In “Grand Illusion in Syria” The Putz tells us that the White House is trying a cheaper version of what didn’t work in Iraq. In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “The only thing we might take away from this quandary, as we circle the drain, is to never again elect the ignorant, the pandering, the sanctimonious and the deluded to positions of power. Not in November, and not in 2016.” In “Two Redheaded Strangers” MoDo tells us that, on the Honeysuckle Rose, Willie Nelson and Maureen talk pot, politics and a certain trip to the White House in the Carter years. In “Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism” The Moustache of Wisdom explains why the no vote in Scotland was a good thing. Mr. Kristof sends us “Alicia Keys Asks: Why Are We Here?” He says Alicia Keys wants to galvanize an infantry that moves from being frustrated about the world to improving it. In “Up From Pain” Mr. Blow says he had to stop hating his abuser to start loving himself. He had to let go of his past so that he could step into his future. Mr. Bruni takes a look at “The Vain and the Desperate” and says our political process repels many leaders who might do us good and leaves us with a sometimes motley crew. Here’s The Putz:
Across years of war and at an extraordinary cost, the United States built an army that was supposed to prevent jihadists from gaining a sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East. It had American-trained leaders, American-made weaponry and 250,000 men under arms — far more troops and firepower than any insurgent force that might emerge to challenge it.
That army was the Iraqi Army, and we know what happened next: The Syrian civil war spilled over into Iraq, jihadists first found a foothold and then led an insurgency against the Iraqi military, and the jihadists won. American-organized units were routed; American-trained soldiers fled; American-made weapons fell into the hands of the Islamic State, the self-declared caliphate with which we ourselves are now at war.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a lesson here about how hard it is to conjure up reliable allies amid the chaos of the current Middle East. But if so, we seem determined not to learn it, since our official strategy for fighting the Islamic State involves basically trying the same thing again, this time on the cheap: inventing allies, funneling them money and weaponry, and telling ourselves that it will all work out.
Those allies are the “moderate” and “vetted” — euphemisms for “not as scary as the other guys” — rebels in Syria, whom Congress voted last week to finance and train and arm. As fighting forces go, they promise to be rather less impressive than the last army we trained, since if all goes well just 5,000 rebels will be ready for the fight this year, or about one-sixth as many fighters as ISIS now has under arms. (And those odds get even longer when you consider that the rebels intend to use our weapons to fight the Assad regime as well.)
If our failure to build an army capable of stabilizing Iraq after our departure looks like a pure tragedy, then the arm-the-rebels gambit in Syria has more than a whiff of farce. But really it’s a studied evasion, a way for this administration to pretend that we don’t face a set of deeply unpleasant options in our quest to contain or crush the caliphate.
The first realistic, non-farcical option is the one that the president seemed to choose initially, when he launched limited airstrikes to rescue the embattled Kurds last month. This would basically be a strategy of containment and attrition, oriented around the current lines of battle in Iraq, in which we see if the Kurds and those Iraqi Army units that didn’t collapse can push the front westward, see if a post-Maliki government can woo local Sunni leaders, and use our air power to degrade the caliphate’s fighting capacity while letting its internal weaknesses degrade it from within.
The trouble with containment is that it would leave the Islamic State in control of a great deal of territory (with more beheading videos, no doubt) for months and years to come. Hence the administration’s pivot to Syria; hence the strategic dream palace that is our arm-the-rebels strategy.
The cold reality, though, is that defeating ISIS outright in Syria will take something more substantial than dropping a few bombs in support of a few U.S.-trained moderates. Either the American military will have to intervene in force (including with substantial ground troops) or we’ll have to ally, in a very un-American display of machtpolitik, with Bashar al-Assad. Both options may have supporters within the Republican Party. Many hawks seem ready to send in ground forces, and John McCain has explicitly argued that we should be willing to go to war with both Assad and the Islamists at once. From Rand Paul, meanwhile, you hear what sounds like a version of the ally-with-Assad approach, albeit couched in somewhat ambiguous terms.
The White House would clearly prefer not to choose either path, either escalation. But its current approach seems likely to drift more in McCain’s direction, with a gradual ramping-up (today bombing, tomorrow special forces, the next day … ?) in Syria that makes a clash with Assad and a multifront war steadily more plausible.
There is still time for the president to reconsider, to fall back on the containment-and-attrition strategy in Iraq and avoid a major commitment inside Syria. That strategy does not promise the satisfaction of the Islamic State’s immediate elimination. But neither does it require magically summoning up a reliable ally amid Syrian civil strife, making a deal with the region’s bloodiest dictator, or returning once again to ground warfare and nation-building in a region where our efforts have so often been in vain.
It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003, and that hard experience should have disabused us of by now.
But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.
Next up we have MoDo:
When Willie Nelson invites you to get high with him on his bus, you go.
The man is the patron saint of pot, after all, and I’m the poster girl for bad pot trips.
It seemed like a match made in hash heaven.
When Nelson sang at the 9:30 club in D.C. one recent night, I ventured onto the Honeysuckle Rose, as his tour bus and home-away-from-home is called.
I was feeling pretty shy about meeting him. The 81-year-old Redheaded Stranger is an icon, one of America’s top songwriters and, as Rolling Stone said, “a hippie’s hippie and a redneck’s redneck.” The Smithsonian wants his guitar, “Trigger.”
I needed a marijuana Miyagi, and who better than Nelson, who has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and a first-degree black belt in helping Norml push for pot legalization?
In a Rolling Stone cover piece last month on “America’s Most Beloved Outlaw,” Nelson told writer Patrick Doyle that he had read my column on having a bad reaction to a marijuana-infused candy bar while I was in Denver covering the pot revolution in Colorado.
“Maybe she’ll read the label now!” he said, laughing, adding that I was welcome to get high on his bus “anytime.”
So that’s how I found myself, before Nelson’s show here, sitting opposite him in a booth on the bus as he drank black coffee out of a pottery cup, beneath a bulletin board filled with family photos.
His eyes were brass-colored, to use Loretta Lynn’s description. His long pigtails were graying. His green T-shirt bore the logo of his son’s band, Promise of the Real.
So, Sensei, if I ever decide to give legal pot a whirl again, what do I need to know?
“The same thing that happened to you happened to me one or two times when I was not aware of how much strength was in whatever I was eating,” Nelson said, in his honeyed voice. “One time, I ate a bunch of cookies that, I knew they were laced but I didn’t worry about it. I just wanted to see what it would do, and I overdid it, naturally, and I was laying there, and it felt like the flesh was falling off my bones.
“Honestly, I don’t do edibles,” he continued. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, because I don’t enjoy the high that the body gets. Although I realize there’s a lot of other people who have to have it that way, like the children that they’re bringing to Colorado right now for medical treatments. Those kids can’t smoke. So for those people, God bless ’em, we’re for it.”
Eager not to seem like a complete idiot, I burbled that, despite the assumption of many that I gobbled the whole candy bar, I had only taken a small bite off the end, and then when nothing seemed to be happening, another nibble.
Nelson humored me as I also pointed out that the labels last winter did not feature the information that would have saved me from my night of dread.
Now, however, Colorado and Washington State have passed emergency rules to get better labeling and portion control on edibles, whose highs kick in more slowly and can be more intense than when the drug is smoked. Activists are also pushing to make sure there are stamps or shapes to distinguish pot snacks — which had, heretofore, been designed to mimic regular snacks — so that children don’t mistakenly ingest them.
Trying to prevent any more deaths, emergency-room trips or runaway paranoia, the Marijuana Policy Project has started an educational campaign called “Consume Responsibly.”
Its whimsical first billboard in Denver shows a bandjaxed redhead in a hotel room — which is far too neat to be mine — with the warning: “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation. With edibles, start low and go slow.”
Bill Maher also offered Colorado, “the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” some tips, including having budtenders talk to customers “like a pharmacist would,” curtail pot products that look like children’s candy, and don’t sell novices kief, superconcentrated crystals so potent that they’re “harvested directly from Willie Nelson’s beard.”
I asked Nelson about Jerry Brown’s contention that a nation of potheads would threaten American superiority.
“I never listened to him that much,” he said, sweetly.
He showed me his pot vaporizer, noting: “Everybody’s got to kill their own snakes, as they say. I found out that pot is the best thing for me because I needed something to slow me down a little bit.” He was such a mean drunk, he said, that if he’d kept drinking heavily, “there’s no telling how many people I would have killed by now.”
I asked him about the time he was staying in the Carter White House — on bond from a pot bust — and took a joint up to the roof.
“It happened a long time ago,” he said, adding slyly, “I’m sure it happened.”
Did he also indulge in the Lincoln Bedroom?
“In what?” he replied, mischievously. “I wouldn’t do anything Lincoln wouldn’t have done.”
Given all the horrors in the world now, I said, maybe President Obama needs to chill out by reuniting the Choom Gang.
“I would think,” Nelson said, laughing, “he would sneak off somewhere.”
And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Madrid:
This was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.
As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day.
Why is pluralism such a big advantage today? Two reasons: politics and innovation. Before I explain, though, it’s worth recalling: What is pluralism? I like the definition that the Pluralism Project at Harvard offers on its website: “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity” because “mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.” A society being “pluralistic” is a reality (see Syria and Iraq). A society with pluralism “is an achievement” (see America).
Pluralism, it also notes, “does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind. … It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” And, it posits that real pluralism is built on “dialogue” and “give and take, criticism and self-criticism” — and “dialogue means both speaking and listening.”
That pluralism is more important than ever is easily divined by just looking at the Middle East. Iraq and Syria were pluralistic societies that lacked pluralism. Their diversity — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Alawites — was something to be controlled from the top down by iron-fisted Ottomans, then the British and French and finally by local kings and colonels. Society was kept stable by a strongman.
But the diffusion of communication technologies and globalization is making all forms of top-down, autocratic control weaker, obsolete or more expensive in blood, money or arrests. Either these countries develop an ethic of pluralism — so they can govern themselves horizontally through social contracts forged among equal citizens — or they’ll stay in violent turmoil.
It’s no accident that the two democratizing Middle East entities doing best today are Tunisia and Kurdistan. Neither has fully mastered pluralism yet, but they’ve mastered its necessary precursor for self-governance, which was the principle used in 1989 to settle the Lebanese civil war: “No victor, no vanquished” among the major players. Everyone’s interests have to be balanced. Iraq is now struggling to get there; Syria is not even close.
Social networks and hyperglobalization are also increasing the economic returns from pluralism. After all, where does innovation come from? It comes from mashing up different perspectives, ideas and people. Google began as a mashup between Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant. The more pluralism your society has, the more trust it has, and trust plus pluralism enables people to collaborate, spark new ideas and businesses, and to comfortably reach out anywhere in the globe for the best co-creators. Sure, melting pots can boil over, but, when fueled by a pluralistic ethic, the energy they provide is undeniable. The Economist reported in April 2013 that some “40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.”
Democratic Spain in the last decade has impressively absorbed more than four million immigrants — mostly from Ecuador, Romania and Morocco — or 10 percent of its population. They came during the economic boom and have triggered no anti-immigrant party (yet). No wonder Spain’s national leaders today expressed relief at the no vote in Scotland. But the Catalan regional government insists it will proceed with its own nonbinding separatist referendum in November.
That will meet headwinds. To manage its diversity, Spain already awards a lot of autonomy to its 17 regions — a process called “coffee for all” — and many Spaniards “don’t want” to be pressed into a deeper breakup, explained José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “You go to Barcelona and people are hanging the Catalan independence flag on their balcony. If you’re not, it means you’re not in favor of independence, but I don’t want to fight you by hanging the Spanish flag.” Many people here think you can be “a good Spaniard, good Catalan and good European” all at once.
The other danger of all these separatist movements, added Torreblanca, is that they “change the axis” of the political debate. “Politics should be about left and right — how to grow and how to redistribute.” Historically in Europe, he said, right-wing parties come in and create growth and inequality and left-wing parties come in and redistribute — and back and forth. “But the net result is that you end up with societies that are both competitive and cohesive.” All these separatist movements take you off that track, he said, and put you onto one of “identity politics,” which is precisely why places like Syria and Iraq can’t make progress.
America has always been “a country of citizens,” which made its pluralism relatively easy, noted Torreblanca. “The Europe Union is a country of nation states,” and it is trying to get more pluralistic by integrating those states ever more tightly into a super-state, called the European Union. But that is stalled now because the next level of integration requires not just giving up your currency but sovereignty, so there can be a truly common economic policy. In Syria and Iraq today, you have neither citizens nor states, but rather clans, sects and tribes, which now need to reorganize themselves into voluntary states, as opposed to those imposed by colonial powers, so they can be real citizens.
This is why America has such an advantage with its pluralism, and why — if Scots are brave enough to preserve theirs, and Spaniards are struggling to keep theirs and Iraqis are groping to find theirs — we should have the wisdom to pass an immigration reform bill that enriches ours.
Next up on the roster today we have Mr. Kristof:
Alicia Keys is a superstar singer who has mostly kept her clothes on and gossip off. So what is she doing in this photo, dressed only in a peace sign?
Her answer has to do with the purpose of life. Last month, as she was sickened by grim news — from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the toll in Gaza and Syria — a friend of hers lobbed a provocative question about the meaning of our existence: Why are you here?
“Nobody had asked me that question before,” Keys recalled. It got her thinking about her mission in life, her legacy. She is one of the world’s best-known singers, but many of her songs have been about love or heartbreak. She has 35 million fans on Facebook and almost 20 million followers on Twitter, but she wasn’t leveraging that audience for some broader purpose.
So she is now starting a We Are Here movement to channel her music and her fans to social justice causes, from stricter gun laws to criminal justice reform, from gay rights to global girls’ education.
“I want to gather an army,” Keys told me. She wants to galvanize that infantry of fans from feeling frustrated about the world to improving it.
Keys is expecting her second child in December — the movement arises partly from her concern about the world that the child will inherit — so she decided to be photographed nude with a peace sign on her belly as an image of amity to kick off the effort.
“It’s time to get people’s attention,” she said. “People won’t be able to ignore this visual.”
She plans to kick off the We Are Here Movement on Sunday at the Social Good Summit, a grass-roots version of the annual United Nations General Assembly.
Keys says she will encourage her fans to support 12 specific groups: All Out, a gay rights organization; CARE, the aid group; Equal Justice Initiative, which combats racial inequity in the criminal justice system; the Future Project, which empowers high school students in America; Girl Rising, which supports girls’ education around the world; Keep a Child Alive, which helps children affected by H.I.V. and AIDS; Moms Rising, which supports universal prekindergarten, maternal leaves and tighter gun laws; Oxfam, which fights global poverty; Partners in Health, which tackles disease worldwide; the Trevor Project, which prevents suicide among gay and lesbian youths; the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which fights racial profiling; and War Child, which supports children in conflict areas.
To get the effort started, Keys is donating $1 million of her own money, to be divided among the 12 groups, and she hopes that her fans will make their own donations directly to the charities. A website, WeAreHereMovement.com, provides information.
There is, of course, a tradition of socially conscious musicians, and Bono has done as much as anybody to highlight the challenges of global poverty. Keys seems less inclined to lobby at Group of 8 summit meetings; rather, she says, she wants to work with fans at the grass-roots level.
As a theme for the effort, Keys released a new song, “We Are Here.” She says that her songs henceforth will do more to address racism, injustice and poverty; she aspires to be a moral voice as well as a musical one.
Keys is biracial, the daughter of a white mother and black father, and she says she has black relatives and friends who have been unjustly imprisoned. But her concerns far transcend race and gender.
So what will her fans think of her advocating on hot-button issues like stricter gun laws? On the whole, she thinks her audiences welcome such direction. Many are frustrated about social inequities, she says, but feel helpless to make a difference.
“We’re in the same head space. We think the same things,” she said. “This is bothering us, so how can we take that to the next step and do something about that, as opposed to just being angry?”
The next steps, she says, will include petitions, rallies, protests and public awareness efforts, as well as fund-raising. She also hopes to bring other artists into the effort, and she has already reached out to some.
I don’t know whether a youthful musical audience can be easily deputized into a posse for social justice. But Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, is optimistic.
“Whether or not it’s a huge financial gain, who knows?” Dr. Gayle told me. “What she’s able to do is get people to pay attention to these issues. I can talk about these issues until I’m blue in the face and do cartwheels, and I can’t get people to pay as much attention as she can. This is a huge opportunity to raise visibility.”
In an unusual appearance on Sunday here’s Mr. Blow:
I was away at college doing much of nothing, just pushing back against sorrow as it pressed down. My mother called. She told me someone wanted to speak to me. There was a silence on the line, and then words: “What’s going on, boy?”
It was an older cousin, whom I’ll call Chester. He was at my mother’s house, our house. It had been years since I had heard that voice. “What’s going on, boy?” as if nothing had ever happened, as if everything was buried and forgotten. But betrayal doesn’t work that way. Even when it’s buried, it doesn’t stay buried. It’s still alive down there, scratching its way back to the surface.
I don’t recall saying anything or even hanging up. I flung myself down the stairs of the apartment, wearing only pajama pants and a T-shirt. I burst out of the door and bolted to the car.
I was engulfed in an irrepressible rage. Everything in me was churning and pumping and boiling. All reason and restraint were lost to it. I was about to do something I wouldn’t be able to undo. Bullets and blood and death. I gave myself over to the idea.
The scene from the night when I was 7 years old kept replaying in my mind: waking up to him pushed up behind me, his arms locked around me, my underwear down around my thighs. The weight of the guilt and grieving that followed. The years of the bullying designed to keep me from telling — and the years of questioning my role in his betrayal.
I jumped in the car, grabbed the gun from under the car seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip, the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, “just in case.”
The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, 25 miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of north Louisiana road from Grambling State to my hometown, Gibsland, a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.
Bawling and with the heat of my anguish being released into the winter air, I reviewed my simple plan: walk into the house, find Chester, and shoot him in the head as many times as possible. No arguing. No explanation. Done.
Then I thought about who I was now, and who I could be. Seeing him in a pool of his own blood might finally liberate me from my past, but it would also destroy my future.
I had to make a choice: drive forward on the broad road toward the unspeakable or take the narrow highway exit. I don’t know which chose, my head or my hand, but I exited and drove through my college campus, thinking about all that I had accomplished. Me. With my own mind and grit. I had reinvented and improved myself. I was a man — a man with a future. I couldn’t continue to live my life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.
That night, I forced myself to come to terms with some things. Chester had done damage, but he didn’t deserve to die for what he had done, and I deserved to live in spite of it.
I had to stop hating Chester to start loving myself. Forgiveness was freedom. I simply had to let go of my past so that I could step into my future.
Yes, the mark that Chester’s betrayal had left on my life was likely to be permanent, but blaming him for the whole of the difference in my emerging sense of sexual identity, while convenient, was most likely not completely accurate. Abusers don’t necessarily make children different, but rather, they are diabolically gifted at detecting difference, often before the child can see it in him or herself. It is possible that Chester glimpsed a light in me, and that moved the darkness in him.
In addition to being attracted to women, I could also be attracted to men. There it was, all of it. That possibility of male attraction was such a simple little harmless idea, but I had allowed it to consume and almost ruin my life. The attraction and my futile attempts to “fix it” had cost me my dreams. The anguish, combined with a lifetime of watching hotheads brandishing cold steel, had put me within minutes of killing a man.
My world had told me that there was nothing worse than not being all of one way, that any other way was the same as being dead, but my world had lied. I was very much alive. There was no hierarchy of humanity. There was no one way to be, or even two, but many. And no one could strip me of my value and dignity, because no one had bestowed them. These things came into the world with me.
I had done what the world had signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh, held “the demon” at bay, kept the covenant, borne the weight of my crooked cross. But concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.
DARING to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable.
But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.
I had to stop romanticizing the man I might have been and be the man that I was, not by neatly fitting into other people’s definitions of masculinity or constructs of sexuality, but by being uniquely me — made in the image of God, nurtured by the bosom of nature, and forged in the fire of life.
I had spent my whole life trying to fit in, but it would take the rest of my life to realize that some men are just meant to stand out. I would have to learn to simply relax and be: complex, betwixt and between, and absolutely all right.
I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me.
That would include attempts at male intimacy.
The first time I tried ended disastrously. I had worked up the nerve to go to a gay bar, thinking that if male intimacy was something my body wanted, I might as well know it.
It was a world apart from the one I knew. Instead of feeling a sense of belonging, I felt apart. The bar was brimming with sameness — not the locker room, frat house kind I was familiar with, full of ego-measuring and distance-keeping, but a different and disorienting kind. I was the object of considerable attention. I was young and tall and fit and new. I was being watched. I knew it, and I liked it. So I sat alone at the end of the bar and took long sips of my drink as I soaked up pensive admiration.
Soon a man sidled up to me and began making small talk. He was unremarkable in appearance and seemed slightly older than me. He said he was a shoe importer. He sounded smart and seemed kind, and he smiled a lot. He invited me to his apartment for more drinks. I said, “Why not?” In my mind, the moment I had walked through the door of the bar, I had passed the point of no return.
When we arrived at his place, he poured a glass of wine, but I was too nervous to drink it. He talked more about his business and showed me shoe samples — ugly, rough-cut sandals that I couldn’t imagine anyone with even a dash a style deigning to wear.
Then, without warning, the mood shifted. The man disrobed, walked toward his bedroom, and beckoned me to follow. But the sight of him naked caused whatever attraction I might have had to collapse. His body looked sculpted, the way a body looks after years of proper eating and unstinting exercise, but I wasn’t drawn to it. My body went limp and cold.
I could in no way imagine us intertwined. I found the idea of it all immensely unsettling. I was surprised by my reaction — embarrassed by it — but my feeling was unambiguous: I wasn’t interested. So I grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the apartment.
I figured then that if I could indeed go both ways, one way didn’t quite prefer to go all the way.
I would come to know what the world called people like me: bisexuals. The hated ones. The bastard breed. The “tragic mulattos” of sexual identity. Dishonest and dishonorable. Scandal-prone and disease-ridden. Nothing nice.
And while the word “bisexual” was technically correct, I would only slowly come to use it to refer to myself, in part because of the derisive connotations. But, in addition, it would seem to me woefully inadequate and impressionistically inaccurate. It reduced a range of identities, unbelievably wide and splendidly varied, in which same-gender attraction presented itself in graduated measures, from a pinch to a pound, to a single expression. To me it seemed too narrowly drawn in the collective consciousness, suggesting an identity fixed precisely in the middle between straight and gay, giving equal weight to each, bearing no resemblance to what I felt.
In me, the attraction to men would never be equal to the attraction to women — for men, it was often closer to the pinch — but it would always be in flux. Whenever someone got up the gumption to ask me outright, “What are you?” I’d reply with something coy: “Complicated.” It would take many years before the word “bisexual” would roll off my tongue and not get stuck in my throat. I would have to learn that the designation wasn’t only about sexual histories or current practice, but capacity.
Few people would be open to the idea of men like me even existing, in any incarnation. Even the otherwise egalitarian would have no qualms about raising questions and casting doubt. Many could conceive of bisexuality only in the way it existed for most people willing to admit to it: as a transitory identity — a pit stop or a hiding place — and not a permanent one. Whatever the case, folks would never truly understand me, nor I them.
To me, their limits on attraction would seem overly broad and arbitrary. To them, I would be a man who walked up to the water’s edge and put only one foot in, out of fear or confusion or indecision. I would be the kind of man who wanted it all — clinging to the normative while nodding to difference.
But that’s not the way it works within me. I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide.
I wouldn’t always get things right. I wouldn’t always find the courage to tell people the whole truth about myself, or do so before their love had already reached through my secret and touched my shame, but at least I learned to move in the right direction. I wouldn’t lay the weight of my shame down all at once, but a bit at a time over many years, like forks of hay pitched from the back of a pickup truck, until the bales dwindled and the load was made light.
I would get married fresh out of college — to my college sweetheart, the love of my young life — after we both stopped pretending there was any other we would rather be with. I confessed, though not as soon as either of us would have preferred, to her my past and my proclivities, as fully as I understood them at the time, including the story of my encounter with the shoe importer. We figured that our love was greater than my complexity. We had three beautiful children — first a boy and then girl-boy twins — in rapid succession, but the marriage didn’t survive the seventh year. Still, the marriage confirmed for me that extended fidelity was in fact possible, not by denying part of my nature, but by submitting the whole of my heart. Monogamy was a choice. That was a side I could pick.
AFTER my wife and I split, I decided to give male intimacy another try. The male attraction was still there, running alongside the female one — not equal, but there. I assumed my first failure might have been the result of youth and nerves and a mixed match. But now, again, my body sometimes failed to respond. Other times I was able to engage more fully, but almost always with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol, which left me barely able to remember the encounters and often wanting to forget them. This felt fraudulent to me, and opportunistic, and dangerous.
Still, no matter how much I drank, no matter how altered my consciousness, I couldn’t completely rid myself of the unease of being intimately close to another man’s body, hard and hairy and muscular and broad at the shoulders, more stem than flower — too much like my own.
In those moments I was acutely aware that I missed the tug of the female form, the primary sensation and the peripheral ones. The look of soft features and the feel of soft skin. The graceful slopes of supple curves. The sweet smells. The giggles. The thing in me that yearned for those sensory cues from a woman wouldn’t quietly accept a substitute.
I had to accept a counterintuitive fact: my female attraction was fully formed — I could make love and fall in love — but my male attraction had no such terminus. To the degree that I felt male attraction, it was frustrated. In that arena, I possessed no desire to submit and little to conquer. For years I worried that the barrier was some version of self-loathing, a denial. But eventually I concluded that the continual questioning and my attempts to circumvent the barrier were their own form of loathing and self-flagellation.
I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.
And last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:
In case you missed it, our nation’s officeholders, current and former, have been working overtime to make us proud.
Ted Cruz threw a histrionic hissy fit in front of Arab Christians. Sarah Palin went to a birthday party where her family reportedly got into a brawl. Mark Sanford emitted a self-pitying aria of romantic angst. Debbie Wasserman Schultz compared some Republicans to wife beaters.
Somewhere in there, I sank into a newly deep funk about the kinds of people drawn to politics these days.
Then I burrowed into Matt Bai’s new book and I hit rock bottom.
It’s called “All the Truth Is Out,” it will be published later this month and it’s about Gary Hart. Remember him: the presidential contender who rode a boat named Monkey Business into a media whirlpool? You should, as the book, which is excerpted in The Times Magazine this weekend, makes clear.
And the reason isn’t so much the scandal that swallowed him or his particular exit from the political arena. It’s the warning that his story sounded — about a new brutality on the campaign trail, about uncharted frontiers of media invasiveness and about the way both would wind up culling the herd, not in favor of the strongest candidates but in favor of those so driven or vacuous that the caress of the spotlight redeems the indignities of the process.
Has running for public office become less attractive than ever? Does it frighten off potential leaders who might benefit us and clear a path for aspirants with less to offer?
Bai’s book suggests as much, and he points a finger at political journalism, which, he writes, is “now concerned almost entirely with exposing lies and unearthing character flaws, sexual or not.”
“Hart’s downfall,” Bai continues, “was the thing that tipped the scales completely, the catalyst that made it O.K. — even necessary — for all aspiring political reporters to cast themselves as amateur P.I.s and psychotherapists. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would have been: We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
“All the Truth Is Out” has fascinating tidbits, in particular about friendships that bloomed between Hart and Mikhail Gorbachev and Hart and Bill Clinton, his descendant in the annals of sexual scandal.
It also has a few belly laughs — painful ones. Bai writes that when the media was consumed by Hart’s sex life, Johnny Carson joked that “the nomination would fall into Hart’s lap — if there was any room left there. On the highly rated sitcom ‘Golden Girls,’ one of the little old ladies commented of another character, ‘She’s Gary Hart’s campaign manager. It doesn’t pay much, but you don’t have to get out of bed to do it.’ ”
Those jokes serve a point: Hart was reduced to a single trait, and everything else he had to say was muffled by it. And the same questionable fate befell many politicians after him, as privacy perished and the media’s insistence on a certain sort of juicy narrative intensified.
“It’s just getting worse,” Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican strategist who spearheaded Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told me. “It’s the most grueling process imaginable.”
As CNN’s Peter Hamby noted in a study he wrote during a fellowship at Harvard last year, the accelerated news cycle of the social-media age demands meaningless scoops, trumpets dubious gaffes and turns the reporters trailing a candidate into “one giant, tweeting blob.”
That blob suffocates its quarry, often at the prodding of his or her rivals, who supply opposition research (or “oppo”) that strays from serious byways down silly cul-de-sacs. This was captured in a story about the Senate elections that was splashed across the top of the Politico website Friday afternoon.
The headline blared, “GOTCHA! How oppo took over the midterms.” And the story began, “Why would anyone want to talk about immigration, terrorism, gun control or the national debt, when there’s Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bus, John Walsh’s thesis, Bruce Braley’s chickens and Pat Roberts’ recliner? Gotcha stories — ranging from those tangentially related to issues of the day to the completely ephemeral and even absurd — have been front and center in an abnormally large number of top races this year.”
Everything’s a teapot, primed for a tempest. Although Joe Biden has a famously spastic tongue and there’s no reason to believe he is anti-Semitic, he makes an indecorous reference to “Shylocks” and the outrage machinery cranks into gear. The content-ravenous blogosphere lights up.
BUT the hysteria of the present media climate isn’t the only problem or turnoff. There’s the extended duration of a political race. There’s the ceaseless fund-raising, the burden of which was spelled out in an internal memo that leaked from Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign in Georgia. It decreed that drumming up money should consume 80 percent of her time in the first quarter of 2014, declining to 70 percent in the third.
The memo identified Jews as a “tremendous financial opportunity,” so long as Nunn struck the right position on Israel, still to be finessed. Ah, the heartfelt conviction that animates today’s candidate!
Writing about the memo in The Times Magazine, Mark Leibovich said that his main takeaway was “that a political campaign today is a soul-killing pursuit.” He presumes a soul to take.
Seriously, who’s attracted to this ordeal? Some people with only the best intentions and motivations, yes. But also plenty like Sanford, whose 2,346-word Facebook post about his postmarital woes signaled a Newt-caliber neediness. Or like Wasserman Schultz, an intemperate warrior who, if Politico’s profile of her last week got it right, is consumed by self-centered ambition. Or like Cruz, with his lust for attention, even if it’s negative.
Or like Palin. She’s clearly on Bai’s mind when he writes that the “post-Hart climate” of estrangement between politicians and the press — and of shallow campaign pageantry — made it easier for candidates with little policy expertise or insight into governance, because no one expected any candidate to say anything too detailed or deep.
“A politician could duck any real intellectual scrutiny simply by deriding the evident triviality of the media,” Bai writes.
It’s odd and funny that the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer sought to vilify President Obama last week by calling him, of all things, a narcissist. When this came up on “The View” and narcissism was explained to Rosie O’Donnell as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of self and their own importance and a deep need for admiration,” she replied, “That’s every celebrity I know, including me.”
It’s a lot of politicians, too. The process guarantees it.