In “The Cult Deficit” the Putz tries to ‘splain why a creative society needs fringe groups and gurus. In “From Pen and Phone to Bombs and Drones” MoDo says in needing Arab allies to help in the fight against ISIS, we turn a blind eye to their record on women. The Moustache of Wisdom has a question: “Who Had it Easier, Reagan or Obama?” He says the final answer will have to come from historians years from now, but he seems to think a look at several critical areas offers some hints. Mr. Kristof considers “Stranger Danger and Guns,” and also has a question: Is knocking on a stranger’s door dangerous? If so, maybe that’s because we tolerate a society in which unregulated guns are prevalent. In “The Wilds of Education” Mr. Bruni says the landscape that students romp across shouldn’t be too tame. Here’s the Putz:
Like most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.
Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on. Some strange experiments have aged into respectability, some sinister ones still flourish, but over all the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms. Spiritual gurus still flourish in our era, of course, but they are generally comforting, vapid, safe — a Joel Osteen rather than a Jim Jones, a Deepak Chopra rather than a David Koresh.
Twice in the last few months I’ve encountered writers taking note of this shift, and both have made a similar (and provocative) point: The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.
The first writer is Philip Jenkins, a prolific religious historian, who argues that the decline in “the number and scale of controversial fringe sects” is both “genuine and epochal,” and something that should worry more mainstream religious believers rather than comfort them. A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.
The second writer is Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, venture capitalist and controversialist, who includes an interesting aside about the decline of cults in his new book, “Zero to One” — officially a book of advice to would-be entrepreneurs, but really a treatise on escaping what he regards as the developed world’s 40-year economic, technological and cultural malaise.
The implications of Jenkins’s argument are specific to religion. Cults can be dangerous, even murderous, but they can also be mistreated and misjudged (as Koresh’s followers were, with fatal consequences); moreover, spiritual experiments led by the charismatic and the zealous are essential to religious creativity and fruitful change. From the Franciscans to the Jesuits, groups that looked cultlike to their critics have repeatedly revitalized the Catholic Church, and a similar story can be told about the role of charismatic visionaries in the American experience. (The enduring influence of one of the 19th century’s most despised and feared religious movements, for instance, is the reason the state of Utah now leads the United States on many social indicators.)
Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.
This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”
Thiel’s view of our overall situation is hotly contested, not surprisingly, on his own Silicon Valley turf. The Internet is cluttered with debates (some friendly, some less so) between Thiel and his peers over whether innovation has actually slowed down, whether recent technological progress is actually as disappointing as he frequently suggests.
But in the intellectual realm, the stagnation he identifies seems readily apparent, since whole swaths of political, ideological and religious terrain that fascinated earlier generations have been mostly written off in ours. As Mark Lilla noted in a recent New Republic essay, it’s not just that alternatives — reactionary, radical, religious — to managerial capitalism and social liberalism are no longer much embraced; it’s that our best and brightest no longer seem to have any sense of why anyone ever found alternatives worth exploring in the first place.
Perhaps the sacrifice is worth it, and a little intellectual stagnation is a reasonable price to pay for fewer cults and Communists.
Or maybe the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.
Next up we have MoDo:
The president was at the United Nations on Wednesday urging young people across the Muslim world to reject benighted values, even as America clambers into bed with a bunch of Middle East potentates who espouse benighted values.
President Obama has been working hard to get a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates because they provide cover in the fight against the brutal, metastasizing threat of the Islamic State, a “network of death” known as ISIS, that our blunders — both of action and inaction — helped create.
He and Secretary of State John Kerry have cajoled this motley crew for the coalition — American warplanes are doing most of the airstrikes in Syria — even though in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, powerful elements are financing some of the same terrorists that their governments have been enlisted to fight.
At the U.N. on Tuesday, in a scene in a fancy-old New York hotel that evoked Marlon Brando making the peace with the heads of the five families in “The Godfather,” President Obama offered a tableau of respect to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“This represents partners and friends in which we have worked for very many years to make sure that security and prosperity exists in the region,” he said.
When American presidents rain down bombs on Muslim countries, they use the awful treatment of women in the Middle East as one of their justifications.
In his speech at the United Nations, President Obama said he wanted “to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world” and urged them to create “genuine” civil societies.
“Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed,” he said. “And that’s why we support the participation of women in parliaments and peace processes, schools and the economy.”
Yet, because we need the regressive rulers in the Persian Gulf to sell us oil and buy our fighter jets and house our fleets and drones and give us cover in our war coalitions, we don’t really speak out about their human rights violations and degradation of women as much as we should. The Obama administration was sparked to action by the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia — wooed to be in the coalition by Kerry with a personal visit this month — has been chopping off heads regularly, sometimes for nonlethal crimes such as drugs or sorcery.
The president should just drop the flowery talk and cut to the chase. Americans get it. Let’s not pretend we’re fighting for any democratic principles here.
America failed spectacularly in creating its democratic model kitchen with Iraq. So now we have to go back periodically and cut the grass, as they say in Israel, to keep our virulent foes in check.
It is pre-emption. But the difference with President Obama’s pre-emption is that there is an actual threat to the globe from a vicious, maniacal army. President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice made up a threat to America from a contained and diminished Saddam Hussein to justify pre-emption and serve their more subterranean purposes.
Eight months ago, the president was reduced to threatening to act without Congress, warning: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”
Now he’s brandishing bombs and drones on a scale he’s never done before. The ex-community activist elected on a peace platform has grown accustomed to coldly ordering the killing of bad guys.
“It’s hard to imagine that in his wildest dreams — or nightmares — he ever foresaw the in-box he has,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But, as Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minister, said once, when asked what disrupted his best-laid plans: “Events, dear boy, events.”
As the U.S. woos the Arab coalition, Arab leaders are not speaking out against the atrocities of ISIS against women.
“It is the obligation and duty of Arab countries, where men always feel so possessive about their mother, their wife, their daughter, to condemn ISIS’s violence against women,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. “Why don’t they say a word?
“I’ve been working with women in the Middle East for 40 years, and I’ve never seen such brutality, such barbarism as that which ISIS is committing against women. It is unbelievable.”
We are so far from where the dunderheads of the Bush administration were in 2003, with George W. Bush bragging about his cakewalk of weakening dictators, forging democracies and recognizing the rights of women. As it has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region, ISIS has been targeting professional women. An Iraqi lawyer who worked to promote women’s rights was grabbed from her home last week after she posted complaints on her Facebook page about ISIS’s “barbaric” destruction of mosques and shrines in Mosul. Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy was tortured for days; then a masked firing squad executed her on Monday and then told her family she could not have a funeral.
In a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “ISIS’s Cruelty Toward Women Gets Scant Attention,” Esfandiari toted up a litany of horrors, including the tragic story of a woman who was tied to a tree, naked, and repeatedly raped by ISIS fighters, who are “rewarded” with droit du seigneur as they assault and pillage their way toward an Islamic caliphate.
She noted that even though ISIS propaganda emphasizes protecting the morality of women, it has taken little girls playing with dolls and married them off to fighters three times older, set up “marriage bureaus” in captured Syrian towns to recruit virgins and widows to marry fighters, and tied together women with a rope as though “they were being led to a makeshift slave market.”
She told me that “it’s a strategy to shame women and undermine their families. In our part of the world, a woman who has been raped, whether once or 50 times, feels ashamed, her family feels ashamed. Some commit suicide. Others become pregnant and are ostracized by their family and community, with no fault at all of their own.”
Haass noted that one of the lessons we should have learned in fighting halfway around the world, from Vietnam to Iraq, is “the power of local realities.”
“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can’t deliver fundamental social and cultural transformation in this part of the world,” he said. “Our ability to influence the position or status of women in the Arab or Muslim world is limited.”
He said the Arab coalition is necessary because “our priority has got to be to push back and weaken ISIS.
“Even if we’re not in a position to give women the better life they deserve,” he concluded, “we are in a position to save many of them from what ISIS would do to them. And that’s significant.”
And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ken Adelman’s fascinating history “Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War.” Adelman, who led Reagan’s arms control agency, was an adviser at Reagan’s 1986 Iceland summit meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Using some newly declassified documents, Adelman fills out the extraordinary dialogue between the two leaders that set in motion a dramatic cut in nuclear arms.
You learn a lot about Reagan’s leadership in the book. For me, the most impressive thing was not Reagan’s attachment to his “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, which is overrated in ending the Cold War. What is most impressive about Reagan is that he grasped that Gorbachev was a radically different kind of Soviet leader — one with whom he could make history — long before his intelligence community did. That made a big difference.
These days there is a lot of “if-only-Obama-could-lead-like-Reagan” talk by conservatives. I’ll leave it to historians to figure out years from now who was the better president. But what I’d argue is this: In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now.
“Easier world, are you kidding?” say conservatives. “Reagan was up against a Communist superpower that had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at us! How can you say that?”
Here’s how: The defining struggle in Reagan’s day was the Cold War, and the defining feature of the Cold War was that it was a war between two different systems of order: Communism versus democratic capitalism. But both systems competed to build order — to reinforce weak states around the world with military and economic aid and win their support in the Cold War. And when either Moscow or Washington telephoned another state around the world, there was almost always someone to answer the phone. They even ensured that their proxy wars — like Vietnam and Afghanistan — were relatively contained.
Obama’s world is different. It is increasingly divided by regions of order and regions of disorder, where there is no one to answer the phone, and the main competition is not between two organized superpowers but between a superpower and many superempowered angry men. On 9/11, we were attacked, and badly hurt, by a person: Osama bin Laden, and his superempowered gang. When superempowered angry men have more open space within which to operate, and more powerful weapons and communication tools, just one needle in a haystack can hurt us.
Most important, Reagan’s chief rival, Gorbachev, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for doing something he never wanted to do: peacefully letting go of Eastern Europe. Obama’s foes, like the Islamic State, will never win the Nobel Peace Prize. Reagan could comfortably challenge Gorbachev in Berlin to “tear down this wall” because on the other side of that wall was a bad system — Communism — that was suppressing a civilization in Eastern and Central Europe, and part of Russia, that was naturally and historically inclined toward democratic capitalism. And there were leaders there — like Lech Walesa, another Nobel Peace Prize winner — to lead the transition. We just needed to help remove the bad system and step aside.
“The countries of Eastern and Central Europe were forcibly part of a Communist empire but culturally were always part of Western civilization,” explained Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist and author of “The Road to Global Prosperity.” “They never saw themselves as Communist, but rather as Westerners who had been kidnapped.” After Gorbachev, under pressure from Reagan and the West, released them, “they ran as fast as they could to embrace Western institutions.”
In the Middle East, which has consumed so much of Obama’s energy, the people tore down their walls — their systems — but underneath was not a civilization with the suppressed experience, habits and aspirations of democracy and free markets. Instead it was a toxic mix of Islamism, tribalism, sectarianism and an inchoate aspiration for democracy.
Reagan’s leadership challenge was to bring down a wall and then reap the peace dividends by just letting nature take its course. Obama’s challenge is that on the other side of the wall that the Arabs took down lies the world’s biggest nation-building project, with a civilization that is traumatized, divided and often culturally hostile to Western values and institutions. It’s an enormous job that only the locals can lead.
The one time that Reagan faced the miniversion of Obama’s challenge was in Lebanon. After Israel toppled the Palestinian ministate there, Reagan hoped it would unleash a naturally democratic order, with just a little midwifing help from American Marines. But after 241 U.S. servicemen were blown up in Beirut in 1983, Reagan realized that the civilization there was a mix of Islamists, sectarian Christians, Syrians, Shiite militias, Palestinian refugees and democrats. It required a lot more than us just standing guard. It required nation-building. And what did Reagan do? He left.
I was there to wave goodbye to the last Marines on the beaches of Beirut.
So comparing Reagan with Obama in foreign policy is inevitable. But when you do, also compare their respective contexts. The difference is revealing.
And let’s not forget that the grinning, senile old B-movie actor didn’t have to deal with virulent racism at home and an opposition party that had completely lost its mind. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Earlier this month, my iPhone vanished.
I looked up its location on an app called Find My Friends that my wife and I use, and I had a shock: The app said my phone was in a house 15 miles away, in a neighborhood that I’d never visited.
I drove there. It was night. The house looked creepy.
My wife stayed in the car, cellphone in hand, ready to summon the cavalry. I walked to the front door and rang the doorbell.
Nothing. The lights were on, so I rang again and knocked hard. I spent five minutes ringing the doorbell and pounding on the door. Finally, a man emerged.
“I think you have my phone,” I explained tautly.
“Your phone?” he asked.
“YOU HAVE MY PHONE!”
“Oh,” he said, “your phone.” He pulled it out, still with my name, email address and office phone number pasted on it, and meekly handed it over.
I left, no questions asked.
Full of myself, I posted about the adventure on social media — and provoked a firestorm. A typical comment on Facebook, from Glenna: “Are you insane?”
Many followers scolded me, while others — particularly those abroad — expressed bewilderment that it should be dangerous to knock on a door and ask for one’s property. Heidi asked: “What kind of society do we live in when knocking on someone’s door to retrieve a lost iPhone becomes perceived as life-threatening?”
Put aside the question of whether I was a knucklehead. Isn’t there a larger question of why we tolerate a society so bristling with guns that such a quest may be perilous? Aren’t we all knuckleheads for tolerating such a threat?
About one-third of American households have guns, according to a Pew survey (a bit more, Gallup says), and these firearms kill 32,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just last month, a Detroit man, Theodore Wafer, 55, was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Renisha McBride, 19, who apparently knocked on his door seeking help after she was in a car accident.
When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I encountered bewilderment at the fate of a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student in Louisiana who had been invited to a Halloween party. The boy, Yoshihiro Hattori, mistakenly went to the wrong address and rang the bell.
The homeowner, Rodney Peairs, came out with a gun and shouted, “Freeze.” Yoshihiro didn’t understand. Peairs shot him in the chest, killing him. We, as a country, should be ashamed that this prompted the Japanese government to teach its citizens traveling to the United States the word “freeze.”
As for Peairs, he had to live with himself. He was later quoted as saying that he would never again use a gun.
We turn to guns in the belief that they will make us safer. Nonsense!
Sure, there are cases where guns are successfully used for self-defense, but a study in the journal Injury Prevention found that the purchase of a handgun was associated with 2.4 times the risk of being murdered and 6.8 times the risk of suicide. Several other studies confirm that a gun in the house significantly increases the risk that a person in the home will be murdered or commit suicide.
Partly that’s because we misperceive the risks. We imagine a home invasion, but a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that 76 percent of homicide victims knew their assailant. That study also said that men with guns in the home are 10 times as likely to commit suicide in the home as men without a gun. Look, there are no simple solutions when we already have 300 million guns circulating in America. It’s also fair to note that any single gun is not much of a danger (statistically, a child is more likely to die from a swimming pool at a house than from a gun in the house).
But, with so many guns, often kept loaded without trigger locks, the collective toll is enormous. Just since 1968, it has been calculated, more Americans have died from gunfire than have died in all the wars in our country’s history.
The simplest baby step forward would be to institute universal background checks before gun purchases, to prevent sales to criminals. That was favored by 92 percent of Americans in a poll last year, as well as by three-quarters of members of the National Rifle Association. Yet the N.R.A. leadership is so extreme that it fights even such a step, and craven politicians buckle to its will.
I may have been a fool for trying to reclaim my phone. But we’re all idiots for accepting a society where knocking on a door is a deadly risk.
Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.
But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?
Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?
Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?
Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools and on too many college campuses. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left, in suburbs and cities and states red and blue.
Last week was Banned Books Week, during which proponents of unfettered speech and intellectual freedom draw attention to instances in which debate is circumscribed and the universe sanitized. As if on cue, a dispute over such censorship erupted in the affluent Dallas-area community of Highland Park, where many students pushed back at a recent decision by high school administrators to suspend the teaching of seven books until further review. Some parents had complained about the books.
Their titles? That was the strangest part. The seven offenders included the young adult novel “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green. It was deemed too sexually frank. Also “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” by David K. Shipler. It has references to rape and abortion. “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir, was tagged for its portraits of alcoholism and mental illness. And “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, dared to include a scene in which a teenage girl under the age of consent comes on to an older man. In several sentences, her breasts are described.
It’s not exactly “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I mean, its narrator is a Labrador-terrier mix.
“It’s the dog book,” Stein marveled when I reached him by telephone in Seattle, where he lives. “My book’s the dog book.” In it an animal who expects to be reincarnated as a person puzzles over humanity — and prepares for it — by studying his master, a racecar driver.
“It’s full of life lessons: about responsibility, about self-reliance, about perseverance,” Stein said. Apparently, nipples trump all of that.
The events in Highland Park brought to mind other stories, including one in the Denver area that received national attention last week: A newly conservative board for the Jefferson County School District, which is Colorado’s second-largest, raised the possibility of pruning the curriculum of books and material that could be seen to exalt civil disobedience and promote unpatriotic thoughts. Where does that leave the civil rights movement? Vietnam?
Late last spring, during commencement season, students at one college after another succeeded in warding off scheduled speakers and honorary-degree recipients whose politics they disagreed with. Condoleezza Rice felt compelled to back out of a speech at Rutgers University. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, canceled an appearance at Smith College, where students were circulating a petition that charged the I.M.F. with the “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Brandeis University reacted to faculty and student protests there by rescinding its invitation to the writer and women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had made strongly negative statements about Islam.
Around that same time, there were movements on scattered college campuses to attach so-called trigger warnings to texts whose evocations of, say, anti-Semitism or rape might prompt emotional turmoil in students. This echoed moves years earlier by officials at some elementary, middle and secondary schools to prune standardized tests of words that might distress students, either by summoning life’s harshness, reminding them of their deprivation or making them feel excluded. “Poverty,” “slavery,” “divorce,” “hurricanes” and “birthdays” were on a list drawn up by New York City educators, who later abandoned the plan.
While these efforts differ greatly, they overlap in their impulse to edit the world to the comfort of students, and that’s especially troubling in this day and age, when too many people use technology and the Internet to filter a vast universe of information and a multitude of perspectives into only what they want to hear, a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation.
The efforts are also inextricable from subtler, more pervasive dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms and schools, where “failure” and “disappointment” are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one. When high-school students obsessed with getting into elite colleges avoid any courses that play to their weaknesses, they’re treating education in precisely the wrong way, no matter how understandable their motivation.
And when students at those colleges march in lock step toward certain majors (economics, for example) and certain professions (finance and consulting), they’re missing out. That’s what the recent best seller “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, noted and rued: the treatment of hallowed universities as placid pastures for contented grazing rather than majestic landscapes to romp and rage across, their bruising pitfalls redeemed by their exhilarating peaks.
Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers, to ease the passage across it, to pretty up the horizon.
“You’re only diminishing a young person’s ability to go off into the world and interface with people from all walks of life,” Stein said. Thinking back to his own childhood in the suburbs of Seattle and then his years at Columbia University, he said, “The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who stand up in front of the class and wave their arms and say provocative things that students then react to.”
He recalled that in the eighth grade, he read a book, recommended by a school librarian, in which bullies tormented a kid by pulling off his shoes and urinating in them. It upset him, because it was a situation alien to his own experience. That’s also why he needed to be exposed to it, he said.
“It showed me that this happens,” he explained, with a note of gratitude in his voice. “It made me understand.”