Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

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.

Friedman and Bruni

September 10, 2014

Oh, frabjous day!  The Times has decided that one dose of MoDo a week is sufficient!  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that she’ll be on Sunday, a day they’re already ruining with The Pasty Little Putz.  Today we have The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  In “It Takes a Mentor” The Moustache informs us that Gallup says successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.  Mr. Bruni, in “American Horror Story,” says the status quo is cursed, but it’s not about to change. That’s the great, ugly paradox of the 2014 midterm elections.  Here’s The Moustache:

With millions of students returning to school — both K-12 and college — this is a good time to review the intriguing results of some research that Gallup did over the past year, exploring the linkages between education and long-term success in the workplace. That is: What are the things that happen at a college or technical school that, more than anything else, produce “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track? According to Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup’s education division, two things stand out. Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.

“We think it’s a big deal” where we go to college, Busteed explained to me. “But we found no difference in terms of type of institution you went to — public, private, selective or not — in long-term outcomes. How you got your college education mattered most.”

Graduates who told Gallup that they had a professor or professors “who cared about them as a person — or had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams and/or had an internship where they applied what they were learning — were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being,” Busteed said.

Alas, though, only 22 percent of college grads surveyed said they had such a mentor and 29 percent had an internship where they applied what they were learning. So less than a third were exposed to the things that mattered most.

Gallup’s data were compiled from polls of parents of 5th through 12th graders, business leaders and interviews with teachers, superintendents, college presidents, principals, college graduates, Americans ages 18 to 34, and students in grades 5 through 12. All told, “we collected the voices of close to one million Americans in the past year alone,” said Busteed, who added that he found the results “alarming” — not only because too few students are getting exposed to the most important drivers of workplace engagement, but because there is also a huge disconnect in perceptions of the problem.

Busteed said that 96 percent of the college provosts Gallup surveyed believed their schools were successfully preparing young people for the workplace. “When you ask recent college grads in the work force whether they felt prepared, only 14 percent say ‘yes,’ ” he added. And then when you ask business leaders whether they’re getting enough college grads with the skills they need, “only 11 percent strongly agree.” Concluded Busteed: “This is not just a skills gap. It is an understanding gap.”

This comes at a time when our country faces creative destruction on steroids thanks to the dynamism of technology and growing evidence that climbing the ladder of job success requires constant learning and relearning. Therefore, the need for schools to have a good grasp of what employers are looking for and for employers to be communicating with schools about those skills is greater than ever.

Some help may be on the way from Washington. Last year, President Obama quietly asked Vice President Joe Biden to oversee an overhaul of the government’s education-to-work programs after hearing from one too many employers across the country that, as one White House official put it, “they were having trouble hiring workers for some of their fastest-growing jobs,” such as operating sophisticated machine tools or software testing and debugging.

As they dove into the problem, said Byron Auguste, a White House deputy national economic adviser, they found that the success stories shared a lot of the same attributes that Gallup found to be differentiating. In successful programs, said Auguste, “students got as much applied, hands-on experience as possible, whether in a classroom or on a job site. Schools, colleges and training centers had close partnerships with regional employers, industry groups and skilled trade unions to stay up to date on job-relevant skills. And students or working learners got a lot of coaching and guidance to understand how to trace a direct path between their training today and careers tomorrow.”

The key now is to scale those insights. The Labor Department has awarded $1.5 billion in the last three years to more than 700 community colleges to develop employer-validated training programs for new careers like natural gas field work and cybersecurity. Later this month, another $500 million is set to be awarded as part of a kind of race-to-the-top for whoever can build the best community college-industry group partnership anywhere in the country where new industries are finding gaps in the kind of workers they need.

Employers used to take generalists and train them into specialists for their industry. But fewer employers want to do that today or can afford to in a globally competitive economy, especially when they fear they’ll train someone who will then leave for a competitor. So everyone wants employees out of college or technical schools who are as ready to plug and play as possible. That’s why government has a role in fostering more and more employer-educator partnerships — this is the new, new thing — which businesses, small and large, can benefit from, as well as all would-be employees.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Like the smattering of other Americans who still pay close attention to the wearying spectacle of our country’s politics, I worry about what will happen on Nov. 4, the day of the midterm elections.

But I worry even more about what will happen the day after, when a nation of people fed up with the stubborn dysfunction of our country’s government realize that nothing’s going to change and we’re in for more of the same.

I worry about the combustible tension between our abysmal regard for the Congress that we’ve got and a near certainty that the Congress we’re about to get will be its spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.

Our history is such that we just keep returning the incumbents; our system is such that insurgents are few and far between. They lack the money, and politics is increasingly about money. They lack name recognition, and it’s the era of celebrity.

In all but one of the last five elections for the House, at least 90 percent of the incumbents vying for another term got one. In all but one of the last five Senate elections, at least 80 percent of incumbents fared similarly.

This would be a happy fact if Americans adored their government. But a new Gallup poll shows that only 14 percent approve of the job that Congress is doing.

In an ABC/Washington Post poll last month, a majority of Americans disapproved not only of Congress in general but of their own House members in particular. This departed from the norm. It charted a new frontier of disgust.

And it dovetailed with a belief among most Americans that the country is on the wrong track and in decline.

So on Nov. 4, it’s out with the bums?

Ha.

I asked Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst behind The Rothenberg Political Report, to review the current House and Senate races and predict the rate of incumbent success. He estimated that between 90 and 96 percent of the House members running for re-election will be victorious, and between 78 and 90 percent of incumbent senators will.

Yes, there’s uncertainty over which party will wind up with control of the Senate.

But whatever happens, we’ll still have a Democratic president facing off against a Republican House, with all or much of the acrimony that this combination has produced for the past few years. The “fever” that President Obama talked about during the 2012 presidential campaign has never broken, and Nov. 4 won’t deliver the ibuprofen that at last does the trick.

No, it will deliver us to Nov. 5, at which point Senate and House leaders will begin to plot their every step in terms of whether it hurts or helps their party’s chances of taking the presidency in 2016.

That’s what dominates our politics: a war to gain or maintain turf, not a battle for a better America. You see that in the negativity and political gyrations of the 2014 campaigns.

Democrats are running away from the president, and I don’t mean just Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Udall of Colorado, who wasn’t even in the state when Obama did a fund-raiser for him there. I mean Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Al Franken of Minnesota, who have questioned the administration’s response to Islamic extremists.

Republicans are running away from their party’s beleaguered brand and even their own pasts, as they discover newly calibrated positions on the minimum wage, say, or “personhood.”

But what are all these politicians running toward? I know more about what they want to destroy than about what they yearn to create. That’s partly because of all the campaign spending that’s funneled through outside groups, which tend not to produce inspiring ads for the candidates they support but blistering ones against the candidates they oppose.

The system is toxic that way, and seems to have only enough oxygen to recycle known people and ideas, not to introduce and nurture new ones. With Jeb Bush looking less likely to run, Republicans are reassessing Mitt Romney. If Hillary Clinton takes a pass, Joe Biden’s waiting, and it’s not impossible that Jerry Brown swoops in.

Even the supposed mold breaker and flavor du jour, Rand Paul, comes with a road-tested surname, a dynastic leg up.

How a country so rightly anxious about the days ahead stays fixed in the days behind is the great paradox of the 2014 elections.

Rothenberg told me that he used to think of this country’s politics as a comedy. “Now,” he said, “it’s a tear-jerker.”

I’ve been catching up with the first season of “American Horror Story,” and our political travails bring to mind the freaked residents of that foul house. They can sense their doom. But they can’t seem to get out.

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

September 7, 2014

In “Rape and Rotherham” Putzy ‘splains that the grim story shows how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out that “there is not a tale so sordid that Douthat can’t use it to shift focus from the evils perpetrated by the Catholic Church. In this installment, he’s admitting wrongdoing by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the conservative hierarchy only to draw a false equivalence between that and his favorite target of late, liberal multiculturalism.”  MoDo has a question:  “Is It World War III or Just Twitter?”  She hisses that President Obama blames social media for our knowing just how messy the world is.  Sure he does, MoDo, sure he does.  And I’m the Czarina of all the Russias.  The Moustache of Wisdom also has a question in “Leading From Within.”  He asks what’s the best way for the United States to address both ISIS and Vladimir Putin at once?  Mr. Kristof, in “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 2,” says a column on “smug white delusion” drew a deluge of responses. He gives us a few.  Mr. Bruni says we should be “Demanding More From College.”  He says in a world of many separate camps, college can and should be a bridge.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

There are enough grim tidings from around the world that the news from Rotherham, a faded English industrial town where about 1,400 girls, mostly white and working class, were raped by gangs of Pakistani men while the local authorities basically shrugged and did nothing, is already slipping out of American headlines.

But we should remain with Rotherham for a moment, and give its story a suitable place of dishonor in the waking nightmare that is late summer 2014.

We should do so not just for the sake of the victims, though for their sake attention should be paid: to the girls gang-raped or doused with gasoline; to the girls assaulted in bus stations and alleyways; to the girl, not yet 14, who brought bags of soiled clothes as evidence to the police and earned nothing for her trouble save for a check for 140 pounds — recompense for the garments, which the cops somehow managed to misplace.

But bearing witness is insufficient; lessons must be learned as well. This is more than just a horror story. It’s a case study in how exploitation can flourish in different cultural contexts, and how insufficient any set of pieties can be to its restraint.

Interpreted crudely, what happened in Rotherham looks like an ideological mirror image of Roman Catholicism’s sex abuse scandal. The Catholic crisis seemed to vindicate a progressive critique of traditionalism: Here were the wages of blind faith and sexual repression; here was a case study in how a culture of hierarchy and obedience gave criminals free rein.

The crimes in Rotherham, by contrast, seem scripted to vindicate a reactionary critique of liberal multiculturalism: Here are immigrant gangs exploiting a foolish Western tolerance; here are authorities too committed to “diversity” to react appropriately; here is a liberal society so open-minded that both its brain and conscience have fallen out.

A more subtle reading, though, reveals commonalities between the two scandals. The rate of priestly abuse was often at its worst in places and eras (the 1970s, above all) where traditional attitudes overlapped with a sudden wave of liberation — where deference to church authority by parents and police coexisted with a sense of moral upheaval around sexuality and sexual ethics, both within seminaries and in society at large. (John Patrick Shanley’s famous play “Doubt,” in which a hip, with-it, Kennedy-era priest relies on clericalism to evade accusations of abuse, remains the best dramatization of this tangle.)

In a somewhat similar way, what happened in Rotherham was rooted both in left-wing multiculturalism and in much more old-fashioned prejudices about race and sex and class. The local bureaucracy was, indeed, too fearful of being labeled “racist,” too unwilling, as a former member of Parliament put it, to “rock the multicultural community boat.” But the rapes also went unpunished because of racially inflected misogyny among police officers, who seemed to think that white girls exploited by immigrant men were “tarts” who deserved roughly what they got.

The crucial issue in both scandals isn’t some problem that’s exclusive to traditionalism or progressivism. Rather, it’s the protean nature of power and exploitation, and the way that very different forms of willful blindness can combine to frustrate justice.

So instead of looking for ideological vindication in these stories, it’s better to draw a general lesson. Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape.

In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church.

In Joe Paterno’s pigskin-mad Happy Valley, it meant a beloved football coach.

In status-conscious, education-obsessed Manhattan, it meant charismatic teachers at an elite private school.

In Hollywood and the wider culture industry — still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect — it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art.

And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that both liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Because your assumptions and pieties are evil’s best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what’s most likely to condemn victims to their fate.

I really wish the Times would move him back to Monday, a day that sucks already.   Why ruin Sunday?  Next up we have MoDo’s ravings, replete with using fictional characters as straw men:

Shockingly, in the end, I didn’t miss Brody.

I was perfectly happy with The Drone Queen, as Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison is christened on her birthday cake in the first episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” returning next month.

I gingerly went to a screening in New York, assuming that, without my favorite ginger, my interest would wane. But the show, set in Kabul and Islamabad, where Carrie is now working for the C.I.A. directing “playtime,” as they call drone strikes, having dumped her ginger baby with her sister back home, crystallizes America’s Gordian knot in the Middle East. It vividly shows our fungible moral choices and the disruptive power of social media.

So many gigantic blunders have been made since 9/11, so many historical fault lines have erupted, that no matter which path the Obama administration takes, it runs into a “No Exit” sign. Any choice seems like a bad choice.

Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson, now working for a defense contractor in New York, warns a group of military officers that America is walking away from Afghanistan “with the job half-done.”

He stands up to his boss, who is upset by his impolitic behavior, asking if “we really want to risk going back” to “girls not allowed in school, roving gangs of men with whips enforcing Sharia law, a safe haven again for Al Qaeda”?

When Carrie oversees an airstrike in Pakistan to take out the No. 4 terrorist target on the kill list, the bombs incinerate innocents at a wedding. Afterward, the Air Force pilot who conducted the strike confronts Carrie in a bar and calls her a monster. When Rupert Friend’s haunted C.I.A. assassin Peter Quinn asks Carrie if she’s ever bothered by dropping fire on a hydra-headed kill list, sometimes with tragic mistakes, she rolls her eyes and replies, “It’s a job.”

Carrie at first contends that they’re “bulletproof,” that no one will find out about what she calls “collateral damage” because the strike was in a tribal region. But then a medical school student, angry that his friend’s mother and sister were killed at the wedding, posts a cellphone video of the gory scene.

The murderous melee that ensues is redolent of President Obama’s provocative remark at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in New York, talking about the alarming aggressions flaring up around the world and alluding to the sulfurous videos of the social-media savvy ISIS fiends beheading American journalists.

“If you watch the nightly news,” the president said, “it feels like the world is falling apart.”

Trying to reassure Americans who feel frightened and helpless, he posited that “the truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”

“I think he’s trying to blame the messenger,” said Terry McCarthy, the president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “Whether or not James Foley’s brutal beheading was shown on YouTube or disseminated on Twitter doesn’t affect the horror of what was done, and in another era, it would have been just as shocking, even if reported only on network TV or radio or in a newspaper.

“I think it is also condescending to say we are just noticing now because of social media. How about the recoil at the news of the My Lai massacre, broken by Sy Hersh on a newswire? Or the Abu Ghraib pictures run on ‘60 Minutes II’ and in The New Yorker?

“ISIS beheading American journalists, crucifying people, stoning a man to death in Mosul, targeting minorities for genocide, is not simply ‘messy as always’ — are you kidding me? It is an outright abomination in the face of humanity, however and through whatever media it is reported and it needs our, and our allies’, most urgent attention.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the impact of social media was exaggerated during the Arab Spring, leading to the mistaken belief that liberal secularists in Tahrir Square and other places posed a serious alternative to authoritarian regimes or radical Islamists.

The world is more disorderly for all kinds of reasons, he said, including the loss of confidence in American reliability and the American model, and reactions to things the United States has done, like the Iraq war, or not done, like acting on chemical weapons use in Syria.

“But to blame it on social media,” Haass said, “is something of a cop-out.”

He contended that while the sky may not be falling, “it certainly is lower,” and to deny that “is to engage in denial. We need to be very careful lest people begin to conclude that Americans are disinterested in the world. We don’t want that narrative to take hold.”

Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford historian who wrote “Paris 1919” and “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914,” says the president is right that we probably are more aware of what’s going on around the world, even with all the “rubbish” on the web, but she also believes that, from voracious Putin to vicious jihadists, “sometimes we’re right to be scared.”

She predicted that instead of World War III, “The 21st century will be a series of low grade, very nasty wars that will go on and on without clear outcomes, doing dreadful things to any civilians in their paths.”

Certainly, Obama never complained about a frenzied social media when it served his political purposes.

The president’s observation unfortunately underscored his role as Barack Seneca Obama, his air of disconnection, his “we don’t have a strategy” vagueness on engagement, his belief that extreme excitement, outrage and sentimentality are suspect.

His “bucket list” visit Friday to the alien-looking Stonehenge was the perfect backdrop for his strange pattern of detachment, and his adamantine belief that his Solomonic wisdom and Spocky calm help him resist the siren songs to disaster.

Joe Biden was the one connecting with Americans, promising to chase the ISIS savages “to the gates of hell,” while Obama’s subliminal, or not so subliminal, message was that before certain atrocities, the heart must muzzle itself, rejecting flights of anxiety, worry and horror as enemies of lucid analysis.

In some situations, panic is a sign of clear thinking. Reality is reality, whether it’s tweeted or not. And the truth doesn’t always set you free. The mind and the will don’t always act in concert. You can know a lot of things and still not act. And as we saw with the Iraq invasion, you can not know a lot of things and still act.

Bill Clinton couldn’t stop biting his lip. Now we’d kill to see Obama baring his teeth.

Just had to say “kill” didn’t you…  Typical Dowd crap.  Next up we’re facing The Moustache of Wisdom:

I don’t know what action will be sufficient to roll back both the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, but I do know what’s necessary. And it’s not “leading from behind,” which didn’t really work for President Obama in Libya, and it isn’t simply leading a lonely and unpopular charge from in front, which certainly didn’t work for President Bush in Iraq. It’s actually reviving America’s greatest strategy: leading from within.

The most effective leadership abroad starts with respect earned from others seeing us commit to doing great and difficult things at home that summon the energy of the whole country — and not just from our military families. That is how America inspires others to action. And the necessary impactful thing that America should do at home now is for the president and Congress to lift our self-imposed ban on U.S. oil exports, which would significantly dent the global high price of crude oil. And combine that with long overdue comprehensive tax reform that finally values our environment and security. That would be a carbon tax that is completely offset by lowering personal income, payroll and corporate taxes. Nothing would make us stronger and Putin and ISIS weaker — all at the same time.

How so? First you need to understand how much Putin and ISIS have in common. For starters, they each like to do their dirtiest work wearing a mask, because deep down, somewhere, they know that what they’re doing is shameful. The ISIS executioner actually wears a hood. Putin lies through his poker face.

Both seem to know that their ideas or influence are unsellable on their merits, so they have to impose them with intimidating force — “convert to puritanical Islam or I will chop your head off,” says ISIS, and “submit to Russia’s sphere of influence or I will invade you and wipe out your regime,” says Putin.

Both are clearly motivated to use force by an intense desire to overcome past humiliations. For Putin, it is the humiliation over Russian weakness that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which he once described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, which left millions of Russian speakers outside the Russian state. And for ISIS, it is how modernity has left so many Arab/Muslim nations behind in the 21st century by all the critical indices of human development: education, economic growth, scientific discoveries, literacy, freedom and women’s empowerment. Preventing Ukrainians from exercising their free will is Putin’s way of showing Russia’s only real strength left: brute force. Beheading defenseless American journalists is ISIS’s way of saying it is as strong as the United States. Both are looking for respect in all the wrong places.

Both Putin and ISIS are also intent on recreating states from an overglorified past to distract their peoples from their inability to build real economies — ISIS calls its recreation the “caliphate” and Putin calls his “Novorossiya,” or New Russia (or Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast). Both are also intent on rewriting the prevailing rules of the international system, which they see as having been drawn up by America or the West to advantage themselves and disadvantage Arabs or Russians. And, very significantly, they both are totally dependent on exploiting high-priced oil or gas to finance their madness.

The way you defeat such an enemy is by being “crazy like a fox,” says Andy Karsner, the former assistant energy secretary in the last Bush administration and now the C.E.O. of Manifest Energy. “We have one bullet that hits both of them: bring down the price of oil. It’s not like they can suddenly shift to making iWatches.” We are generating more oil and gas than ever, added Karsner, and it’s a global market. Absurdly, he said, the U.S. government bans the export of our crude oil. “It’s as if we own the world’s biggest bank vault but misplaced the key,” added Karsner. “Let’s lift that export ban and have America shaping the market price in our own interest.”

But that must be accompanied by tax reform that puts a predictable premium on carbon, ensuring that we unite to consistently invest in clean energies that take us beyond fossil fuels, increase efficiency and address climate change. Draining our enemies’ coffers, enhancing security, taxing environmental degradation — what’s not to like? And if we shift tax revenue to money collected from a carbon tax, we can slash income, payroll and corporate taxes, incentivize investment and hiring and unleash our economic competitiveness. That is a strategy hawks and doves, greens and big oil could all support.

If the price of oil plummets to just $75 to $85 a barrel from $100 by lifting the ban, and we have implemented tax reform that signals our commitment to clean growth, we inevitably weaken Putin and ISIS, strengthen America and show the world that we deserve to lead because we’re back to doing big, hard things at home that once again differentiate us — not just bombing in distant lands and pretending that’s getting the job done.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing, asked Karsner, if we showed up at the global poker table, across from Putin and ISIS,  “holding four aces, instead of just bluffing with a pair of 2’s?”

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

In my column a week ago, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” I took aim at what I called “smug white delusion” about race relations in America, and readers promptly fired back at what they perceived as a smugly deluded columnist.

Readers grudgingly accepted the grim statistics I cited — such as the wealth disparity between blacks and whites in America today exceeding what it was in South Africa during apartheid — but many readers put the blame on African-Americans themselves.

“Probably has something to do with their unwillingness to work,” Nils tweeted.

Nancy protested on my Facebook page: “We can’t fix their problems. It’s up to every black individual to stop the cycle of fatherless homes, stop the cycle of generations on welfare.”

There was a deluge of such comments, some toxic, but let me try to address three principal arguments that I think prop up white delusion.

First, if blacks are poor or in prison, it’s all their fault. “Blacks don’t get it,” Bruce tweeted. “Choosing to be cool vs. getting good grades is a bad choice. We all start from 0.”

Huh? Does anybody really think that we all take off from the same starting line?

Slavery and post-slavery oppression left a legacy of broken families, poverty, racism, hopelessness and internalized self-doubt. Some responded to discrimination and lack of opportunity by behaving in self-destructive ways.

One study found that African-American children on welfare heard only 29 percent as many words in their first few years as children of professional parents. Those kids never catch up, partly because they’re more likely to attend broken schools. Sure, some make bad choices, but they’ve often been on a trajectory toward failure from the time they were babies.

These are whirlpools that are difficult to escape, especially when society is suspicious and unsympathetic. Japan has a stigmatized minority group, the burakumin, whose members once held jobs considered unclean. But although this is an occupational minority rather than a racial one, it spawned an underclass that was tormented by crime, educational failure, and substance abuse similar to that of the American underclass.

So instead of pointing fingers, let’s adopt some of the programs that I’ve cited with robust evidence showing that they bridge the chasm.

But look at Asians, Mark protests on my Google Plus page: Vietnamese arrived in poverty — and are now school valedictorians. Why can’t blacks be like that?

There are plenty of black valedictorians. But bravo to Asians and other immigrant groups for thriving in America with a strong cultural emphasis on education, diligence and delay of self-gratification. We should support programs with a good record of inculcating such values in disadvantaged children. But we also need to understand that many young people of color see no hope of getting ahead, and that despair can be self-fulfilling.

A successful person can say: “I worked hard in school. I got a job. The system worked.” Good for you. But you probably also owe your success to parents who read to you, to decent schools, to social expectations that you would end up in college rather than prison. So count your blessings for winning the lottery of birth — and think about mentoring a kid who didn’t.

Look, the basic reason young black men are regarded with suspicion is that they’re disproportionately criminals. The root problem isn’t racism. It’s criminality.

It’s true that blacks accounted for 55 percent of robbery arrests in 2012, according to F.B.I. statistics. But, by my calculations, it’s also true that 99.9 percent of blacks were not arrested and charged with robbery in 2012, yet they are still tarred by this pernicious stereotype.

Criminality is real. So is inequity. So is stereotyping.

The United States Sentencing Commission concluded that black men get sentences one-fifth longer than white men for committing the same crimes. In Louisiana, a study found that a person is 97 percent more likely to be sentenced to death for murdering a white person than a black person.

Mass incarceration means that the United States imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than apartheid South Africa did, further breaking up families. And careful studies find that employers are less likely to respond to a job inquiry and résumé when a typically black name is on it.

Society creates opportunity and resiliency for middle-class white boys who make mistakes; it is unforgiving of low-income black boys.

Of course, we need to promote personal responsibility. But there is plenty of fault to go around, and too many whites are obsessed with cultivating personal responsibility in the black community while refusing to accept any responsibility themselves for a system that manifestly does not provide equal opportunity.

Yes, young black men need to take personal responsibility. And so does white America.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

I’m beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents. These were the nuggets that the media understandably grabbed hold of, drawing the lesson that college isn’t the springboard that young men and women want and perhaps need it to be.

I have a problem with all of this. But my concern isn’t about the arguments themselves or some of the conclusions drawn. It’s about the narrowness of the discussion, which so heavily emphasizes how a career is successfully forged and how financial security is quickly achieved.

While those goals are important and that focus is understandable, there’s another dimension to college, and it’s one in which students aren’t being served, or serving themselves, especially well. I’m referring to the potential — and need — for college to confront and change political and social aspects of American life that are as troubling as the economy.

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn. It gives them more agency over their calendars and their allegiances. They can better construct their world from scratch.

And the clay hasn’t dried on who they are. They’re not yet set in their ways.

But too many kids get to college and try instantly to collapse it, to make it as comfortable and recognizable as possible. They replicate the friends and friendships they’ve previously enjoyed. They join groups that perpetuate their high-school experiences.

Concerned with establishing a “network,” they seek out peers with aspirations identical to their own. In doing so, they frequently default to a clannishness that too easily becomes a lifelong habit.

If you spend any time on college campuses, you’ll notice this, and maybe something else as well: Many students have a much more significant depth than breadth of knowledge. They know tons about what they’re interested in, because they’ve burrowed, with the Internet’s help, into their passions. But burrows are small and often suffocating, and there are wide spaces between them. You’re in yours; I’m in mine. Where’s the common ground?

The Internet has proved to be one of the great ironies of modern life. It opens up an infinite universe for exploration, but people use it to stand still, in a favorite spot, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing hobbies (and established hobbyhorses) and customizing their social media feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced, their opinions forever affirmed.

A report published late last month by the Pew Research Center documented this. Summarizing it in The Times, Claire Cain Miller wrote, “The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different.”

College is precisely the time not to succumb to that. Every student orientation should include the following instructions: Open your laptops. Delete at least one of every four bookmarks. Replace it with something entirely different, maybe even antithetical. Go to Twitter, Facebook and such, and start following or connecting with publications, blogs and people whose views diverge from your own. Mix it up.

That’s also how students should approach classes and navigate their social lives, because they’re attending college in the context not only of a country with profound financial anxieties, but of a country with homogeneous neighborhoods, a scary preoccupation with status and microclimates of privilege. Just as they should be girding themselves for a tough job market, they should be challenging the so-called sorting that’s also holding America back.

Arum and Roksa, in “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” do take note of upsetting patterns outside the classroom and independent of career preparation; they cite survey data that showed that more than 30 percent of college graduates read online or print newspapers only “monthly or never” and nearly 40 percent discuss public affairs only “monthly or never.”

Arum said that that’s “a much greater challenge to our society” than college graduates’ problems in the labor market. “If college graduates are no longer reading the newspaper, keeping up with the news, talking about politics and public affairs — how do you have a democratic society moving forward?” he asked me.

Now more than ever, college needs to be an expansive adventure, yanking students toward unfamiliar horizons and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who and where they already are. And students need to insist on that, taking control of all facets of their college experience and making it as eclectic as possible.

It could mean a better future — for all of us. And there’s no debate that college should be a path to that.

Friedman, solo

September 3, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Ready, Aim, Fire.  Not Fire, Ready, Aim.”   He asks “Just what are we really dealing with in ISIS?”  Here he is:

President Obama has been excoriated for declaring that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for effectively confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. In criticizing Obama for taking too much time, Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told “Fox News Sunday” that “this ‘don’t-do-stupid-stuff’ policy isn’t working.” That sounded odd to my ear — like we should just bomb somebody, even if it is stupid. If Obama did that, what would he be ignoring?

First, experience. After 9/11 that sort of “fire, ready, aim” approach led George W. Bush to order a ground war in Iraq without sufficient troops to control the country, without a true grasp of Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni sectarian dynamics, and without any realization that, in destroying the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Sunni Baathist regime in Iraq, we were destroying both of Iran’s mortal enemies and thereby opening the way for a vast expansion of Iran’s regional influence. We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later.

There are no words to describe the vileness of the video beheadings of two American journalists by ISIS, but I have no doubt that they’re meant to get us to overreact, à la 9/11, and rush off again without a strategy. ISIS is awful, but it is not a threat to America’s homeland.

Second, the context. To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region — Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.

When you have a region beset by that many civil wars at once, it means there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.

ISIS emerged as an extreme expression of resentment by one side: Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian Alawite/Shiite regime in Damascus. That is why Obama keeps insisting that America’s military intervention must be accompanied, for starters, by Iraqis producing a national unity government — of mainstream Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — so our use of force supports pluralism and power-sharing, not just Shiite power.

But power-sharing doesn’t come easy in a region where kinship and sectarian loyalties overwhelm any sense of shared citizenship. Without it, though, the dominant philosophy is either: “I am strong, why should I compromise?” or “I am weak, how can I compromise?” So any onslaught we make on ISIS, absent national unity governments, will have Shiites saying the former and Sunnis saying the latter. That’s why this is complicated.

And this is a sectarian power struggle. Consider a Times article last week about how ISIS is actually being led by a combination of jihadists and disgruntled Sunni Iraqi Baathist Army officers, who were shoved aside either by us or Iraq’s Shiite-dominated governments.

The Times article noted: “After ISIS stormed into Mosul, one [Shiite] Iraqi official recalled a startling phone call from a [Sunni] former major general in one of [Saddam] Hussein’s elite forces. The former general had appealed months earlier to rejoin the Iraqi Army, but the official had refused. Now the [Sunni] general was fighting for ISIS and threatened revenge. ‘We will reach you soon, and I will chop you into pieces,’ he said, according to the official, Bikhtiyar al-Qadi, of the commission that bars some former members of Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party from government posts.”

Repeat after me: “We will reach you soon, and I will chop you into pieces.” That is what we are dealing with here — multiple, venomous civil wars that are the breeding ground of the ISIS cancer.

Third, our allies are not fully allies: While the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti governments are pro-American, wealthy Sunni individuals, mosques and charities in these countries are huge sources of funds, and fighters, for ISIS.

As for Iran, if we defeat ISIS, it would be the third time since 2001 that we’ve defeated a key Sunni counterbalance to Iran — first the Taliban, then Saddam, now ISIS. That is not a reason not to do it, but it is reason to do it in a way that does not distract us from the fact that Iran’s nuclear program also needs to be defused, otherwise it could undermine the whole global nonproliferation regime. Tricky.

I’m all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement. I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

August 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So help me Golf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dowd and Friedman

August 20, 2014

We’ve got another screed from MoDo.  In “Alone Again, Naturally” she snarls that the rock-star candidate who got elected on his electrifying promise has become a bored bird in a gilded cage.  It’s more of her typical crap.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Will the Ends, Will the Means,” says some important questions have gone unanswered in the Syria blame game.   Here’s MoDo:

Affectations can be dangerous, as Gertrude Stein said.

When Barack Obama first ran for president, he theatrically cast himself as the man alone on the stage. From his address in Berlin to his acceptance speech in Chicago, he eschewed ornaments and other politicians, conveying the sense that he was above the grubby political scene, unearthly and apart.

He began “Dreams From My Father” with a description of his time living on the Upper East Side while he was a student at Columbia, savoring his lone-wolf existence. He was, he wrote, “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” When neighbors began to “cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.”

His only “kindred spirit” was a silent old man who lived alone in the apartment next door. Obama carried groceries for him but never asked his name. When the old man died, Obama briefly regretted not knowing his name, then swiftly regretted his regret.

But what started as an affectation has turned into an affliction.

A front-page article in The Times by Carl Hulse, Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear chronicled how the president’s disdain for politics has alienated many of his most stalwart Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill.

His bored-bird-in-a-gilded-cage attitude, the article said, “has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office.”

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an early Obama backer, noted that “for him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials.”

First the president couldn’t work with Republicans because they were too obdurate. Then he tried to chase down reporters with subpoenas. Now he finds members of his own party an unnecessary distraction.

His circle keeps getting more inner. He golfs with aides and jocks, and he spent his one evening back in Washington from Martha’s Vineyard at a nearly five-hour dinner at the home of a nutritional adviser and former White House assistant chef, Sam Kass.

The president who was elected because he was a hot commodity is now a wet blanket.

The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike L.B.J., who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.

Almost everything else — from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson — just seems like too much trouble.

The 2004 speech that vaulted Obama into the White House soon after he breezed into town turned out to be wrong. He misdescribed the country he wanted to lead. There is a liberal America and a conservative America. And the red-blue divide has only gotten worse in the last six years.

The man whose singular qualification was as a uniter turns out to be singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment.

His boosters argue that we spurned his gift of healing, so healing is the one thing that must not be expected of him. We ingrates won’t let him be the redeemer he could have been.

As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox: “If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better.”

He concluded: “There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.”

So The One who got elected as the most exciting politician in American history is The One from whom we must never again expect excitement?

Do White House officials fear that Fox News could somehow get worse to them?

Sure, the president has enemies. Sure, there are racists out there. Sure, he’s going to get criticized for politicizing something. But as F.D.R. said of his moneyed foes, “I welcome their hatred.”

Why should the president neutralize himself? Why doesn’t he do something bold and thrilling? Get his hands dirty? Stop going to Beverly Hills to raise money and go to St. Louis to raise consciousness? Talk to someone besides Valerie Jarrett?

The Constitution was premised on a system full of factions and polarization. If you’re a fastidious pol who deigns to heal and deal only in a holistic, romantic, unified utopia, the Oval Office is the wrong job for you. The sad part is that this is an ugly, confusing and frightening time at home and abroad, and the country needs its president to illuminate and lead, not sink into some petulant expression of his aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomaniacs.

Once Obama thought his isolation was splendid. But it turned out to be unsplendid.

You’d think she’d get tired…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Hillary Clinton recently reignited the who-lost-Syria debate when she suggested that President Obama made a mistake in not intervening more forcefully early in the Syrian civil war by arming the pro-democracy rebels. I’ve been skeptical about such an intervention — skeptical that there were enough of these “mainstream insurgents,” skeptical that they could ever defeat President Bashar al-Assad’s army and the Islamists and govern Syria. So if people try to sell you on it, ask them these questions before you decide if you are with Clinton or Obama:

1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the S.N.C. resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.

2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?

3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any American boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?

4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?

5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the U.S. having to get involved?

6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men from across the Muslim world have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?

The notion that the only reason that the Islamist militias emerged in Syria is because we created a vacuum by not adequately arming the secular rebels is laughable nonsense. Syria has long had its own Sunni fundamentalist underground. In 1982, when then President Hafez al-Assad perpetrated the Hama massacre, it was in an effort to wipe out those Syrian Islamists. So, yes, there are cultural roots for pluralism in Syria — a country with many Christians and secular Muslims — but there’s also the opposite. Do not kid yourself.

That is why on a brief visit to Darkush, Syria, in December 2012, I was told by the local Free Syrian Army commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, that even after Assad’s regime is toppled there would be another war in Syria: “It will take five or six years,” he added, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah, and we want democracy.” There were always going to be two civil wars there: The liberals and jihadists against Assad and the liberals and jihadists against each other.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with the brave Syrian liberals who dared to take to the streets and demand regime change — unarmed. These are decent, good people, the kind you would like to see running Syria. But it would take a lot more than better arms for them to defeat Assad and the jihadists.

Here Iraq is instructive. You need to go back to the 2010 elections there when Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, who ran with Sunnis, Shiites and Christians on a moderate, pluralistic platform — like Syria’s moderates — actually won more seats than his main competitor, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

What enabled that? I’ll tell you: The U.S. decapitated Saddam’s regime, then helped to midwife an Iraqi Constitution and elections, while U.S. (and Iraqi) special forces either arrested or killed the worst Sunni and Shiite extremists. We took out both extremes without reading them their Miranda rights. That is what gave Iraq’s moderate center the space, confidence and ability to back multisectarian parties, which is what many Iraqis wanted. When our troops left, though, that center couldn’t hold.

I don’t want U.S. troops in Syria any more than anyone else, but I have no respect for the argument that just arming some pro-democracy rebels would have gotten the job done. Yes, there has been a price for Obama’s inaction. But there is a price for effective action as well, which the critics have to be honest about. It’s called an international force. We are dealing not only with states that have disintegrated, but whole societies — and rebuilding them is the mother of all nation-building projects. Will the ends, will the means. Otherwise, you’re not being serious.

And why, pray tell, is it OUR job to rebuild their societies?

Dowd and Friedman

August 6, 2014

MoDo thinks she has “A Modest Proposal.”  She snarls that impeachment is the obvious elixir to all our problems in our absurdist capital.  In the comments “Query” from the West has this to say:  “I did not expect a new low from Dowd given her remarkable and low record of turning most everything but her uncomfortably obvious bitterness over aging into a knowing sneer at the Clintons or Obama. I was wrong.”  In “Dear Guests” The Moustache of Wisdom says some new and significant things were revealed in the Gaza war.  Here’s MoDo:

Enough with all the phony impeachment talk.

Onward to a real impeachment!

In the absurdist capital we live in, it would be good for all sides — in ways you may not have considered.

President Obama’s threat to bypass obstinate Republican lawmakers and pass legislation with executive actions — “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” — may have seemed a bit of a wimpy cop-out in January. But now he has a chance to turn it into a historic battle cry.

He gives a passionate address to the nation, channeling 2004 Obama, and asks, as the son of a foreigner who came to America to go to school, how our mosaic of immigrants soured into such a cruel place toward displaced children.

He defies the Republicans and shoots the moon on an executive order, giving backdoor amnesty to millions of undocumented Hispanic immigrants as well as all those suffering kids on the border who are afraid to live in their own violent countries.

The Republicans go absolutely nuts and realize that their lawsuit, the mini-me of impeachment, will not suffice. They hesitate to go as far as a Swiftian solution, selling the children to rich people as food. So they race back into session and try the president for the high crime and misdemeanor of abusing his power.

It gives the party, which is ripping itself apart trying to figure out what it stands for, a clear identity: You can count on Republicans to always impeach Democratic presidents in their second terms. G.O.P. will become short for Gratuitously Ousting Presidents.

They won’t be able to win the White House ever again after alienating every Hispanic in the country, but they can bask in presidentus interruptus.

Republicans could finally take on Obama to a degree that would make their crazed base happy — or as happy as this begrudging, seething crowd and their mindless, malcontent queen, Sarah Palin, are capable of being.

Presidential candidates who support impeachment would thrive in the primaries because the rabid anti-Obama base would reward them. A recent CNN poll reported that 57 percent of Republicans support impeaching Obama — and that is before any bold executive action on immigration or preventing corporations from fleeing America to dodge taxes.

Democratic candidates, struggling in this election season, wouldn’t have to think of silly excuses not to appear on the trail with the president while Republican candidates jockey to get a blessing from Mitt Romney.

And if Democrats are having so much success raising millions by hyping a fake impeachment threat, think of what they could do with a real one.

The biggest beneficiary, of course, would be President Obama.

If Congress makes him the first-ever president removed by impeachment, his popularity will soar from its current nadir, maybe even approaching Bill Clinton heights. It would validate the president’s whinging that he could never work with the Republicans and cement their reputation as world-class thwarters.

It would endear him to Democrats for years to come because he lost the highest office in the land going to bat for them. They would finally forgive Obama for running for president — twice — when he scorned politics.

Fed-up Americans would decide to actually go vote this year for Democrats and save them from the losses they seem headed for.

Best of all, President Obama could take an extra-early slide out of the job he doesn’t seem to enjoy.

He and an ecstatic Michelle could move back to Chicago or up to New York, leaving the despised Washington in the dust. He could indulge in the speechifying, edifying and modulating that he loves so much.

As a master of narrative, the president knows that he lost control of his own. An impeachment would allow him to recast his story in a vivid new light.

Right now, his story is the boring — and bored — president who can’t get Congress to do anything and is just coasting into irrelevance. After taking big risks early in his presidency, with health care and the bin Laden raid, he seemed to sink into disgust at the gnarled system, slacking off and playing golf.

But if he got thrown out of office for taking an audacious risk, showing he was willing to fight for something and stand up to the nihilists, racists and Tea Party loonies, his narrative would leap into “High Noon” drama.

Oh, and there’s a final person it would be really good for — and he’s owed one.

Joe Biden would get to be president — the shot that Obama and his strategists have been reluctant to give the loyal vice president, preferring to boost former rival Hillary Clinton.

Unlike Obama, Biden enjoys schmoozing, jawboning, logrolling, arm-twisting and deal-making with lawmakers ’til the cows come home.

And, as we learned in the new Ronald Kessler book on the Secret Service, Biden likes to swim in the nude. So he’d certainly be a president who believes in transparency.

And now we get to The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, Israel:

At 6:02 a.m. on Saturday, the air raid siren sounded over Tel Aviv. I was rousted by the hotel staff from my room and ushered into the windowless service elevator area with two French families, everyone in their pajamas. After 10 minutes, when the Hamas missile threat had passed, we were allowed to go back to our rooms. As I slipped back into bed, the hotel loudspeaker bellowed, “Dear guests, you may return to your routine.”

With Israel and Hamas winding down their latest war, I could only wonder whether the hotel manager was also speaking to them. Is that it? More than 60 Israeli soldiers and some 1,800 Hamas fighters and Gazans — many hundreds of them children and civilians  — killed, and everyone just goes back to their routines? I don’t think so. Some new and significant things were revealed here.

Let’s start with the fight. Since the early 2000s, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and, until recently, Hamas, have pursued a three-pillar strategy toward Israel. The first is asymmetric warfare, primarily using cheap rockets, to paralyze Israeli towns and cities. For now, Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system appears to have nullified this weapon; Hamas rockets did virtually no damage.

The second pillar, which debuted in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, is to nest Hamas fighters and rocket launchers among the densely packed Gazan population and force Israel into a war where it can only defeat or deter Hamas if it risks war-crimes charges. No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us.” I don’t believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them  — but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary to prove to Hamas, “You will not outcrazy us out of this region.” It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia.

The third pillar of the Iran/Hezbollah/Hamas strategy is: Israel must forever occupy Palestinians in the West Bank because the perpetuation of that colonial occupation is essential for delegitimizing and isolating Israel on the world stage — especially among young Westerners — and energizing Muslims against Israel. On this, Hamas scored a huge victory. We saw that clearly in the decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to briefly order a ban on U.S. flights to Tel Aviv, after a single Hamas rocket landed just over a mile from the airport. That was exactly the message Hamas wanted delivered: “If we can close your airport, your global lifeline, with one rocket from Gaza, imagine what happens if you leave the West Bank, right next door.” That F.A.A. ban will now be used here as a key argument for why Israel must never cede the West Bank. I can hear the applause in Tehran from here.

And then there were the Hamas tunnels and what they revealed. I toured one just across the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. It was lined for a couple miles with prefab concrete siding and roofing. It had electricity and railroad tracks. What struck me most, though, was the craftsmanship — the way all the prefab concrete pieces were perfectly designed and fit together. This tunnel took years and millions of dollars to build and required diverting massive resources from civilian roads, buildings and schools. It had one purpose, and it was not fruit exports. It was to shuttle fighters into the kibbutz. And there were many of these.

I must say I was awed by the sheer dedication it took to dig this tunnel, but sickened by what fueled that dedication: an apocalyptic jihadist agenda. The religious nationalist-forces have the real energy in this region today. More and more, this is becoming a religious conflict. The Times of Israel reported that, at the start of this war, “in an official dispatch sent to battalion and company commanders on July 9, Givati Brigade commander Colonel Ofer Winter” — one of Israel’s top officers on the Gaza front — “told his subordinates that ‘History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting [against] the terrorist “Gazan” enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s [defense] forces.’ ” Frightening.

Jihadists are now sweeping across Iraq and Syria, wiping out Christians and other minorities. As the Lebanese writer Hanin Ghaddar noted this week: the Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi once observed that “it is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’ ” and “have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity.” Now, she said, “the region seems to be going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased and our identities are evaporating.”

Here is where Israel does have a choice. Its reckless Jewish settlement project in the West Bank led it into a strategy of trying to keep the moderate Palestinian Authority there weak and Hamas in Gaza even weaker. The only way Israel can hope to stabilize Gaza is if it empowers the Palestinian Authority to take over border control in Gaza, but that will eventually require making territorial concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, because it will not act as Israel’s policeman for free. This is crunchtime. Either Arab and Israeli moderates collaborate and fight together, or the zealots really are going to take over this neighborhood. Please do not return to your routines.

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

August 3, 2014

In “Obama’s Impeachment Game” The Putz actually tries to convince us that all the finger-pointing at Republicans may just be cover for a power grab over immigration.  In the comments “David Underwood” of Citrus Heights had this to say:  “The presence of Douthat as a columnist with the Times is an insult to respectable columnists everywhere.  The publication of blatant lies, twisted logic, falsification of facts, has no place in a respectable journal. He should be removed, for incompetence and prejudicial opinions. He is writing an article that can not be justified as even opinion, it is a plain distortion of the known facts, to present his obvious dislike of Mr. Obama, and is not meant to be anything other than that. It is not discourse with some reasonable opinion as to the impeachment talk, it is a plain hateful attempt to impugn Mr. Obama’s integrity. For shame Douthat, have you no shame?”  No, Mr. Underwood, he doesn’t.  MoDo says “Throw the Book at Him,” and that 43’s biography of 41 should be called “Mano a Mano: I Wish I’d Listened to my Dad.”  And no, she couldn’t resist getting in a gratuitous slap at Obama.  The Moustache of Wisdom thinks he knows “How This War Ends.”  He says any resolution won’t be cheap politically for either Hamas or Israel.  Mr. Cohen has decided to explain to us “Why Americans See Israel the Way They Do.”  He claims the Israeli saga echoes in American mythology, but views are different in Europe, where anti-Semitism is rising.  Mr. Kristof says “Go Take a Hike!”  He suggests that if human-made messes are getting you down, try rejuvenating in the cathedral of the wilderness.  Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:

Something rather dangerous is happening in American politics right now, all the more so for being taken for granted by many of the people watching it unfold.

I do not mean the confusion of House Republicans, or the general gridlock in Congress, which are impeding legislative action on the child migrant crisis (among other matters). Incompetence and gridlock are significant problems, indeed severe ones, but they’re happening within the context of a constitutional system that allows for — and can survive — congressional inaction.

What is different — more cynical and more destructive — is the course President Obama is pursuing in response.

Over the last month, the Obama political apparatus — a close aide to the president, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the “independent” voices at MSNBC — has been talking nonstop about an alleged Republican plan to impeach the president. John Boehner’s symbolic lawsuit against the White House has been dubbed “impeachment lite,” Sarah Palin’s pleas for attention have been creatively reinterpreted as G.O.P. marching orders, and an entire apocalyptic fund-raising campaign has been built around the specter of a House impeachment vote.

Anyone paying attention knows that no such impeachment plan is currently afoot. So taken on its own, the impeachment chatter would simply be an unseemly, un-presidential attempt to raise money and get out the 2014 vote.

But it isn’t happening in a vacuum, because even as his team plays the impeachment card with gusto, the president is contemplating — indeed, all but promising — an extraordinary abuse of office: the granting of temporary legal status, by executive fiat, to up to half the country’s population of illegal immigrants.

Such an action would come equipped with legal justifications, of course. Past presidents have suspended immigration enforcement for select groups, and Obama himself did the same for certain younger immigrants in 2012. A creative White House lawyer — a John Yoo of the left — could rely on those precedents to build a case for the legality of a more sweeping move.

But the precedents would not actually justify the policy, because the scope would be radically different. Beyond a certain point, as the president himself has conceded in the past, selective enforcement of our laws amounts to a de facto repeal of their provisions. And in this case the de facto repeal would aim to effectively settle — not shift, but settle — a major domestic policy controversy on the terms favored by the White House.

This simply does not happen in our politics. Presidents are granted broad powers over foreign policy, and they tend to push the envelope substantially in wartime. But domestic power grabs are usually modest in scope, and executive orders usually work around the margins of hotly contested issues.

In defense of going much, much further, the White House would doubtless cite the need to address the current migrant surge, the House Republicans’ resistance to comprehensive immigration reform and public opinion’s inclination in its favor.

But all three points are spurious. A further amnesty would, if anything, probably incentivize further migration, just as Obama’s previous grant of legal status may well have done. The public’s views on immigration are vaguely pro-legalization — but they’re also malleable, complicated and, amid the border crisis, trending rightward. And in any case we are a republic of laws, in which a House majority that defies public opinion is supposed to be turned out of office, not simply overruled by the executive.

What’s more, given that the Democrats controlled Congress just four years ago and conspicuously failed to pass immigration reform, it’s especially hard to see how Republican intransigence now somehow justifies domestic Caesarism.

But in political terms, there is a sordid sort of genius to the Obama strategy. The threat of a unilateral amnesty contributes to internal G.O.P. chaos on immigration strategy, chaos which can then be invoked (as the president did in a Friday news conference) to justify unilateral action. The impeachment predictions, meanwhile, help box Republicans in: If they howl — justifiably! — at executive overreach, the White House gets to say “look at the crazies — we told you they were out for blood.”

It’s only genius, however, if the nonconservative media — honorable liberals and evenhanded moderates alike — continue to accept the claim that immigration reform by fiat would just be politics as usual, and to analyze the idea strictly in terms of its political effects (on Latino turnout, Democratic fund-raising, G.O.P. internal strife).

This is the tone of the media coverage right now: The president may get the occasional rebuke for impeachment-baiting, but what the White House wants to do on immigration is assumed to be reasonable, legitimate, within normal political bounds.

It is not: It would be lawless, reckless, a leap into the antidemocratic dark.

And an American political class that lets this Rubicon be crossed without demurral will deserve to live with the consequences for the republic, in what remains of this presidency and in presidencies yet to come.

He should be taken out behind the barn and horsewhipped by Clio.  Now here’s MoDo:

I can’t wait to read the book W. won’t write.

Not since Beyoncé dropped a new digital album online overnight with no warning or fanfare has there been such a successful pop-up arts project.

Crown Publishers startled everyone Wednesday by announcing that the 68-year-old W. has written a “personal biography” of his 90-year-old father, due out in November.

I guess he ran out of brush to clear.

“Never before has a President told the story of his father, another President, through his own eyes and in his own words,” the Crown news release crowed, noting that W.’s “Decision Points” was the best-selling presidential memoir ever and promising that 43’s portrait of 41 will be “heartfelt, intimate, and illuminating.”

It is certainly illuminating to learn that W. has belatedly decided to bathe his father in filial appreciation.

Like his whimsical paintings and post-presidency discretion, this sweet book will no doubt help reset his image in a more positive way.

But the intriguing question is: Is he doing it with an eye toward spinning the future or out of guilt for the past?

Just as his nude self-portraits are set in a shower and a bath, this book feels like an exercise in washing away the blunders of Iraq, Afghanistan and Katrina.

Are these efforts at self-expression a way to cleanse himself and exorcise the ghosts of all those who died and suffered for no reason? It’s redolent of Lady Macbeth, guilty over regicide and unable to stop rubbing her hands as though she’s washing them, murmuring “Out, damned spot!”

But some spots don’t come out.

I know that George H.W. Bush and his oldest son love each other. But it has been a complicated and difficult relationship and a foolishly and fatefully compartmentalized one.

Even though both Bushes protested that they didn’t want to be put on the couch, historians will spend the rest of history puzzling over the Oedipal push and pull that led America into disasters of such magnitude.

It would be awesome if the book revealed the truth about the fraught relationship between the gracious father and bristly son, if it were titled “Mano a Mano: I Wish I’d Listened to My Dad.”

Because, after all, never in history has a son diminished, disregarded and humiliated a father to such disastrous effect. But W. won’t write any of the real stuff we all want to hear.

The saga began when W. was 26 and drinking. After a rowdy night, the scamp came to his parents’ home in D.C. and smashed his car into a neighbor’s garbage can. His dad upbraided him.

“You wanna go mano a mano right here?” W. shot back to his shocked father.

It was hard, no doubt, to follow the same path as his father, in school, in sport, in war and in work, but always come up short. He also had to deal with the chilly fact that his parents thought Jeb should be president, rather than the raffish Roman candle, W.

Yet W. summoned inner strength and played it smart and upended his family’s expectations, getting to the governor’s mansion and the Oval Office before his younger brother. But the top job sometimes comes with a tape worm of insecurity. Like Lyndon Johnson with hawkish Kennedy aides, W. surrounded himself with the wrong belligerent advisers and allowed himself to be manipulated through his fear of being called a wimp, as his father had been by “Newsweek.”

When he ran for Texas governor in 1994 and president in 2000, W. basically cut his father adrift, instead casting himself as the son and heir of Ronald Reagan, the man who bested his father. “Don’t underestimate what you can learn from a failed presidency,” he told his Texas media strategist about his father.

His White House aides made a point of telling reporters that Junior was tougher than his father, pointedly noting he was from West Texas and knew how to deal with “the streets of Laredo.”

He was driven to get the second term his father had not had. And he was driven — and pushed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — to do what his dad had shied away from, toppling Saddam Hussein. This, even if it meant drumming up a phony casus belli.

He never consulted his dad, even though H.W. was the only president ever to go to war with Saddam. He treated the former president and foreign affairs junkie like a blankie, telling Fox News’s Brit Hume that, rather than advice on issues, he preferred to get phone calls from his dad saying “I love you, son,” or “Hang in there, son.”

And he began yelling when his father’s confidante and co-author, Brent Scowcroft, wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece cautioning that invading Iraq wouldn’t be “a cakewalk” and could be destabilizing to the region and mean “a large-scale, long-term military occupation.”

He never wanted to hear the warning that his father was ready to give, so allergic to being a wimp that he tried, against all odds, history and evidence, to be a deus ex machina. He dissed his father on Iraq, saying “he cut and run early,” and he naïvely allowed himself to be bullied by his dark father, Cheney, who pressed him on Saddam: “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”

As Jon Meacham, the historian who is writing a biography of Bush père, wrote in Time a week ago, H.W. was a man who knew that Woodrow Wilson was wrong in thinking that a big war could end all wars.

“The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about ‘working the problem,’ not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions,” Meacham wrote.

So now, symbolically washing his hands, W.’s putting out this cute little disingenuous book about his father that won’t mention that he bollixed up the globe, his presidency, and marred Jeb’s chances, all because he wasn’t listening to his father or “working the problem.”

W.’s fear of being unmanned led to America actually being unmanned. We’re in a crouch now. His rebellion against and competition with Bush senior led directly to President Obama struggling at a news conference Friday on the subject of torture. After 9/11, Obama noted, people were afraid. “We tortured some folks,” he said. “We did some things that were contrary to our values.”

And yet the president stood by his C.I.A. director, John Brennan, a cheerleader for torture during the Bush years, who continues to do things that are contrary to our values.

Obama defended the C.I.A. director even though Brennan blatantly lied to the Senate when he denied that the C.I.A. had hacked into Senate Intelligence Committee computers while staffers were on agency property investigating torture in the W. era. And now the administration, protecting a favorite of the president, is heavily censoring the torture report under the pretense of national security.

The Bushes did not want to be put on the couch, but the thin-skinned Obama jumped on the couch at his news conference, defensively whining about Republicans, Putin, Israel and Hamas and explaining academically and anemically how he’s trying to do the right thing but it’s all beyond his control.

Class is over, professor. Send in the president.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Ramallah, on the West Bank:

I had held off coming to Israel, hoping the situation in Gaza would clarify — not in terms of what’s happening, but how it might end in a stable way. Being here now, it is clear to me that there is a way this cruel little war could not only be stopped, but stopped in a way that the moderates in the region, who have been so much on the run, could gain the initiative. But — and here is where some flight from reality is required to be hopeful — developing something that decent out of this war will demand a level of leadership from the key parties that has simply never been manifested by any of them. This is a generation of Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders who are experts at building tunnels and walls. None of them ever took the course on bridges and gates.

I happened to be in the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv late Friday when air raid sirens went off as a result of a Hamas rocket being aimed at the city. Standing in the embassy basement, I had a moment of quiet to think about how much creativity lately has gone into war-making around here and how little into peace-making. Israel has developed a rocket interceptor system, the Iron Dome, that can immediately calculate whether a Hamas rocket launched in Gaza will hit a built-up area in Israel — and needs to be intercepted — or will fall into the sea, farm fields or desert and can be ignored and, therefore, avoids the $50,000 cost of an interceptor. The system is not only smart; it’s frugal. If this Israeli government had applied the same ingenuity to trying to forge a deal with the moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas would be so much more globally isolated today — not Israel.

Meanwhile, Hamas, using picks, shovels and little drills, developed an underground maze of tunnels in Gaza, under Israel’s nose, with branches into Israel. If Hamas — which has brought only ruin to the people of Gaza, even in times of quiet — had applied that same ingenuity to building above ground, it could have created the biggest contracting company in the Arab world by now, and the most schools.

Every war here ends eventually, though, and, when this one does, I don’t think we’ll be going back to the status quo ante. Even before a stable cease-fire occurs, Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials have been discussing the principles of a lasting deal for Gaza. Given the fact that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hate Hamas — because of its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — as much as Israel, the potential exists for a Gaza deal that would truly align moderate Arabs, Palestinians and Israel. But it won’t come cheap. In fact, it will require Israel, Hamas and the U.S. to throw out all the old rules about who doesn’t talk to whom.

Here’s why: Hamas has been a formidable foe for Israel, and it is unlikely to stop this war without some agreement to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Israel is not likely to stop this war without having rooted out most of the Hamas tunnels and put in place a regime that will largely demilitarize Gaza and prevent the import of more rockets.

Since neither Israel nor Egypt wants to govern Gaza, the only chance these goals have of being implemented is if the moderate Palestinian Authority here in Ramallah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, is invited back into Gaza (from which it was evicted by Hamas in 2007). And, as one of Abbas’s senior advisers, Yasser Abed Rabbo, explained to me, the only way that can happen is if the Palestinians form a national unity government, including Hamas, and if Israel agrees to resume negotiations with this government about ending the West Bank occupation.

The Palestinian Authority has no intention of becoming Israel’s policeman in the West Bank and in Gaza for free. “To hell with that,” said Abed Rabbo. If the Palestinian Authority is going to come back in as the game-changer, it will be as the head of a Palestinian national unity government, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside, that would negotiate with Israel, he said. If Hamas and Israel want to end this war with some of their gains intact, they will both have to cede something to the Palestinian Authority.

No one should expect, said Abed Rabbo, that “we, ‘the stupid moderates,’ will sit there and play a game in favor of Hamas or Israel and not get anything out of it, and we will go back to the same old negotiations where” Israel just says “blah blah blah.” If we do that again, “my kids will throw me out of my house.”

“We should have a serious Palestinian reconciliation and then go to the world and say, ‘O.K., Gaza will behave as a peaceful place, under the leadership of a united Palestinian front, but, [Egypt], you open your gates, and, Israel, you open your gates,’ ” Abed Rabbo said. The moderate Arab states would then contribute the rebuilding funds.

Unless Hamas or Israel totally defeats the other — unlikely — it is hard for me to see how either side will get out of this war the lasting gains they want without conceding something politically. Israel will have to negotiate in earnest about a withdrawal from the West Bank, and Hamas will have to serve in a Palestinian unity government and forgo violence. I can tell you 17 reasons that this won’t happen. I just can’t think of one other stable way out.

And now we get to Mr. Cohen:

To cross the Atlantic to America, as I did recently from London, is to move from one moral universe to its opposite in relation to Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. Fury over Palestinian civilian casualties has risen to a fever pitch in Europe, moving beyond anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism (often a flimsy distinction). Attacks on Jews and synagogues are the work of a rabid fringe, but anger toward an Israel portrayed as indiscriminate in its brutality is widespread. For a growing number of Europeans, not having a negative opinion of Israel is tantamount to not having a conscience. The deaths of hundreds of children in any war, as one editorial in The Guardian put it, is “a special kind of obscenity.”

In the United States, by contrast, support for Israel remains strong (although less so among the young, who are most exposed to the warring hashtags of social media). That support is overwhelming in political circles. Palestinian suffering remains near taboo in Congress. It is not only among American Jews, better organized and more outspoken than their whispering European counterparts, that the story of a nation of immigrants escaping persecution and rising from nowhere in the Holy Land resonates. The Israeli saga — of courage and will — echoes in American mythology, far beyond religious identification, be it Jewish or evangelical Christian.

America tends toward a preference for unambiguous right and wrong — no European leader would pronounce the phrase “axis of evil” — and this third Gaza eruption in six years fits neatly enough into a Manichaean framework: A democratic Jewish state, hit by rockets, responds to Islamic terrorists. The obscenity, for most Americans, has a name. That name is Hamas.

James Lasdun, a Jewish author and poet who moved to the United States from England, has written that, “There is something uncannily adaptive about anti-Semitism: the way it can hide, unsuspected, in the most progressive minds.” Certainly, European anti-Semitism has adapted. It used to be mainly of the nationalist right. It now finds expression among large Muslim communities. But the war has also suggested how the virulent anti-Israel sentiment now evident among the bien-pensant European left can create a climate that makes violent hatred of Jews permissible once again.

In Germany, of all places, there have been a series of demonstrations since the Gaza conflict broke out with refrains like “Israel: Nazi murderer” and “Jew, Jew, you cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” (it rhymes in German). Three men hurled a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in Wuppertal. Hitler’s name has been chanted, gassing of Jews invoked. Violent demonstrations have erupted in France. The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Germany were moved to issue a statement saying “anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews” have “no place in our societies.” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, went further. What Germany had witnessed, he wrote, makes the “blood freeze in anybody’s veins.”

Yes, it does. Germany, Israel’s closest ally apart from the United States, had been constrained since 1945. The moral shackles have loosened. Europe’s malevolent ghosts have not been entirely dispelled. The continent on which Jews went meekly to the slaughter reproaches the descendants of those who survived for absorbing the lesson that military might is inextricable from survival and that no attack must go unanswered, especially one from an organization bent on the annihilation of Israel.

A strange transference sometimes seems to be at work, as if casting Israelis as murderers, shorn of any historical context, somehow expiates the crime. In any case it is certain that for a quasi-pacifist Europe, the Palestinian victim plays well; the regional superpower, Israel, a militarized society through necessity, much less so.

Anger at Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is also “a unifying element among disparate Islamic communities in Europe,” said Jonathan Eyal, a foreign policy analyst in London. Moroccans in the Netherlands, Pakistanis in Britain and Algerians in France find common cause in denouncing Israel. “Their anger is also a low-cost expression of frustration and alienation,” Eyal said.

Views of the war in the United States can feel similarly skewed, resistant to the whole picture, slanted through cultural inclination and political diktat. It is still hard to say that the killing of hundreds of Palestinian children represents a Jewish failure, whatever else it may be. It is not easy to convey the point that the open-air prison of Gaza in which Hamas has thrived exists in part because Israel has shown a strong preference for the status quo, failing to reach out to Palestinian moderates and extending settlements in the West Bank, fatally tempted by the idea of keeping all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Oppressed people will respond. Millions of Palestinians are oppressed. They are routinely humiliated and live under Israeli dominion. When Jon Stewart is lionized (and slammed in some circles) for “revealing” Palestinian suffering to Americans, it suggests how hidden that suffering is. The way members of Congress have been falling over one another to demonstrate more vociferous support for Israel is a measure of a political climate not conducive to nuance. This hardly serves America’s interests, which lie in a now infinitely distant peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and will require balanced American mediation.

Something may be shifting. Powerful images of Palestinian suffering on Facebook and Twitter have hit younger Americans. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that among Americans age 65 or older, 53 percent blame Hamas for the violence and 15 percent Israel. For those ages 18 to 29, Israel is blamed by 29 percent of those questioned, Hamas by just 21 percent. My son-in-law, a doctor in Atlanta, said that for his social group, mainly professionals in their 30s with young children, it was “impossible to see infants being killed by what sometimes seems like an extension of the U.S. Army without being affected.”

I find myself dreaming of some island in the middle of the Atlantic where the blinding excesses on either side of the water are overcome and a fundamental truth is absorbed: that neither side is going away, that both have made grievous mistakes, and that the fate of Jewish and Palestinian children — united in their innocence — depends on placing the future above the past. That island will no doubt remain as illusory as peace. Meanwhile, on balance, I am pleased to have become a naturalized American.

And last but not least we have Mr. Krisof, writing from the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon:

Escaping a grim world of war abroad and inequality at home, I fled with my teenage daughter here to the mountains of Oregon to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and commune with more humane creatures. Like bears and cougars.

The wilderness is healing, a therapy for the soul. We hiked 145 miles, and it was typical backpacking bliss: We were chewed on by mosquitoes, rained on and thundered at, broiled by noonday sun, mocked by a 20-mile stretch of dry trail, and left limping from blisters. The perfect trip!

There are very few things I’ve done just twice in my life, 40 years apart, and one is to backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail across the California/Oregon border. The first time, in 1974, I was a 15-year-old setting off with a pal on a bid to hike across Oregon. We ran into vast snows that covered the trail and gave up. Then I wasn’t quite ripe for the challenge; this year, on the trail with my daughter, I wondered if I might be overripe.

Yet seeing the same mountains, the same creeks, four decades later, was a reminder of how the world changes, and how it doesn’t.

As a teenager, I lugged a huge metal-frame pack, navigated by uncertain maps and almost never encountered another hiker. Now, gear is far lighter, we navigate partly by iPhone, and there are streams of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Indeed, partly because of Cheryl Strayed’s best seller “Wild,” about how a lost young woman found herself on a long-distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the number of long-distance backpackers has multiplied on the trail. There has been a particular surge in women.

We also saw many retirees, including some men and women in their 60s and 70s undertaking an entire “through-hike” from Mexico all the way to Canada, 2,650 miles in one season.

“There seems to be a more than 30 percent increase in long-distance hiking in 2014 over 2013,” based on the number of hiking permits issued, said Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

My hunch is that the trail will grow even more crowded next year, after the movie version of “Wild” hits the big screen with Reese Witherspoon in the starring role.

Unfortunately, America has trouble repairing its magnificent trails, so that collapsed bridges and washed-out sections are sometimes left unrepaired. We were rich enough to construct many of these trails during the Great Depression, yet we’re apparently too poor in the 21st century even to sustain them.

The attraction of wilderness has something to do with continuity. I may now have a GPS device that I couldn’t have imagined when I first hiked, but essential patterns on the trail are unchanging: the exhaustion, the mosquitoes, the blisters, and also the exhilaration at reaching a mountain pass, the lustrous reds and blues of alpine wildflowers, the deliciousness of a snow cone made on a sweltering day from a permanent snowfield and Kool-Aid mix.

The trails are a reminder of our insignificance. We come and go, but nature is forever. It puts us in our place, underscoring that we are not lords of the universe but components of it.

In an age of tremendous inequality, our wild places also offer a rare leveling. There are often no fees to hike or to camp on these trails, and tycoons and taxi drivers alike drink creek water and sleep under the stars on a $5 plastic sheet. On our national lands, any of us can enjoy billion-dollar views that no billionaire may buy.

Humans pull together in an odd way when they’re in the wilderness. It’s astonishing how few people litter, and how much they help one another. Indeed, the smartphone app to navigate the Pacific Crest Trail, Halfmile, is a labor of love by hikers who make it available as a free download. And, in thousands of miles of backpacking over the decades, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one hiker be rude to another.

We’ve also seen the rise of “trail angels,” who leave bottles of water, chocolate bars or even freshly baked bread for hungry or thirsty hikers to enjoy in remote areas.

On one dry stretch of trail on our latest hike, where it wound near a forest service road, we encountered this “trail magic”: Someone had brought a lawn chair and two coolers of soft drinks to cheer flagging backpackers. Purists object to trail magic, saying that it interferes with the wilderness experience. But when the arguments are about how best to be helpful, my faith in humanity is restored!

So when the world seems to be falling apart, when we humans seem to be creating messes everywhere we turn, maybe it’s time to rejuvenate in the cathedral of the wilderness — and there, away from humanity, rediscover our own humanity.

Dowd and Friedman

July 30, 2014

In “Night at the Opera?” MoDo says as the clock ticks down on union negotiations, the Met plays out its most painful opera.  In “ ‘Maybe in America’ ” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that Madagascar is an example of a combination of global pressures coming to the fore.  Here’s MoDo:

Peter Gelb still recalls the sting. “In second grade, my report card said I couldn’t take criticism, and I remember being devastated by that,” he said.

So it’s easy to believe the 60-year-old general manager of the Metropolitan Opera when he says that this is the most stressful week of his life, with his career and the Met’s future “at stake.” Hurtling toward a lockout, Gelb sees a fresh vitriolic insult from a union negotiator every time he checks the news on his phone. And with the planned production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” Gelb is also attracting protesters and even some death threats.

“They come by email — the convenient modern delivery system for death threats,” he said, taking a break from marathon negotiations to have a pork chop dinner at a Lincoln Center restaurant. Gelb refused to cancel the production. But after speaking with Jewish leaders, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who hasn’t seen the opera but worried it could fuel anti-Semitism abroad, he called off the Live in HD broadcast.

“I had no idea four years ago when I set this up that it would suddenly be juxtaposed with the events in the Middle East,” he said, denying that he unSolomonically split the baby of artistic freedom. “I think what I did was protect the baby.”

I never expected to get any closer to the Met than reading about opera in Edith Wharton’s Belle Epoch, club boxes filled with “these chosen specimens of old New York gentility.”

But Peter Gelb’s late father, Arthur, was my editor and mentor at The Times. And when Peter threw open the doors to the musty, fusty institution — “an isolated island, disconnected from the mainland,” he called it — trying to lure younger patrons and beaming the hugely successful Live in HD productions around the world, I ventured into the Met and was instantly enchanted.

So it makes me sad, seeing the magical Met family tear itself apart.

Gelb, a Yale dropout who worked as a teenage usher at the Met and an office boy for the impresario Sol Hurok, comes across as smooth, tailored and cerebral. But he admits he’s made mistakes and tried to develop a tougher skin. Now, he says, he tries to figure out if he’s hurt and right, or hurt and wrong. “You know, I’m a neurotic Jew,” he said. “I’m constantly thinking did I screw this thing up or what could I have done differently or better.”

Criticized by Met workers for having too many productions, he cut back for the last season and for the next from seven to six. He has also toned down the hype.

The fortissimo battle between Met management and workers — full of acrimony, jealousy and demonizing — seems like opera. But Gelb says it’s more like “lurid melodrama” or “chaos.”

The unions have personalized the fight, sniping at Gelb and expensive productions that have not panned out, while Gelb is sticking to the bottom line of unsustainable labor costs. His job has been compared to that of a lion tamer, but now he says, with a rueful smile, “I’m the lion tamer who may be eaten. But I have to not flinch. As one union leader told me years ago, the employees only believe the employer’s telling the truth when he goes out of business.”

The workers say he needs to take some of his grandiosity out of grand opera. He says they have “gold leaf syndrome.”

“They’re surrounded by too much gold leaf,” Gelb says of the 15 unions — from wigs and makeup to a union consisting of one house painter. “It’s delusional. Economically, they’ve been calling the shots for decades. And I have to break that up for the Met to survive. We have to go big, but do it in a way that’s economically small. Even in the Met, you can see the gold leaf’s chipping off the ceiling.”

Doubtless, the Met workers have Nibelungen fatigue. The two central symbols of their argument that Gelb is a spendthrift are the 45-ton machine of movable planks in a $19 million “Ring” production (a mil had to be spent simply reinforcing the stage) and the $169,000 poppy field in “Prince Igor.”

“We’re being told that our livelihoods and our lives are not as important as the machine and the poppies,” said Jessica Phillips Rieske, a clarinetist and negotiator for the orchestra union who objects to Gelb presenting himself as the savior of “a dinosaur” art form. “We’re saying, let’s all trim our belts.”

Gelb says he regrets that the “Ring” machine was “creaky” but isn’t sorry about “pushing the envelope,” and he says he was “naïve about understanding the risk of replacing Zeffirelli’s ‘Tosca.’ ”

Anthony Tommasini, The Times’s chief classical music critic, says there have been mistakes on both sides. “The union heads have made Gelb seem so incompetent, even artistically, that if the talks are resolved, then what is the public to think? ‘Great, another season courtesy of that know-nothing,’ ” he said. “Gelb has made some bad calls, especially by giving us Robert Lepage’s ‘Ring,’ which is a show about a set. But he has had some milestone productions as well, most recently the new ‘Falstaff’ and the revelatory ‘Prince Igor.’ The union heads have to stop complaining about silk poppy fields. That’s not the cause of the Met’s budget woes.”

As the clock ticks down, I’m rooting for Valhalla, not Götterdämmerung.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Antananarivo, Madagascar:

I’ve been arguing that the big divide in the world these days is between the world of order and a growing world of disorder. If you’re keeping score at home, the world of disorder just added another country: Libya. America quietly folded up its embassy in Libya last week and left, leaving behind a tribal/militia war of all against all. Not good.

There will be more of this. It’s not easy being a country anymore. There is no more Cold War to prop up, arm and finance frail states. More important, the combined pressures of the market (globalization and the speed with which investment can flow into countries doing the right things and out of those doing bad things), Moore’s Law (the steady rise in computing power that makes every good job today require more education) and Mother Nature (climate change, biodiversity loss, erosion and population growth) have all passed certain tipping points. Together, the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are stressing out developed countries and helping to blow up weak ones.

For me, the movie line that perfectly captures this moment was uttered by the leader of the Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship in “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks. The pirate nicknames the Boston-bred Phillips “Irish.” In a critical scene, Hanks tries to reason with the Somali hijacker, saying to him: “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.”

To which the hijacker replies, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”

It has been instructive to see all these pressures up close here in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world. The globalization of illicit trade has left Madagascar exposed to Chinese merchants working with corrupt officials here to illegally import everything from valuable rosewood timber to rare tortoises. Some global textile manufacturers set up factories then quit when the politics turned too unstable. Mandatory education here is only through age 15, and it’s in the local Malagasy language. That makes it hard to compete in a world where some developed countries are teaching computer coding in first grade.

And then there’s Mother Nature: the population of Madagascar is exploding, and the forests and soils are eroding. The soil for agriculture here is iron rich, nutrient poor and often very soft. Since 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests have been chopped down for slash-and-burn agriculture, timber, firewood and charcoal over the last century, most hillsides have no trees to hold the soil when it rains. Flying along the northwest coast, you can’t miss the scale of the problem. You see a giant red plume of eroded red soil bleeding into the Betsiboka River, bleeding into Mahajanga Bay, bleeding into the Indian Ocean. The mess is so big that astronauts take pictures of it from space.

“The more you erode, the more people you have with less soil under their feet to grow things,” said Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, who’s been working in Madagascar to help preserve its environment since 1984 and has been showing me around. “When I first came here in 1984, the population was nine or 10 million. It is now approaching 23 million.”

When countries have rapidly growing populations and rapidly diminishing natural capital, the leadership required to match the scale of the problems they face is nothing less than herculean. After 50 years of mostly bad leadership, Madagascar has democratically elected a new, post-coup president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina. He seems to want to do the right things. We can only hope he has some Hercules in him.

Nothing he does will be more important than preserving what is left of Madagascar’s pristine beaches, forests and plant and animal species (particularly its lemurs), among the most rare and diverse in the world. Parks and reserves have been set aside by the government — and even with the destruction there’s still a ton to see — but they will only be sustainable if they are supported by ecotourist lodges and guides who are drawn from local communities and incentivized to protect their natural capital. But that takes a government able to expand protected areas, build proper roads (rural roads here have more potholes than pavement), crack down on illegal logging and provide credit to rural communities.

Serge Rajaobelina is the founder of Fanamby, a local nonprofit that supports villagers starting ecotourist sites, like Camp Amoureux, situated in western Madagascar amid spectacular giant baobab trees. We stayed there. Of the 25 locals working there, 22 were women. “Involving communities in ecotourism is the key,” said Rajaobelina. “The people who are always in the field are the communities, and they are the best conservationists and guides.” But, he added, they need help with capacity building: training, access to credit and infrastructure.

There are already too many people walking around the world saying, “Maybe in America, but not here.” We don’t need more. Keeping Madagascar out of the world of disorder has to start by preserving its ecosystems, which are vital for sustaining its people and attracting tourism. But that requires good leadership, and good leaders today — anywhere — are the rarest species of all.


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