The Putz has his knickers in a twist again. In “Pot and Jackpots” he squeals that there’s a cultural revolution in America, and it isn’t about sex. Don’t worry, though — he worked in a slap at single parents. In “From Love Nests to Desire Surveillance” MoDo says tabloid editors charged with breaking the law to expose others’ intimate secrets are now having their own intimate secrets exposed in court. The Moustache of Wisdom is in Singapore, and has sent us “Calling America: Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” in which he says once the envy of others, the U.S. is more likely to be scrutinized these days. In “This Is Why We Need Obamacare” Mr. Kristof says lost in the debate over website glitches and broken promises made by President Obama are people’s lives. Consider this 47-year-old Oregon truck driver. Mr. Bruni considers “The Tumbling Boundaries of Gay Rights:” Conservative donors funding a new gay-rights project run by a group usually associated with Democrats? We’re not in Kansas anymore. Here’s the Putz:
Based on what stirs passions and wins headlines, it would be easy to imagine that the only cultural debates that matter in America are the ones that have to do with sex.
There are good reasons for our intimate obsession: Desire is intertwined with identity, sex conceives the human future, the family is the place where all our ladders start. But to understand America’s changing cultural landscape, sometimes a wider lens is useful — because the same trends that have altered the way we think about sex and reproduction have wider repercussions as well.
Consider two issues: casino gambling and marijuana. We’re used to the idea that attitudes on a controversy like gay marriage have changed with unprecedented speed. But both casinos and pot have gone mainstream over the last generation at a similarly remarkable pace.
In 1990, casino gambling was still concentrated in Nevada and Atlantic City. Then came the rise of Indian-reservation gambling; then came casinos with no tribal fig leaf. Today 23 states have commercial casinos, and the old model of casino-going as a what-happens-in-Vegas excursion has given way to casino-going as routine entertainment.
“In the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states,” a report from the Institute for American Values noted this year, “nearly every adult now lives within a short drive of a casino.” And after this Tuesday, that drive may get considerably shorter, because New York voters are expected to ratify a constitutional amendment allowing up to seven more casinos in the state.
The marijuana revolution is arguably not so far advanced, since only two states, Washington and Colorado, are experimenting with outright legalization. But more such experiments are expected to follow soon, and medicinal marijuana is already available in 20 states. Meanwhile, public opinion on the issue has shifted about as fast as it has on gay marriage — from 32 percent support for legalization in 2002 to 58 percent in the latest Gallup poll.
There are significant differences in the ways gambling and pot have won America. The spread of casinos has been more of a top-down phenomenon, driven by states seeking revenue and an industry that’s free with campaign contributions. The permissive turn on marijuana has been a more (if you will) grass-roots affair — driven by activists and artists, influenced by empathy for the terminally ill, and hastened by public exhaustion with the drug war.
But both have been made possible by the same trend in American attitudes: the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy.
And both, in different ways, illustrate the potential problems facing a culture pervaded by what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism” and allergic to any restrictions on what individuals choose to do.
This is clearer in the case of casinos, whose consequences for the common good are straightforwardly disastrous. As the Institute for American Values report points out, the alliance of state governments and gambling interests is essentially exploitative, and the tax revenue casinos supply comes at the expense of long-term social welfare. Casinos tend to lower property values and weaken social capital in the places where they’re planted, they’re more likely to extract dollars from distressed communities than to spur economic development, and their presence is a disaster for the reckless and the addiction-prone.
Pot is a more complicated issue, given its essential harmlessness for many users and the crying need to lock up fewer Americans for nonviolent offenses. But one can support decriminalizing marijuana possession, as many states have done, while still doubting the prudence of legalizing (and, of course, taxing) its open manufacture and sale.
Whatever benefits legalization brings with it, it will almost certainly increase marijuana use, which has already risen sharply in the last decade. And as purely recreational as a joint may be for casual tokers, steady use isn’t always so harmless: it can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility, to an extent that mirrors the impact of growing up in a single-parent home.
Perhaps these costs are just the price we pay for liberty, in the same way that certain social liberals and libertarians regard the costs of family breakdown as a price worth paying for emancipation from sexual repression.
But liberals especially, given their anxieties about inequality, should be attuned to the way that some liberties can grease the skids for exploitation, with a revenue-hungry state partnering with the private sector to profiteer off human weakness.
This is one reason previous societies made distinctions between liberty and license that we have become loath to draw — because what seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak.
Or else, with pot and slots no less than bread and circuses, it can simply distract their minds, dull their senses and make them easier to rule.
Now we get to MoDo:
I asked Mike Nichols, the director of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” on Broadway, why love triangles have such a mythic hold on the imagination.
“We’re born in a triangle,” he said about parents and a newborn. “That’s the most important one, the triangle that determines who we are, the one that affects the other triangles that you get into in your life. It’s all about that first triangle, what it gives you and what it takes away from you.”
The affair in “Betrayal” takes place from 1968 to 1975, but it feels like a quaint, distant world.
Robert, a publisher, discovers that his wife, Emma, is having an affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent, when he recognizes Jerry’s handwriting on a letter addressed to Emma at the American Express office in Venice.
But maybe that world isn’t so quaint.
The first bombshell out of the London phone-hacking trial of flame-haired Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, a fellow editor who went on to be a spin doctor for David Cameron, is about a six-year secret affair that prosecutors say was conducted by these two top lieutenants of Rupert Murdoch. (The prosecution contends that the affair began when both were single — although Brooks was engaged to the man who would be her first husband — and continued after they both got married.)
Their illicit relationship, too, was exposed by a letter, this one found on a Word document on Brooks’s computer and discovered by investigators in a cupboard in her London home.
Andrew Edis, a prosecutor in the case, read jurors part of the letter on Thursday to underscore the trusting relationship between the pair when they were editors at Murdoch tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World. The relationship supposedly took place between 1998 and 2004, overlapping the period when the lovers are charged with engaging in a criminal conspiracy to hack the phones of celebrities, royalty and even that of an abducted and murdered teenage girl, which cruelly left her parents with the impression she might still be alive.
The prosecutor said that the letter appeared to show a distraught-stricken Brooks trying to talk Coulson out of breaking off the affair.
“Most important,” Brooks wrote, “the fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together. In fact, without our relationship in my life I’m not sure I will cope.” She continued: “The thought of finding out anything about you from someone else fills me with absolute dread.”
Tabloid editors charged with breaking the law to expose people’s most intimate secrets are now having their most intimate secrets exposed in a court of law. They didn’t just betray their mates, but fellow A-listers. They managed to have an old-fashioned private fling for years while they were using new technology to splash into print the torrid affairs of other bold-faced British names.
Instead of the “pip pip pips” Pinter writes about, the coins dropping into a phone booth at a pub for a “crafty telephone call” to make an excuse about coming home late, they had the pip pip pips of punching digits into older cellphones to hack unsuspecting victims.
Daniel Craig, who plays Robert in “Betrayal,” says the play is set in a misty time when discretion still existed, a time he thinks was sexier.
“It’s impossible to feel sexy when you’re spied on,” he said in a critique of the out-of-control government-technological complex of spying that has chilled American-European relations.
Noting that “it’s generational,” he told me that when he expresses his dismay to his 20-year-old daughter and other kids about it, they’re “kind of, whatever.”
“Look,” Craig continues, “the fact that people send Instagrams and immediately upload a photograph of themselves doing something embarrassing that is going to be on the Internet, it just brings me out in hives.”
Calling Big Brother technology a “complete anti-aphrodisiac,” he thinks iPads should be banned from the bedroom “unless you’re both watching porn on the Internet.”
In the pre-smartphone universe of “Betrayal,” Jerry and Emma can set up a love nest for years without anyone in their smart literary set finding out.
“I mean the crockery and the curtains and the bedspread and everything,” Emma says to Jerry at their final meeting at their hideaway. “And the tablecloth I brought from Venice. It’s ridiculous. It’s just . . . an empty home.”
Instead of a second address, modern philanderers are more likely to have a second phone. Love nests seem archaic, given how physical erotics have been somewhat displaced by digital erotics.
We virtually have another N.S.A., the National Sex Agency, given all the desire surveillance technology and the manic collection of preliminary information about conceivable partners.
The extension of information obsession to the field of intimacy — which is the slow revelation of one person to another — ruins the mystery, poetry and suspense. Instead of caressing, there’s posting; instead of kissing, there’s forwarding, sharing and sending.
A love nest also figures prominently in the new memoir “Johnny Carson,” by the comedian’s old lawyer and carousing buddy, Henry Bushkin. The Bombastic Bushkin, as he became known in Johnny’s monologues, first meets Carson in 1970, when he joins a stealthy team breaking into the East Side “snuggery” of the star’s second wife, Joanne.
After Carson, wearing a .38 revolver on his hip, got into the apartment, thanks to a bribe, he discovered scattered lingerie and other “evidence of his cuckoldry,” as Bushkin wrote.
“The whole living room, in fact, almost the entire pad — was furnished with discards from the couple’s UN Plaza apartment,” Bushkin recalled. “There were even some pieces Johnny hadn’t realized were gone.”
Carson confirmed the identity of the man he sneeringly called Joanne’s “Prince Charming” in the most low-tech way possible: there were six or seven framed photographs of sportscaster and former New York Giants star Frank Gifford.
Even though he was constantly unfaithful himself, Carson “leaned against the living room wall and began to weep,” Bushkin wrote.
Joan Bakewell, the 80-year-old former BBC presenter who had the seven-year “Swinging Sixties” affair with Pinter that inspired “Betrayal,” wonders how people can secretly frolic anymore.
She never suffered the angst of her dramatic doppelgänger, Emma, and last year told Britain’s Sky Arts that she looks back on her romance with Pinter as a “huge, huge, hugely rewarding love affair, with someone of dazzling capacity for humor, enjoyment, generosity and so on.”
“Absolutely, you couldn’t do it today,” she added, flummoxed about how affairs work when you’re constantly pestered with cell calls and emails with “spouses and partners asking: ‘Where are you?’ You know, it’s impossible. I don’t know how they manage it.”
Well. That was a dead waste of over 1000 words. Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Having lived and worked abroad for many years, I’m sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I’ve seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I’ve never heard before: “What’s up with you guys?”
Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt were, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver — like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable. And, as for defining the future, the country that showed the world how to pull together to put a man on the moon and defeat Nazism and Communism, today broadcasts a politics dominated by three phrases: “You can’t do that,” “It’s off the table” and “The president didn’t know.” A Singaporean official who has been going to America for decades expressed shock to me at being in Washington during the government shutdown and how old and emotionally depressed the city felt.
“Few Americans are aware of how much America has lost in this recent episode of bringing the American economy to the edge of a cliff,” said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, and the author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World.” “People always looked up to America as the best-run country, the most reasonable, the most sensible. And now people are asking: ‘Can America manage itself and what are the implications for us’ ” — if it can’t?
In talking to Asian college students, teachers, diplomats and businesspeople, here is how I’d distill what was on their minds: “Are you really going to shut down your government again? Like, who does that? And, by the way, don’t think that doesn’t affect my business over here, because I’m holding a lot of dollars and I don’t know what their value is going to be. Also, how could the people who gave us Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, I.B.M., H.P. and Google not be able to build a workable health care website? I know it had five million users, but there are 48 million Indonesians on Facebook!”
Worse, whenever you’d visit China or Singapore, it was always the people there who used to be on the defensive when discussing democracy. Now, as an American, you’re the one who wants to steer away from that subject. After all, how much should we be bragging about a system where it takes $20 million to be elected to the Senate; or where a majority of our members of Congress choose their voters through gerrymandering rather than voters choosing them; or where voting rights laws are being weakened; or where lawmakers spend most of their free time raising money, not studying issues; or where our Congress has become a forum for legalized bribery; or where we just had a minority of a minority threaten to undermine America’s credit rating if we didn’t overturn an enacted law on health care; or where we can’t pass even the most common sense gun law banning assault weapons after the mass murder of schoolchildren?
I still don’t believe there would be many takers for the commentary on the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, after the government shutdown, suggesting that it was “perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” But Xinhua got the befuddled part right. Many people would still line up in a blizzard to come to America, though for too many now that is not because we’re the “beacon on the hill” but rather “the cleanest dirty shirt.”
Singapore is not a full-fledged democracy. What it does have is a government that wakes up each day asking: What world are we living in and how do we best use the resources we have to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world? Little things here catch my eye, like the E.R.P.: the electronic road pricing system that greets you when you drive into the center city and tells you every minute, via an electronic billboard, how much it will automatically charge you when you drive into the downtown. It constantly adjusts the price based on the number of cars that can comfortably fit the roads.
The Bush team tried to fund a similar system to reduce congestion and pollution for Manhattan, but it was killed by other boroughs and lawmakers in Albany. And that is what bothers me most today. It’s not just that we can no longer pull together to put a man on the moon. It’s that we can’t even implement proven common-sense solutions that others have long mastered — some form of national health care, gun control, road pricing, a gasoline tax to escape our budget and carbon bind.
As Andy Karsner, the former assistant secretary of energy who participated in last week’s New York Times forum here, remarked to me: “This is the first time I have visited Singapore where its modernity is not a novelty, but a depressing contrast.” Because, he added, you know that all the modernity and prosperity you see here “is not based on natural resources but on a natural resourcefulness — and on implementing with ease best practices, many of which ironically originated in the United States.”
So NOW Tommy’s all upset about “American exceptionalism.” Several FUs late and several billion dollars short… Now here’s Mr. Kristof:
The biggest health care crisis in America right now is not the inexcusably messy rollout of Obamacare.
No, far more serious is the kind of catastrophe facing people like Richard Streeter, 47, a truck driver and recreational vehicle repairman in Eugene, Ore. His problem isn’t Obamacare, but a tumor in his colon that may kill him because Obamacare didn’t come quite soon enough.
Streeter had health insurance for decades, but beginning in 2008 his employer no longer offered it as an option. He says he tried to buy individual health insurance but, as a lifelong smoker in his late 40s, couldn’t find anything affordable — so he took a terrible chance and did without.
At the beginning of this year, Streeter began to notice blood in his bowel movements and discomfort in his rectum. Because he didn’t have health insurance, he put off going to the doctor and reassured himself it was just irritation from sitting too many hours.
“I thought it was driving a truck and being on your keister all day,” he told me. Finally, the pain became excruciating, and he went to a cut-rate clinic where a doctor, without examining him, suggested it might be hemorrhoids.
By September, Streeter couldn’t stand the pain any longer. He went to another doctor, who suggested a colonoscopy. The cheapest provider he could find was Dr. J. Scott Gibson, a softhearted gastroenterologist who told him that if he didn’t have insurance he would do it for $300 down and $300 more whenever he had the money.
Streeter made the 100-mile drive to Dr. Gibson’s office in McMinnville, Ore. — and received devastating news. Dr. Gibson had found advanced colon cancer.
“It was heartbreaking to see the pain on his face,” Dr. Gibson told me. “It got me very angry with people who insist that Obamacare is a train wreck, when the real train wreck is what people are experiencing every day because they can’t afford care.”
Dr. Gibson says that Streeter is the second patient he has had this year who put off getting medical attention because of lack of health insurance and now has advanced colon cancer.
So, to those Republicans protesting Obamacare: You’re right that there are appalling problems with the website, but they will be fixed. Likewise, you’re right that President Obama misled voters when he said that everyone could keep their insurance plan because that’s now manifestly not true (although they will be able to get new and better plans, sometimes for less money).
But how about showing empathy also for a far larger and more desperate group: The nearly 50 million Americans without insurance who play health care Russian roulette as a result. FamiliesUSA, a health care advocacy group that supports Obamacare, estimated last year that an American dies every 20 minutes for lack of insurance.
It has been a year since my college roommate, Scott Androes, died of prostate cancer, in part because he didn’t have insurance and thus didn’t see a doctor promptly. Scott fully acknowledged that he had made a terrible mistake in economizing on insurance, but, in a civilized country, is this a mistake that people should die from?
“Website problems are a nuisance,” Dr. Gibson said. “Life and death is when you need care and can’t afford to get it.”
The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council this year ranked the United States health care system last or near last in several categories among 17 countries studied. The Commonwealth Fund put the United States dead last of seven industrialized countries in health care performance. And Bloomberg journalists ranked the United States health care system No. 46 in efficiency worldwide, behind Romania and Iran.
The reason is simple: While some Americans get superb care, tens of millions without insurance get marginal care. That’s one reason life expectancy is relatively low in America, and child mortality is twice as high as in some European countries. Now that’s a scandal.
Yet about half the states are refusing to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured people — because they don’t trust Obamacare and want it to fail. The result will be more catastrophes like Streeter’s.
“I am tired of being the messenger of death,” said Dr. Gibson. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable. But when people come in who might have been saved if they could have afforded care early on, then to have to tell them that they have a potentially fatal illness — I’m very tired of that.”
Streeter met with a radiologist on Thursday and is bracing for an arduous and impoverishing battle with the cancer. There’s just one bright spot: He signed up for health care insurance under Obamacare, to take effect on Jan. 1.
For him, the tragedy isn’t that the Obamacare rollout has been full of glitches, but that it may have come too late to save his life.
Ask just about any Republican and they’ll tell you that it’s his fault. He smoked, after all… Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Elliott Management’s lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers. But the most intriguing view I got during a visit there last week was of something else: the changed gay-rights landscape and its implications for the Republican Party.
I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012, gives generously to a range of Republican causes and prefers to do this with a minimum of media notice. He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.
But here he was giving an interview, my second with him in 16 months, because the focus both times was gay equality. It’s a subject important to him. In this case, he was announcing a new project to be funded, at least at the outset, by him and other conservative donors but to be run by the Human Rights Campaign, an L.G.B.T. advocacy group in Washington, which is much more closely affiliated with Democrats. The initiative will be dedicated to fighting the victimization of gays and lesbians internationally. But it will also show that there are Republicans — not a majority, but an increasingly impassioned minority — who are intent on progress and justice for L.G.B.T. people. They won’t surrender that cause to Democrats, and they believe that Republicans who do so are resisting a future that’s both just and inevitable.
“Unless America engages in a terrible, terrible retreat from freedom, towards fascism, communism, whatever — some totalitarian harsh state — this seems inexorable,” Singer told me, meaning equal rights, including the spread of gay marriage, for which he has campaigned with particular energy.
“Social conservatives have and should have a place in the inner circle of what it means to be a Republican,” he said. But, he added, “There needs to be room for conservatives who have different views on some of the social issues.”
Although Singer declined to discuss specific conversations with individual politicians, other Republicans have told me that he is close to, and has discussed gay rights with, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who recently backed off a legal challenge to gay marriage in that state, which became the 14th in which gays and lesbians can legally wed.
I’ve also been told that Singer has had such talks with Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who came out for gay marriage, citing his love for his gay son. Singer also has a gay son — and a gay son-in-law. The two men are married.
His vision of how Republicans must evolve was echoed in a subsequent conversation that I had with Daniel Loeb, another New York hedge-fund billionaire who has given lavishly to conservatives. Loeb is Singer’s principal financial partner in the H.R.C. international project; Singer has already committed $1.5 million, and Loeb has promised a similar amount over its first years.
When I asked Loeb if opposition to gay rights would increasingly hurt Republicans in elections, he said: “Absolutely. It’s where the country’s gone, and if they don’t go with it, they’ll lose a very important demographic. They already have lost some young people.” Surveys show that more than 70 percent of Americans under 30 favor marriage equality.
The party’s relationship with gay rights will be tested anew this coming week when the Senate takes up the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA, which would protect people from being fired or barred from a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
All of the 55 senators in the Democratic majority have endorsed it, as have four Republicans, excluding Portman, who appears to be leaning that way. His vote would give supporters the 60 they need to overcome a filibuster.
But the bill’s odds aren’t great in the House, whose Republican majority is more conservative on gay rights than the Republican electorate nationally seems to be. According to internal party polling that I saw, 56 percent of Republican voters indicated support for a federal law like ENDA.
The risk that Republicans take by opposing gay rights isn’t necessarily that the party’s social moderates will bolt for that one reason. Singer, for example, has stayed put, because while he’s more in line with Democrats on gay rights, that doesn’t override his solidarity with Republicans on economic and other matters.
But to appeal on a national level to independent voters, young voters and minorities, the party badly needs to amend its ossifying image as an archaic refuge for scolds at odds with modernity itself. An embrace of gay rights, even a partial one, is a great place to start. It could give Republicans a chance to stanch some of the bleeding from the federal shutdown and from continuing rifts over immigration.
“At a time when folks in this city can’t agree on anything, this is an issue that’s increasingly seen as bipartisan,” said Chad Griffin, the president of the H.R.C. Singer’s advocacy underscores that, and Griffin welcomes it, noting: “There is not a single battle that we’re looking at that we can win with the support of just one party or the other.”
ENDA, which has kicked around in various forms for decades, is a case in point. The fresh focus on it, along with the new international initiative, reflects a desire by L.G.B.T. advocates not to be too confined to, or defined by, marriage equality.
And the international initiative has a fascinating wrinkle. In addition to training L.G.B.T. advocates outside the United States and publicizing the failings of especially repressive countries, it intends to name and shame American religious zealots who sponsor antigay campaigns abroad. So Republican money may wind up challenging a constituency within the party. (We’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore.)
In Singer’s view, gay rights are consistent with a Republican philosophy of individual liberty, and gay marriage is “an augmenter of social stability, family stability and stability in raising kids.” In other words, it’s conservative.
He has contributed significantly to marriage-equality campaigns in many states, and has convinced wealthy peers in the financial industry, including conservatives, to do likewise.
Last year he started the American Unity PAC, which backs Republican candidates who are generally supportive of gay rights. This year he added the American Unity Fund, an offshoot for lobbying, which has spent about $375,000 — two-thirds from Singer — to promote ENDA.
All in all, he has pumped more than $17 million of his own money over the last decade or so into gay rights. And he privately tells Republicans leaning toward pro-equality positions that if they face fire from antigay groups, he’ll help them round up retaliatory funds.
The battlefield isn’t what it used to be. From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.