come to The Moustache of Wisdom:

When it comes to dealing with the world’s climate and energy challenges I have a simple rule: change America, change the world.

If America raises its clean energy standards, not only will others follow — others who have hid behind our inaction — we’ll also stimulate our industry to invent more of the clean air, clean power and energy efficiency systems, and move them down the cost curve faster, so U.S. companies will be leaders in this next great global industry and American consumers will be the first to benefit. That is why the new Environmental Protection Agency rules President Obama proposed last week to curb carbon emissions from power plants are so pivotal. You can’t make power systems greener without making them smarter — smarter materials, software or design. One new ruling will not change the world — and we have to be careful that this one doesn’t replace our addiction to coal with an addiction to natural gas alone. But coming at a time when clean energy technologies are becoming more competitive, and when awareness of climate change is becoming more pervasive, this E.P.A. ruling should give a real boost to clean power and efficiency innovation and make our country more resilient, healthy, secure — and respected.

Several weeks ago, as he was drawing up these new emission rules, I interviewed President Obama in the White House library about climate and energy. Following are highlights. (The interview is also featured in the final episode of Showtime’s climate series, “Years of Living Dangerously” airing on Monday.)

For starters, Obama is aware that we can’t just keep burning oil, coal and gas until they run out. As the International Energy Agency warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperature that climate scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes. The rest has to stay in the ground, and we need to steadily find cleaner alternatives and more energy efficiency. I asked Obama if he agreed with that analysis.

“Science is science,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”

So we can’t burn it all?

“We’re not going to be able to burn it all. Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy. And we’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon. … But I very much believe in keeping that 2 [degree] Celsius target as a goal.”

If that is so, your environmental supporters wonder why you keep touting how much we’re still exploring for oil, coal and natural gas?

“We have got to meet folks where they are,” said Obama. “We’ve gone through, obviously, in the last five years, a tough economic crisis. … I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away. What we’ve tried to do is continually find ways in which we can make progress, recognizing that we’re not immediately going to get people to abandon the old gas-guzzler” [because] “they can’t afford an electric car.”

Every morning you get a security briefing from the intelligence community on global threats; do you now also get the same on environmental threats?

“I do,” said Obama. Science adviser “John Holdren typically makes presentations when there are new findings,” and his reports show that environmental stresses are now impacting both foreign and domestic policy. For instance, wildfires are now “consuming a larger and larger portion of the Department of Interior budget. And if we continue to fund fighting fires the same way we’ve done in the past, all the money for everything else — for conservation, for maintenance of forests — all that money gets used up.”

But the area he’s just as worried about, said Obama, “is how climate change could end up having profound national security implications in poorer countries. We’re obviously concerned about drought in California or hurricanes and floods along our coastlines and the possibility of more powerful storms or more severe droughts. All of those things are bread-and-butter issues that touch on American families. But when you start seeing how these shifts can displace people — entire countries can be finding themselves unable to feed themselves and the potential incidence of conflict that arises out of that — that gets your attention. There’s a reason why the quadrennial defense review — [which] the secretary of defense and the Joints Chiefs of Staff work on — identified climate change as one of our most significant national security problems. It’s not just the actual disasters that might arise, it is the accumulating stresses that are placed on a lot of different countries and the possibility of war, conflict, refugees, displacement that arise from a changing climate.”

Syria couldn’t manage a four-year drought when it had a government, and that drought helped fuel the uprising there, because the government did nothing for the people. Imagine what will happen if they have another prolonged drought and they’ve destroyed half their country?

“Which gives you a sense of what happens in a lot of these countries that are just barely hanging on,” said Obama. “They don’t have a lot of margin for error, and that has national security implications. When people are hungry, when people are displaced, when there are a lot of young people, particularly young men, who are drifting without prospects for the future, the fertility of the soil for terrorism ends up being significant. And it can have an impact on us.”

What is the one thing you would still like to see us do to address climate change? Said Obama: put a price on carbon.

The way we’ve solved previous problems, like acid rain, he noted, “was that we said: ‘We’re going to charge you if you’re releasing this stuff into the atmosphere, but we’re going to let you figure out — with the marketplace and with the technology’ ” how best to mitigate it. But “you can’t keep dumping it out in the atmosphere and making everybody else pay for it. So if there’s one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions. … We’ve obviously seen resistance from the Republican side of the aisle on that. And out of fairness, there’s some Democrats who’ve been concerned about it as well, because regionally they’re very reliant on heavy industry and old-power plants. … I still believe, though, that the more we can show the price of inaction — that billions and potentially trillions of dollars are going to be lost because we do not do something about it — ultimately leads us to be able to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and help the marketplace discourage this kind of activity.’ ”

Where does natural gas fit in?

After all, it can be a blessing and a curse. Natural gas emits only half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, but if methane leaks when oil companies extract it from the ground in a sloppy manner — methane is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — it can wipe out all the advantages of natural gas over coal.

Natural gas, the president said, “is a useful bridge” to span “where we are right now and where we hope to be — where we’ve got entirely clean energy economies based around the world.” Environmentalists, he added, “are right, though, to be concerned if it’s done badly, then you end up having methane gas emitted. And we know how to do it properly. But right now what we’ve got to do is make sure that there are industry standards that everybody is observing.” That doesn’t “necessarily mean that it has to be a national law,” he said. “You could have a series of states working together — and, hopefully, industry working together — to make sure that the extraction of natural gas is done safely.”

Do you ever want to just go off on the climate deniers in Congress?

“Yeah, absolutely,” the president said with a laugh. “Look, it’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. … We can argue about how. But let’s not argue about what’s going on. The science is compelling. … The baseline fact of climate change is not something we can afford to deny. And if you profess leadership in this country at this moment in our history, then you’ve got to recognize this is going to be one of the most significant long-term challenges, if not the most significant long-term challenge, that this country faces and that the planet faces. The good news is that the public may get out ahead of some of their politicians” — as people start to see the cost of cleaning up for hurricanes like Sandy or the drought in California — and when “those start multiplying, then people start thinking, ‘You know what? We’re going to reward politicians who talk to us honestly and seriously about this problem.’ ”

The president added: “The person who I consider to be the greatest president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, was pretty consistent in saying, ‘With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done,’ and so part of my job over these next two and a half years and beyond is trying to shift public opinion. And the way to shift public opinion is to really focus in on the fact that if we do nothing our kids are going to be worse off.”

The trick, I argued, is to find that fine line between making people feel the problem is urgent, but not insoluble so they just say: If the end is nigh, let’s party.

“The most important thing is to guard against cynicism,” responded the president. “I want to make sure that everybody who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a lot we can do about it. It’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress.”

Well, that was lengthy…  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

When politicians have trouble spinning their own glories, that’s a problem.

So it was bizarre that Hillary Rodham Clinton, asked at a forum in April about her legacy at the State Department, had trouble articulating it. That feeds into a narrative — awaiting her memoir on Tuesday — that she may have been glamorous as secretary of state but didn’t actually accomplish much.

In fact, that’s dead wrong, for Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.”

No, her legacy is different.

For starters, Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations. She didn’t fully deliver on this “pivot” — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them — but the basic instinct to turn our ship of state to face our Pacific future was sound and overdue.

More fundamentally, Clinton vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda. Diplomats historically focused on “hard” issues, like trade or blowing up stuff, and so it may seem weird and “soft” to fret about women’s rights or economic development.

Yet Clinton understood that impact and leverage in 21st-century diplomacy often come by addressing poverty, the environment, education and family planning.

It’s not that Clinton was a softie. She was often more hawkish than the White House, favoring the surge in Afghanistan (a mistake, I believe) and the arming of moderate Syrian rebel groups (a good call, but one vetoed by President Obama).

Yet she grew truly animated when discussing the new diplomatic agenda. A couple of times I moderated panels during the United Nations General Assembly in which she talked passionately — and bewilderingly, for some of the audience — about civil society, women leaders and agricultural investments.

Pinstriped foreign and prime ministers looked on, happy to be considered important enough to be invited. They listened with increasingly furrowed brows, as if absorbing an alien language, as Clinton brightly spoke about topics such as “the business case for focusing on gender in agricultural development.”

Clinton was relentless about using the spotlight that accompanied her to highlight those who needed it more. At one global forum, she went out of her way to praise Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning entrepreneur of microfinance, who was being persecuted by the Bangladesh prime minister. On trips, she found time to visit shelters for victims of human trafficking or aid groups doing groundbreaking work.

She may hide it, but Clinton is a policy nerd. Ask about microfinance, and she’ll talk your ear off. Mention early childhood interventions, and she will gush about obscure details of a home visitation experiment in Elmira, N.Y., that dramatically improved child outcomes.

The kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls in April was the kind of issue Clinton was out front of. She understood that educating girls isn’t a frilly “soft” issue, but a way to transform a country to make it less hospitable to extremists. No one argued more presciently that women’s rights are security issues.

“Those who argue that her championing of outreach to women and girls and her elevation of development was not serious miss a central reality of international politics in this century,” notes Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush presidency. “These issues are now mainstream globally.”

“I disagree very strongly with those who charge that Hillary Clinton was not successful,” adds Burns, who is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “A fair-minded view is that she was, in fact, highly effective.”

Clinton was pioneering not only in the way she expanded the diplomatic agenda, but also in the tools she forged to promote it. She pushed government-to-people relations and people-to-people ties.

Some of this was pioneered in the George W. Bush administration, but Clinton greatly escalated public diplomacy with a rush into social media.

“She was very clear about it: This is the 21st century, and we’re fools if we don’t use it,” recalls Michael McFaul, who became ambassador to Russia in this time. McFaul then had no idea what a tweet was, and there was strong resistance from senior diplomats. “I said the boss wants to do this,” McFaul recalls, and he ultimately became a champion tweeter.

Today it’s routine to use social media in multiple languages to communicate American diplomatic messages to the world.

So, sure, critics are right that Hillary Rodham Clinton never achieved the kind of landmark peace agreement that would make the first sentence of her obituary. But give her credit: She expanded the diplomatic agenda and adopted new tools to promote it — a truly important legacy.

And, anyway, she may have grander dreams about how her obituary should begin.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

Among Americans age 40 and older, there’s a pastime more popular than football, Candy Crush or HBO.

It’s bashing millennials.

Oh, the hours of fun we have, marveling at their self-fascination and gaping at their sense of entitlement! It’s been an especially spirited romp lately, as a new batch of them graduate from college and gambol toward our cubicles, prompting us to wonder afresh about the havoc they’ll wreak on our world.

We have a hell of a lot of nerve, considering the havoc we’ve wrought on theirs.

For decades they’ll be saddled with our effluvium: a monstrous debt, an epidemic of obesity, Adam Sandler movies. In their lifetimes the Atlantic will possibly swallow Miami Beach (I foresee a “Golden Girls” sequel with dinghies and life preservers) and the footwear for Anchorage in February may be flip-flops. At least everyone will be saving on heating bills.

The Obama administration did unveil a bold climate-change measure last week. Or, rather, it signaled its intent to act: We’ll have to wait and see whether Congress figures out a way to foil the president or the courts gum things up. The plan as it stands would cut carbon pollution from American power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

But that may be too little, too late, according to an assessment last year by John Podesta, now a counselor to President Obama, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine before he joined the White House staff in late 2013.

In the interview, excerpts from which were released only last week, Podesta apparently reviewed what had been proposed and actually done in terms of carbon emissions and the like.

“But 50 years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” he said. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.” And that’s chilling, given the stakes. As the title of a book by Al Gore observed, the earth itself is in the balance.

The country’s slowness to deal with swelling seas and melting glaciers is just one manifestation of our myopia, just one metaphor for our failure to reckon with the future that we’re visiting upon today’s children, who get more lip service than legislation from us.

“If you’re going along with the status quo, it should be a crime to say that you care about our children and grandchildren, because you’re not putting your money where your mouth is,” Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who governed Nebraska for four years and represented that state in the Senate for another 12, told me recently.

This subject haunts him more and more. “If we’re trying to figure out how to advance the next generation’s future, we need to be spending more on the next generation, and we’re spending it on yesterday’s generation,” said Kerrey, 70. “I am not the future. My 12-year-old son is. But if you look at the spending, you’d think I’m the future.”

Kerrey is referring mostly to Social Security and Medicare, which, along with Medicaid, are the so-called entitlements that claim a larger and larger share of the federal budget.

He’s fixated on those sorts of numbers: According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid totaled 6.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 1990. By 2010, they were 10 percent. And by 2038, such spending may represent 14.3 percent. It’s hard to see how that leaves much money for discretionary spending on infrastructure, on education, on research, on a range of investments that safeguard or improve the America that today’s young people will inherit.

And there’s too little money for that even now. Talk to physicians and other scientists who have long depended on research grants from the National Institutes of Health to keep the United States at the forefront of invention and innovation and they’ll tell you how thoroughly that spigot has closed over the last 10 years. They’re defeated, despondent.

The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822. Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the institute, told me that while data for subsequent years hadn’t been analyzed yet, it wouldn’t show a significant change in that gap.

Isaacs also drew attention to a follow-up report released by the institute last year. It projected federal spending in 2023 and envisioned that entitlement payments to older Americans would rise to 46 percent of the budget from 40 percent now. Interest payments on the debt would be another 14 percent. That would leave well under 50 percent for everything else, including the military.

She noted that the population was aging. Meanwhile, there’s a resistance to tax increases. “That makes me very worried that children will be squeezed out,” Isaacs said.

“I’m glad that my parents are living longer,” she added. “But it’s creating this budgetary math problem that we’re unwilling to look at.”

That unwillingness includes the predictable pushback from many members of Congress, from voters and from various advocacy groups when proposals are made to limit the growth of Social Security by, say, fiddling with cost-of-living adjustments. Older Americans, who would be instantly affected by such a change, turn out more reliably on Election Day than any other age group. Lawmakers are loath to cross them.

Younger voters need to assert themselves. Perhaps they’re poised to do just that. A recent poll by ABC News and The Washington Post showed a significant rise — to 66 percent now from 53 percent two months ago — of voters between the ages of 18 and 39 who said they definitely planned to vote in November.

In Washington last week, hundreds of concerned young leaders gathered for an inaugural Millennial Week conference, devoted to youth-oriented policy discussions. And I’ve noticed more bulletins and agitating from organizations like Generation Opportunity, which crunched May’s employment figures to confirm a much higher rate of joblessness among Americans ages 18 to 29 than among the whole population.

We millennial bashers of course have our stock responses to that. We quibble with the college majors that millennials choose. We question their willingness to hunt for work outside their comfort zones.

We conveniently overlook how much more they’ve had to pay for college than we did, the loans they’ve racked up and the fact that nothing explains their employment difficulties better than a generally crummy economy, which certainly isn’t their fault.

They get our derision when they deserve our compassion and a political selflessness we’ve been unable to muster. While we’re at it, we might even want to murmur an apology.

“Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  “The zombie lie of generational theft just keeps shuffling along. This column is nothing but warmed-over Bowles/Simpson cat food.  It’s not the Boomers who are stealing from the Millennials, and ruining their future. It’s the super-rich and the polluting corporate welfare queens who are robbing all of us, from the cradle to the grave.”

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 3, 2014

Bobo has read about child psychology…  In “The Art of Focus” he babbles that the secret to winning the internal battle against distraction is not to say “no” to trivial things but to say “yes” to powerful longings.  In the comments “Jack Chicago” from Chicago had this to say:  ” ‘First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base:’ Yes, Mr Brooks said it here! In a meandering column, the apologist for the party that does more to ensure that more of our children won’t have a secure social base, waxes lyrical.  Let’s hear it for the tone deaf! Stop food stamps, don’t waste money on poverty. After all children are the great learners! What rank hypocrisy!”  Mr. Cohen considers “Herzog at 50″ and tells us how a great novel read at the right moment can be a transformative force.  Mr. Nocera considers “Guns and Mental Illness” and says yes, the mental health system has problems. But the bigger issue is guns.  In “The Theater Beyond the Clintons” Mr. Bruni says Andrew Cuomo confronts a perennial Democratic challenge: placating the left while holding the center.  Here’s Bobo:

Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube. (“Look, there’s a bunch of guys who can play ‘Billie Jean’ on beer bottles!”)

And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week!

And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect. Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on. According to a survey reported in an Op-Ed article on Sunday in The Times by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, 66 percent of workers aren’t able to focus on one thing at a time. Seventy percent of employees don’t have regular time for creative or strategic thinking while at work.

Since the prohibition sermons don’t work, I wonder if we might be able to copy some of the techniques used by the creatures who are phenomenally good at learning things: children.

I recently stumbled across an interview in The Paris Review with Adam Phillips, who was a child psychologist for many years. First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base:

“There’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can ‘forget yourself’ and absorb yourself, in a book, say.”

Second, before they can throw themselves into their obsessions. Children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening. “One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have,” Phillips observes. “How much appetite they have — but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children … will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. …

“One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limited, narrowed way. … .An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. … Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

Third, children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness: “As young children, we listen to adults talking before we understand what they’re saying. And that’s, after all, where we start — we start in a position of not getting it.” Children are used to living an emotional richness that can’t be captured in words. They don’t worry about trying to organize their lives into neat little narratives. Their experience of life is more direct because they spend less time on interfering thoughts about themselves.

The lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

The way to discover a terrifying longing is to liberate yourself from the self-censoring labels you began to tell yourself over the course of your mis-education. These formulas are stultifying, Phillips argues: “You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite.”

Thus: Focus on the external objects of fascination, not on who you think you are. Find people with overlapping obsessions. Don’t structure your encounters with them the way people do today, through brainstorming sessions (those don’t work) or through conferences with projection screens.

Instead look at the way children learn in groups. They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

There are books one has read, or believes one has, but they are read too soon or too late and so carry no weight. No emotional frame in which to fit them exists. Some novels, like Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” seem ripe at any age. Others, like Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet,” lose their precocious luster. Still others lie dormant until chance revives them at an opportune moment.

During a recent conversation about life after a long marriage, in what at a stretch may still be called middle age, a friend said of my unanchored state, “Yeah, Herzog.” I was sure I had read the novel, I had my Saul Bellow season long ago, but his comment lodged in my mind. A few days later, on a whim, I bought “Herzog” on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

The opening line is well known: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” From there Bellow weaves the extraordinary tale of his hero Herzog’s madness, which is not quite that, capturing, in a prodigious flow of verbal energy, the longings, the jealousy, the passions, the fury, the ideas, the joys, the nostalgia and the loneliness of a 47-year-old man whose second marriage has just ended and finds himself adrift between New York, Chicago and a house in the Berkshires.

The plot is anything but linear. It follows the time leaps and zigzags of Herzog’s mind. It does not flow; it eddies irresistibly. The novel is written from the inside out in a frenzy of imaginative sympathy, switching from third-person to first-person narration, and from past to present (Herzog has reached that life fulcrum where the past becomes overwhelming).

Herzog is an academic who has earned renown as a historian of romantic ideas. He is attractive but shambolic, impulse-driven. His mind never rests: “The pulses in his skull were quick and regular, like the tappets of an engine beating in their film of dark oil.” His second wife, Madeleine, has dumped him for that “effing peg-leg” Valentine Gersbach, erstwhile neighbor and friend. Madeleine is icy, emasculating and brilliant. She is vengeful and extravagant. Bellow’s evocation of the marriage’s unraveling is ferocious and funny, not least as Herzog recalls a conversation when Madeleine was pregnant:

“Five hundred bucks on a maternity outfit. Who’s going to be born — Louis Quatorze?”

“Yes, I know, your darling mother wore flour sacks.”

She did, indeed. Herzog knows where he came from, his family having arrived in the United States from Canada “filthy with the soot,” still in touch with the “ancient Herzogs with their psalms and their shawls and beards.” That world is gone, but replaced by what? In the void, Herzog has moments of quixotic self-belief: “The revolutions of the twentieth century, the liberation of the masses by production, created private life but gave nothing to fill it with. This was where such as he came in. The progress of civilization — indeed, the survival of civilization — depended on the successes of Moses E. Herzog.”

Then the emptiness returns. He plots the murder, briefly, of Madeleine and Valentine. He finds sexual consolation with Ramona, his present flame, but flees her periodically. He muses, “The Jews were strange to the world for a great length of time, and now the world is being strange to them in return.” He fires off missives of pyrotechnic brilliance and spleen — to Spinoza, Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and Tolstoy, among others; Tolstoy, whose idea of freedom is personal: “That man is free whose condition is simple, truthful — real. To be free is to be released from historical limitation.”

But his times press on Herzog — “In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities.”

Yes, Bellow wrote that more than 50 years ago. Like much in “Herzog” it takes the breath away.

This is life: a serendipitous meeting, a conversation, a novel that consumes the mind, sparks ideas and brings joy, the irrepressible renewal of hope. If I had already read the novel I had read it at the wrong time. The right time was now, this minute.

Herzog has no great epiphany. His “balance comes from instability.” But he can laugh, always, dance (to Polish music), create. The words that cascade from him are a life force, his unquenchable humanity. At the last he prepares a candlelit country dinner for Ramona. He is emptied out: “He had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”

Happy 50th, Herzog!

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

It is difficult to read stories about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old man who went on a murderous spree in Isla Vista, Calif., last month, without feeling some empathy for his parents.

We know that his mother, alarmed by some of his misogynistic YouTube videos, made a call that resulted in the police visiting Rodger. The headline from that meeting was that Rodger, seemingly calm and collected, easily deflected the police’s attention. But there was surely a subtext: How worried — how desperate, really — must a mother be to believe the police should be called on her own son?

We also learned that on the day of his murderous rampage, his mother, having read the first few lines of his “manifesto,” had phoned his father, from whom she was divorced. In separate cars, they raced from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara hoping to stop what they feared was about to happen.

And then, on Monday, in a remarkably detailed article in The New York Times, we learned the rest of it. How Rodger was clearly a troubled soul before he even turned 8 years old. How his parents’ concern about his mental health was like a “shadow that hung over this Los Angeles family nearly every day of Elliot’s life.”

Constantly bullied and unable to fit in, he went through three high schools. In college, he tried to throw a girl off a ledge at a party — and was beaten up. (“I’m going to kill them,” he said to a neighbor afterward.) He finally retreated to some Internet sites that “drew sexually frustrated young men,” according to The Times.

Throughout, said one person who knew Rodger, “his mom did everything she could to help Elliot.” But what his parents never did was the one thing that might have prevented him from buying a gun: have him committed to a psychiatric facility. California’s tough gun laws notwithstanding, a background check would have caught him only if he had had in-patient mental health treatment, made a serious threat to an identifiable victim in the presence of a therapist, or had a criminal record. He had none of the above.

Should his parents have taken more steps to have him treated? Could they have? It is awfully hard to say, even in retrospect. On the one hand, there were plainly people who knew him who feared that he might someday harm others. On the other hand, those people weren’t psychiatrists. He was a loner, a misfit, whose parents were more fearful of how the world would treat their son than how their son would treat the world. And his mother, after all, did reach out for help, and the police responded and decided they had no cause to arrest him or even search his room, where his guns were hidden.

Once again, a mass killing has triggered calls for doing something to keep guns away from the mentally ill. And, once again, the realities of the situation convey how difficult a task that is. There are, after all, plenty of young, male, alienated loners — the now-standard description of mass shooters — but very few of them become killers.

And you can’t go around committing them all because a tiny handful might turn out to be killers. Indeed, the law is very clear on this point. In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that nondangerous mentally ill people can’t be confined against their will if they can function without confinement. “In California, the bar is very high for people like Elliot,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, who founded the Treatment Advocacy Center. In a sense, California’s commitment to freedom for the mentally ill conflicts with its background-check law.

Torrey believes that the country should involuntarily commit more mentally ill people, not only because they can sometimes commit acts of violence but because there are far more people who can’t function in the world than the mental health community likes to acknowledge.

In this, however, he is an outlier. The mainstream sentiment among mental health professionals is that there is no going back to the bad-old days when people who were capable of living on their own were locked up for years in mental hospitals. The truth is, the kind of symptoms Elliot Rodger showed were unlikely to get him confined in any case. And without a history of confinement, he had every legal right to buy a gun.

You read the stories about Elliot Rodger and it is easy to think: If this guy, with all his obvious problems, can slip through the cracks, then what hope is there of ever stopping mass shootings?

But, of course, there is another way of thinking about this. Instead of focusing on making it harder for the mentally ill to get guns, maybe we should be making it harder to get guns, period. Something to consider before the next mass shooting.

Not gonna happen.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

One of the many problems with our all-Hillary-all-the-time news fixation is the way it obscures other juicy Democratic dramas, shoving their stars into the wings.

Andrew Cuomo, come on out to center stage. You deserve it, you sly, ruthless, freshly humbled man. She may have Bill, Benghazi, a new book and an imminent grandchild, but you deserve a moment of our time and a measure of our fascination.

Since becoming governor of New York three and a half years ago, Cuomo has been performing a balancing act with implications for Democratic politics well beyond the state. It could be hugely relevant if Clinton takes a pass on a presidential bid and lets a host of overshadowed overachievers dream their Oval dreams and scheme their Oval schemes.

And it speaks to a perennial challenge in both parties: How does a pragmatic politician steer the kind of centrist course that often works best in the long run without provoking a revolt from the more partisan warriors in his or her camp?

Over the weekend, Cuomo confronted such a revolt from the Working Families Party, which was threatening to complicate his re-election by running a candidate to his left. He was forced to grovel before its members and to accept help in placating them from Bill de Blasio, a man he prefers to pummel and keep at a distance.

“It’s disastrous for him,” one prominent Democratic strategist told me, saying that it undermined Cuomo’s calculations and strategy to this point.

Back in 2010, the Working Families Party had to beg Cuomo to fly its banner, so the group made concessions rather than demands, signing on to his platform.

This time around, the roles were seemingly reversed, in part because the left wing of the Democratic Party has been emboldened and empowered. It takes credit for de Blasio’s election last year. It gives Elizabeth Warren much of her traction. And it could make significant demands during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, at least if Clinton has a real opponent or doesn’t run.

Cuomo’s complicated lot may be a preview of the politics around the bend.

“He likes to live in the middle,” said another Democratic insider, one who has known him for decades. “That’s where the country is, and to the extent that you can find an authentic political pulse in him, that’s where he is.”

Cuomo’s middle is distinctive and shrewd, a mix of progressive stances on many social issues and a more moderate approach on economic ones.

Shortly after taking office, he campaigned for gay marriage. He later championed tough gun-control laws. He has not lifted the state’s moratorium on fracking.

But he has bucked unions. He has opposed letting local governments, like New York City’s, raise the minimum wage on their own. He cut corporate taxes and famously rejected de Blasio’s plan to pay for expanded prekindergarten with a tax increase on affluent New York City residents.

He has cozied up to Wall Street titans, hungry for their donations now and in the future. Many of them support charter schools, and that factored into his swashbuckling defense of New York City’s charters, which also pitted him against de Blasio.

Perhaps most interesting, Cuomo has been content with divided government in New York, making no noteworthy effort to help his party seize stewardship of a Senate controlled by Republicans and a small band of dissident Democrats. He has even been known to work against party members. The prospect of a left too potent — and of anyone but him calling the shots — clearly chills him. He wants to pick and choose his liberal flourishes, not have them chosen for him.

This makes sense in terms of a presidential campaign, which he definitely fantasizes about, according to people who know him. In a primary, he’d run as the centrist Democrat, claiming Bill Clinton’s mantle. In the general election, he’d present himself as someone more practical than ideological.

But first there’s re-election in November, and he craves the kind of lopsided victory that Chris Christie, eyeing his own national candidacy, went after and got in New Jersey. It would give him the necessary affirmation and the sweet assurance that he can match or one-up his father, who was re-elected governor of New York in 1986 with 65 percent of the vote.

And it was jeopardized by the ire of the Working Families Party.

He has now made the group some promises, including firm support for Democratic candidates going forward. Will he manage to break those promises and cling to the middle? If he keeps his word, might he wind up with a left-leaning Legislature that doesn’t care about his balancing act and hijacks his legacy?

“I believe the world starts to turn now,” de Blasio said after Cuomo pledged to please the Working Families Party. At the very least it gets even juicier.

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

June 1, 2014

Oh, gawd…  The Putz is waxing hysterical about unauthorized sexytime again.  In “Prisoners of Sex” he sees, in the Santa Barbara killings, an extreme version of the culture’s all-too-commonplace misogyny.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Oh where to begin? There appears to be no event too benign or too terrible that Ross Douthat can’t use it to lobby against lust. Here he exploits a horrific tragedy, born of a psychotic young man and easy access to guns, as another harbinger of the inevitable doom that awaits us for wanting to have s-e-x without consulting him first.  … In reality, Douthat’s agenda is to complain about people remaining single. After all, they’ll want sex, which they can’t have, which will lead to toxic reactions and mass shootings. Besides, virginity is for weirdos, so everyone should marry, in the Church, and remain yoked to each other forever, no matter what, and have lots of babies (Ross Douthat, “More Babies Please,” 12/1/2012).”  MoDo considers “A Past Not Past” and says as Leon Uris wrote in “Trinity,” “In Ireland there is no future, only the past happening over and over.”  The Moustache of Wisdom just wants to help.  In “Obama’s Foreign Policy Book” he offers up a few working titles for the president’s consideration.  I’m sure that Obama will drop everything he’s doing to see what “Mr. FU” has to say.  Mr. Kristof is writing from Mrauk U, Myanmar.  In “Obama Success, or Global Shame?” he says on this year’s “win-a-trip” journey, one man living under an ignored apartheid sends out a message to the world: We are suffering. Will anyone respond?  Mr. Bruni, in “Full Screed Ahead,” says be it the Isla Vista rampage or the transition at The Times, the event is mere prompt for the exegeses.  Here’s The Putz:

In an ideal world, perhaps, the testimony left by the young man who killed six people in Santa Barbara would have perished with its author: the video files somehow wiped off the Internet, his manifesto deleted and any printed copy pulped.

Spree killers seek the immortality of infamy, and their imitators are inspired by how easily they win it. As Ari Schulman argued last year in The Wall Street Journal, there would probably be fewer copycat rampages if the typical killer’s face and name didn’t lead the news coverage, if fewer details of biography and motive circulated, if a mass murderer’s “ability to make his internal psychodrama a shared public reality” were more strictly circumscribed.

But this is not an ideal world, and so instead of media restraint we’ve had a splendid little culture war over the significance of the Santa Barbara killer’s distinctive stew of lust, misogyny and rage. Twitter movements have been created, think pieces written, and all kinds of cultural phenomena — from Judd Apatow movies to “pickup artists” and Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” — have been invoked, analyzed and blamed.

And in fairness to the think pieces — I have to be fair, because I’m writing one — in this particular tragedy, the killer’s motives really do seem to have a larger cultural significance.

Often you step into the mental landscape of a mass murderer and find nothing but paranoia, nightmare logic, snakes eating their own tails. But compared with the mysteries of Tucson, Newtown and Aurora, this case has an internal psychodrama that is much more recognizable, a murderous logic that’s a little more familiar.  The Santa Barbara killer’s pulsing antipathy toward women, his shame and fury over sexual inexperience  — these were amplified horribly by mental illness, yes, but visit the angrier corners of the Internet, wander in comment threads and chat rooms, and you’ll recognize them as extreme versions of an all-too-commonplace misogyny.

I’ve written before, in the context of the abuse that female writers take online, about this poisoned stream’s potential origins. The Santa Barbara case hints at one such source — the tension between our culture’s official attitude toward sex on the one hand and our actual patterns of sexual and romantic life on the other.

The culture’s attitude is Hefnerism, basically, if less baldly chauvinistic than the original Playboy philosophy. Sexual fulfillment is treated as the source and summit of a life well lived, the thing without which nobody (from a carefree college student to a Cialis-taking senior) can be truly happy, enviable or free.

Meanwhile, social alternatives to sexual partnerships are disfavored or in decline: Virginity is for weirdos and losers, celibate life is either a form of unhealthy repression or a smoke screen for deviancy, the kind of intense friendships celebrated by past civilizations are associated with closeted homosexuality, and the steady shrinking of extended families has reduced many people’s access to the familial forms of platonic intimacy.

Yet as sex looms ever larger as an aspirational good, we also live in a society where more people are single and likely to remain so than in any previous era. And since single people have, on average, a lot less sex than the partnered and wedded, a growing number of Americans are statistically guaranteed to feel that they’re not living up to the culture’s standard of fulfillment, happiness and worth.

This tension between sexual expectations and social reality is a potential problem for both sexes, but for a variety of reasons — social, cultural and biological — it’s more likely to produce toxic reactions in the male of the species. Such toxicity need not lead to murder (as it usually, mercifully, does not) to be a source of widespread misery, both for the men who wallow in it and the women unfortunate enough to be targets for their bile.

Contemporary feminism is very good — better than my fellow conservatives often acknowledge — at critiquing these pathologies. But feminism, too, is often a prisoner of Hefnerism, in the sense that it tends to prescribe more and more “sex positivity,” insisting that the only problem with contemporary sexual culture is that it’s imperfectly egalitarian, insufficiently celebratory of female agency and desire.

This means that the feminist prescription doesn’t supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men.

Such reasons, and the models of intimacy and community that vindicate them, might have done little to prevent the Santa Barbara killer’s deadly spree.

But they might drain some of the swamps that are forming, slowly, because our society has lost sight of a basic human truth: A culture that too tightly binds sex and self-respect is likely, in the long run, to end up with less and less of both.

Next up we have MoDo:

As I walk up to Bobby Van’s Steakhouse to meet Gerry Adams, I’m surprised to see him sitting alone outside. Wearing a dark three-piece tweed suit with a green ribbon on the lapel, the alleged terrorist on the terrace is calmly reading some papers.

As is his practice, he has his back to the wall so he can see what’s coming. Still, given the new death threats sparked by his detention in connection with a gruesome 1972 case — the I.R.A.’s torture and execution of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 suspected of being a British informer — it seems pretty blasé.

“I need some fresh air,” he explains, his Belfast burr turning “air” to “ire,” an inadvertent pun.

Adams believes that he was arrested because his enemies in Britain and within the Northern Ireland police force were trying to stir enough ire against him to hurt the party he leads, Sinn Fein, in the elections just held in Ireland. Some believe there is a secret cadre within the British security apparatus known as “the 12 Apostles” who have pledged to bring down Adams and the peace process — with improved forensics.

Conspiracy or no, the case dramatized Ireland’s struggle to choose between peace and justice. In a nation where the past drags at the future and where neighborhoods and schools are still religiously segregated, bygones are impossible.

McConville’s children, who were scattered to foster homes and orphanages, want vengeance. Adams’s friends, like Niall O’Dowd, an Irish publisher in New York, fear that a politically motivated prosecution would collapse the peace process. “The I.R.A. did terrible things, and so did the other side,” O’Dowd said. “Choosing a hierarchy of hate elevating one crime above all others is not the solution. Adams is not above the law, but he’s equal in the law.”

Despite — or because of — the arrest, Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) did remarkably well, making unprecedented inroads in the middle-class and leafy suburbs of Dublin, where Sinn Fein sightings used to be as rare as hen’s teeth.

Adams has done something that Michael Collins was murdered trying to do. He has made the “terrible beauty” transition from armed resistance to political power. “He is as close to a Mandela as Ireland has produced — from alleged terrorist to freedom fighter to politician to potentially someday leader of his country,” O’Dowd said.

Some Americans involved with the peace process think that if Adams admitted, at least in general terms, that he was an I.R.A. commander in the “Bloody Sunday” era, as his deputy Martin McGuinness has, that it would gain him more trust with the Protestant side.

Adams came to D.C. to give “a wake-up call,” criticizing the Irish and British prime ministers for a lack of diligence in implementing the peace agreement. He says he was let out of jail after four days because “there’s no evidence,” but there was also a lot of American pressure because of fears that peace would rupture.

He said he wasn’t scared, though two of his “wee” granddaughters were sick over it. The man who survived a gangland-style shooting in 1984 admitted he had been frightened before. “Anybody who’s not scared,” he said with a grim smile, “don’t ever be in their company.”

He slept in a cell on a rubber mattress. “The food was so disgusting, you would have fed it to a dog,” said Adams, who tweeted Friday that he was looking forward to his first post-prison “big, warm soapy suds with yellow ducks & Epsom Salts bath time! Yeeeehaaa!”

Dolours Price was a beautiful I.R.A. guerrilla, once married to the Oscar-nominated Irish actor Stephen Rea. She told Boston College interviewers that Adams was her “Officer Commanding” in the Belfast Brigade called the “Unknowns,” charged with weeding out informers, who became known as the “Disappeared.” She said he ordered her to drive informants from the north to the south. Adams, who thinks the tainted oral history project was a British trap, again denied any involvement in the execution when he talked to me.

Dolours, who had feuded with Adams over disarming the I.R.A., told The Telegraph she was spurred in part by revenge because she objected to Adams’s peacemaking.

“They said I should be shot,” Adams recalled, “that we were traitors.”

During Price’s eight-year prison term for the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey — which she claimed Adams also ordered up — she was force-fed for 200 days. Adams said that afterward she suffered a “trauma” with drugs and alcohol that led to her 2013 death, implying this colored her recollections.

He said the McConvilles had suffered “a grave injustice” and had the right to know the truth.

Does he know who is responsible?

“No, I don’t, ” he said, adding: “There were dreadful things done. Anyone that thinks the war was glorious or glamorous. …” Trailing off, he shook his head. “It’s about killing people and inflicting horror on people,” he said, adding: “It’s always the poor who suffer most. When you have a nation that is ruptured by partition, that isn’t allowed to govern itself, that can’t shape its own society or aspirations, you’re always going to have this cycle. And we have to break the cycle, so we’re not handcuffed to the past.

“The old thing in Irish Republican resistance was, ‘Well, we did our best and the other generation will carry it on.’ But we don’t want another generation to carry it on. We want this done and dusted. No other kid should have to go to prison, have to kill anyone, be put in an early grave.”

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Sulaimaniya, Iraq:

When President Obama sits down to write his foreign policy memoir he may be tempted to use as his book title the four words he reportedly uses privately to summarize the Obama doctrine: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” (with “stuff” sometimes defined more spicily).

Up to now, that approach has not served the country badly — fight where you must, fix what you can, work with allies wherever possible but never forget that using force is not the sole criteria for seriousness, considering, as Obama noted in a speech last week, that the wars that costs us the most were those we leapt into without proper preparation or allies and “without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”

So “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” would certainly work as a book title today. But sitting here in Kurdistan — a true island of decency near the epicenter of what is now the biggest civil war on the planet, between Sunnis and Shiites, stretching from Iran across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon — I think Obama may eventually opt for a different book title: “Present at the Disintegration.”

Obama has been on duty when the world has come unstuck in more ways than any recent president. George H.W. Bush dealt deftly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton was the first president who had to fire cruise missiles at a person — Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan — in the first battle ever between a superpower and a superempowered angry man. When that superempowered angry man struck our homeland on 9/11, George W. Bush responded with two invasions.

Obama has had to confront the culmination of all these trends, and more: the blowback from both invasions; a weak, humiliated but still dangerous Russia; a drone war against many more superempowered angry men from Yemen to Pakistan; the simultaneous disintegration of traditional Arab states and the nuclearization of Iran; plus the decline of “spheres of influence” dictated by traditional powers from above and the rise of “people of influence” emerging from the squares and social networks below. These Square People have challenged everything from Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine to the right of the pro-U.S. Egyptian military to keep ruling Egypt.

Dealing with all these at once has been a doctrinal and tactical challenge, especially when combined with an exhausted U.S. public and an economic recession sapping defense spending.

Obviously, Obama would much prefer that his foreign policy memoir be called “Present at the Re-Integration” — at the forging of a new, stable pro-Western order. But that is so much harder today than Obama critics allow. Hey, it was relatively easy to be a hero on foreign policy when the main project was deterrence of another superpower. Just be steadfast and outspend them on defense. Where that is still necessary, with Russia and China, Obama has done O.K.

But when so much foreign policy involves dealing with countries that are falling apart or an entire region engulfed in civil war — and the only real solutions are not deterrence but transforming societies that are completely unlike our own and lack the necessary building blocks and we already spent $2 trillion on such projects in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it — the notion that Obama might be a little wary about getting more deeply involved in Syria and is not waxing eloquent about the opportunity does not strike me as crazy.

I never believed that with just a few more arms early on the Syrian “democrats” would have toppled President Bashar al-Assad and all would have been fine. The Shiite/Alawites in Syria were never leaving quietly, and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah would have made sure of it. And does anyone believe that Saudi Arabia, our main ally in the Syrian fight, is trying to promote the same thing we are there, a pluralistic democracy, which is precisely what the Saudis do not allow in their own country?

Yes, being in Kurdistan, it is clear that the metastasizing of the Syrian conflict has reached a stage where it is becoming a factory for thousands of jihadists from Europe, Central Asia, Russia, the Arab world and even America, who are learning, as one Syrian Kurdish leader told me, “to chop people’s heads off and then go back home.” The conflict is also, as an Iraqi Kurdish security expert added, legitimizing Al Qaeda’s shift “from the caves of Afghanistan into the mainstream of the Arab world” as defenders of Sunni Islam. These are big threats.

But when I ask Kurds what to do, the answer I get is that arming decent Syrians, as Obama has vowed to do more of, might help bring Assad to the table, but “there is no conventional military solution” — neither Shiites nor Sunnis will decisively beat the other, remarked a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih. “But walking away is not possible anymore.” Syria is spinning off too much instability now.

The only solution, they say, is for the U.S. and Russia (how likely is that!) to broker a power-sharing deal in Syria between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and their proxies. Repeat after me: There is no military solution to Syria — and Iran and Russia have to be part of any diplomatic one. Those are the kind of unpleasant, unromantic, totally long-shot foreign policy choices the real world throws up these days. A little humility, please.

In the comments “stu freeman” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say:  “So what happens when war doesn’t work and diplomacy doesn’t work? There really is a third alternative- at least for those who are lucky enough to not have to live in west Asia and the Middle East. It’s called “packing up and going away,” and it’s way past time that the U.S. did precisely that.”  And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

As we hiked on a bamboo bridge over a river, past a police checkpoint, by water buffalo, over abandoned rice paddies, and past a hamlet where 28 Muslim children had been hacked to death, word raced ahead of us. Farmers poured out to welcome us from two besieged villages that for two years have been mostly cut off from the world.

One man, a teacher who spoke a bit of English, thrust a handwritten letter in my hands. Puzzled, I asked him whom he had written the letter for. He explained that he had drafted it in hopes that a foreigner might visit some day and transmit news of the villagers’ suffering.

“Many people are by violent wound died,” the letter recounted in painstaking English. “Now our Rohingyas many people are homeless. We do not have home, food and living very difficulty. Now we are to the cage prison sent.”

The villagers are Rohingya, a dark-skinned Muslim minority that is deeply resented by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. For decades, Myanmar persecuted the Rohingya and left them stateless, and in the last few months the authorities have amplified the crimes against humanity — yet the global reaction has been largely indifference.

Since violent clashes in 2012, the Rohingya have been confined to quasi-concentration camps or to their villages, denied ready access to markets, jobs or hospitals. This spring, the authorities expelled the aid group Doctors Without Borders, which had been providing the Rohingya with medical care. Orchestrated violent attacks on the offices of humanitarian organizations drove many aid workers away as well and seemed intended in part to remove foreign witnesses to this ethnic cleansing.

I’m on my annual “win-a-trip” journey, in which I take a university student — this year it’s Nicole Sganga of Notre Dame — on a reporting trip (she’s blogging at nytimes.com/ontheground). We wanted to reach remote villages where Rohingya live, where nobody has much idea what is happening, so we set off by vehicle and then by foot.

What we found is dangerous tension and some malnutrition, but by far the biggest problem is medical care. More than one million Rohingya are getting little if any health care, and some are dying as a result.

In the village of Zeezar, we met a young mother, Saida, 20, whose 10-day-old baby was sickly and losing weight. The baby needed a doctor, but aid workers aren’t allowed in the village, and Rohingya aren’t allowed to leave freely.

In theory, Saida can get a pass to go through checkpoints and visit a clinic. In practice, that sometimes means paying bribes and inevitably means passing the homes of people who have been accused of murdering Rohingya with impunity: For her, it’s terrifying. So she gambled that her baby would recover on her own.

In one Rohingya internment camp, we met Thein Maung, 46, who has AIDS and used to get antiretroviral medicines from Doctors Without Borders to keep him alive. Now he has no source of medication, and he feels his health fading.

Another man, Amir Hussein, had his arm broken two years ago by a Buddhist mob. No doctor was available to set the bone, so his left arm now dangles grotesquely and uselessly at an odd angle.

Rohingya children are also denied an education. In one village we visited, parents had set up a free informal school taught by a 17-year-old village girl whose own education had been stalled.

President Obama, in his address a few days ago at the United States Military Academy at West Point, cited Myanmar as one of the administration’s diplomatic successes. It’s true that Myanmar has made tremendous political gains in recent years — the permission I received to report here is testimony to that — and there is much to admire about the country’s progress toward democracy. But let’s not make excuses for a 21st-century apartheid worse even than the system once enforced in South Africa. As Human Rights Watch has documented, what has unfolded here constitutes ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Likewise, another watchdog group, Fortify Rights, cites internal Myanmar documents and argues that a pattern over the years of killings, torture, rape and other repression amounts to crimes against humanity under international law.

Weighed against such abuses, Obama’s criticisms of Myanmar have been pathetically timid. Because he is hugely admired here, Obama has political capital to pressure the government that he has not used. Indeed, the United States and other countries have often even avoided the word Rohingya, effectively joining in the denial of a people’s identity. That’s a failed policy, for this deference has led Myanmar to tighten the screws on the Rohingya this year.

The Rohingya gave us the names of some Buddhists who they said had been leaders in slaughtering Muslims, and we visited one of these men they named. A 53-year-old farmer, he denied any involvement in the violence, but it was an awkward, tense conversation, partly because the Buddhists are angry at aid groups and journalists for (as they see it) siding with Muslims. Their narrative is that Muslim terrorists from Bangladesh are invading the country, overpopulating so as to marginalize the Buddhists, and then being coddled by foreigners.

The extremists back up this absurd narrative with intimidation. My Buddhist driver, who sported a nationalist tattoo, was willing to take me into Rohingya camps and villages and had no fear of assault by Muslims. But he was terrified of going to some hard-line Buddhist areas, for fear that we would be assaulted as Muslim sympathizers.

When the authorities found out that we were wandering in the hills, they sent a team of police officers armed with automatic weapons to find and “protect” us. They need to start protecting the Rohingya as well.

Look, I’ve seen greater malnutrition and disease over the years — in South Sudan, Niger, Congo, Guinea — but what’s odious about what is happening here is that the suffering is deliberately inflicted as government policy. The authorities are stripping members of one ethnic group of citizenship, then interning them in camps or villages, depriving them of education, refusing them medical care — and even expelling humanitarians who seek to save their lives.

That’s not a tragedy for one obscure ethnic group; it’s an affront to civilization. Please, President Obama, find your voice.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

We no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets.

Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth — the knowable, verifiable truth — is left in the dust.

The economy of contemporary journalism encourages this. It favors riffing over reportage, and it’s lousy with opinions, including the one expressed here. I sin whereof I speak. I also present this as a confession and a penance.

It’s motivated by Elliot Rodger’s rampage in Southern California, by Jill Abramson’s exit from The Times, even by Cliven Bundy’s antics in the Nevada outback. Utterly different stories, yes. But they share a dynamic: Each event was overtaken by the jeremiads about it; impassioned interpretations eclipsed actual information. Why slow down and wait for clarity when there’s an angle to promote, a grievance to air? Damn the torpedoes and full screed ahead.

This trade and tic were manifest in an essay in The Washington Post last week by its chief film critic, Ann Hornaday. I’m sorry to single her out: She’s an excellent writer merely drawn into the quasi-journalistic sport of the day. She itched to join an all-consuming conversation — and to refract it through her own area of expertise, claiming some of the story’s territory for herself.

So she fashioned Rodger’s violence into an indictment of the movie industry’s domination by men and its prolific output of male fantasies in which the nerdy or schlubby guy gets the sexy girl. Rodger didn’t get the girl, so he got furious and got a gun. Did Hollywood egg him on? That’s what Hornaday more or less asked, and it was a question too far, the tenuous graft of entertainment-industry shortcomings onto a tragedy irreducible to tidy explanations.

But how plentiful such explanations were. Could Rodger’s psychic torment be traced to his biracial heritage? Or was white privilege his problem? Did the killing expose police incompetence, therapists’ blindness, undetected autism, detected autism, the impact of the book “The Secret” on an unsteady mind, or simply common misogyny in uncommon form?

All of this was put out there, and much of it said more about the given theorizer’s existing worldview than about the evidence at hand. Rodger became “the Rosetta Stone that can make all your previous pseudo-intellectual grandstanding fall neatly into place,” in the words of Chez Pazienza on The Daily Banter website, which is in fact one of the many relatively new vessels for such grandstanding.

Grandstanding is booming as traditional news gathering struggles to survive: It’s more easily summoned, more cheaply produced. It doesn’t require opening bureaus around the country or picking up correspondents’ travel expenses or paying them for weeks on end just to dig. So it fills publications, websites and television airtime the way noodles stretch out a casserole, until we’re looking at a media meal that’s almost all Hamburger Helper and no beef.

There wasn’t that much protein in the Cliven Bundy story — apart from his four-legged herd. But on Fox News, Sean Hannity supersized the Nevada rancher into a principled frontiersman taking a last stand against federal overreach: John Wayne with livestock. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Bundy was repurposed as an example of racism among Republicans, even though most of them undoubtedly found his reflections on the sunny side of slavery as repellent as any Democrat did. He was pulled into the debate about affirmative action; he was yanked into laments about Christian conservatives. And what was he, really, but a nutcase in a big hat trying to cadge free grass?

Shortly after Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, announced the departure of Abramson, who was the first woman to serve as the newspaper’s executive editor, Ken Auletta of The New Yorker posted a story on the magazine’s website with this headline: “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired.” The first reason it floated was that she had ruffled feathers by complaining assertively about a salary supposedly inferior to her male predecessor’s.

Two weeks later, Auletta was revising the narrative by musing that the termination of her employment was “one of those running stories in which reporters peel away one layer only to be presented with another” and that “the situation never ceases to have more complexity, more ambiguity.” But there was nothing ambiguous about what his initial dispatch wrought, about the way in which many commentators and other observers decided to describe Abramson and her ouster. She was an icon for gender pay inequity, held up as such by Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. She was a martyr, felled by sexism.

To write for The Times and to know the principal players was to see this for the oversimplification that it was and to note that we were getting a taste of our own medicine: How often had some of us here emphasized one story line to the exclusion of others in sizing up a candidate or corporation?

But most striking of all was the distance between the chatter and the uncontested facts. That chatter turned a profoundly sad and particular set of circumstances into a parable about female executives’ inability to be both tough and loved, a referendum on all women in the workplace, a report card on the newspaper’s efforts to innovate, a harbinger of its sustained relevance. The event buckled under the weight of the significance piled onto it.

News has always been paired with analysis, and a certain degree of assumption and conjecture rightly enters into the laudable attempt to make sense of things. What has changed over recent years are the platforms and the metabolism of the process. Twitter and other social media coax rapid-fire reactions from a broad audience, whose individual members stand out by readily divining something that nobody else has divined, by fleetly declaring something that nobody else has dared to, by bringing the most strident or sauciest attitude to bear.

And for every journalist peeling away at the layers that Auletta mentioned, there are many more of us pontificating about what’s been revealed so far, no matter how little of it there is, no matter how shakily it’s been established. Americans have seemingly grown accustomed to this. They may even hunger for it. With just a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the remote, they find something to confirm their prejudices, to validate their perspectives. And the gratification is almost instant.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

May 27, 2014

In “Really Good Books, Part II” Bobo has a few more book recommendations: Athenian books to invigorate the audacious spirit, and religious and literary books to probe the conscience and heart.  In “The Banality of Anger” Mr. Cohen says France turns right, and Marine Le Pen is now a plausible presidential candidate.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “What Did the Framers Really Mean?”  He says it’s no secret: The Second Amendment was about the common defense.  Mr. Bruni considers “Diet Lures and Diet Lies” and says dubious elixirs, niche regimens and flawed prophets like Dr. Oz divert us from the unsexy truth.  Here’s Bobo:

On Friday, I offered some of my favorite books, as possibilities for summer reading. The books of Part Two come in two baskets, which we’ll call Athens and Jerusalem. The Athens books fire external ambition; the Jerusalem books focus on the inner spirit.

We’ll start the Athens basket with “The Peloponnesian War,” by Thucydides. In Homer, we see characters who are driven by a competitive desire to be excellent at something, to display their prowess and win eternal fame. This ambition drives Homeric heroes to excellence, but it also makes them narcissistic, touchy and prone to cycles of anger and revenge.

Through the figure of Pericles, Thucydides shows us how to live a life of civilized ambition, in which individual achievement is fused with patriotic service. He also reminds us that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high. That is, when politicians mess up, the size of the damage they cause is larger than the size of the benefit they create when they do well.

Some of my favorite biographies are about people who followed the Periclean mold and dedicated themselves to public service: Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton; Edmund Morris’s series on Theodore Roosevelt; Winston Churchill’s endearing “My Early Life.”

These books arouse energy and aspiration. They have the risk-embracing spirit found in W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “Leap Before You Look,” which opens:

“The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.”

And ends this way:

“A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.”

The books in the Jerusalem basket interrogate worldly ambition and encourage righteousness. Of all the authors I’ve read, the one with the most capacious mind is Augustine — for his understanding of human psychology, his sonorous emotions and his intellectual rigor.

“The Confessions” is a religious book, but it can also be read as a memoir of an ambitious young man who came to realize how perverse life can be when it is dedicated to fulfilling the self’s own desires. “I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me,” Augustine wrote. “I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love, and from the very depth of my need hated myself.” Gradually, he orders his love, putting the higher loves above lower ones, and surrendering to God’s ultimate love. He also reconciles with his mother, Monica, the ultimate helicopter mom.

Toward the end of Monica’s life, mother and son sit sweetly in a garden, their conversation rising to higher things. There is a long beautiful sentence, which is hard to parse, but which conveys the spirit of elevation. It repeats the word “hushed.” The tumult of the flesh is hushed. The waters and the air are hushed, and “by not thinking on self surmount self.” Even Augustine’s voracious ambition is hushed in this surrender.

For Jewish takes on inner elevation, I’d recommend “The Lonely Man of Faith” by Joseph Soloveitchik and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. For Christians, you can’t go wrong with Dorothy Day’s “The Long Loneliness,” or Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” which you should not read on airplanes, because you will cry.

Let’s end the inner-life basket with two books on love. Scott Spencer’s “Endless Love” is about youthful passion. It opens this way: “When I was 17 and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved. …”

For mature love, we have to turn to George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” It took me six runs to get into this book, because I was unready for it, but, in middle age, it is hard not to be awed by her characterizations. Some samples:

“She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was.”

“We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.”

“His soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.”

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Nowhere is the crisis of modernity felt more acutely than in France where for a quarter-century now globalization has brought moroseness and mistrust on an epic scale. Uneasy with capitalism, uncomfortable with flexibility, unpersuaded by the so-called Anglo-Saxon model, France has retreated into its rancor. Immigrants and openness have constituted threat more than possibility.

Even its glorious cuisine seems somehow static, too heavy for its times, unable to adapt, short on Spanish inventiveness, locked in the past. Its wines, the best in the world by some distance, have proved short on narrative, that core ingredient of modern marketing. Its world-class private companies get swept beneath the relentless wave of functionaries’ complaints. Its president, once the near regal embodiment of French glory, is now an everyday sort of figure, battling the banal.

Rien ne va plus, say the French, or nothing works anymore. But the English rendering is anemic — stripped of a fathomless Gallic grumpiness that is the expression of a strange sense of defeat. Of course it is not true. A lot works very well in France. But the nation is dyspeptic. The glass is always half-empty.

Such bile must find political expression. It has in the rightist, anti-immigrant National Front of Marine Le Pen, victorious in European Parliament elections, her gaze now set on a greater prize: the Élysée Palace.

Make no mistake, she could become president. The National Front has surged before, notably in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the incumbent’s father, reached the runoff stage of the presidential election. But in the dozen years since then the European and French crises have deepened. France has near zero growth and growing unemployment. With an estimated 25 percent of the European Parliament vote, the National Front crushed both the governing Socialists (14 percent) and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (20.8 percent).

“An earthquake,” was the verdict of the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls. He is not wrong. A two-party system is now a three-party system. Marine Le Pen, subtler and cleverer and more ambitious than her father, is electable. She is plausible.

Elsewhere on the Continent the anger behind the National Front’s surge was also evident (no election is better suited for letting off steam than the European because the real power of the European Parliament is limited). In Britain, Austria and Denmark, more than 15 percent of the vote went to similar anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-establishment, anti-boredom political movements. But it is in France, which constitutes with Germany the core of the European Union, that a European, economic and psychological crisis has assumed its most acute form.

According to the French daily Le Monde, the National Front took 43 percent of workers’ votes and 37 percent of the vote of the unemployed. Popular sentiment in France has turned against a Europe associated with austerity, stagnation, unemployment and high immigration. Le Pen’s promise of a more nationalist and anti-immigrant France, rejecting European integration and America, has appeal to the disenchanted. A promised Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, with Putin and his “family values” as Europe’s salvation, masks a void of economic ideas.

The crisis in France goes far deeper than its immediate economic challenges. For a nation defeated in World War II, but allowed through de Gaulle to claim a sort of victory in the shirttails of the Allies, the European Union was the way out of a strange humiliation. (It was also salvation for Germany, but that is a different story). Europe was a bold idea, a counterbalance to the United States, a vehicle for a new form of national ambition that was significantly French in genesis. A medium-sized power, much diminished, France could yet dream through Europe. It could opine. It could even change the world.

Then along came that great surprise, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. France preferred two Germanys; suddenly it faced one. It wanted to deepen Europe; suddenly it had to widen it. It wanted to be sure of a united Germany’s fealty to Europe and a single currency seemed the surest guarantee; suddenly it was bound to the euro just as momentum toward European political integration evaporated. It wanted to be a counterweight to Washington; suddenly that ambition became risible. It wanted at least to offer a countermodel to hypercapitalism; not so suddenly its economic system, for all its virtues, just looked tired, like those French villages drained of youth and vitality.

History can play cruel tricks. This past quarter-century it has played several on France. Of course, Marine Le Pen cannot turn back the clock. But that will not stop angry people from dreaming. Perhaps France will win the World Cup and all will be well for a moment. But that too, alas, is no doubt a dream.

Up next we have Mr. Nocera:

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.”

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

My home is like any other, chockablock with stuff that I wouldn’t want the world to see: trashy books, cheesy clothes, a cache of scented candles so enormous you might think I’m prepping for some epically smelly apocalypse.

But the most embarrassing thing by far is in a kitchen cupboard, near the Tabasco. It’s a green and white bottle of pills — supplements, to use the proper marketing lingo — that are supposed to make me effortlessly slim.

I know better. We all do.

Garcinia Cambogia is what the label says, and the pills contain the powdered extract of an exotic fruit for which quasi-mystical claims are made. It blocks fat absorption, or at least it might. It suppresses appetite, or so a few people have reported. It regulates emotional eating, in unproven theory.

I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet perhaps 18 months ago, and the mention was coupled with an endorsement of sorts by Dr. Mehmet Oz. And I thought: Who knows? What could it hurt? Minutes later I was typing in my credit-card number, hitting “send” and joining — or, rather, rejoining — the millions of Americans duped annually into this manner of ridiculousness.

We talk a whole lot these days about the perfidies of the fast-food industry, the snack-food industry, the soft-drink industry. There are books aplenty, documentaries galore. And that’s terrific. That’s progress.

But we should take care that our intensifying alarm over all of the aggressively marketed junk that makes us fatter doesn’t crowd out a measure of sustained pique at all of the aggressively marketed pills, products and plans that fail to make us any thinner, despite their lavish promises and the money we plunk down. We should save some room for them.

They show no signs of going away anytime soon. Worse yet, they belong to, and are complemented by, a brimming culture of micro theories and boutique science that seeks explanations for excess pounds in equations well beyond the sturdy maxim of calories in, calories out.

Yes, that maxim oversimplifies. Yes, we learn more all the time about the asterisks to it and about which kinds of calories set you up to be hungrier (and to continue eating) or not.

But consult the most respected physicians in the field of weight loss and they’ll tell you that the maxim remains as relevant as ever. And the vogue for painstakingly tailored eating regimens and dieting techniques is to some extent a distraction from that, a dangerous one, because it promotes the idea that basic nature and fundamental biology can somehow be gamed, cheated, transcended.

“In terms of diet, the general laws of thermodynamics hold,” Rudolph Leibel, an obesity expert at the Columbia University Medical Center, told me. “The issue of — ‘If I eat a diet of all watermelons as opposed to a diet of hamburgers with the same number of calories, will I be able to lose more weight on the watermelons?’ — that’s a specious argument. We’re dealing with chemistry and physics, not imagination.”

But how imaginative we get! How creatively we edit the smorgasbord of possibility, intent on a formula superior to all others. This person forswears gluten. That person exiles starch. There are plutocrats who are eating like cavemen. There are disciples of the lifestyle guru Timothy Ferriss who are weighing their poop.

Enhanced education and growing sophistication haven’t done away with fads. There’s still too much favor to be curried and money to be made by trumpeting them.

Cue Oz. A distinguished cardiothoracic surgeon, he has traded time in the hospital for time on TV, where he revisits no topic more incessantly than (supposedly) ingenious ways to slim down. With a shameless vocabulary of “magic,” “miracle” and “revolutionary,” he has showcased or outright validated HCG hormone shots, green coffee bean supplements, raspberry ketone supplements and more. He told viewers: “I’m going to show you how you can get fat to eat itself right out of your body.”

The sum of these exhortations “just violates science,” said Leibel. “It’d be like if we went to NASA and they were using astrological charts to try to figure out how to get a rocket to Europa. It’s at that level.”

On Oz’s website, under the “Weight Loss Directory,” there are subcategories including “Rapid Belly Melt” and “Mega Metabolism Boosters.” Garcinia Cambogia is celebrated ad nauseam.

And a person can start to wonder. A person can cave. I did, even though the “starch blocker” tablets that I took in college did nothing and decades of trendy diets have confirmed one and only one magic bullet: a mix of restrained eating and regular exercise.

The Garcinia Cambogia is still in the cupboard because it’s half full. I wised up after a futile week of two pills daily. If I wise up all the way, I’ll throw the bottle out.

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

May 25, 2014

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us all about “The Tea Party Legacy.”  He babbles that the movement’s final chapter hasn’t been written yet.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it’s more terrible when it’s put to use apologizing for ignorance. Douthat is fully aware of the embarrassment the Tea Party has caused this country.  That’s why his column is a litany of false equivalences that tries to balance the justifiable outrage of liberals against the Bush/Cheney wars with the awakening of entitlement-hating, homophobic race-baiting zealots.”  MoDo has written a beautiful reminiscence.  In “Some Like It Hot” she remembers tales of an Arthurian legend who made newspapers crackle.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Memorial Day 2050:”  How do we motivate people to do something about climate change?  In “Graduate of the Year” Mr. Kristof says send a girl to school and educate a village. Seriously, Tay Thi Nguyen, who went hungry and defied her mother to get a degree, plans to return to her village in Vietnam to teach others.  In “Read These Lips” Mr. Bruni says one gesture above others makes and measures history, bringing us all face to face.  Here’s The Putz:

The Tea Party is finished: smashed, at last, by the power and dollars of the Republican establishment, whose candidates — including Mitch McConnell, the most establishment Republican of all — easily turned back right-wing primary challengers last week.

No, the Tea Party has won: There simply isn’t that much difference between an establishment Republican and a Tea Party Republican anymore, and if grass-roots challengers are losing more races it’s because they’ve succeeded in yanking the party far enough to the right that there isn’t any space for them to fill.

These are the two narratives that swirled around the G.O.P. after last Tuesday’s primaries, and both contain a measure of truth. But there’s a third way to look at the State of the Tea Party, circa 2014, which is that the movement’s political legacy still has a big To Be Determined sticker on it.

To understand why, think about another recent grass-roots movement that reshaped our politics: the netroots/Deaniac/antiwar insurgency, which roiled the Democratic Party between 2003 and the ascendance of Barack Obama.

In a 2008 article for The Nation, the future MSNBC host Chris Hayes profiled some of that insurgency’s activists. He found that while they were (as you would expect) liberal or left-leaning, they were also people who had been mostly apolitical until the Bush era, and who had been prodded into activism by the Iraq-era sense that Something Had Gone Wrong, that an America they took for granted was suddenly imperiled.

This is a useful way to think about Tea Party activism as well. The movement was always essentially right-wing, which is why it was embraced (and, at times, exploited) by the right’s pre-existing network of professionals and pressure groups. But it changed Republican politics precisely because it mobilized Americans who were new to political activism and agitation, and who behaved like people awakened from a slumber to a situation they no longer recognized. Wait, we bailed out Wall Street … ? Our deficits are … how big? And this Barack Hussein Obama, where did he come from?

This mix of passion and paranoia, commitment and confusion, explains why the Tea Party’s precise ideological lineaments were so hard for many observers to discern, why its leaders were so varied — libertarians and evangelicals, entitlement reformers and ex-witches — and why all the attempts to essentialize the movement (as libertarian or authoritarian, anti-Wall Street or pro-Wall Street, pro-military or pro-defense cuts, pro-Medicare or anti-New Deal) didn’t capture its complexity.

Thus Paul Ryan’s green-eyeshaded Medicare blueprints and Herman Cain’s fanciful 9-9-9 plan were both “Tea Party” phenomena. Likewise Glenn Beck’s conspiracy-scrawled blackboards and his teary, apolitical Washington Mall consciousness-raising. Likewise Ron Paul’s and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, in which two ideologically dissimilar Republican politicians both claimed a “Tea Party” mantle.

Likewise Mitt Romney … well, no, actually, the one thing about Republican politics that pretty clearly wasn’t “Tea Party” was the man the G.O.P. ultimately nominated in 2012.

And therein lies a crucial difference between the left-wing insurgency of the Bush era and the right-wing insurgency of the last five years. It isn’t just that the Bush-era Democratic Party didn’t end up as imprisoned by its insurgents’ self-destructive tendencies. (The antiwar movement did not produce a government shutdown, for instance.) It’s also that the Democrats found, in Barack Obama, a liberal politician who could transmute the anger of the Michael Moore/Cindy Sheehan era into a more uplifting message, and transform a left-vs.-center civil war into a new center-left majority.

For Republicans, no such transformative conservative politician has emerged. But — and this is why the Tea Party’s legacy is unfinished — there are several politicians, all elected as insurgents and all potential presidential candidates in 2016, who still aspire to be the Tea Party’s version of Obama: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And because each embodies different facets of the Tea Party phenomenon, each would write a very different conclusion to its story.

A Rubio victory would probably make the Tea Party seem a little less ideological in hindsight, a little more Middle American and populist, and more like a course correction after George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” than a transformative event.

A Cruz triumph would lend itself to a more ideological reading of the Tea Party’s impact, but one that fit readily into existing categories: It would suggest that Tea Party-ism was essentially the old Reagan catechism in a tricorn hat, movement conservatism under a “don’t tread on me” banner.

A Paul victory would write a starkly libertarian conclusion to the Tea Party’s story, making it seem much more revolutionary — a true break with both Reaganism and Bushism, with an uncertain future waiting beyond.

And what about a Jeb Bush victory, you say? Well, then maybe it will be time to talk, not about the Tea Party’s unsettled legacy, but about its actual defeat.

Here’s MoDo’s reminiscence:

Some people have such a radical vitality, such an electric consciousness, such a lifelong love affair with the world that when they stop breathing, it’s like a wind dying, like the waning and disappearing of a light.

And the world feels duller and dumber and more lackluster without them.

Arthur Gelb, the New York Times editor known as “The Arthurian Legend,” had that constant, overflowing, generous engagement. The world was always putting its hooks in him, and he was always putting his hooks in the world.

Immersed in an “All About Eve” milieu of theater and criticism animated by schadenfreude, Arthur didn’t have any. During my job interview, he told me that he enjoyed being an editor because as a reporter he could think of 17 stories but work on only one at a time, while as an editor he could assign all 17 at once.

He was 17 stories all by himself, the most cultivated ink-stained wretch ever.

Arthur was 90 when he died on Tuesday, and he had written a zesty reminiscence, “City Room,” about the raffish “Front Page” era in journalism. Yet there was nothing fusty about him.

Even in the exuberant age of Abe and Arthur, the tall, kinetic member of the team had a Twitter metabolism and Big Data appetite.

I always associated him with “V” words — Vesuvian, voracious, voltaic. In his imagination, almost any random remark you dropped could be spun into a potential story, causing his eyes to flash and arms to flap.

Once when he invited some reporters to dinner at Sardi’s he spied Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish at a nearby table. “Go interview them!” he whispered to Michi Kakutani, even though there was no news peg and it would run only in the second edition. While she was gone, he had her untouched dinner put in a doggie bag.

The third Eugene O’Neill biography that he wrote with his wife, Barbara, will be published next year. It focuses on the three wives who influenced the playwright and is titled “By Women Possessed.”

That could also work as the title of an Arthur bio. “I like women,” he would say with a shrug.

He especially liked talented, neurotic, operatic women — funny, since his son Peter grew up to be the visionary head of the Met.

Arthur loved getting to the heart of women’s hearts. Once, dining with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, he asked Farrow how on earth she could be attracted to both Woody and Frank Sinatra.

And there was the time he sent the Times music critic Harold Schonberg over to ask the irascible Wanda Horowitz what it was like to have two demanding musical geniuses in her life — her father, Arturo Toscanini, and her husband, Vladimir Horowitz.

“They ruined my life and they should roast in hell!” she shrieked.

Arthur never tired of telling how he discovered Barbra Streisand in the Village and fell in love with 19-year-old Barbara Stone the day the comely redhead started working with him on the Times copy desk.

As a young theater reporter, he was always getting bewitched by beautiful actresses.

One morning in 1951, he went to a small midtown hotel to interview “a new personality” handpicked by Colette to star in “Gigi” on Broadway.

“She opened the door and she was in her bathrobe,” he told me, “and she looked a little disheveled, and that was very exciting, and I found my heart pounding a little bit because she was so pretty close up. And she was so intelligent and she had humor and a kind of come-hither way when she talked to a man.”

He peppered her with so many questions, she told him they should finish up over dinner at the Plaza.

When he called Barbara to tell her he had to work late interviewing Audrey Hepburn, his irritated bride replied, “You call that work?”

My favorite story, which I made Arthur retell on a BBC radio show a couple years ago, was his “drunken prank” on Marilyn Monroe.

One night in the early 1950s when he was about 30 and was working on night rewrite, he and his fellow rewrite guys took their 10 o’clock dinner break at Sardi’s. Monroe came in with a group and was seated at the next table.

Her dress had a low-cut back, and Arthur said he and his pals were “mesmerized by her back” and her “absolutely flawless skin, very white, very pure.”

“One of us said, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to just touch that back?’ And before we knew it, we were talking about who would have the guts, the nerve, the bravery to touch her. We all put up a couple of dollars and said the first person who leans over and touches her will collect the money. And I, with bravado — I was kind of a wise-guy young man — leaned over quickly and just touched her with my forefinger.

“I thought I’d touch her and maybe she wouldn’t even feel the touch. But she swung around and said in the loudest voice imaginable: ‘Who did that?’ And we just went into our clothes to hide. It was just the most horrible moment you could possibly imagine. And her friends said, ‘Come on, Marilyn,’ and they calmed her down and turned her around. I collected the 10 bucks and we got out of there.”

Some like it hot. Arthur liked it crackling.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:

Of the many things being said about climate change lately, none was more eloquent than the point made by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State in the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” when he observed: “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

The question is how do we motivate people to do something about it at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life — and when climate scientists themselves caution that it is impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change, even if recent weather extremes fit their models of exactly how things will play out as the planet warms.

Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog last week linked to a very novel approach offered by Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher: Since climate change and environmental degradation pit the present against the future, our generation versus those unborn, we should start by giving the future a voice in our present politics.

“Even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example),” wrote Wells in Aeon Magazine. Since “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election,” we  “should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way.”

Wells suggests creating a public “trusteeship” of nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks “and give them each equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 percent of the electorate,” so they can represent issues like “de-carbonizing the economy” and “guaranteeing pension entitlements” for the unborn generation that will be deeply impacted but has no vote.

Unrealistic, I know, but the need to incorporate longer time scales into our societal choices is very real — and right in the lap of our generation. Andy Revkin, who blogs at Dot Earth for The Times’s Opinion section, put it well: “We are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we manage infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory, not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite — how can we make a transition to a stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other — is the story of our time.”

One way to get us to act with an intergenerational perspective is to enlarge the problem beyond climate — to make people understand that this is our generation’s freedom struggle. The abiding strategy of our parents’ generation was “containment” of communism in order to be free. The abiding strategy of our generation has to be “resilience.” We will only be free to live the lives we want if we make our cities, country and planet more resilient.

Even if we can’t attribute any particular storm to climate change, by continually pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we are “loading the dice” in ways that climate scientists are convinced will continue to raise average temperatures, melt more ice, raise sea levels, warm oceans and make “normal” droughts drier, heat waves hotter, rainstorms more violent and the most disruptive storms even more disruptive. It is crazy to keep loading those dice and making ourselves more vulnerable to disruptions that will make us less free to live the lives we want. How free will we be when paying the exorbitant cleanup costs of endless weather extremes?

Moreover, acting today as if climate change requires an urgent response — like replacing income and corporate taxes with a carbon tax, introducing a national renewable portfolio standard to constantly stimulate more renewable energy and raising the efficiency standards for every home, building and vehicle — actually makes us healthier, more prosperous and more resilient, even if climate change turns out to be overblown. We would end up with cleaner air and a tax structure that rewards more of what we want (work and investment) and disincentivizes what we don’t want (carbon pollution). We would be taking money away from the worst enemies of freedom on the planet, the world’s petro-dictators; and we would be incentivizing our industries to take the lead in manufacturing clean air, water and power systems, which will be in huge demand on a planet going from 7 billion to 9 billion people by 2050.

In short, by taking the climate threat seriously now, we’d make ourselves so much more economically, physically, environmentally and geopolitically resilient — and, therefore, more free.

What containment was for our parents’ generation — their strategy to fight for freedom against the biggest threat of their day — resiliency will be for our generation against the multiple threats of our day: climate change, petro-dictatorship and destruction of our environment and biodiversity. Let’s act so the next generation will want to honor us with a Memorial Day, the way we honor the sacrifice of previous generations.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof, writing from Long An, Vietnam:

Tay Thi Nguyen is one of the mightiest people I’ve met, at 94 pounds. She has a towering presence, at a bit more than 5 feet tall. She is so strong that she probably could bench press 25 pounds.

Three times Tay Thi has fainted while here at college, training to become an English teacher, because she starved herself to afford tuition. But she had the strength to persist and soon will become the first person in her village to graduate from college, and she embodies such grit and selflessness that, to me, she’s the world’s college graduate of the year.

Tay Thi, 20, also underscores the principle — especially important in the aftermath of the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls — that the best leverage we have to achieve social change is to educate girls.

The eighth of nine children to an impoverished farming family in the Mekong Delta, Tay Thi shone in school, but her mother demanded — unsuccessfully — that she drop out after primary school and earn money as a live-in housemaid in distant Ho Chi Minh City.

“She got very angry with me,” Tay Thi recalled. In eighth grade, her mom burned her school books to try to force her to drop out, but Tay Thi borrowed books and continued to excel.

Staying in school was possible because of the help she received from Room to Read, an aid group that sponsored Tay Thi and covered her school fees, uniform, books, bicycle to get to school and other expenses.

Tay Thi persevered, even when her parents again burned her books in 12th grade, and, as she graduated from high school, she prepared secretly for the college entrance examination. Her mother found out about this when Tay Thi left to take the exam and lashed out, saying “I hope you fail the exams.”

Other students arrived at the exam location escorted by cheering, doting parents; Tay Thi arrived alone, sobbing. Still, she aced the exam.

With no parental subsidy, college seemed unaffordable, but Tay Thi saved every penny she could. She had long worked every vacation — sometimes in a factory job by day and in a duck soup restaurant by night until 2 a.m. Even during Vietnamese New Year celebrations, she worked in the fields by herself to catch crabs for money — watching the fireworks in the distance.

At college, Tay Thi confined herself to a food budget of $3.50 — per week. Malnourished, she sometimes toppled over in the middle of class in a dead faint.

Professors and students discovered that she was starved and basically penniless — leaving Tay Thi feeling humiliated. “I was so upset about that,” she said, but, in retrospect, it was a turning point because her teachers and classmates responded with kindness, sympathy and help.

Room to Read arranged a corporate scholarship, which gave her a bit more spending money, and Tay Thi managed to eat enough to keep from fainting in public.

Tay Thi shares a small room with two other young women, all sleeping on the floor next to each other. She set up a small reading light that won’t keep the others awake. She studies until midnight, and then sets her alarm for 4 a.m. to resume studying.

She is just as passionate about education for others. First, she encouraged her older brother to return to school, after years of working as a laborer, so he could become a mechanic. When he resisted, Tay Thi went out and registered him as a student, picking his courses and browbeating him until he gave in.

Then she coaxed her younger brother to follow her to college, where he is now a freshman. Even her parents have come around, partly because they see that Tay Thi will soon be an English teacher — and the best-paid member of the extended family.

Tay Thi is trying to arrange to teach in her own remote village school, where she wants to advocate for education. “I would like to change people’s thinking,” she says. “It’s a way of helping children in my community,” she said.

The kidnappings in Nigeria have put a spotlight on girls’ education, and Tay Thi is an example of why the issue is critical. It’s sometimes said that if you send a boy to school, you educate a man; if you send a girl to school, you educate a village. That’s not always true, but empowering girls remains one of the best ways to empower a community. Girls’ education also strongly correlates to reduced family size. When I asked Tay Thi if she planned to have nine children like her mom, she roared with laughter and gave a firm “NO!”

So let’s celebrate the mightiest college graduate of this commencement season, a young woman of incomparable strength who now is thrilled at the prospect of returning to an impoverished farming village to teach children and change the world.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

A kiss is nothing. On the sidewalks, in the park, I see one every few minutes, a real kiss, lip to lip. It barely registers. It’s as unremarkable as a car horn in traffic, as an umbrella in rain.

And yet a kiss is everything. A kiss can stop the world.

The football player Michael Sam recently demonstrated as much. So did my experience last Sunday, in a Broadway theater, of all places.

I say “of all places” because a theater is a progressive environment, and this theater, on this night, was especially so. In the audience were many people who’d participated hours earlier in the city’s annual AIDS Walk, to which the performance was linked. And the performance was of “Mothers and Sons,” a Tony-nominated play about gay shame, gay pride and our steady march toward a less censorious society.

So it wasn’t surprising, or shouldn’t have been, when the woman in the seat beside mine stood to greet the woman who was belatedly joining her with a kiss, on the mouth, that lasted long enough to be unmistakably romantic.

“Did you catch that?” said my own companion.

I most definitely had. And while neither of us was scandalized, we were jolted nonetheless. We marveled — even in the middle of 2014, even on the cusp of a week in which Oregon and Pennsylvania joined the rapidly growing list of states to legalize same-sex marriage — that the couple could do this and would do this in front of so many witnesses, in a setting so public. Others around us had also taken note, their eyes lingering on the two women for a while.

Maybe marriage isn’t the dividing line between equality and inequality, between getting full, reflexive acceptance from the world and getting a piecemeal, willed respect. Maybe that border is traced with kisses: with what Sam did and how those women said hello and the kind of reaction it elicits and whether it elicits any reaction at all.

There’s a rich history of the kiss as frontier. I was reminded of this a few days after the show, as I delved deeper into an excellent book that I happened to be reading, “Pictures at a Revolution.” Written by the journalist Mark Harris, it examines the changes convulsing Hollywood in the 1960s. Chunks of it focus on the trailblazing career of Sidney Poitier, and there were kisses on that trail, beginning with one in “A Patch of Blue,” a 1965 movie about a black man’s friendship, blooming into love, with a young white woman.

The woman is blind, and it’s a measure of Hollywood’s heavy-handedness at the time that she can’t see the object of her affection: Racism is expunged only when skin color is literally erased. What’s more, Poitier’s character isn’t the agent of the kiss, which Harris identifies as the first of its kind in a big mainstream movie. The white woman initiates it, and it stuns him.

Even so, these fleeting seconds of “A Patch of Blue” were cut from the prints of the movie distributed in the South, Harris writes. This was two years before Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down the laws in many Southern states that banned interracial marriage.

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” released six months after Loving v. Virginia, Poitier again kisses a white woman. And it’s again presented in a manner that suggests its audacity — as a shadowy clutch in the rearview mirror of a taxicab whose driver isn’t prepared for it.

In a famous episode of the television sitcom “All in the Family” in 1972, the black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, defiantly plants a kiss on the cheek of the white bigot Archie Bunker, who is visibly aghast. The kiss is the great equalizer, collapsing the distance between two people, leveling their altitudes. It makes them one and it makes them the same.

A kiss speaks volumes, even when it doesn’t say precisely that. As Maureen Dowd noted in a 1984 story in The Times about Geraldine Ferraro’s historic selection as Walter Mondale’s running mate, Mondale was strenuously advised not to kiss her, lest he seem to treat her with less dignity and ceremony than he would a man. Sixteen years later, at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, it was a kiss — an exuberant, extravagant, somebody-please-get-them-a-room kiss — with which Al Gore communicated his passion for Tipper and his passion, period, to an electorate that needed to see it.

In 1993, as a commentary on longstanding tensions between Jews and African-Americans in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, The New Yorker ran a cover illustration by Art Spiegelman of a white Hasidic man enfolding a black woman in a kiss. Many people were shocked.

Now it’s the gay kisses we’re all aflutter about. They’ve been a long time coming. Sandra Bernhard, who played a lesbian on the sitcom “Roseanne” in the 1990s, remembers hearing a director yell “Cut!” as she and the actress Morgan Fairchild stood facing each other under mistletoe and leaned in. “The censors would not let us finish that kiss,” Bernhard told me.

In a subsequent episode, there was indeed a woman-to-woman kiss, though not involving her. But across eight seasons of “Will & Grace,” there were just three man-to-man kisses, according to Max Mutchnick, one of the show’s creators, and the paucity of kisses in “Modern Family” has been a sustained curiosity.

Gay characters who trade sass and sexual innuendo are safe. Public expressions of gay intimacy aren’t.

And they’re still rare enough that the initial, internal reaction that I and many other gay people had to the way Sam clutched and kissed his boyfriend on national TV wasn’t exultation. It was alarm. Had he gone too far? Asked too much?

“We reflexively feel in our core that someone’s going to get punched, and that’s why we wince,” said Mutchnick, 48, noting that he and I and so many gay people spent our youths and maybe portions of our adult lives walking on eggshells, speaking in whispers.

Those eggshells cling. I still sometimes feel panic when my partner, meeting me in a restaurant, gives me a perfunctory kiss on the lips. And yet I feel robbed — wronged — if I sense that an awareness of other people’s gazes and a fear of their judgment are preventing him from doing that.

We shouldn’t be bound that way, and on the day of the pro football draft, in front of the cameras, Sam rightly declared that he wasn’t. He did so with a gesture at once humdrum and heroic, a gesture that connects everyone who has been in love and affirms what every love shares: physical tenderness, eye-to-eye togetherness. It was something to behold. It was something to hold on to.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

May 20, 2014

In “The Big Debate” Bobo gurgles that only by returning to its roots can American democracy prevail against the efficiency of new, booming autocracies.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Our democracy has become defective because it is under attack by a form of malignant conservatism. Oligarchs and fundamentalists have worked to corrode democracy from within, and then use the dysfunction they’ve created to demonstrate its failure. … The democratic process has been hijacked by a small number of the filthy rich, aided and abetted by shills and lickspittles who are paid to tell us that it’s the people who are the problem.”  Mr. Cohen is in Kiev.  In “Gettysburg on the Maidan” he says Ukraine’s leader shares his thoughts on Putin’s land grab and Kiev’s battle for Western values.  In “Bankrupt Housing Policy” Mr. Nocera says a memoir from Timothy Geithner offers the chance to look back on the financial crisis and ask: Why didn’t the government do more to help homeowners?  I’d ask a different question — Why aren’t a gaggle of banksters rotting in jail?  Mr. Bruni ponders “Hillary’s Obstacle Course” and says between Bill’s soliloquies and Barack’s slump, she’s got problems.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe. In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.

According to measures by Freedom House, freedom has been in retreat around the world for the past eight years. New democracies like South Africa are decaying; the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their book, “The Fourth Revolution,” “so far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the Western model.”

The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.

Across the Western world, people are disgusted with their governments. There is a widening gap between the pace of social and economic change, and the pace of government change. In Britain, for example, productivity in the private service sector increased by 14 percent between 1999 and 2013, while productivity in the government sector fell by 1 percent between 1999 and 2010.

These trends have sparked a sprawling debate in the small policy journals: Is democracy in long-run decline?

A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State. In their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do an outstanding job of describing Asia’s modernizing autocracies. In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.

In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life. The safety net is smaller and less forgiving. In Singapore, 90 percent of what you get out of the key pension is what you put in. Work is rewarded. People are expected to look after their own.

These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.

Most important, they are more innovative than Western democracies right now. If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America? If you wanted a model for your pension system, would you go to Singapore or the U.S.? “These are not hard questions to answer,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “and they do not reflect well on the West.”

So how should Western democracies respond to this competition? What’s needed is not so much a vision of the proper role for the state as a strategy to make democracy dynamic again.

The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level. At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.

Democracy is always messy, but, historically, it’s thrived because it has been more flexible than its rivals. In 1787, democracy’s champions innovated faster. Is that still true?

After that I’m going to add a long comment from “Jack in Chicago” who had this to say:  “At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic.” This is a statement not connected to any experience I have had with respect to current American politics. It is simply ridiculous. Mr. Brooks patches together generalizations, false equivalences, and catchy phrases. What this column doesn’t contain is any deep thought or insight. “Speed at the top”, “speed at the bottom” what does it all mean? Not much, I think. After reading these columns for too long now, I finally realize that whatever Mr. Brooks is for, I’m against, so maybe reading this stuff has devolved into pointlessness.”  Amen, Jack.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Ukrainians are reluctant to dismantle the symbols of their revolution on streets that have become the hallowed ground of democracy and a nation-constituting struggle. On Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and in the surrounding area, makeshift barricades of tires and timber, impromptu shrines to the more than 100 dead, and Ukrainian flags flanked by that of the European Union constitute a stage set of defiance against Russian aggression.

This unusual urban landscape, at once stirring and vulnerable, surrounds the office of Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister and a man now forged, like many young Ukrainians, in the bloodshed of defiance.

“Putin is caught in the cell of his own propaganda,” Yatsenyuk said of the Russian president. “We can offer him an off-ramp. It is called ‘Get out of Crimea.’ I spoke to his envoy and I told him that even the Roman emperors disappeared, and one day we will have Crimea back.”

His words may appear quixotic, given Russian might and Ukrainian weakness, but Yatsenyuk’s determination reflects a clear choice that has emerged from the success of the Maidan uprising and the ousting of the former president and corrupt Putin toady, Viktor F. Yanukovych: in favor of European pluralism and against a Eurasian imperium.

Ukraine is today the pivot of a struggle between individual freedom and imprisoning empire. There is no halfway house in this confrontation and no escaping the imperative of moral clarity in picking sides. Vladimir V. Putin’s unleashed nationalism and Crimean land grab represent a return to Europe’s darkest days. Americans and Europeans need to stand together to resist this threat.

“I don’t know what’s in Putin’s head or what his final destination is,” Yatsenyuk said. “Luhansk? Lviv? Lisbon? Ask our Polish friends. They are afraid of Russian troops. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has decided to grab the land of an independent country.”

The prime minister was speaking to a small group of American, Canadian and European visitors, including the Polish author and former dissident, Adam Michnik; the former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner; the literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier; and the Yale historian, Timothy Snyder.

Snyder has recently written in The New Republic: “We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience.”

The fact that Putin has chosen the label “fascists” for the likes of Yatsenyuk in Kiev (even as the Kremlin maintains excellent relations with extreme-right parties in Western Europe) only underscores the Orwellian mind games of his resurgent nationalism. It is typical of fascism to twist history into a narrative of national humiliation justifying the apotheosis of an avenging leader bent on righting these supposed wrongs — be they in the Sudetenland or Ukraine.

During an hourlong conversation, Yatsenyuk said Russia would do its best to “disrupt and undermine” Ukraine’s May 25 election, suggesting there were now up to 20,000 armed people in the eastern part of the country orchestrated by several hundred well-trained Russian agents. Nevertheless, he said, a credible election across most of Ukrainian territory is possible. “We need a legitimate president,” he said.

He rejected the federalization of Ukraine — “Buy every governor; that is the Russian planning behind so-called federalization” — but spoke strongly in favor of the devolution of power and the rights of Russian speakers. “My wife speaks Russian and she does not need any protection from President Putin,” he declared.

Putin must recognize that Ukraine is a “European state” that will go ahead with its contested association agreement with the European Union and recognize the results of the election, Yatsenyuk said. He said Ukraine is ready to pay its debts to Gazprom, the Russian energy company, on condition that Russia adopts “a market-based not a politically-based approach” — cutting off trade when it suits Putin to punish Kiev.

Asked about American policy toward Ukraine, the prime minister sighed deeply. He said he recognizes that every nation has its limits and constraints. But he continued: “The United States is the leader of the free world. You have to lead. If someone crosses a red line, he is to be prosecuted for this in all ways.” As for American military support, he said, “I never ask in case I don’t get it,” adding that he would of course be “happy to have Patriot missiles on Ukrainian soil.”

There is no question that Putin has exploited a perception of American weakness that began in Syria with President Obama’s retreat there from his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons — a retreat that at once underwrote President Bashar al-Assad, strengthened Putin and undermined American credibility. Ukrainians have now died fighting for American and European values of liberty and pluralism. After its Gettysburg on the Maidan, a free and independent Ukraine is a critical U.S. interest and test.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The publication of Timothy Geithner’s memoir, “Stress Test,” has caused all the old arguments that were fought during the financial crisis to come rushing to the surface again.

Did the government make a mistake in allowing Lehman Brothers to file for bankruptcy? Was it right to bail out the too-big-to-fail banks despite all the harm they had done to the economy? As Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, put it in her review of “Stress Test”: “Tim’s book has reinvigorated a much-needed debate about whether our financial system should be based on a paradigm of bailouts or on one of accountability.”

And one other thing: It has re-raised the question of why the government wasn’t willing to do more for struggling homeowners, who bore the burden of the Great Recession. In his book, Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, devotes a handful of pages to the Obama administration’s mortgage relief efforts, though the writing comes across as halfhearted, not unlike Geithner’s efforts while he was running the Treasury Department.

But, in the course of perusing another new book about the financial crisis, “Other People’s Houses,” by Jennifer Taub, an associate professor at Vermont Law School, I was reminded of an effort that took place in the spring of 2009 that could have made an enormous difference to homeowners, one that would have required no taxpayer money and might well have become law with a little energetic lobbying from the likes of, well, Tim Geithner. That was an attempt, led by Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator, to change the bankruptcy code so that homeowners who were underwater could modify their mortgages during the bankruptcy process. The moment has been largely forgotten; Taub has done us a favor by putting it back on the table.

As she notes, thanks to a 1993 Supreme Court decision, homeowners saddled with mortgage debt on their primary residences have not been able to take refuge in the bankruptcy courts. The unanimous ruling by the court found that when Congress rewrote the bankruptcy code in 1978, it specifically gave “favorable treatment” to mortgage lenders “to encourage the flow of capital into the home-lending market,” as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a concurring opinion. Durbin was trying to get rid of that favorable treatment.

Why? Because, as Bair told me in an email, “It would have been a powerful bargaining chip for borrowers.” Without the ability to file for bankruptcy, underwater homeowners unable to pay their mortgages were helpless to prevent foreclosures. With it, however, servicers and banks were far more likely to negotiate the debt load. And if they weren’t, a bankruptcy judge would rule on the appropriate debt to be repaid. For all the talk about the need for principal reduction, this change would have been the easiest way to get it.

Indeed, although the financial services industry had pushed hard for their bankruptcy carve-out, they would have been helped, too. Knowing that a borrower can avail himself of bankruptcy court would undoubtedly have a sobering effect on lenders, making them more cautious about underwriting standards.

As the financial crisis heated up during his first presidential run, then-candidate Obama said that he favored changing the bankruptcy laws “to make it easier for families to stay in their homes.” But he became convinced that the Democrats should not push for it as part of the controversial bailout legislation, so he backed off, promising to push it once he was in the White House.

Once he was president, however, Obama was rarely heard from on the subject. In late April 2009, with a bankruptcy bill having already passed the House, Durbin offered his amendment on the Senate side. The financial services industry pulled out all the stops, arguing that a right of bankruptcy for a homeowner would increase the cost of home loans, undermine the sanctity of contracts and promote (of course!) moral hazard.

Adam J. Levitin, a professor at Georgetown Law School, believes that nothing untoward would have happened if Durbin’s amendment had passed. He and another researcher looked at interest rate and loan size data from 1978 to 1993 when some jurisdictions did allow homeowner bankruptcies. “The effect on interest rates was small,” he told me. “The sky didn’t fall.”

He added, “This should have been a no-brainer.”

As it turns out, there is one other person who was opposed to the bankruptcy option. That was Tim Geithner. He writes in his book that he didn’t think it was “a particularly wise or effective strategy.” Although Geithner says the votes weren’t there for Durbin’s amendment, it did get 45 votes. How many more might it have gotten if the Treasury Department and the White House had come out strongly in support?

Which leads to one other unanswered question about the financial crisis. Why is it that the fear of moral hazard only applies to homeowners, and not to the banks?

The MOTU own the government and it didn’t suit them.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Reince Priebus made a joke on Sunday.

I don’t know that he meant to — comedy isn’t his forte — but the only way to hear one of his comments on “Meet the Press” was as a put-on. He said that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t run for the presidency if “she has another month like she just had,” with questions about Monica, about Benghazi, about Boko Haram, about her brain.

I almost fell down. For one thing, she’s had countless months like that. For another, they’re the only kind on the horizon: Hillary as the fodder for the morning talk shows (on Sunday’s panels, she came up 98 times, according to a Washington Post tally) and Hillary as a piñata for late-night comedians; strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with a modicum of merit and strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with none.

If Republicans believed in global warming, they’d surely divine her hand in it. Speaking of body parts, I suspect we’ll move from Hillary’s brain to her heart, probably her liver, possibly her pancreas and maybe even her pinkie toe. What Hillary goes through in the public arena isn’t an examination. It’s a vivisection.

That she endures it is admirable. That she’s so willing to is scary. With all politicians, you worry about the intensity of the hunger that enables them to suffer the snows of Iowa and the slings and arrows of outrageous pundits. With Hillary and Bill, you worry that it’s rapaciousness beyond bounds.

You also grow weary. The Clintons are exhausting. And that’s just one of many drawbacks worth discussing as Hillary plays Hamlet, mulling what to do.

She’s without doubt the contender to bet on. But she’s a contender with baggage and obstacles that get woefully short shrift in all the nonstop chatter about her inevitability.

For starters, Americans have been in a pessimistic mood for an unusually sustained period, their faith in the political system at rock bottom. How does someone who’s been front and center in that system for more than two decades — who’s a symbol of intense partisan warfare — become the voice of change? There’s no “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” for Hillary. Tomorrow was yesterday.

Remarks she made in Washington on Friday illustrated that point. At a conference titled “Big Ideas for a New America,” she mused about what “the 1990s taught us,” looking into the future by traveling into the past, which isn’t the terrain on which presidential elections are typically won.

Bill traveled there just two and a half weeks earlier, in a speech of his own at Georgetown University. “Speech” is too paltry a word; this was one of those ego extravaganzas, like his aria at the Democratic National Convention, that went on and on and reaffirmed his talent for making everything, including the current income-inequality debate, about him. In this case he was singing the praises of his own presidency’s economic record.

He was also serving notice that despite his screw-ups during Hillary’s 2008 campaign, it may be impossible to muzzle him in 2016. Just last week, on yet another stage, he again joined the fray, proclaiming Hillary blameless for Benghazi and vouching that her concussion was merely that. There’s a thin line between chivalry and butting in. Can he stay on the right side of it? If not, he could hurt her candidacy, overshadowing her and undercutting her feminist story line.

She has additional challenges. If Obama’s approval rating doesn’t rise, his would-be successors will be best served by breaking with him. For Hillary that’s hard. Given her history on health insurance, she can’t run against the Affordable Care Act. Given her role in his administration, she can’t run against his foreign policy.

How does she simultaneously defend and defy him? It’s a balancing act that Al Gore never perfected in regard to her husband.

The last month has indeed been instructive, demonstrating how practiced Republicans are at attacking her — and how exuberant they are about it. I think they want her to run. She’s the devil they know. She’s the dragon worth slaying.

She’s considered inevitable in part because she’s political royalty, awash in money and celebrity endorsements, but is royalty what an economically frustrated, embittered electorate wants? With fame of her duration and magnitude, how does she find a common touch?

And how does she show us anything that she hasn’t shown us before, introducing or even reintroducing herself?

Maybe any sense of staleness will be expunged by the prospect of a first female president, but she lacks an opportunity that many successful presidential candidates enjoyed: that period of the rollout when a more detailed biography emerges, a personality is defined and voters get a chance to swoon.

We can’t fall in love that way with Hillary, not at this point. We’re too far past the roses and Champagne.

Well, Frank, if you’re so very, very tired of reading and hearing about the Clintons why not just STFU and write about something else instead of channeling MoDo.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 157 other followers