Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

October 22, 2014

In “Putin and the Pope” The Moustache of Wisdom muses about two leaders with a lot of influence who matter in very different ways.  Mr. Bruni, in “Capitalism’s Suffocating Music,” says corporate sponsors have turned every last place and personage into ads.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Reading the papers these days I find that the two world leaders who stir the most passion in me are Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. One is everything you’d want in a leader, the other everything you wouldn’t want. One holds sway over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the other over nine time zones. One keeps surprising us with his capacity for empathy, the other by how much he has become a first-class jerk and thug. But neither can be ignored and both have an outsized influence on the world today.

First, the pope. At a time when so many leaders around the world are looking to promote their political fortunes by exploiting grievances and fault lines, we have a pope asking his flock to do something hard, something outside their comfort zone, pushing them to be more inclusive of gays and divorced people.

Yes, Francis was rebuffed by conservative bishops at a recent Vatican synod when he asked them to embrace the notion that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” adding, “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

But, as an editorial in this paper noted: “The very fact that Francis ordered church leaders to address these challenges seems a landmark in Vatican history.” The pope asked that rejected language be published for all to see, while also cautioning against “hostile inflexibility — that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”

“Hostile inflexibility?” Whose leadership does that describe? Look at Putin’s recent behavior: His military was indirectly involved in downing a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and his K.G.B. has not only been trying to take a bite out of Ukraine but is nibbling on Estonia, Georgia and Moldova, all under the guise of protecting “Russian speakers.”

I opposed NATO expansion because I believed that there are few global problems that we can solve without the help of Russia. By expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.

Yet Putin just exploits these fears for two reasons. First, he has a huge chip on his shoulder — no, excuse me; he has a whole lumberyard there — of resentment that Russia is no longer the global power it once was. But rather than make Russia great again by tapping its creative people — empowering them with education, the rule of law and consensual politics to realize their full potential — he has opted for the shortcut of tapping his oil and gas wells and seizing power from his people.

And instead of creating a Russia that is an example to its neighbors, he relies on the brute force that his oil and gas can still buy him. While he rails against NATO, he is really afraid of European Union expansion — that Ukrainians would rather embrace the E.U. market and democracy rules than their historical ties to Russia because they know that through the E.U. they can realize potentials that would never be possible with Russia.

By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO. He was protecting himself from the viruses of E.U. accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.

Normally, I wouldn’t care, but when the world is dividing between zones of order and disorder, and the world of order needs to be collaborating to stem and reverse disorder, the fact that Putin is stoking disorder on Russia’s borders, and not collaborating to promote order in the Middle East, is a real problem. What’s more worrying is that the country he threatens most is Russia. If things go bad there — and its economy is already sagging under Western sanctions — the world of disorder will get a lot bigger.

That is why Putin’s leadership matters, and so does the pope’s. I’m focused on Putin because I think he is making the world a worse place for bad reasons, when he could make a difference in Europe and the Middle East with just an ounce more decency and collaboration. America, too, has plenty to learn from the pope’s humility, but say what you will, we’re still focused on trying to strengthen the global commons, whether by protecting people from jihadists in Iraq or fighting Ebola in Africa. We could do more. Putin needs to do a lot more.

“The best leaders don’t set timid and selfish goals that are easy to meet but instead set bold and inclusive goals that are hard to achieve,” remarked Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, who has just written a book on leadership, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.” “We’re all looking for ways to make sense of a world without a center, but we’ll only find that in people who lead with authentic humility and reckless generosity.”

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Onstage before thousands of fans, Sam Smith sang “Stay With Me,” beseeching his partner in a one-night stand for a few minutes more, and I half wondered if the two of them needed the extra time to finish bottles of Miller Lite, because a printed plug for the beer hovered over his head.

Performing “Summertime Sadness,” Lana Del Rey told a lover to “kiss me hard before you go.” Would she be texting him later with a Samsung Galaxy, the smartphone for which the stage on which she appeared was visibly named?

And while I’d never thought about any car in connection with the musicians in the band Interpol, I came to picture them caroming from gig to gig in a Civic or an Accord. “Honda” floated over them as they gave their concert.

For every stage, a different sponsor. Behind every beat, a different brand.

This happened in early October. I was at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and I was at the limits of my patience. I hadn’t expected all of these corporate come-ons, so pervasive in other precincts, to be assaulting me here of all places.

“Keep Austin Weird” is the Texas capital’s unofficial slogan, a clue to its proudly subversive soul. And a gathering of bare-armed, bare-legged lovers of song and smokers of pot on a gigantic field brings to mind Woodstock, not Austin Ventures, which provides financing to start-ups, and RetailMeNot, which distributes discount coupons. Those firms, too, were sponsors of stages.

Someone shoved a free sample of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal at me on my way in. Someone else handed out free beer cozies advertising Imperial, a brew on sale at the event. Plastered all over the place were posters for “Not That Kind of Girl,” the new memoir by a certain “Girls” creator. The festival had been misnamed. This was Lenapalooza.

I kept thinking of another writer, David Foster Wallace. His novel “Infinite Jest,” published in 1996, imagines a tomorrow in which time itself is auctioned off to the highest bidder and the calendar becomes a billboard. There’s the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster” and even the “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad” — a 12-month paean to posterior discomfort, 52 weeks in honor of hemorrhoids.

Is that future so far off? While recording devices have liberated many of us from commercials on television, the rest of our lives are awash in ads. They’re now nestled among the trailers at movies. They flicker on the screens in taxis.

They’re woven so thoroughly into sporting events, from Nascar races to basketball games, that it’s hard to imagine an era when they weren’t omnipresent. But in a story earlier this year on the website Consumerist, Chris Moran reported that 20 years ago, only one of the major-league baseball stadiums had a corporate moniker, Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

In contrast, 20 of the 30 stadiums now have sponsors.

It’s the same with football, maybe worse. On the weekend after I got back from Austin, I went to watch the New York Jets play, and within five minutes of my arrival at MetLife Stadium, I was confronted with all sorts of sub-sponsors.

Near the Verizon gate, I spotted a V.I.P. section called the Hertz suites and saw signs that identified JetBlue as the official airline of the team, Toyota as its official vehicle and the Microsoft Surface as the official tablet of the National Football League. I resolved to check out the restrooms for an official toilet paper. (Note to Cottonelle: I did, and there’s an unclaimed opportunity for you, if you can beat Charmin to the punch.)

Inside the stadium, the Verizon scoreboard was not to be confused with the Bud Light scoreboard or the Pepsi scoreboard.

When Americans talk about how crass contemporary life can seem, this advertising onslaught is part of what they’re reacting to. And their growing chilliness toward corporations and sense of capitalism run amok aren’t just about the salaries of chief executives and the tax dodges in play. They’re about the way hucksterism invades everything, scooping up everyone.

Matthew McConaughey is at his career’s summit, with a recent Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club” and a splendid performance in “Interstellar” (to be released next month), and what’s he doing with this clout? He’s putting it behind the wheel of a Lincoln and peddling luxury cars the way Beyoncé has pushed Pepsi all these years.

Sellers keep finding new, willing vessels for their logos everywhere they turn. Will we someday travel from San Francisco to Northern California across the Gulden’s Mustard Bridge, for a hike in the Wells Fargo Redwood Forest?

It’s a vendor’s world. We’re just pawns in it, even when all we want to do is hum a simple tune.

Friedman and Bruni

October 15, 2014

In “A Pump War?” The Moustache of Wisdom says the decline in oil prices is no accident.  He has a question:  What’s really playing out here?  Mr. Bruni, in “Scarier Than Ebola,” says our gravest health threats are those that we understand, but fail to take proper action against.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Is it just my imagination or is there a global oil war underway pitting the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side against Russia and Iran on the other? One can’t say for sure whether the American-Saudi oil alliance is deliberate or a coincidence of interests, but, if it is explicit, then clearly we’re trying to do to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exactly what the Americans and Saudis did to the last leaders of the Soviet Union: pump them to death — bankrupt them by bringing down the price of oil to levels below what both Moscow and Tehran need to finance their budgets.

Think about this: four oil producers — Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria — are in turmoil today, and Iran is hobbled by sanctions. Ten years ago, such news would have sent oil prices soaring. But today, the opposite is happening. Global crude oil prices have been falling for weeks, now resting around $88 — after a long stretch at $105 to $110 a barrel.

The price drop is the result of economic slowdowns in Europe and China, combined with the United States becoming one of the world’s biggest oil producers — thanks to new technologies enabling the extraction of large amounts of “tight oil” from shale — combined with America starting to make exceptions and allowing some of its newfound oil products to be exported, combined with Saudi Arabia refusing to cut back its production to keep prices higher, but choosing instead to maintain its market share against other OPEC producers. The net result has been to make life difficult for Russia and Iran, at a time when Saudi Arabia and America are confronting both of them in a proxy war in Syria. This is business, but it also has the feel of war by other means: oil.

The Russians have noticed. How could they not? They’ve seen this play before. The Russian newspaper Pravda published an article on April 3 with the headline, “Obama Wants Saudi Arabia to Destroy Russian Economy.” It said: “There is a precedent [for] such joint action that caused the collapse of the U.S.S.R. In 1985, the Kingdom dramatically increased oil production from 2 million to 10 million barrels per day, dropping the price from $32 to $10 per barrel. [The] U.S.S.R. began selling some batches at an even lower price, about $6 per barrel. Saudi Arabia [did not lose] anything, because when prices fell by 3.5 times [Saudi] production increased fivefold. The planned economy of the Soviet Union was not able to cope with falling export revenues, and this was one of the reasons for the collapse of the U.S.S.R.”

Indeed, the late Yegor Gaidar, who between 1991 and 1994 was Russia’s acting prime minister, observed in a Nov. 13, 2006, speech that: “The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to Sept. 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices. … During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed. … The Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.”

Neither Moscow nor Tehran will collapse tomorrow. And if oil prices fall below $70 you will see a drop in U.S. production, as some exploration won’t be cost effective, and prices could firm up. But have no doubt, this price falloff serves U.S. and Saudi strategic interests and it harms Russia and Iran. Oil export revenues account for about 60 percent of Iran’s government revenues and more than half of Russia’s.

The price decline is no accident. In an Oct. 3 article in The Times, Stanley Reed noted that the sharp drop in oil prices “was seen as a response to Saudi Arabia’s signaling … to the markets that it was more interested in maintaining market share than in defending prices. Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, stunned markets by announcing that it was cutting prices by about $1 a barrel to Asia, the crucial growth market for the Persian Gulf producers, as well as by 40 cents a barrel to the United States.” The Times also noted that with America now producing so much more oil and gas, “net oil imports to the United States have fallen since 2007 by 8.7 million barrels a day, ‘roughly equivalent to total Saudi and Nigerian exports,’ according to a recent Citigroup report.”

This resource abundance comes at a time when we’ve also hit a “gusher” of energy technology in Silicon Valley, which is supplying us with unprecedented gains in energy efficiency and productivity, savings that may become as impactful as shale in determining our energy security and global strength. Google, through Nest, and Apple through coding in the iPhone software, are making it easier for average Americans to manage and save energy at home or work.

Bottom line: The trend line for petro-dictators is not so good. America today has a growing advantage in what the former Assistant Energy Secretary Andy Karsner calls “the three big C’s: code, crude and capital.” If only we could do tax reform, and replace payroll and corporate taxes with a carbon tax, we’d have a formula for resiliency and success far better than any of our adversaries.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

We Americans do panic really well.

We could use a few pointers on prudence.

Do me a favor. Turn away from the ceaseless media coverage of Ebola in Texas — the interviews with the Dallas nurse’s neighbors, the hand-wringing over her pooch, the instructions on protective medical gear — and answer this: Have you had your flu shot? Are you planning on one?

During the 2013-2014 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 46 percent of Americans received vaccinations against influenza, even though it kills about 3,000 people in this country in a good year, nearly 50,000 in a bad one.

These are deaths by a familiar assassin. Many of them could have been prevented. So why aren’t we in a lather over that? Why fixate on remote threats that we feel we can’t control when there are immediate ones that we simply don’t bother to?

On matters exotic, we’re rapt. On matters quotidian, which are nonetheless matters of life and death, we’re cavalier. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car crashes annually, and according to a federal analysis from 2012, more than half of them weren’t wearing seatbelts.

Perhaps that didn’t make a difference in many cases. In some, it probably did. But on this front, as on others, we have clear answers about how to minimize risk and we simply proceed to forget or ignore them.

There’s no way to square skin-cancer statistics in the United States — more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed yearly and almost 10,000 deaths — with the number of Americans showing off their tans. They aren’t all getting body paint. They’ve been lectured about sunscreen and shade and hats. But vanity trumps sanity, and melanoma rides its coattails.

I’m not dismissing the horror of Ebola, a full-blown crisis in Africa that should command the whole world’s assistance. And Ebola in the United States certainly warrants concern. We’re still searching for definitive answers about transmission and prevention.

But Americans already have such answers about a host of other, greater perils to our health, and we’d be wiser to reacquaint ourselves with those, and recommit to heeding them, than to worry about our imminent exposure to Ebola.

“People get very fearful and stressed out and have a lot of anxiety about things like Ebola that aren’t a general health risk,” said Jeffrey Duchin, who is the chairman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “Just look at causes of death in the United States. Everything is higher than Ebola, and there are things that we can do about many of them.”

Duchin, a physician, moderated a panel of experts who discussed Ebola at the society’s conference last week. These doctors sought to refocus attention on influenza, which lacks novelty but not potency.

In my conversation with him, Duchin also pointed out that between 2.7 and 5.2 million Americans are believed to be infected with the hepatitis C virus. Deaths related to it can range widely, from 17,000 to 80,000 annually, he said. There’s a test for it. There’s effective treatment. But the C.D.C. says that up to 75 percent of the people with the virus don’t know they have it.

Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told me: “We have a lot of vaccine-preventable diseases and we see more and more people refusing to have their children take vaccines.”

He was referring to outbreaks of measles and pertussis (or whooping cough) in states and cities where parents have hallucinated a connection between immunizations and autism. They cling to this fiction in the face of scientific information to the contrary.

Both The Hollywood Reporter and Time magazine recently published accounts of anti-vaccine madness among supposedly educated, affluent Americans in particular. According to the story in The Hollywood Reporter, by Gary Baum, the parents of 57 percent of the children at a Beverly Hills preschool and of 68 percent at one in Santa Monica had filed personal-belief exemptions from having their kids vaccinated.

Such numbers, Baum wrote, “are in line with immunization rates in developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.”

On CNN on Monday night, a Dallas pediatrician was asked about what she had advised the families she sees. She said that she urged them to have their children “vaccinated against diseases that we can prevent,” and that she also stressed frequent hand-washing. Ebola or no Ebola, it’s a responsible — and frequently disregarded — way to lessen health risks.

So are these: fewer potato chips. Less sugary soda. Safer sex. Tighter restrictions on firearms. More than 30,000 Americans die from gunshots every year. Anyone looking for an epidemic to freak out about can find one right there.

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

October 12, 2014

In “The Last Right” The Putz thinks he can explain why America is moving so slowly on assisted suicide, while shifting dramatically on other social issues.  MoDo has a question in “Lady Psychopaths Welcome:”  The debate rages: Is “Gone Girl” about a she-monster or a me-monster?  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “I.S. = Invasive Species,” also has a question:  Just how did ISIS spread so far, so fast? He says the National Arboretum might have the answer.  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 3″ Mr. Kristof says a conversation on racial inequality in America continues with a look at the justice system.  In “Appetite, Bill and Barack” Mr. Bruni says our 42nd president brought something to the office that our 43rd and 44th didn’t — what about our 45th?  Here’s The Putz:

On Nov. 1, barring the medically unexpected or a change of heart, a young woman named Brittany Maynard will ingest a lethal prescription and die by suicide.

Maynard is 29, recently married and is suffering from terminal brain cancer. After deciding against hospice care — fearing, she wrote in a CNN op-ed, a combination of pain, personality changes, and the loss of basic mental and physical functions — she and her husband moved from California to Oregon, one of five states that permit physician-assisted suicide. In the time remaining to her, she has become a public advocate for that practice’s expansion, recording testimonials on behalf of the right of the terminally ill to make their quietus.

The tragedy here is almost deep enough to drown the political debate. But that debate’s continued existence is still a striking fact. Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

Twenty years ago, a much more rapid advance seemed likely. Some sort of right to suicide seemed like a potential extension of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence” that the Supreme Court had invoked while upholding a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Polls in the 1990s consistently showed more support — majority support, depending on the framing — for physician-assisted suicide than for what then seemed like the eccentric cause of same-sex marriage.

Yet the latter cause has triumphed sweepingly, while voluntary euthanasia has advanced only haltingly. Part of the explanation lies with the Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled 9 to 0 that the Constitution does not include a right to suicide. But the court would not have ruled as it did absent a deeper reality: Many liberals seem considerably more uncomfortable with the idea of physician-assisted suicide than with other causes, from abortion to homosexuality, where claims about personal autonomy and liberty are at stake.

Conservatives oppose assisted suicide more fiercely, but it’s a persistent left-of-center discomfort, even among the most secular liberals, that’s really held the idea at bay. Indeed, on this issue you can find many liberal writers who sound like, well, social conservatives — who warn of the danger of a lives-not-worth-living mentality, acknowledge the ease with which ethical and legal slopes can slip, recognize the limits of “consent” alone as a standard for moral judgment.

At the same time, though, there are tensions within the liberal mind on this issue, particularly when the discussion moves from the general (why assisted suicide is unwise as public policy) to the particular (why life is still worth living after all hope is lost, and why a given person facing death shouldn’t avail themselves of suicide).

You can see that tension illustrated, in a fascinating way, in the work of Ezekiel Emanuel, the health care expert and bioethicist (and brother of Chicago’s mayor). Emanuel’s 1997 Atlantic essay on physician-assisted suicide remains the best liberal critique of the idea, and he reiterated his anti-suicide position this fall, again in the Atlantic, in an essay discussing his perspective on aging, medicine and death.

But the new essay — which ran under the headline “Why I Hope to Die at 75” — was also shot through with precisely the fear of diminishment and incapacity, the anxiety at being any kind of burden, the desire to somehow exit at one’s sharpest and fittest and best, that drives the impulse toward medicalized suicide. It was partially a powerful case against unnecessary medical treatment — but partially a window into a worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

The same deficit is apparent in responses to Brittany Maynard’s plight. Liberal policy writers are comfortable using her case to discuss the inadequacies of end-of-life care (as the health care expert Harold Pollack did, eloquently, in a piece for The New Republic). But when it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.”

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

If it can, then laws like Oregon’s will remain unusual, and the politics of assisted suicide the exception to the ever-more-libertarian trend.

If it can’t, then many more tragic stories will have the ending Brittany Maynard has chosen to embrace.

Correction: October 11, 2014 An earlier version of this column misidentified the writer Kara Tippetts. Her name is not Krista Tippett.

You’d think if the schmuck was citing someone’s work he’d bother to get her name right.  And of course the Times’ fact checkers outdid themselves again…  Here’s MoDo:

Fighting Superman is super hard.

“The guy is tough,” says Ben Affleck, who is playing Batman in a new iteration filming now in Detroit where the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel duke it out. The actor is also having a tricky time with less heroic characters in his new hit movie, “Gone Girl,” a twisted and twisty conjugal cage fight that has sparked charges of misogyny, misandry and misanthropy.

Critics complain that Gillian Flynn’s clever creation, Amy Dunne, who punishes the men in her life by conjuring two false charges of rape and one of murder, is as cartoonish as muscly men in tights. They keen that the sleek blonde portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the movie is the latest in a line of stereotypical she-monsters and vagina dentata dames, independent women who turn out to be scary sociopaths.

“Gone Girl” opened last weekend with the backdrop of cover-ups on N.F.L. domestic violence and campaigns against sexual assault in the military and on campus. (California just passed legislation requiring students to give active consent before any sexual activity.)

In The Guardian, Joan Smith contended that the movie’s fake rape scenarios perpetuate the idea that victims of sexual violence “can’t be trusted.”

The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister told The Financial Times that the movie’s depiction of “our little sexual monsters” traded “on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.”

Not to mention when the boiled-down women boil bunnies.

But, as a devotee of film noir vixens, I side with Flynn, whose philosophy is: “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.”

Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.

If “Gone Girl” is sending the wrong message about women, then Emma Bovary should have gone to medical school instead of cheating on her husband, Anna Karenina should have been a train engineer rather than throwing herself onto the tracks, and Eve Harrington should have waited her turn.

The idea that every portrait of a woman should be an ideal woman, meant to stand for all of womanhood, is an enemy of art — not to mention wickedly delicious Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. Art is meant to explore all the unattractive inner realities as well as to recommend glittering ideals. It is not meant to provide uplift or confirm people’s prior ideological assumptions. Art says “Think,” not “You’re right.”

After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks pushed Socialist Realism, creating the Proletkult to ensure that art served ideology. Must we now have a Gynokult to ensure Feminist Unrealism?

“Good God, we’re in a lot of trouble if people think that Amy represents every woman,” Flynn marveled, telling me: “Once I was being mentioned alongside Ray Rice, I thought, wow, this is going to an interesting place.

“Feminism is not that fragile, I hope. What Amy does is to weaponize female stereotypes. She embodies them to get what she wants and then she detonates them. Men do bad things in films all the time and they’re called anti-heroes.”

Amy may not be admirable, Flynn notes, but “neither are the men on ‘The Sopranos.’ ”

“I think part of what people are pushing back on is that Amy’s not a dismissible bad person,” she said. “She doesn’t get punished.”

David Fincher, the director with the gift for saturating scenes in the darkness that interests him, is equally bemused.

“I don’t think the book or movie is saying that one out of five women in the Midwest needs to be scrutinized for borderline personality disorder,” he said. “The character is hyperbolized. It’s not ‘60 Minutes.’ It’s a mystery that becomes an absurdist thriller that ultimately becomes a satire.”

Flynn, Fincher and Affleck agree the movie is less about the she-monster than the me-monster, the narcissism involved in seducing your aspirational soul mate.

“The whole point is that these are two people pretending to be other people, better people, versions of the dream guy and dream girl,” Flynn said. “But each one couldn’t keep it up, so they destroy each other.”

Or as Fincher puts it, eventually in a relationship, you get to the point where exhaustion sets in and you say, “I don’t feel like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge yet again.”

Affleck said that, as the father of two young girls, he is acutely aware of the dangers that women face in the world.

“But picking apart the plot architecture in this literal way misses the larger point of Gillian’s book and David’s movie,” he said. “Just as Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ was about pedophilia, plotwise, but actually about obsession, this movie is not simply about a diabolical woman or a man getting railroaded. It’s an indictment of how we lie to one another until, eventually, the mask falls off. Ironically, it is a movie that’s critical of marriage from two people who have great marriages.”

So to the Church of Feminism and the Niceness Thought Police, I say: Let a thousand black orchids bloom.

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom:

An Iraqi official recently told me this story: When the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over Mosul in the summer, the Sunni jihadist fighters in ISIS, many of whom were foreigners, went house to house. On the homes of Christians they marked “Nassarah,” an archaic Arabic term for Christians. But on the homes of Shiites they marked “Rafidha,” which means “those who reject” the Sunni line of authority as to who should be caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But here’s what was interesting, the Iraqi official said, the term “Rafidha” was largely unknown in Iraq to describe Shiites. It is a term used by Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. “We did not know this word,” he told me. “This is not an Iraqi term.”

I was intrigued by this story because it highlighted the degree to which ISIS operates just like an “invasive species” in the world of plants and animals. It is not native to either the Iraqi or Syrian ecosystems. It never before grew in their landscapes.

I find it useful at times to use the natural world to illuminate trends in geopolitics and globalization, and this is one of them. The United States National Arboretum website notes that “invasive plant species thrive where the continuity of a natural ecosystem is breached and are abundant on disturbed sites like construction areas and road cuts. … In some situations these nonnative species cause serious ecological disturbances. In the worst cases, invasive plants … ruthlessly choke out other plant life. This puts extreme pressure on native plants and animals, and threatened species may succumb to this pressure. Ultimately, invasive plants alter habitats and reduce biodiversity.”

I can’t think of a better way to understand ISIS. It is a coalition. One part consists of Sunni Muslim jihadist fighters from all over the world: Chechnya, Libya, Britain, France, Australia and especially Saudi Arabia. They spread so far, so fast, despite their relatively small numbers, because the disturbed Iraqi and Syrian societies enabled these foreign jihadists to forge alliances with secular, native-born, Iraqi and Syrian Sunni tribesmen and former Baathist army officers, whose grievances were less religious and more about how Iraq and Syria were governed.

Today, ISIS — the foreigners and locals together — is putting pressure on all of Iraq’s and Syria’s native species with the avowed goal of reducing the diversity of these once polycultural societies and turning them into bleak, dark, jihadist, Sunni fundamentalist monocultures.

It is easy to see how ISIS spread. Think about the life of a 50-year-old Iraqi Sunni male from Mosul. He first got drafted to fight in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. Then he had to fight in the Persian Gulf war I after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then he lived under a decade of U.N. sanctions that broke Iraq’s middle class. Then he had to endure the years of chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, which ended with a corrupt, brutal, pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad led by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that did all it could to keep Sunnis poor and powerless. This was the fractured political ecosystem in which ISIS found fertile ground.

How do you deal with an invasive species? The National Arboretum says you should “use systemic herbicides carefully” (President Obama’s air war), while also constantly working to strengthen and “preserve healthy native plant habitats” (Obama’s effort to forge a national unity government in Baghdad with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together).

Generally speaking, though, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan we have overspent on herbicides (guns and training) and underinvested in the best bulwark against invasive species (noncorrupt, just governance). We should be pressing the Iraqi government, which is rich with cash, to focus on delivering to every Iraqi still under its control 24 hours of electricity a day, a job, better schools, more personal security and a sense that no matter what sect they’re from the game is not rigged against them and their voice will count. That is how you strengthen an ecosystem against invasive species.

“It was misgovernance which drove Iraqis to contemplate a relationship with ISIS with the view that it was less detrimental to their interests than their own (Shiite-led) government,” explained Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment who is a former U.S. adviser in Afghanistan and author of the upcoming “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.” The Iraqi Army we built was seen by many Iraqi Sunnis “as the enforcer of a kleptocratic network.” That army got “sucked dry by the cronies of Maliki so it became a hollow shell that couldn’t withstand the first bullet.”

The goal of ISIS now is to draw us in, get us to bomb Sunni towns and drive the non-ISIS Sunnis away from America and closer to ISIS, “because,” notes Chayes, “ISIS knows it can’t survive without the support of these non-ISIS Sunnis.”

We always overestimate military training and force and underestimate what Arabs and Afghans want most: decent and just governance. Without the latter, there is no way to cultivate real citizens with a will to fight — and without will there is no training that matters.

Ask any general — or gardener.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Some white Americans may be surprised to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu describe Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer fighting for racial justice, as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”

Huh? Why do we need a Mandela over here? We’ve made so much progress on race over 50 years! And who is this guy Stevenson, anyway?

Yet Archbishop Tutu is right. Even after remarkable gains in civil rights, including the election of a black president, the United States remains a profoundly unequal society — and nowhere is justice more elusive than in our justice system.

When I was born in 1959, the hospital in which I arrived had separate floors for black babies and white babies, and it was then illegal for blacks and whites to marry in many states. So progress has been enormous, and America today is nothing like the apartheid South Africa that imprisoned Mandela. But there’s also a risk that that progress distracts us from the profound and persistent inequality that remains.

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., I wrote a couple of columns entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” The reaction to those columns — sometimes bewildered, resentful or unprintable — suggests to me that many whites in America don’t understand the depths of racial inequity lingering in this country.

This inequity is embedded in our law enforcement and criminal justice system, and that is why Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s Mandela. For decades he has fought judges, prosecutors and police on behalf of those who are impoverished, black or both. When someone is both and caught in the maw of the justice system — well, Stevenson jokes that “it’s like having two kinds of cancer at the same time.”

“We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he adds.

Stevenson, 54, grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Delaware and ended up at Harvard Law School. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., to challenge bias and represent the voiceless. It’s a tale he recounts in a searing, moving and infuriating memoir that is scheduled to be published later this month, “Just Mercy.”

Stevenson tells of Walter McMillian, a black Alabama businessman who scandalized his local community by having an affair with a married white woman. Police were under enormous pressure to solve the murder of an 18-year-old white woman, and they ended up arresting McMillian in 1987.

The authorities suppressed exculpatory evidence and found informants to testify against McMillian with preposterous, contradictory and constantly changing stories. McMillian had no serious criminal history and had an alibi: At the time of the murder, he was at a church fish fry, attended by dozens of people who confirmed his presence.

None of this mattered. An overwhelmingly white jury found McMillian guilty of the murder, and the judge — inauspiciously named Robert E. Lee Key Jr. — sentenced him to die.

When Stevenson sought to appeal on McMillian’s behalf, Judge Key called him up. “Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian?” the judge asked, according to Stevenson’s account.

Stevenson dug up evidence showing that McMillian couldn’t have committed the crime, and prosecuting witnesses recanted their testimony, with one saying that he had been threatened with execution unless he testified against McMillian. Officials shrugged. They seemed completely uninterested in justice as long as the innocent man on death row was black.

Despite receiving death threats, Stevenson pursued the case and eventually won: McMillian was exonerated and freed in 1993 after spending six years on death row.

I suggested to Stevenson that such a blatant and racially tinged miscarriage of justice would be less likely today. On the contrary, he said, such cases remain common, adding that he is currently representing a prisoner in Alabama who has even more evidence of innocence than McMillian had.

“If anything, because of the tremendous increase in people incarcerated, I’m confident that we have more innocent people in prison today than 25 years ago,” Stevenson said.

Those of us who are white and in the middle class rarely see this side of the justice system. The system works for us, and it’s easy to overlook how deeply it is skewed against the poor or members of minority groups.

Yet consider drug arrests. Surveys overwhelmingly find that similar percentages of blacks and whites use illegal drugs. Yet the Justice Department says that blacks are arrested for such drug offenses at three times the rate of whites.

One study in Seattle found that blacks made up 16 percent of observed drug dealers for the five most dangerous drugs and 64 percent of arrests for dealing those drugs.

Likewise, research suggests that blacks and whites violate traffic laws at similar rates, but blacks are far more likely to be stopped and arrested. The Sentencing Project, which pushes for fairer law enforcement, cites a New Jersey study that racial minorities account for 15 percent of drivers on the turnpike, but blacks account for 42 percent of stops.

THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. Too many whites unquestioningly accept a system that disproportionately punishes blacks and that gives public schools serving disadvantaged children many fewer resources than those serving affluent children. We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.

Some whites think that the fundamental problem is young black men who show no personal responsibility, screw up and then look for others to blame. Yes, that happens. But I also see a white-dominated society that shows no sense of responsibility for disadvantaged children born on a path that often propels them toward drugs, crime and joblessness; we fail those kids before they fail us, and then we, too, look for others to blame.

Today we sometimes wonder how so many smart, well-meaning white people in the Jim Crow era could have unthinkingly accepted segregation. The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves; that helps explain the obliviousness of our own generation to inequity today. We need to wake up.

And that is why we need a Mandela in this country.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

After the latest meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative wrapped up three weeks ago, I thought I’d missed the perfect window to write about Bill Clinton’s continued hold on Americans’ hearts, his sustained claim on the spotlight.

Silly me. In short order and with customary brio, Clinton simply traded that stage for the next one: the entire state of Arkansas, his old stamping grounds, through which he barnstormed over recent days in the service of Senate Democrats.

He remained in the headlines. He was still in the mix. Even when he’s not running, he’s running — exuberantly, indefatigably, for just causes, for lost causes, because he hopes to move the needle, because he loves the sound of his own voice and because he doesn’t know any other way to be. Politics is his calling. The arena is his home.

And that’s the real reason that he’s so popular in his post-presidency, so beloved in both retrospect and the moment. In bold contrast to the easily embittered, frequently disappointing occupant of the Oval Office right now, Bill Clinton was — and is — game.

Nothing stops him or slows him or sours him, at least not for long. Nothing is beneath him, because he’s as unabashedly messy and slick as the operators all around him. He doesn’t recoil at the rough and tumble, or feel belittled and diminished by it. He relishes it. Throw a punch at him and he throws one at you. Impeach him and he bounces back.

It’s that very gameness that fueled his undeniable successes as a president, and that’s worth keeping in mind when the midterms end and we turn our attention more fully to the 2016 presidential race. Who in the emerging field of contenders has his level of enthusiasm, his degree of stamina, his intensity of engagement?

Neither of the two presidents who followed him do, and that absent fire explains many of their shortcomings in office. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama felt put out by what they had to do to get there. Neither masked his sense of being better than the ugly process he was lashed to.

Bush was always craving distance from the stink and muck of the Potomac, and routinely averted his gaze: from the truth of Iraq, from the wrath of Katrina. In a different way, Obama also pulls away, accepting stalemates and defeats, not wanting to get too dirty, not breaking too much of a sweat. “The audacity of mope,” his countenance has been called.

It comes into sharper, more troubling focus with each passing season and each new book, including Leon Panetta’s, “Worthy Fights,” which was published last week. The reservations expressed by Panetta, who served under Obama as both C.I.A director and defense secretary, seconded those articulated by so many other Democrats.

The president, Panetta wrote, “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” He exhibits “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” in Panetta’s words, and he “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities.”

As Washington absorbed Panetta’s assessment and debated whether it was an act of disloyalty or of patriotism, Arkansas opened its arms to Clinton, who beamed and pressed the flesh and talked and talked.

He talked in particular about Mark Pryor, the incumbent Democratic senator, who seems poised to be defeated by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star. And while it’s doubtful that Clinton’s backing will save Pryor, it’s almost certain that no other Democrat’s favor would serve Pryor any better.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg poll that came out last week suggested that a campaign plug from Clinton would carry more weight with voters than one from Obama, the first lady, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney or Chris Christie. He’s the endorser in chief.

That gives him an invitation and a license to step onto soapboxes wide and far. Last month he stumped in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. This month he’s bound for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He’s wanted. He’s welcomed.

And, yes, that’s partly because he’s a reminder of an epoch more economically dynamic than the current one, of an America less humbled and fearful. It’s also because he has no real responsibility and thus no real culpability: He can’t let us down. On top of which, absence has always made the heart grow fonder.

BUT he never really went away. He abandoned the White House only to begin plotting by proxy to move in again. He’s the past, present and future tenses all entwined, and that’s a clue that there’s something other than just nostalgia behind the outsize affection for him. He’s missed because he demonstrates what’s missing in the commanders in chief since.

He’s missed for that gameness, an invaluable asset that fueled so many leaders’ triumphs but wasn’t abundant in leaders who suffered many defeats.

Jimmy Carter, for one. “He was not just detached and not just unfamiliar with congressional politics but he also didn’t like it, didn’t want to play it — and that was a huge obstacle for him,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian who has written books about Carter and Bush and has one about Lyndon Baines Johnson, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” scheduled for publication in January. “It really damaged him.”

“Clinton was the last president we’ve had who loved politics,” Zelizer added. “Bush — and you can see this in his post-presidency — didn’t have a taste for what Washington was all about. Executive power was partly a way to avoid Congress entirely. And Obama is just like Bush that way.”

It’s interesting to note that neither Bush nor Obama knew any really big, bitter political disappointments en route to the White House. (Bush’s failed 1978 congressional race, so early in his career and so distant from his subsequent bid for Texas governor, doesn’t count.) Their paths were relatively unimpeded ones, while Clinton suffered the humiliation of being booted from his job as governor of Arkansas after one term, then having to regain it.

Scars like that do a politician good. They prove that he or she loves the sport enough to keep going, and has the grit for it. We’d be wise to look for them in the politicians angling for the presidency next. The ugliness of the job isn’t going to change. Might as well elect someone with the appetite for it.

Clinton showed us the downside of unappeasable hunger, but he also showed us the upside, and he’s showing us still. He gets love and he gets his way simply by never letting up in his demand for them. There’s a lesson in that.

Friedman, solo

October 8, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today, so The Moustache of Wisdom has the place to himself.  He has a question in “Running on Empty:”  Who’s to blame for the recent major lapses from the Secret Service?  Here he is:

I’m sure there are many technical explanations for the recent breakdowns in Secret Service protection that allowed an armed intruder to run right through the front door of the White House and an armed felon to ride on an elevator with President Obama. But I’d also put some blame on the nation’s political class.

Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying and watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore? Is there anybody here on a quest for excellence, for making America great?

Yes, yes, I know. They’re all here to do “public service.” But that is not what it looks like. It actually looks as if they came to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected. That is, until they don’t get re-elected. Then, like the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multimillion-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.

Getting elected and raising money to get re-elected — instead of governing and compromising in the national interest — seems to be all that too many of our national politicians are interested in anymore. There are exceptions, to be sure, but it feels as if many do not take pride in their work in government.

We’re at war in the Middle East, with American military lives on the line, but Congress could not stir itself to return from a pre-election recess to either debate the wisdom of this war or give the president proper legal authorization, let alone take some responsibility. When everyone is so busy running, is it any surprise that no one is running the federal government?

According to PolitiFact, “Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said, ‘This is the earliest Congress has adjourned in over 50 years.’ … Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine called it ‘the second-earliest recess before a midterm since 1960.’ Both senators are correct (if you excuse Barrasso’s use of adjourn instead of recess). For Barrasso, ‘over 50 years,’ takes us back to any year up to 1963, or 51 years ago. The record shows that since 1963, Congress often has taken short breaks in September, given lawmakers several weeks in October to campaign in election years, and even closed the books for the year in October. But an extended break from mid-September to mid-November has not occurred. Kaine’s claim is spot on.”

What does this have to do with the Secret Service lapses? It certainly doesn’t excuse them, but if you’re a federal worker today and you look up at the “adults” who are supposed to be supervising you, what do you see? You see too many self-interested, self-indulgent politicians who are only there to grandstand, spend most of their time raising money to win elections and then, when you, as a federal worker, make a mistake, be the first to rush to the microphones with feigned concern to investigate your competence — as long as the cameras are running.

Tell me that doesn’t filter down to every department, including the Secret Service. When so many above you are just cynically out for themselves, it saps morale, focus and discipline. If so many above you are just getting theirs, well then, why shouldn’t Secret Service agents doing advance work for the president’s trip to Colombia in April 2012 take prostitutes back to their rooms and have some fun on D.C.’s dime, too?

Any wonder that Gallup reported on Sept. 8 that “only 8 percent of the one-third of all Americans who are following national politics ‘very closely’ approve of the way Congress is handling its job.” As Jon Stewart noted: “Here’s how dysfunctional the Secret Service is at this point, Congress had to help them come up with solutions.”

I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but you feel today in Washington a certain laxness, that anything goes and that too few people working for the federal government take pride in their work because everything is just cobbled together by Congress and the White House at the 11th hour anyway. It’s been years since anyone summoned us for a moonshot, for something great. So just show up and punch the clock.

In December 2010, I went to the White House for an interview. I entered through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue. After putting my briefcase through the X-ray machine and collecting it, I grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in my hand.

“Oh, it does that sometimes,” the Secret Service agent at the door said to me nonchalantly, as I tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket. People who take pride in their work don’t just let the handle come off a White House door like that.

Again, I’m not excusing the Secret Service, but the recent breakdowns don’t surprise me when so much of the political class that oversees the service is so self-absorbed, risk-averse and shortsighted. When the people governing us become this cynical, polarized and dysfunctional, it surely seeps down into the bureaucracy. As above, so below.

Friedman and Bruni

October 1, 2014

In “Order vs. Disorder, Part 4″ The Moustache of Wisdom ‘splains that the strategy of “containment” this go-round is not what it was during the Cold War.  In “Serving Without Protecting” Mr. Bruni says a hearing into the White House security breach underscores the public shame of the Secret Service.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve been arguing for a while now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the wider East-West clash of civilizations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. It’s where you can see many trends at a smaller scale first. That is why I study it closely. Whether it is airline-hijacking, suicide-bombing or trying to do nation-building with the other — Israelis called it “Lebanon invasion” and “Oslo”; we called it “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” — what happens there often moves to the larger stage. So, as I have asked before: What’s playing Off Broadway now?

It’s a play called “Containment.” When faced with a barrage of rockets from the Hamas militants in Gaza, Israel largely retaliated with artillery and air power. These inflicted enough pain on Hamas and the Gaza civilian population that Hamas eventually agreed to a cease-fire — but not to surrender.

Indeed, Israel chose to deliberately leave Hamas in power in Gaza because it did not want to put Israeli boots on the ground and try to destroy it — which would have required bloody house-to-house fighting — and because Israel also did not want to leave Gaza as an ungoverned space. Israel’s adopting a strategy of containment toward Gaza also became viable after Egypt’s top military commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, replaced the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood saw Hamas as an ally and allowed it to dig tunnels into Egypt and smuggle in goods for profit and rockets to hit Israel. Sisi, who sees the Brotherhood as his archenemy, has closed those tunnels.

So containment, as a purely military strategy to stem disorder, can work for Israel, for now. Containment also seems to be where the U.S.-led coalition is heading, for now, against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS. Since neither we nor our coalition partners are willing — or, thus far, in the case of the Iraqi Army and Syrian “moderates,” able — to put many boots on the ground to oust ISIS, we will rely on air power to prevent ISIS from expanding and maybe to shrink it.

But here we come to the most important difference between the containment we used to defeat the Soviet Union and the containment of Hamas and ISIS. We and the Israelis are both using containment to seal off a problem that we each perceive as too costly, politically and in human terms, to try to eliminate. But that strategy has its limits.

As Mark Mykleby, a retired Marine colonel and the co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, put it to me: “In the Cold War, we contained the Soviets militarily to set the conditions for the U.S.S.R. to collapse on itself, but that wasn’t the whole story. We also rebuilt the shattered economies of our former enemies, built international institutions like the I.M.F. and World Bank, and redesigned our own governing institutions to address our new post-World War II reality so that we would have the strategic scaffolding in place to continue building a post-Cold War world once the Soviet Union did in fact collapse.

“In the case of Gaza,” he added, “the Israelis are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a chronic problem by simply ‘containing’ the Palestinians.” Without a strategy for improving living conditions there, that could prove very damaging to Israel in the long run as Gaza becomes a human disaster zone. The West is doing something similar with ISIS: containing without building “the regional scaffolding to support and leverage” a more modern, consensual and pluralistic Middle East that might fill the ISIS space.

Containment, said Mykleby, only makes long-term sense if you commit money and political capital to fill that space with something decent. Israel is not doing that because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be a partner to a two-state solution. And because right-wing Jewish settlers so dominate Israel’s ruling coalition that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu cannot or will not put on the table anything close to what the more moderate Palestinian Authority demands for a two-state deal. Nor is it clear the Palestinians could deliver the security Israel demands. In short, the whole relationship is broken, making a strategy beyond containment very hard.

On Broadway, we’re hamstrung in building a post-ISIS political strategy by the fact that some of our coalition partners have no shared vision for a post-ISIS Syria or Iraq and do not want democracy in this region. Also, some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are purveyors of the intolerant, anti-pluralistic Sunni ideology that inspires ISIS fighters. Even Turkey’s Islamist government has some pro-ISIS sympathies.

In short, containment in both theaters is necessary but not sufficient for long-term stability. But, unlike the Cold War where our containment strategy was largely the product of like-minded democracies working to liberate like-minded people from a bad system, in the Middle East, we have few like-minded partners.

The most we can hope for are “least bad” allies and “least bad” outcomes. In today’s Middle East, least bad is the new good.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

My mother used to leave the front door unlocked. She used to leave the side and back doors unlocked, too. This was mostly a function of sloppiness — she had four kids, three pets and a whole lot else on her mind — but when pressed about it, she reasoned that anyone bent on intrusion would find a way and that it was all a matter of chance in the end.

She missed her calling as the director of the Secret Service.

What we’ve discovered over the last week and a half about the crackerjack operations of this elite agency boggles the mind, and nothing I learned during Tuesday’s congressional hearing into its procedures did anything to un-boggle it.

The subject was how, on Sept. 19, a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House — much deeper, it turns out, than the agency initially let on. We were first given the impression that he’d merely made it through the front door. Only later did The Washington Post and other news organizations unearth that he had zipped down the vestibule, past a staircase, through the East Room and almost to the Green Room. By the time all the facts emerge, we’ll find out that he treated himself to a grilled cheese and a glass of Ovaltine in the kitchen, where he was interrupted mid-sandwich and given a doggie bag.

At the hearing, there were acute questions and ludicrous ones, genuine concern and disingenuous grandstanding, florid preening and runaway egos, which is to say that many politicians were crowded into one room.

There was verbiage so oblique it barely qualified as English, which is to say that government officials testified. Front and center was the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, who behaved in the manner of so many beleaguered bureaucrats before her. She pledged reviews, reports, inquiries and assessments — a brimming thesaurus of self-examination — and tried to run out the clock.

She muttered sentences like this: “In downtown areas, there is sound attenuation.” This was a reference to the Secret Service’s confusion in 2011 over whether someone had been shooting at the White House or a motor vehicle in its vicinity had backfired.

The answer was shooting: Seven bullets hit one of this country’s defining symbols, which is also the president’s private residence, in which he and his family must feel — and be — unconditionally safe. And it wasn’t Secret Service agents who identified the evidence. It was a housekeeper, happening upon shattered glass days after the fact.

These aren’t minor, random smudges on the record of the Secret Service, which was also embarrassed a few years ago when agents on assignment in Colombia partied with prostitutes. They’re cause for grave worry and a different kind of housecleaning.

Nothing about the events of Sept. 19 honors the responsibilities and capabilities of a great nation. According to Pierson’s testimony, two agents that day had eyes on the intruder, who was known to them as a potential troublemaker and had shown up at the White House fence less than a month earlier with a hatchet. They were right not to detain him then: He’d committed no crime. But how could their monitoring of him during his return visit be so lax that he even got over that fence?

Not a beast or a beep worked properly. The guard dogs didn’t guard. The alarm boxes didn’t alarm. The front door couldn’t be locked automatically as he sprinted toward it, because it wasn’t rigged that way. We can fly drones over Pakistan, but we can’t summon a proper locksmith to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Time and again, Washington validates the naysayers who like to dismiss it as the capital of bureaucratic incompetence. The president unveils his signature health care reform — arguably the cornerstone of his legacy — and the website repeatedly crashes. The I.R.S. loses whole years of emails. A contractor for the National Security Agency steals away with a seemingly bottomless trove of classified documents.

The Department of Homeland Security fails to keep track of more than 6,000 foreigners in the country on student visas, or so ABC News reported in early September. And don’t even get me started on the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There’s precedent, yes, for White House intrusions. An uninvited guest once watched a movie with Franklin Delano Roosevelt before being detected.

And America isn’t alone. In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II awoke in Buckingham Palace to encounter a strange man in her bedroom. He and she reportedly chatted for 10 minutes.

I guess the palace didn’t have all the “layers” and “rings” of security repeatedly mentioned at the congressional hearing, though a lot of good all those layers and rings did us. In the end, it’s people who make the difference. The Secret Service needs better ones.

I can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “While this recent lapse is alarming, we should remember that in 2000 a deranged man managed to get deep inside the White House, and stayed there for eight years.”

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

September 28, 2014

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.”

Friedman and Bruni

September 24, 2014

In “ISIS Crisis” The Moustache of Wisdom says the mounting tension involved in the fight against the Islamic State is not going away anytime soon.  In ” ‘I Do’ Means You’re Done” Mr. Bruni says the Catholic Church will be haunted by its inhumane treatment of many gay couples.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There is a tension at the heart of President Obama’s campaign to confront the Islamic State, and it explains a lot about why he has so much trouble articulating and implementing his strategy. Quite simply, it is the tension between two vital goals — promoting the “soul-searching” that ISIS’s emergence has triggered in the Arab-Muslim world and “searching and destroying” ISIS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

Get used to it. This tension is not going away. Obama will have to lead through it.

The good news: The rise of the Islamic State, also known and ISIS, is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst. Look at a few samples, starting with “The Barbarians Within Our Gates,” written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel.

“With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama … is stepping once again — and with understandably great reluctance — into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down. Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

“Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed,” Melhem added. “The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. … The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk — what was left of a broken-down civilization.

The liberal Saudi analyst Turki al-Hamad responded in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper to King Abdullah’s call for Saudi religious leaders to confront ISIS ideology: How can they? al-Hamad asked. They all embrace the same anti-pluralistic, puritanical Wahhabi Sunni ideology that Saudi Arabia diffused, at home and abroad, to the mosques that nurtured ISIS.

“They are unable to face the groups of violence, extremism and beheadings, not out of laziness or procrastination, but because all of them share in that same ideology,” al-Hamad wrote. “How can they confront an ideology that they themselves carry within them and within their mind-set?”

The Lebanese Shiite writer Hanin Ghaddar in an essay in August on Lebanon’s Now website wrote: “To fight the I.S. and other radical groups, and to prevent the rise of new autocratic rulers, we need to assume responsibility for the collective failures that have produced all of these awful tyrants and fanatics. Our media and education systems are liable for the monster we helped create. … We need to teach our children how to learn from our mistakes instead of how to master the art of denial. When our educators and journalists start to understand the significance of individual rights, and admit that we have failed to be citizens, then we can start hoping for freedom, even if it is achieved slowly.”

Nurturing this soul-searching is a vital — and smart — part of the Obama strategy. In committing America to an air-campaign-only against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, Obama has declared that the ground war will have to be fought by Arabs and Muslims, not just because this is their war and they should take the brunt of the casualties, but because the very act of their organizing themselves across Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines — the very act of overcoming their debilitating sectarian and political differences that would be required to defeat ISIS on the ground — is the necessary ingredient for creating any kind of decent, consensual government that could replace ISIS in any self-sustaining way.

The tension arises because ISIS is a killing machine, and it will take another killing machine to search it out and destroy it on the ground. There is no way the “moderate” Syrians we’re training can alone fight ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. Iraqis, Turkey and the nearby Arab states will have to also field troops.

After all, this is a civil war for the future of both Sunni Islam and the Arab world. We can degrade ISIS from the air — I’m glad we have hit these ISIS psychopaths in Syria — but only Arabs and Turks can destroy ISIS on the ground. Right now, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS. He won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air. What’s in his soul? What’s in the soul of the Arab regimes who are ready to join us in bombing ISIS in Syria, but rule out ground troops?

This is a civilization in distress, and unless it faces the pathologies that have given birth to an ISIS monster its belly — any victory we achieve from the air or ground will be temporary.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

In and around Rome, the talk is of Pope Francis’ sage acceptance of the 21st century, of his empathy, of his departure from the stern moralizing on matters of the heart that his predecessors engaged in.

In Montana, a gay couple who have been together for more than three decades have been told that they’re no longer really welcome in the Catholic parish where they’ve been worshiping together for 11 years.

This happened last month, in the town of Lewistown. By all accounts, these two men, one of them 73, the other 66, had done no one any harm. They hadn’t picked a fight. Hadn’t caused any particular stir. Simply went to Mass, same as always. Prayed. Sang in the church choir, where they were beloved mainstays.

There was only this: In May of last year, without any fanfare, the men had traveled to Seattle, where they had met and lived for many years, to get married. And while they didn’t do anything after to publicize the civil ceremony, word eventually leaked out.

So in early August, a 27-year-old priest who had just begun working at the parish summoned them to a meeting, according to local news reports. And at that meeting, he told them that they could no longer be choir members, perform any other roles like that or, for that matter, receive communion.

If they wanted those privileges restored, there was indeed a remedy, which the priest and other church officials spelled out for them over subsequent conversations. They would have to divorce. They would have to stop living together. And they would have to sign a statement that marriage exists only between a man and a woman.

Translation: Renounce a love fortified over 30 years. Unravel your lives. And affirm that you’re a lesser class of people, barred from the rituals in which others blithely participate.

With those little tweaks, the body of Christ can again be yours.

In one sense there’s nothing revelatory here. For all the changes afoot in enlightened countries around the world, the church remains censorious of same-sex marriage — fervently so, in many instances — and Catholic teaching still forbids sexually intimate relationships between two men or two women.

But there are details to note, rue and reject. One is the hypocrisy (or whatever you want to call it) of punishing a same-sex couple for formalizing a relationship that was already obvious, as these men’s partnership was.

Such punishment has befallen many employees of Catholic schools or congregations since the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states allowed them civil weddings. Teachers long known to be gay are suddenly exiled for being gay and married, which is apparently too much commitment and accountability for the church to abide. Honesty equals expulsion. “I do” means you’re done.

I reached the Montana couple, Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff, on the phone Tuesday, and Wojtowick expressed befuddlement. “We’re just two old men,” he said, and their relationship was no secret. “We’re only 5,900 people in this town, and Paul and I are really well known.”

He said that seven generations of his family had worshiped in the parish, where he himself was baptized. In recent years he’d been on the parish council, and until last month, he was the organist. “This is my home,” he said.

He said that he and Huff had decided to get married not to make a statement but because they were getting on in years and didn’t want any confusion or challenge about beneficiaries, health care proxies and hospital visitation rights.

The Catholic Church does incalculable good, providing immeasurable comfort — material as well as spiritual — to so many. But it contradicts and undercuts that mission when it fails to recognize what more and more parishioners do: that gay people deserve the same dignity as everyone else, certainly not what happened to the Montana couple. If Francis and his successors don’t get this right, all his other bits of progress and pretty words will be for naught.

This tension was captured in a blog post Monday by Andrew Sullivan, who is both a leading gay marriage advocate and a practicing Catholic. He indicated that stories like the one from Montana are making those identities ever harder to reconcile. “There is only so much inhumanity that a church can be seen to represent before its own members lose faith in it,” he wrote.

A bishop in Montana conceded to a local newspaper that half the congregation was upset by the men’s ouster. Wojtowick told me that the choir had essentially disbanded, in solidarity with him and Huff, and that some congregants had stopped attending services, Huff among them.

Wojtowick still goes, but only for the first half of the Mass, before communion approaches. “Then I get up,” he said. “I make a profound bow to the altar. And I walk out.”

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

September 21, 2014

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.

Friedman and Bruni

September 17, 2014

In “Take a Deep Breath” The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we should ponder a few important questions about ISIS and the Arab world.  Mr. Bruni, in “Apples and Hurricanes,” says Obama can be measured without the yardstick of Bush.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from London:

An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or is it theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that’s the question that needs answering.

What concerns me most about President Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it’s being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and fear that ISIS, a.k.a., the Islamic State, is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Didn’t we build a Department of Homeland Security?

I am not dismissing ISIS. Obama is right that ISIS needs to be degraded and destroyed. But when you act out of fear, you don’t think strategically and you glide over essential questions, like why is it that Shiite Iran, which helped trigger this whole Sunni rebellion in Iraq, is scoffing at even coordinating with us, and Turkey and some Arab states are setting limits on their involvement?

When I read that, I think that Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners, is correct when he says: “When it comes to intervening in the Arab world’s existential struggle, we have to stop and ask ourselves why we have such a challenge getting them to help us save them.”

So before we get in any deeper, let’s ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing? George Friedman (no relation), the chairman of Stratfor, raised this idea in his recent essay on Stratfor.com, “The Virtue of Subtlety.” He notes that the ISIS uprising was the inevitable Sunni backlash to being brutally stripped of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite governments and militias in Baghdad and Syria. But then he asks:

Is ISIS “really a problem for the United States? The American interest is not stability but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralyzed so that no one who would threaten the United States emerges. … But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe that the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act in the margins, or even hinder the Americans. The United States must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the United States, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.”

Therefore, he concludes, the best U.S. strategy rests in us “doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition.” I am not sure, but it’s worth debating.

Here’s another question: What’s this war really about?

“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this moment from all others,” argues Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar associated with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.

Saudi financing for these groups is a byproduct of the ruling bargain there between the al-Saud family and its Salafist religious establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The al-Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS members (some 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world.

This game has reached its limit. First, because ISIS presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia. ISIS says it is the “caliphate,” the center of Islam. Saudi Arabia believes it is the center. And, second, ISIS is threatening Muslims everywhere. Khalidi told me of a Muslim woman friend in London who says she’s afraid to go out with her head scarf on for fear that people will believe she is with ISIS — just for dressing as a Muslim. Saudi Arabia cannot continue fighting ISIS and feeding the ideology that nurtures ISIS. It will hurt more and more Muslims.

We, too, have to stop tolerating this. For years, the U.S. has “played the role of the central bank of Middle East stability,” noted Mousavizadeh. “Just as the European Central Bank funding delays the day that France has to go through structural reforms, America’s security umbrella,” always there no matter what the Saudis do, “has delayed the day that Saudi Arabia has to face up to its internal contradictions,” and reform its toxic ruling bargain. The future of Islam and our success against ISIS depend on it.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Whenever Barack Obama seems in danger of falling, do we have to hear that George W. Bush made the cliff?

It happened with the economy. For the president’s staunchest defenders, legitimate questions about whether the stimulus was wisely crafted and whether Obamacare was rushed took a back seat to lamentations over the damage that his predecessor had done. Obama wasn’t perfect, but at least he wasn’t Bush.

And with the Middle East, those defenders sometimes turn Bush’s epic mistakes into Obama’s hall pass. Perhaps he hasn’t figured out what’s right, but he isn’t guilty of the original wrong, which is constantly being litigated anew, as if a fresh verdict on the events of 2003 could alter the challenges and stakes of 2014.

On Tuesday there was another spasm of this. As Congress debated the escalation of airstrikes against Islamic extremists, Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, digressed to inveigh against “the wholly unnecessary Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq,” a bell that was rung 11 1/2 years ago and can’t be un-rung now.

And to judge from my inbox lately and the chatter I overhear, what matters to many of Obama’s most stalwart fans isn’t whether he erred in the way he spoke of those extremists, turned his attention to them quickly enough or is now confronting them with the correct dose of belligerence: not too little, not too much.

At least he’s not Bush. He didn’t hallucinate weapons of mass destruction, make a spurious case for war or condone torture. I hear so much about Bush’s failings and Bush’s sins that you’d think he were still huddled over a desk in Washington rather than dabbing at a canvas in Texas.

Enough. It’s true that Obama hasn’t replicated Bush’s offenses, and it’s consoling. But it isn’t exactly reason for a parade, and it doesn’t inoculate him. The culpability that lies elsewhere doesn’t relieve the responsibilities that are now his.

And not being as bad as someone else is hardly the same as being good. Obama can rise far above Bush and still fall short. The presidency isn’t “The Voice” (though it is a little like “Survivor”). You’re not judged only in relation to the other performers who’ve been on stage. You’re judged by how well you respond to the unique circumstances of your time and place — by your ability to clean up the mess, not whether you made it.

This not-as-bad-as defense is a pointless partisan tic. We’ve seen a lot of it over the course of this presidency and will no doubt see a lot of it during the next, be it Democratic or Republican.

The I.R.S. scandal was not as bad as Watergate. (Nothing’s ever as bad as Watergate, which serves a nifty historical function as the gold standard of executive malfeasance and mendacity.)

The bungled rollout of Obamacare was not as bad as the botched response to Katrina.

It’s apples and hurricanes, but they’re put in the same basket, in a manner that recalls a child trying to evade punishment by ratting out a sibling for something worse. Don’t be mad, Mommy, about Operation Fast and Furious and all those guns that ended up with Mexican drug cartels. Ronnie traded arms for hostages as part of this whole Iran-contra affair!

I sometimes like to imagine presidential campaigns waged along these lines and what the candidates’ not-as-bad-as bumper stickers might say.

“Fewer Lies Than Nixon.” “Fewer Sweaters Than Carter.” “Fewer Interns Than Clinton.” “Better Speller Than Quayle.”

It works in the other direction, too, and Obama has definitely suffered plenty of not-as-good-as slings. Former presidents are held up not merely as yardsticks; they’re rulers used to rap the knuckles of the Oval Office’s current inhabitant and beat him over the head.

Smack: That Teddy Roosevelt certainly understood the power of the bully pulpit! Thwack: That L.B.J. really knew how to schmooze! A president is like a second spouse living in the saintly shadow of a first one who perished too soon.

Edmund Burke famously said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. But are those who fixate on it blind to how peculiar the present is, and to the fact that no degree of longing for a lost hero or blaming of a departed villain is going to change what lies ahead?

If we’re determined to glance back at a figure who flatters Obama, let’s really have at it and look all the way to Warren Harding. Golf wasn’t his only distraction. He also had a thing for poker. And when it came to seeming and feeling overwhelmed, the 29th president, an Ohio Republican, reputedly confessed to friends that he was lost in the job.

By that measure Obama is a rock. But it doesn’t make him a boulder.

Cripes.  MoDo or Bobo could have written that.  He should go back to reviewing restaurants or being a judge on The Food Channel…

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Friedman

September 14, 2014

In “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians” The Putz says Senator Ted Cruz’s stunt at a conference on religious persecution has only increased his co-religionists’ isolation.  I just love the way he uses “co-religionists,” implying that he and Cruz aren’t both (at least nominally) Christians.  In “Throw the Bums Out” MoDo says when you enable men who beat women, you’re in danger of getting sacked.  I’ll bet she thought with both hands all week to come up with that play on words…  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “What’s Their Plan?”  He says the fight against ISIS is a two-front campaign. We keep making it about us and Obama. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Here’s The Putz:

When the long, grim history of Christianity’s disappearance from the Middle East is written, Ted Cruz’s performance last week at a conference organized to highlight the persecution of his co-religionists will merit at most a footnote. But sometimes a footnote can help illuminate a tragedy’s unhappy whole.

For decades, the Middle East’s increasingly beleaguered Christian communities have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world. And their plight has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.

There are three reasons for this invisibility. The political left in the West associates Christian faith with dead white male imperialism and does not come naturally to the recognition that Christianity is now the globe’s most persecuted religion. And in the Middle East the Israel-Palestine question, with its colonial overtones, has been the left’s great obsession, whereas the less ideologically convenient plight of Christians under Islamic rule is often left untouched.

To America’s strategic class, meanwhile, the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t have the kind of influence required to matter. A minority like the Kurds, geographically concentrated and well-armed, can be a player in the great game, a potential United States ally. But except in Lebanon, the region’s Christians are too scattered and impotent to offer much quid for the superpower’s quo. So whether we’re pursuing stability by backing the anti-Christian Saudis or pursuing transformation by toppling Saddam Hussein (and unleashing the furies on Iraq’s religious minorities), our policy makers have rarely given Christian interests any kind of due.

Then, finally, there is the American right, where one would expect those interests to find a greater hearing. But the ancient churches of the Middle East (Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Copt, Assyrian) are theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals. And the great cause of many conservative Christians in the United States is the state of Israel, toward which many Arab Christians harbor feelings that range from the complicated to the hostile.

Which brings us to Ted Cruz, the conservative senator and preacher’s son, who was invited to give the keynote address last week at a Washington, D.C., summit conference organized in response to religious cleansing by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The conference was an ecumenical affair, featuring an unusual gathering of patriarchs and clerics (few of whom agree on much) from a wide range of Christian churches. But Middle Eastern reality and the Christian position in the region being what they are, this meant that it included (and was attacked for including) some attendees who were hostile to Israeli policy or had said harsh things about the Jewish state, and some who had dealings with Israel’s enemies — Assad and Hezbollah, in particular.

Perhaps (I think almost certainly) with this reality in mind, Cruz began his remarks with a lecture on how Assad, Hezbollah and ISIS are indistinguishable, and paused to extol Israel’s founding, and then offered the sweeping claim that the region’s Christians actually “have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

The first (debatable) proposition earned applause, as did his calls for Jewish-Christian unity. But at the last claim, with which many Lebanese and Palestinian Christians strongly disagree, the audience offered up some boos, at which point Cruz began attacking “those who hate Israel,” the boos escalated, things fell apart and he walked offstage.

Many conservatives think Cruz acquitted himself admirably, and he’s earned admiring headlines around the right-wing web. There is a certain airless logic to this pro-Cruz take — that because Assad and Hezbollah are murderers and enemies of Israel, anyone who deals with them deserves to be confronted, and if that confrontation meets with boos, you’ve probably exposed anti-Semites who deserve to be attacked still more.

But this logic shows not a scintilla of sympathy for what it’s actually like to be an embattled religious minority, against whom genocide isn’t just being threatened but actually carried out.

Some of the leaders of the Middle East’s Christians have made choices that merit criticism; some of them harbor attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors that merit condemnation. But Israel is a rich, well-defended, nuclear-armed nation-state; its supporters, and especially its American Christian supporters, can afford to allow a population that’s none of the above to organize to save itself from outright extinction without also demanding applause for Israeli policy as the price of sympathy and support.

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t in good conscience address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts.

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

What an unmitigated ass he is.  Now here’s our weekly dose of MoDo:

When Roger Goodell was growing up here, he had the best possible example of moral leadership. His father, a moderate New York Republican appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to Bobby Kennedy’s Senate seat after the assassination, risked his career to come out against the Vietnam War.

“We should not be engaged in a land war 10,000 miles away,” he wrote to Rockefeller.

Egged on by Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon never blanched at putting his political viability ahead of the lives of kids on the battlefield, but Charles Goodell would not do that. In September 1969, the senator tried to force the president to withdraw all the troops faster by introducing a bill, S-3000, withholding money. He could have waited until after his election the following year, thus garnering President Nixon’s support, but he was that rare creature that seems to have vanished from the Washington landscape: a profile in courage.

His moral stance brought down the immoral Furies: Nixon, Agnew and Kissinger, who suggested Goodell was treasonous. As his five sons, including 11-year-old Roger, watched in dismay, the vengeful Nixon White House schemed against Goodell’s re-election, and, at 44, his political career was kaput.

The two legacies from his dad, Bryan Curtis wrote in Grantland last year, could well be “a measure of his dad’s idealism, his contrarianism, his stubbornness. And I bet we’d also find a kind of defense mechanism that develops when you see your dad destroyed on a public stage. An instinct that makes you think, I won’t let that happen to me.”

Now the N.F.L. commissioner, he proudly keeps a framed copy of the original S-3000 on the wall of his office on Park Avenue and told The Times’s George Vecsey in 2010 that it “was a valuable lesson to me.”

But what was the lesson? Goodell is acting more like Nixon, the man who covered up crimes, than like his father, who sacrificed his career to save lives.

As ESPN’s Keith Olbermann nicely summed it up, “Mr. Goodell is an enabler of men who beat women,” and he must resign.

Goodell likes to present himself as a law-and-order sheriff bent on integrity, whose motto is: “Protect the shield.” But that doesn’t seem to include protecting the victims of violence or American Indians who see the Washington team’s name as a slur. As with concussions, the league covered up until the public forced its hand.

The commissioner, who has been a sanctimonious judge for eight years, suddenly got lenient. His claim that it was “ambiguous about what actually happened” in the Atlantic City casino elevator between Ray Rice and his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, during the Valentine’s Day massacre was risible to start with. What did he think happened? The man was dragging out an unconscious woman like a sack of mulch.

Goodell’s credibility took another hit on Thursday, when Don Van Natta Jr. wrote on ESPN.com that four sources close to Rice had said that the player had admitted to the commissioner during a disciplinary meeting in his office on June 16 that he had hit his girlfriend in the face and knocked her out. This makes sense since Goodell is known for being intolerant of lies, and since Rice probably assumed the commissioner had seen the video. Yet Goodell only suspended him for two games, two less than if he’d been caught taking Adderall.

It has been suggested that the N.F.L. give players purple gear (oddly the color of Rice’s Ravens team) next month in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But they may as well just wear green. The Wall Street Journal reported that the greed league even asked entertainers to pay for the privilege of playing the Super Bowl halftime show.

Goodell was hired by the owners to be a grow-the-pie guy, which means shielding the throw-the-punch guy. Since he became commissioner in 2006, the league’s 32 gridiron fiefdoms have increased in value by $10.9 billion, according to Forbes. He wants to bring in $25 billion annually by 2027. Goodell himself is making more than $44 million.

Owners shrug off moral turpitude because when they pay a lot of money for a player, they don’t want him sitting out games, even if he’s been accused of a crime, because every game they lose means less merchandise and fewer ticket sales. So, as the N.F.L. continues its perp walk — on Friday, one of its best running backs, the Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, was indicted on charges of abusing his 4-year-old son in Texas — Goodell looks the other way.

They think they can get away with anything now, even with women being almost 50 percent of their fan base. And maybe they can. Twenty million people tuned in to watch the Ravens play Thursday night — even without the irony of prerecorded Rihanna’s performance kicking things off — and the papers were filled with sickening pictures of women proudly wearing Rice’s No. 27 jersey.

The last sports commissioner who didn’t kowtow to owners may have been Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox players from baseball for life even though they were acquitted in 1921 and went out with the jury to eat to celebrate. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis said, “baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.”

If only.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There are three things in life that you should never do ambivalently: get married, buy a house or go to war. Alas, we’re about to do No. 3. Should we?

President Obama clearly took this decision to lead the coalition to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, with deep ambivalence. How could he not? Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Other than that, it’s just like D-Day.

Consider Saudi Arabia. It’s going to help train Free Syrian Army soldiers, but, at the same time, is one of the biggest sources of volunteer jihadists in Syria. And, according to a secret 2009 U.S. study signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and divulged by WikiLeaks, private “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Turkey allowed foreign jihadists to pass into and out of Syria and has been an important market for oil that ISIS is smuggling out of Iraq for cash. Iran built the E.F.P.’s — explosively formed penetrators — that Iraqi Shiite militias used to help drive America out of Iraq and encouraged Iraq’s Shiite leaders to strip Iraqi Sunnis of as much power and money as possible, which helped create the ISIS Sunni counterrevolt. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, deliberately allowed ISIS to emerge so he could show the world that he was not the only mass murderer in Syria. And Qatar is with us Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and against us Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fortunately, it takes the weekends off.

Meanwhile, back home, Obama knows that the members of his own party and the Republican Party who are urging him to bomb ISIS will be the first to run for the hills if we get stuck, fail or accidentally bomb a kindergarten class.

So why did the president decide to go ahead? It’s a combination of a legitimate geostrategic concern — if ISIS jihadists consolidate their power in the heart of Iraq and Syria, it could threaten some real islands of decency, like Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon, and might one day generate enough capacity to harm the West more directly — and the polls. Obama clearly feels drummed into this by the sudden shift in public opinion after ISIS’s ghastly videotaped beheadings of two American journalists.

O.K., but given this cast of characters, is there any way this Obama plan can end well? Only if we are extremely disciplined and tough-minded about how, when and for whom we use our power.

Before we step up the bombing campaign on ISIS, it needs to be absolutely clear on whose behalf we are fighting. ISIS did not emerge by accident and from nowhere. It is the hate-child of two civil wars in which the Sunni Muslims have been crushed. One is the vicious civil war in Syria in which the Iranian-backed Alawite-Shiite regime has killed roughly 200,000 people, many of them Sunni Muslims, with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And the other is the Iraqi civil war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki systematically stripped the Sunnis of Iraq of their power and resources.

There will be no self-sustained stability unless those civil wars are ended and a foundation is laid for decent governance and citizenship. Only Arabs and Muslims can do that by ending their sectarian wars and tribal feuds. We keep telling ourselves that the problem is “training,” when the real problem is governance. We spent billions of dollars training Iraqi soldiers who ran away from ISIS’s path — not because they didn’t have proper training, but because they knew that their officers were corrupt hacks who were not appointed on merit and that the filthy Maliki government was unworthy of fighting for. We so underestimate how starved Arabs are, in all these awakenings, for clean, decent governance.

Never forget, this is a two-front war: ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second. If our stepped-up bombing, in Iraq and Syria, gets ahead of their reconciliation, we will become the story and the target. And that is exactly what ISIS is waiting for.

ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam — a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism. ISIS wins if it can make this America’s war with Sunni Islam — a war where America is the Shiite/Alawite air force against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will use every bit of its Twitter/Facebook network to try to depict it as the latter, and draw more recruits.

We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be. It’s about a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism and needs to learn how to coexist. It’s the 21st century. It’s about time.


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